By Diane K. Disbrow, GRI, CRS, CRB, ABR, SFR, RSPS, SFR, SRES, SRS, e-PRO®
2015 National Association of REALTORS® Professional Standards Committee Chair

REALTOR® Associations across the country have been busy during 2015 developing and adopting Ombudsman programs to meet the National Association of REALTORS® requirement to offer ombudsman services to their members and consumers either directly or through an agreement with other associations of REALTORS® by January 1, 2016. 

So what is an ombudsman program? The Ombudsman Program in its simplest definition is informal telephone mediation.  In some cases it can address and solve minor complaints from the public. The ombudsman can also solve inter-REALTOR® conflicts before they become serious problems. Some complaints do not allege specific articles of the NAR Code of Ethics and many times they are transactional, technical and procedural questions that can be addressed by communication. Like a mediator, an ombudsman helps parties find solutions that everyone can be happy with.  

How does it work? In most cases, the designated contact person at the local association; often the Professional Standards Administrator, listens to the callers complaint or concerns and then explains the ombudsman service if the complaint meets the associations criteria for an ombudsman to handle. The staff person also explains that if the ombudsman service is not successful in resolving the problem, the complainant may still file a formal, written ethics complaint with the Association. If the complainant accepts the ombudsman service, the staff person then relays the concerns to the ombudsman who contacts the complainant, listens to their concerns, clarifies that they understand the situation and ascertains what their desired outcome is. The ombudsman’s role is to communicate the concerns of one party to the other and seek a resolution so that a positive relationship between the parties can be restored. Let’s face it, most people don’t like conflict so it’s easier for a consumer or REALTOR® to contact the local association of REALTORS® to vent or voice their concerns than bring the problem up directly with the REALTOR® they are upset with. It’s so much easier with a neutral person who can be the go-between.    

Who are these ombudsman? Typically, Associations of REALTOR® appoint members to be ombudsman who have a certain number of years of real estate experience and are familiar with the REALTORS® Code of Ethics, the professional standards process and have knowledge of their state real estate regulations and are active in the real estate business and understand the current real estate practices. The ombudsman must be fair and credible, avoid making a judgement of who is right or wrong and can also not give legal advice to any party. Real estate practitioners make wonderful ombudsman because by the nature of our business we are used to negotiating win-win real estate transactions and sometimes the same skill set is used in dispute resolution. Careful listening, summarizing the situation, determining what is most important to resolve the situation or make everyone satisfied and working toward that goal.   

Why now, you might ask? The main reason is because it’s been so successful for associations that have had a program in place. I’ve been attending the Mediation Information Exchange at the Midyear Legislative Meetings for years and that’s where I first heard the term “ombudsman” about five or six years ago. Since that time, I’ve communicated with a number of Associations that have had an Ombudsman program in place for a while and I was quite impressed with the public and our members overall satisfaction of the program. 

It seems that many members of the public are reluctant to file a written ethics complaint for several reasons; the process is too cumbersome and the paperwork is too hard to understand. They really just want someone to listen and help solve their problem and not have to fill out paperwork. Many times the problem is not a violation of our Code of Ethics and unfortunately, if the consumer took the time to file the complaint, they would become frustrated when the grievance committee reviewed the complaint and dismissed it as not relating to a violation of one of the Articles of our Code. Even REALTORS® are often reluctant to file ethics complaints for similar reasons and also because they would rather not “rock the boat” and cause conflict with other members that they cooperate with on transactions. Many ethics complaints might be averted with enhanced communications and initial problem-solving capacity at the local Association level.   

It’s interesting to note that in reality, many association staff people have been providing services similar to that of an ombudsman for years since they are the first point of contact when a REALTOR® or consumer wants to file a complaint. In many instances, staff is successful in alleviating the concerns. However, that isn’t always the case. Consumers and our members really just want their story to be heard and having a team or committee of qualified REALTOR® members serving as ombudsman available to assist in resolving disputes has met with great success. It shows that we really care about trying to help resolve the problem and also overcomes the perception that one REALTOR may be trying to cover up for another and reopens communications between the parties. 

As the chairperson of the Expedited Ethics Enforcement Workgroup, our goal was to find creative ways to accelerate the ethics enforcement process and the mandatory ombudsman program was just one of the changes that were recommended by the professional standards committee and approved by the Board of Directors this past year. The term “ombudsman” isn’t new in other industries, but I am extremely pleased that this fairly new dispute resolution service in REALTOR® associations has been described by some local association executives as very positive public relations for the REALTOR organization. 
When I’m conducting training program or am in contact with local Association Executives or Professional Standards Administrators, I’ve made it a practice to ask how many complaint packets (i.e. Code of Ethics, complaint forms and information about our enforcement process) they send out and what percentage actually file the complaint. While I don’t have exact statistical data from across the country, the answer I get to this question is very often only 10 to 20% of the complaint packets come back completed. So what does that mean for our members? That 80% to 90% of complainants may be dissatisfied with one of our members, but nothing was being done about it. We now have an opportunity to change that with an ombudsman getting involved. This is a huge benefit to our members. With the assistance of an ombudsman they have a chance to clear up misunderstandings that they may not have even have known existed. I’ve had experiences where this valuable service has helped a member get a transaction back on track so the consumer has a positive real estate experience. It’s an opportunity to improve our professional reputation as REALTORS®.   

In closing, I feel that just like mediation of monetary disputes between REALTORS® has been a huge success over the years and mediation is the “preferred dispute resolution” process of the National Association of REALTORS®, we’ll see the same thing happen as associations adopt and implement their own ombudsman programs. It’s a very positive step in providing an opportunity for the public and our members to resolve disputes without anyone having to file a formal complaint and insuring that our customers and clients continue to have great relationships with REALTORS® who truly want to make sure they have a great real estate experience. 

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