The Takeaway with Nobu Hata, Featuring Leigh Brown

NAR Director of Member Engagement Nobu Hata is interviewing real estate sales and brokerage leaders to dig deep into a single idea that real estate professionals can use to boost their business. In his first interview, he speaks with Charlotte, N.C., sales leader Leigh Brown to learn about how she uses a board of directors to build her referrals and also get consumer feedback on her marketing and communications. 

Listen and share The Takeaway with Nobu Hata. 

Nobu Hata: Welcome everyone to The Takeaway. This is Nobu Hata, Director of Member Engagement for the National Association of REALTORS® and in The Takeaway we talk about real estate: one subject with one cool person who is actually implementing it in their business today. And today, I have the pleasure of having Leigh Brown. Leigh, thanks for being here!

Leigh Brown: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Nobu: Leigh, where are you in this world?

Leigh: I’m in Greater Charlotte, North Carolina.

Nobu: So you’re one of the top producing teams in the city—a thought leader on technology, team building and all of that stuff. Well, let’s jump into this and the thing I want to talk to you about is something that I really love. It’s the idea about your clients as a board of directors. What’s the skinny on that?

Leigh: It all goes back to the fact that we are in a movement that you’ve got to be consumer and client centric, period. What do consumers want? I’ve created a board of directors from my client base. So, I said, what if I create that out of my past clients and current clients and what I call my diamonds? Some people call it their top 50 or their VIPs. But, what my diamonds are, they’re my bird dogs. People who go out and find me people to talk to about real estate. So, rolling out a new website I need the input from my clients.

If I ask for input from my real estate peers, the people who love me are going to tell me how great it is. People who don’t like me are going to be trolls and tell me how much they don’t like it, but that’s pretty insular. It’s an echo chamber. We look at how we share drip campaigns, postcards, and we’re pretty much using different versions of the same stuff. So, I wanted to get a consumer response to what I’m putting out there.

Nobu: So, really it’s about getting your number one bird dog clients, the ones that love you and they know what you do. They don’t need the reminder that you’re their REALTOR®. These are the people who are raving lunatic fans of yours, correct? And you put them in a room?

Leigh: Correct. They are immune to the marketing of the other agents and that’s not ever going to be a very big list. And, when you’re thinking about putting this kind of a concept together—who these clients are—you have to remember it’s not all past clients. So, yes, I market to my past clients but not every past client is immune to the charms of other REALTORS®. 

With my very best bird dogs, they hear real estate and they say Leigh Brown. It’s just an immediate, innate reaction, so that’s where my focus is and that’s whose feedback I want.

Nobu: How do you determine that? Do you have an ROI for these people? Do you have, like, a commission dollar that you’ve made from them that you keep track of? How do you figure it out? Is this something that you kind of know via your CRM or something like that?

Leigh: Over a 12-month period, if you send me an at-bat with a buyer or a seller, you are qualified to become a diamond. In that same 12-month period, if you do not bring me an at-bat, you are removed from the diamonds, so we are on a continual process of pruning this list to make sure that it is current and accurate.

You know, some of the reasons why people stop sending you names is they move out of the market, they move their focus or sometimes you’ve just—let’s just say you’ve fallen out of their Facebook timeline, for a lack of a better analogy. You know how Facebook wants to feed you people with whom you interact, so you stop interacting with them and you just kind of fade from existence and that’s fine, because I cannot nurture all 12,000 past clients. I need to stay up with a hundred and there’s plenty of research out there that says your most effective people have a max sphere with whom they interact regularly of a 100 to 150 people. Just as humans, we can’t physically manage any more relationships, so our list always is hovering around 100 and it’s between 80 and I think our top was 135 in one year.

Nobu: So, these people are your raving fans. There’s a hundred of them, let’s say. Would say you invite them in, like, for a breakfast? Do you get them into a room and then you discuss what your business is going to look like next year? I mean, it makes sense that these people are going to be the ones helping you deploy your brand to their friends and their family. What goes into that? What do you think about? What do you do when you get these folks into a room, buying them breakfast? It goes beyond saying thank you, right?

Leigh: Okay, so that is the starting gate, that’s who’s qualified to be a member of the board of directors and that’s my large pool. My number moves anywhere between 5 and 7 people out of that category, each in a specific role that fits the market niche I’m serving.

So, there is a stay-at-home mom on my board of directors. That’s a huge market piece that I serve, because there’s a move-up buyer there. The stay-at-home mom is one of the best networking people you could ever think of. REALTORS® often deflect to people that are in other sales jobs like insurance, or maybe somebody at a bank or a relocation company, HR people, forgetting that the bulk of our business comes on the family and personal relationship level. And those stay-at-home moms—ooh, they talk. They’ve got playgroups and mom groups and they are volunteering at PTAs, so that’s one of my primary slots.

I’ve got another one that is my dentist, and she’s there for more than just sending me at-bats; she’s there because I’ve been going to her for over 30 years. She’s known me in so many aspects of my life that I know that her feedback, while complimentary of me because she loves me as her REALTOR®, is going to be really honest because she knows everything about me. I really value that.

I’ve got a divorce attorney in there, which is, again, a market niche that I serve. But also, with divorce attorneys—you’d be surprised how many people wished they’d known you had a connection to somebody they could trust before they went through the divorce, because it’s so emotionally fraught with trouble and then it’s a financial hell hole for most people, and it affects their real estate, relationships and everything, and they don’t even know how to ask for a recommendation on that because it’s such a crazy time.

Nobu: Right.

Leigh: We work with this divorce attorney to help people get advice so they know what to do and make sure that they know we are a resource.

There’s an accountant, because she’s hilarious and I love her, and then the other one is a retiree. So, we’ve got three different generations in the five that I have right now, all different job roles.

So, once a quarter, we meet for breakfast, and I do breakfast because it’s a hard-stop time. We start at 7:30 a.m. and it’s a hard stop at 8:30 a.m. So, I can get people out and on their way, which satisfies me, because I don’t want to spend 18 hours cocktailing with people.

Nobu: And these guys are business owners, too, so they want to get the heck out as well, right?

Leigh: Right! I’m totally respecting their time and it’s easy for them to say yes to this role because you’re so direct and you respect their time. We’re going to start at 7:30 a.m. and we’re going to end by 8:30 a.m. Once a quarter, so you’re really asking these best people for four hours a year. You feed them breakfast, which is the cheapest meal of the day and nobody ever always eats breakfast. There’s usually just a bunch of coffee being consumed and maybe two people will eat. We have this at a local restaurant and it’s not at a chain, because I do believe in supporting the local economy and this is a very visible way to do it. Also, to demonstrate to your board of directors that you’re living out what you preach as the REALTOR® who talks about being part of the local community, the fabric of a community, we know what’s happening on the ground. You can’t just say it and you just can’t talk about it on Facebook. You’ve got to be visible inside your community.

We have the same table every time, so we’re over in the corner, drinking coffee and talking and what we do at this meeting, at first, if I have anybody new, I have them introduce themselves along the lines of, here’s my name, here’s the industry I’m in, and I have them tell people if they are accepting or are not accepting new clients. It allows them to say, yes, my business is growing, or no, I’m cool. My dentist says she’s cool. The stay-at-home mom is hilarious. She’s always, like, I’m looking for a new job! We know she’s joking. She’s hilarious and that’s her chance to be funny with adults that aren’t in her regular circles. So, they introduce themselves and then they all bring in the stuff they received over the last quarter: what real estate collateral they have you received.

Nobu: Do they bring that in?

Leigh: Yes, they all bring it in.

Nobu: Wow!

Leigh: They will, because, remember, these are the ones that are immune to the charms of others. They don’t mind helping you out. I get door knockers, postcards, calendars, recipe cards, and right now I’m getting all of those letters that REALTORS® are sending out to the neighborhood saying we desperately need a house for our buyers. We ask them to bring all of this stuff in, and then everybody dumps it in the middle of the table and I take a very non-judging standpoint, because, frankly, some of the stuff they receive is really good and I want to implement some of those ideas.

So, I have them look at the pile and tell me, which one did you react to? Tell me what you reacted to? Positively? Negatively? What was helpful? They will tell you exactly, of this pile, what was helpful. I know then how to structure my next quarter’s touches with my clients and with my people who don’t yet know me based on what other consumers have told me they value.

Nobu: That’s amazing! I mean the market intelligence that you get from that must be amazing, but then you’re seeing a lot of sameness there, right?

Leigh: Oh, yeah.

Nobu: It’s like, okay, this is how I know how to differentiate.

Leigh: Yeah, and so after the sameness I then break out whatever I am planning to send: a postcard or calendars that are going out here shortly. Whatever I’m doing I put that out in front of them and I say, “Here is what I’m thinking, how would you react to this?” One of the reasons I have the people that I have and I know they will be on this with me, so like my dentist, for example, is very quick to say, “No, I’m not feeling this one.” I say, “Well, tell me why?” Usually, it’s because I have too many words on it. She’s a high “D” personality like I am. Too many words and she’s out, so it reminds me to pull back on the text. I can get too talkative in my mailings. It’s just invaluable. I could ask you, but you have a real estate background and you’re probably going to like it because that’s how our people roll, but the consumer’s standpoint is so valuable. I’ve gone back to change some stuff. I changed some things on the web site and have done some different styles of videos. I have changed some of our postcard mailings. In fact, it was with the feedback of the board of directors that we changed our mailing piece that we put out when we are seeking a house for a client in the neighborhood where there’s no inventory. We were able to use their suggestions to change the card and now the card works, which is so cool, because I’ve got actual results from their feedback that allowed us to reach more consumers.

Nobu: Is there something like, I would not have done that without my board of directors? Is there something like a marketing piece or some sort of process you put into your business because of the fact that you got feedback, something that was, like, a ding of light just turned on? Is there something like that that you can point to?

Leigh: It’s more of a living, breathing moment. There hasn’t been those big ding moments except our buyers-need-a-home postcard. They helped us craft that. It’s just generally small feedback like the web site. My web site: I’m always adjusting the thing. I’m always wanting to do a redesign, because I have a bad problem with shiny gadgets, so I will ask them to look at the web site. Would you click on it? Would you use it? Any time they tell me no, I then go back to my web girl and I say, “Here’s what my board says. They said this needs to get changed.” And so that allows her to give me some additional templates I can look at for design changes. So, I think the biggest thing is, I would say, it forces me to not get stale in my business.

Nobu: So, if I’m looking to put together my board of directors for my business for next year—and, frankly, people should be thinking about this now. It’s September, right? People should be thinking about doing something like this right now. What’s the first step? What’s the one thing that these people should be thinking about if they’re wanting to do this for business next year and putting it together next month, for example?

Leigh: Okay, you have to know who your bird dogs are and this is the biggest challenge for most REALTORS®. In your head, you think you know who your best advocates are, but it’s no where written down and maybe you have a spreadsheet of past people or a CRM, but you don’t have a designated category for these best people. So, I would say, go in there and figure out who is bird dogging for you. Now you are going to have a more consolidated list. And your main list, look at that list and start picking out the people in there that are your biggest advocates because those are the ones who will invest the time in you. Make sure they are not in industries where they compete with one another. I would never have two insurance agents on my board at the same time because that would be a potential conflict. We do not want conflict, so get that list fixed now, and give yourself a deadline, because part of our issue with getting things done in real estate is that we are so distracted by new buyers and sellers, we don’t get anything done.

So, if you want to implement this, give yourself a deadline by the end of September and it’s a week and a half to figure out whom your people are. You can carve out two or three hours, figure out who your people are, and then the next deadline would be to call them and invite them to be on your board of directors, and in that phone call, you have to be able to tell them the benefit to them. If I’m asking somebody to be on my board, I say, “I really appreciate all that you do to support me in real estate. It means the world to me that I am your gal when people say real estate.” So always go in with the gratitude and thankfulness first, and then I tell them, “I’d like to ask a favor,” and I butter them up, so they’re probably going to say yes. They say, “What do you need?” I say, “I’m filling a seat on my board of directors.” If you’re building this from scratch you are still filling a seat, so you don’t have to either come at this at a super experienced standpoint or acting like you’re faking it. Just tell them you’re filling a seat, because you are.

What you have to understand is, the primary question is going to be what’s the time involvement?  Because any of your connected people, who have been on boards in the past, that’s their biggest hang up. How much of a time suck is this going to be? I can commit to four hours a year, one hour a quarter is all I need from you. I need you to keep a string bag in your kitchen next to the trash can to put all the real estate paraphernalia into. I give them a little Leigh Brown string bag to do that so they can gather it all up. I’m just going to ask for your opinion I want to know if I’m doing the right things to serve real estate in our local community? If you agree with how I’m reaching out to people? Where we are investing our time and money in community events or give feedback?

Tell them you’re going to be vulnerable.

That’s the biggest way I can put it. You’re going to come out of this not from a standpoint of I’m number one and I know it. You’re going to walk in saying, “I’m doing pretty well. I’m pretty pleased about that, but I want to be able to get better and the only way I can do that is by knowing what you as the consumer will want.”

Nobu: That’s great! I heard a bunch of starters there. It’s articulate and track who these people are, and ask them. I mean, that’s the thing: we don’t ask enough people after and do it in a way that they will help you.

Leigh: They want to help us and they love us. You see this in the NAR statistics: they love us, and then, at the end of a transaction, we just drop them.

Nobu: Is it safe to say this is one fundamental building block in the structure of your business that you will never, ever give up?

Leigh: Yes, it’s one of them. It keeps me grounded and it keeps my team grounded. I will never forget that I’m in real estate to benefit other human beings when I do it this way. Even if you are a big team leader say somebody is listening to this recording and they are running a 30 person team and they don’t touch clients anymore, you should really do this then, because if you’re not having day-to-day contact with people buying and selling houses, I think you’ll lose touch with that really emotional situation that we find ourselves in the middle of, and if you detach from it too much, you’re going to lose some of your effectiveness.

Nobu: Awesome! Leigh, thank you so much!

Leigh: Oh, it’s my pleasure!

Nobu: Leigh Brown, Charlotte, North Carolina. Folks, if you have any business to send to her send it her way. She will put you on her Board of Directors maybe, if you’re cool enough. Thank you so much again, Leigh! This is The Takeaway. Keep coming back for more!

The Takeaway

Building a board may seem like a daunting task. Download Leigh’s template for starting your own board of directors free of charge.

About Our Speakers

Leigh Brown, ABR, CIPS, CRS, ePRO, SFR, is a nationally known real estate trainer, speaker, and coach. She’s also a partner at Charlotte, N.C.–based RE/MAX Executive Realty and broker-manager of its Concord office. Before she got started in real estate, her career famously included the sale of stocks, liquor—and chain saws. Contact her at

Nobu Hata is the director of digital engagement for the National Association of REALTORS®. Before joining NAR, he was a real estate agent with Edina Realty in Minnesota. The self-described geek has called Alaska and Minnesota home. Now, he’s in in Chicago or on the road meeting with REALTORS® and association executives to talk about NAR, their business, and the integration of digital technologies in the real estate industry.

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