Realty firms add to menus

2 real estate giants expand services in bid to keep clients

OPF, Long & Foster

They're offering customers lists of approved vendors

February 06, 2000|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

Two of Maryland's largest real estate companies are going head to head in launching dueling campaigns designed not only lure your business, but to keep you as a customer for life.

In January, Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. got the jump on O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA by starting its "Home Advantage" program. Today, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn answers with its version, called "Home Services."

Both programs were formulated with the premise that consumers want more than just the traditional real estate services of buying and selling. Today's real estate customer wants help with moving, connecting and disconnecting utilities, painting, home maintenance and similar services.

And with statistics showing that people move on the average every seven to 10 years, both companies want to create a link that will survive long after the real estate transaction has been completed.

"This was not dressed up to be a little marketing program or something. In our mind, this is something that is addressing the change that is taking place in the industry," said James P. O'Conor, a senior vice president of NRT Inc., and president of NRT Mid-Atlantic, the parent company of Timonium-based, O'Conor Piper & Flynn ERA.

"Customers and clients are expecting -- and probably demanding -- some of these things, [and] we're up there providing it for them."

The two programs will offer present and past customers numerous services through company-approved vendors .

In exchange for access to its customer base, many vendors will offer discounts. Long & Foster has an agreement for customer discounts from Pepco Energy Services Inc., a subsidiary of the Potomac Electric Power Co., the utility serving Washington and its Maryland suburbs.

Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corp., last year introduced its "Concierge" program, which also offers numerous home-related services to its customers. But liability concerns by D. R. Grempler, president of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc., discouraged him from participating in the national program.

"I wasn't as initially excited about the program as other brokers," Grempler said. However, with time easing his fears, Grempler said he is reconsidering and that plans are in the works to adopt the program in the future.

Long & Foster began by sending out 250,000 postcards to past customers, making them aware of the program.

Recipients in turn can gain entry into the program either by going to Long & Foster's Web site and using a code printed on the postcard to gain access, by calling a toll-free number or by having an agent register them.

O'Conor Piper & Flynn's program will work in much the same way, and the company is going to its agents to help create a database. "We are not going to call [customers] automatically without the agent's involvement," O'Conor said.

Usually, marketing costs are paid by the agent. With these programs, the companies are picking up the tab. "It's not just something that sounds good. It is a very specific benefit to the [company] associate," O'Conor said.

O'Conor Piper & Flynn's executives say the major difference between their program and Long & Foster's is a fully-staffed office in Ellicott City to handle calls and to line up customers with the service vendors, freeing the agent to "do what they do best, selling and listing," O'Conor said.

O'Conor Piper & Flynn has hired an outside company to screen and evaluate each vendor. Once accepted, much like the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval, the real estate company will grant the vendor its own seal--putting its reputation on the line as well.

"We want a tried-and-true vendor," O'Conor said. "The last thing we want to do is have somebody not perform or not do the job well, and with the customer service center that is where we will be able to monitor it. "Once the service is provided, the customer service center is going to call the client and say, `How was it done? Were you satisfied?' All those sorts of things. There is going to be complete follow up on this thing."

Long and Foster is also selecting its own vendors.

"We have gone out to vendors to make sure that they are licensed, make sure that they are bonded, make sure that they don't have bad marks against them at the Better Business Bureau," said Brenda Shipplett, senior vice president general manager for Long & Foster and head of the Home Advantage program."[We want] to say, here is a plumber who our agents have used over time and have found to give very good service, and as a result [in exchange for participating in the program] the plumber is willing to offer a discount to the buyer or the seller."

Shipplet said that in the three weeks that Long & Foster's Web site (www.the-home-advantage.com) has been up, it has received 80,000 hits.

According to Jeanna Porter Tucker, NRT Mid-Atlantic vice president for marketing, O'Conor Piper & Flynn 's program (www.opf.com/homeservices) will be rolled out in two phases.

The first will include many of the "move in and move out" services and the "Preferred Alliances" discount program now offered by the company -- such as ADT Home Security, Public Storage and AT&T.

In July, the company hopes to round out the vendor program with more local electricians, plumbers -- "more of the total home care, from mowing your lawn to painting your house," Tucker said.

Ultimately what these two companies want is to make revenue by offering better services to their customers.

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