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The real estate industry is ripe for a serious game changer. By that, I don’t mean some company that comes along fiddling with  commissions or cutesy technology marketing. I’m talking something that causes customers to stand up and say,  Wow! I’m definitely working with that company. We’ve talked about this before in our blog, but the timing is  better than ever. In fact, I’m thinking of making an appointment with Richard Branson, in the hopes that he’ll  take up my suggestion and do for real estate what he’s done for the airline industry. It’s time for him to open Virgin Real Estate.

For anyone who has tried Branson’s new Virgin America airline, you know what I’m talking about. Virgin had already changed the game in trans-Atlantic flying, with its upscale, high tech, high touch service. They actually made  flying those long hours from America to Europe enjoyable again. And when they brought the same pinache to the American markets, they effectively changed the game. Again.

That’s why I’m thinking they’re the right company to do something similar in the real estate industry. Could it be?

We all know game changers when we see them. The Apple iPod. The Nintendo Wii.  These companies didn’t just improve their industry’s basic products or standard services. They threw out the book and rewrote what it meant for customers to enjoy using them. And pay for them. That’s why they are so successful – and create loyal,  raving fans (which other companies just call customers).

Who will be the Virgin Real Estate game changer? Can a company  create something in the housing industry that has customers saying, “Bloody fantastic!” when it comes to buying or selling a home?(English accent optional.)

Let me tell you how it’s done. Simply step onto a Virgin America airplane and you immediately know something different is going to happen. It’s not just the cool purple lighting or the luxurious leather  seating, even for the cheapskates in the back. Even first class is above and beyond – with more electronic seat adjustments than a  Mercedes, including heating, that matches the “back rub-like” attention you get from the staff. Sure, Virgin’s entertainment systems are high tech: touch screens, thousands of audio recordings,  satellite television and dozens of first-rate movies. There’s even internet access, and “seat to seat” chat for the Gen Y’ers who can’t beat to watch television without tweeting their fleeting thoughts to someone somewhere. Yes, all  of that stuff is really quite cool.

It’s all a far cry from the crusty-cattle-coach of Southwest, where you can’t even get a dedicated seat number let alone a seat-back entertainment system. Their idea of “game changer” was mostly a knock-off on the “for sale  by owner” approach that plagues the real estate industry. Thankfully they retained a few experts to keep the plane in the air. There’s  something more, though, than Virgin’s  fancy electronics that makes the difference, because JetBlue has a similar entertainment system, and similar smidgens of extra leg room, but they aren’t the game changer you’ll find from Red.

The difference is in Virgin’s people. Sure, most airlines have someone greet you at the door, but they are usually multitasking: stacking cups, serving first class, and squeezing in a “howaya” to the rest of us coming aboard.  Virgin flight attendants are immediately different. They make eye contact. They talk to you. They are  genuinely helpful and excited you’ve arrived. Does it feel like that at an open house today? How about when the secretary answers the phone?

Imagine getting it for only $129, on an airplane.

Such investment – in well trained people focused on their primary objective, the customer – extends all the way  to the back, where food and beverage service is served just like a restaurant. On Virgin America, you  select items from your personal entertainment system, swipe your credit card, and an attendant stops by shortly later to hand-deliver your meal. You can eat or drink any time, not just when the cart is congesting the aisle. And it’s  not actually less work for the attendants – yet they do it with zest and zeal. Is that how we respond to consumers who ask about our listings by email?

Is it only better customer service, more running around for the customer, that makes Virgin America really that different? Actually, not really. Everyone could try harder; but that doesn’t always mean it’s better. When it comes down to it, the real game changers occur when companies mess up. And all companies do – except that very  few ‘fess up when it happens. And that’s where Virgin America really shines.

Last week, this very game-changing difference was contrasted over two days, two flights and two carriers. First,  it was a long-haul trip with Virgin America from Los Angeles to Boston. Those kinds of flights are where you really appreciate the great entertainment system and wireless internet access (free on Virgin, compliments of  Google, until January). Unfortunately, on this particular flight, the system wouldn’t boot up. No movies, music  or internet access (blame Linux, not Microsoft, for that one). Suddenly the entertainment options were worst than had I flown, say, United, whose idea of technology still involves old-style televisions  hanging from the ceiling. Luckily I had my iPod and a good book (yes, they still exist).

Except it wasn’t going to be the same old flight. Virgin won’t allow that to happen. Even after the staff went the extra mile with complimentary food and beverages, Virgin’s culture of customer service wouldn’t let up. As we were coming in for landing in Boston, the Captain made an announcement. In recognition that their entertainment system didn’t work on the flight, he had called ahead and asked the corporate headquarters to issue a credit to everyone on board. Everyone in the main cabin received a $25 credit, while upgraded passengers were credited $100. Without having to ask. Automatically. Before we even landed.

Bloody awesome!

That’s what we mean when we think of a game changer in the real estate industry. Where is the company that’s creating that experience for today’s home sellers and buyers?

It’s also why my flight the next day was such a contrast. It was a JetBlue trip to the Bahamas, and there was a problem. This time it wasn’t technological but biological. And it could have affected the safety of everyone on board. As the flight attendant explained to us our duties for sitting in the emergency exit row, the woman on the other aisle nearest the emergency exit didn’t speak English. Not even barely. When the attendant asked for verbal confirmation that we’d all be willing to assist in an emergency, she didn’t respond.  When he asked again, it was clear to all of us that she didn’t understand.

But what did he do?

Nothing. His approach to problem solving was to return to the front of the plane and tell the gate agent, who came back and asked the woman politely if she understood English fluently. Clearly, the “ya, ya” response didn’t convince any of us. But the gate agent simply turned around and shrugged. Who was he to ask the passenger to be reseated? He wasn’t backed up by a culture that encouraged problem solving. He didn’t even make  eye contact with the rest of us who looked at him, expectantly, to do something. He just turned away. What was he thinking? “It probably won’t be a problem,” wasn’t the kind of resolution I was hoping for.

Of course, nothing did happen on that flight, so it turned out for the best anyway. Or did it? Not really, because someone noticed. The customer. For all of their  similarities – techno-entertainment, legroom, newer planes – JetBlue instantly lost its industry leadership to the game-changer Virgin America.

It’s an important lesson for the real estate industry, I think, because for year’s we’ve been on a quest to find the game changer with a button. Some fancy web technology or an innovative sales tool. Wireless or wired, the game has still remained the same. In fact, the industry is mostly still behind the customer’s game plans – even when it’s simply the use of smartphones or social networks. Yet changing the game isn’t just about the systems and tools. It’s how your people use them. And it’s why the next time I fly to Los Angeles, there’s little chance I’ll choose JetBlue, when I could be on a Virgin America plane changing what it means to fly same skies.

Now can we make that happen in real estate, too?