3 Pillars of Building an Unbeatable Referral Business

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“I like to be able to show appreciation other than a quick text or an email or a Facebook message.”

Staying top-of-mind is key to building a great referral business. But as Abby Walters’ says in the quote above, if you really want people to remember you, if you want them to tell their friends and family about you, clicking the “Like” button or posting “Happy Birthday!” isn’t going to cut it. You have to be more memorable than that. You have to do something unique.

This week on The Walkthrough, Abby shares the three pillars of her all-referral business — including the online tool she uses to stay top-of-mind with past clients, her sphere, and even other real estate agents.

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Links and Show Notes

Full Transcript

(SPEAKER: Matt McGee, Host) It was one of the rites of passage for a new real estate agent. In some places, it still is.

When you first get into the business, you probably don’t have a big marketing budget. You don’t have a big database of clients and acquaintances. And the people you do know, well, they’re kind of nervous to do business with you because you are so new.

That rite of passage I’m talking about is floor time. You sit at a desk in the main office. You’re on call waiting for someone, anyone, to walk in the front door or call the main office looking for an agent.

That’s how Abby Walters began her career back in 2005. And she did pretty well. But five years in, something happened, something wonderful in her personal life. Something that led Abby to decide that she was done sitting at the office all day waiting for the phone to ring.

In the 10 years since, Abby’s built an unbeatable referral business. Friends, past clients and other agents are consistently sending her new clients who need to buy or sell. And just between us, I saw a list of her recent transactions. HomeLight was the only non-sphere, non-referral source on there.

How did she do it? That’s what we’re gonna find out today.

This is “The Walkthrough.”


Hi, everyone. I’m Matt McGee, editor of HomeLight Agent Resource Center and your host every week on “The Walkthrough.” On this show, you’ll learn what’s working right now from the best real estate agents and industry experts in the country. At HomeLight, we believe in real estate agents. That’s why we created “The Walkthrough.” We’re on a journey to find out how great real estate agents grow their business, stand out from the crowd, and become irreplaceable.

You can contribute to the show in two ways. Leave a voicemail for me anytime at 415-322-3328 or you can send an email to walkthrough [at] homelight.com. I do read and hear all the messages that come in. And I might use them on an upcoming show!

You know, one of the things I love about real estate is that there’s so many ways to succeed, to build your business. I have spoken to hundreds of you since I joined HomeLight and I run into agents who are building their business around video marketing, open houses, working online leads, door knocking even — maybe not so much right now, but in the past, yes — social media, and on and on it goes. Every one of you gets to choose your own path to success.

Today, you’re gonna meet Abby Walters from Sager Real Estate in Strasburg, Virginia. Abby got her license in 2005. Like a lot of new agents, many of her early clients were people who called or walked in the office while she was the agent on duty. But in 2010, Abby decided it was time to find another path to success. She started paying more attention to her database. She was already really active in the community and she believed in building great relationships with other agents. All of that helped Abby create what is now almost a 100% referral-based business. She’s currently the number 2 agent out of about 500 in her market.

In today’s show, listen for Abby to talk about how community involvement means more than just writing checks, the online tool she uses for showering attention on her sphere, and why her experience buying online leads confirmed that referrals are how she wants to earn her business. After our conversation, I’ll share a few takeaways and we’ll have a HomeLight Home Run segment from an agent in Boise, Idaho.

But first, here’s my conversation with Abby Walters, which began with me asking why she decided to focus on building a referral-based business.


Abby: So, the first five years that I was licensed, I was doing the regular new agent’s answering the phones, taking duty calls, sitting on the office, being on the duty schedule for walk-ins. And I just really worked those leads. My conversion rate was really high for when I got people on the phone, I would get them through to closing or I met them in the office.

So, I really worked that hard the first five years. I mean, I did have some family and friends. It’s always hard to get them to trust you with a listing when you’re new. But I did have some buyer clients and I worked them very hard. And when I was about five years in and in 2010, I got pregnant with my second son and I said I don’t think I want to be, you know, doing the nine to five, answering the phones, sitting at the office. So, I just took a leap and said, “I’m not going to do the duty schedule anymore.”

So, that’s been 10 years ago — I haven’t taken duty for 10 years. And I think I just built up and I really worked my sphere and got those referrals from my clients would send their co-workers to me, or they’ll send their family members to me, or their friends to me. And I just really built my database.

Matt: And so, just for terminology-wise, I have not heard the phrase “duty call” before. In our area, that would be similar to a floor call, right? Like, you’re in the office and just making yourself available for whoever randomly calls or walks in.

Abby: Yes.

Matt: Was it difficult in the beginning when you made that transition and you sort of get intentional about saying, “I need to go in this other direction.”?

Abby: It was. I was worried of being able to keep up my momentum and have a number of sales per month that I wanted. I think what’s helped me a lot is I’m super involved in the community and I have been even before real estate. So, there’s certain things I’m passionate about – my kids’ schools, and my church, and my town and county that I specifically live in.

So, I was already at all of those events and then, I just kinda made it a point to wear my real estate t-shirts and hats and all of that stuff and let people know that this is what I was doing. And people start knowing you for that. And you start going to these events and they just start that typically asking you real estate questions and contacting you later.

Matt: That makes sense. And I think … so, let’s dive into that a little more because when we talk about growing a referral business in real estate, so much of it is getting your name out there, getting face time and connecting with people in your community and just making sure that they are aware, this is who I am, this is what I do, and if you have a need to buy or sell, right, you wanna stay top of mind.

So, tell me more if that’s like the first step in building a referral business. Let’s call it community involvement. Tell me more about like what are specifically some of the ways you do that. You’re advertising at local events, participating in local events, that sort of thing?

Abby: Right. Anyone that contacts me, you know, regarding maybe like American Cancer Society Walk or Strasburg Little League, midget football, any of those. I try to do what I can to sponsor anything in my area and also try to be there and participate in events. This weekend, actually, we were supposed to have a Color Run with our Parks and Rec, and that got cancelled. Like me and my team, we were gonna be there and have like the color purple and throw that on the runners as they go by. I believe that one was to benefit American Cancer Society.

But anything like that. I mean, that’s my passion anyway. I do what I can and I make the money I can and I’m blessed to make it and I want to give back to others. So that’s part of my passion and mission with what I do is I want to give back. So, I just think the community knows I wanna give back and they see me at these events and they call me to work with me.

Matt: And do the organizers of the events, is it to the point where they know, “Hey, we’ll call Abby. This is something she’ll want to support.”?

Abby: Yeah, it’s kind of funny because I’ll be like, “Oh, thanks for letting me know about this.” And they’re like, “Oh, no problem. You know, we’re afraid that we’re asking you too often to donate to this stuff.” And I say, “No, like, I definitely want to know what events are coming up. So, I appreciate it.”

Matt: I mean, this sounds like something that you could spend a lot of time and a lot of money doing. So, you mentioned that there was this event that was supposed to be coming up that got cancelled. But, like, are we talking like one or two events a week or just one or two a month? Like what’s the commitment that you make in this area?

Abby: I would say these big events like the Color Run, that’s only one or two of those a year. The sponsorships like the rec league basketball, midget football, baseball, I mean, that’s every single season. So, my husband does our financials and he’s like, “You’re already at your donations limit halfway through the year.” I’m like, “Bump it up then!” So, we have large advertising budget and donations budget. But I just feel like that’s what I’m here for. I’m blessed to do what I do and get paid handsomely for it and I should give some of that back to the community.

Matt: You know, I think that’s awesome. I mean, as you said, you’re serving the community, you’re doing good for others. But then, there’s also sort of this fringe secondary benefit that it does — it helps your name become more visible and people know who you are and they see you doing good things. When you’re like out of the grocery store, do people recognize you? “Hey, that’s Abby from the event.”

Abby: Yeah, they do. And I mean, before coronavirus, I was going to watch a theater program and I’m at the ticket counter and he’s like, “You’re the Realtor lady.” And I was like, “Yup. That’s me.” He’s like, “I’ve seen your picture on the parks and rec book.”

So, in all my Facebook Lives I’m doing now. And more than ever, I’ll go on appointments and I always say, “Is there someone I should thank for, you know, referring you to me?” And they’ll give me a name and number of a co-worker, family member. But now, they’re like, “Oh, I’ve been watching you on Facebook for a year or two now. And I always watch your video.” So, I’m getting more and more of that.

Matt: That’s awesome. And I would say, too, on community involvement and I think you’ll agree with me on this, it’s not just about writing a check to support the organizations, right? You wanna get out there and like physically show your support.

Abby: Oh, yeah, I live to do that stuff. When I started hiring assistants or a team, and that was about five years ago, when I started that, that was initially so I could go volunteer in my kids’ classroom twice a week. So that I had an assistant in here in my office to help with paperwork. And so, it initially started because I wanted more time for community involvement and volunteering, which is my passion.

Matt: So, the first pillar of Abby’s referral-based business is community involvement. And as you just heard, that’s been a passion of hers since before she got into real estate. She’s proof that when you love something, it’s much easier to do it, and do it consistently. And it’s had a huge impact on Abby’s business. In fact, in the days leading up to this conversation, I was asking Abby about where her business comes from. And she sent me screenshots, I think, it was the past 12 months of transactions. It was agent referrals — which we’ll talk about a bit later — past clients, sphere, sphere referral, past-client referral, and on and on the list went. HomeLight was literally the only non-referral, non-sphere source of business on her list.

So, if community involvement is one pillar of how Abby grew her referral business, the second pillar is how she takes care of her past clients and sphere. You might be thinking regular video chats, outreach, email touches, that sort of stuff. But nope, it’s more old school than that: snail mail. And pay attention for the website that Abby mentions that makes this part of the process easier.

Abby: So, I do a lot of card sending. I know that some people keep in touch via social media, or email, or phone calls. But I really like the card sending. It’s kind of always been my thing. And about 10 years ago, I was introduced to an online program, Send Out Cards, where you can type your message in, you can pick a gift or brownies or whatever and they send that in the mail to your client. And I mean, it goes so far to as to where I send in a sample of my handwriting and the program has it. So, when I type the message, it looks like it’s written from me.

So, I send a whole lot of cards. When I am browsing through social media like everybody else does multiple times a day, I would see that somebody’s pregnant or is engaged or just got married. And I just make a note for myself or for my assistant to send a card and brownies to that person and what I wanna say. And that’s like several cards a day.

And I do that just to … rather than just hitting the like button and sending a message on social media, just to do a little something extra and really stand out that, you know, “Congratulations. I saw that you got this promotion. And I just wanna say great job.” So, that’s what I’m doing to let my sphere know and my past clients know like I do care about what’s going on with your life. I’m watching. I see you. And thanks for letting me be a part of your life and help you with one of the biggest decisions you’re gonna make.

Matt: Like job promotions. Like, what do you see that says, “Oh, I need to send a card.”? You do birthdays?

Abby: I used to do birthdays. And my sister would say like, “Do you send everybody a birthday card? Because on Facebook, everybody’s like, ‘Thanks for the card, Abby.'” I was like, “Yeah, I try.” But then, my database really just got way too large for that. I mean, it would be really time consuming to do the birthdays for everyone. So, I am just watching and seeing job promotions, engagements. A lot of people post when a pet passes away. And we have pet sympathy cards on there, so I’ll send those as well.

Now, I also use it not just for keeping in touch. But we’re in a competitive market. When I go to a listing appointment, 9 times out of 10 I’m competing with other agents. So, the second I leave a listing appointment, I get a card and brownies in the mail and say, “Thank you so much for having me out to your house. I really appreciate the opportunity to present my marketing presentation. And I really hope you consider hiring me to assist you.” And send them like two brownies. If they have children, I’ll make a note of the kid’s names and some gummy bears or something to the kids. So just trying to that little extra something to show them that I do care and I do wanna work with them and I do appreciate their business.

Matt: Right. And so, okay, there’s two aspects then to it, it sounds like. So there’s the one aspect where it’s people that you know on social media and they have a new job, or a baby or an engagement or whatever, they get the card. But then, it’s also people that you are doing listing presentations with. And then, you follow up within the day and get them a card with a brownie and treats as well.

Abby: Correct. And there’s also a third component to that. When I receive text messages from my clients that say, “Hey, Abby, I just wanna let you know I gave your name and number to my mechanic today. Hopefully, he’ll be calling you to sell his house.” Then, I make a note to send that person who referred to me a card and brownie saying thank you for giving out my name and number. So, this is just like second nature to me. I wanna show my appreciation for my clients for recommending me. So, sometimes, they’ll follow up and they’ll be like, “Hey, I got your card and brownies. Thank you so much. Like those things are so good. And did my mechanic call you?” And I’m like, “Actually, no. He hasn’t called yet but I really appreciate you giving my name and number anyway. So keep sending them.”

(Announcer: Hi, everyone. If you’re enjoying “The Walkthrough,” we’d appreciate the real estate agents in your network about us. Even more, please rate and review us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Your feedback helps us get better. And in some cases, can also help new listeners find and hear us. And when we get around to having you on the show, the more listeners, the better, right?)

Matt: It sounds like you’re constantly sending stuff out. Like, it’s not super expensive, is it?

Abby: I pay about $100 a month for the program, but then I’m paying an additional… I think I figured it out as very inexpensive. I think it’s five or six bucks for a card and two brownies. And I just thought, “Hey, that’s totally worth it.” This is something that I’ve been doing for 10 years now. And I honestly think that’s one of the things that sets me apart that people really… like, when do you get anything in the mail anymore besides a bill and a magazine? So, I think people love it. And I’d like to be able to show appreciation other than a quick text or an email or a Facebook message.

Matt: Right. And if it’s only a $100 or even a couple hundred dollars a month, I mean, that’s a bargain to what you’re gonna get in return in terms of GCI from closing an extra few deals because of, again, it’s about doing something special and just staying top of mind with the people in your sphere.

Abby: Right. It’s the, return on investment for me is… I mean, I see billboards come up where I could pay $800 a month to be on a billboard. And I’m like, is that really…? I know that’s building my brand, but I’d rather do a personal touch, specifically, rather than trying to reach the masses, you know, in a billboard.

Matt: Did you hear the part a couple minutes ago when Abby said this card-sending thing is second nature to her? Funny story. I kid you not, as soon as we wrapped up this conversation, before I even had a chance to send my “Thanks for chatting with me” email that I send to all my guests, I get an email from Abby with one sentence: “Can I get your mailing address?” I laughed out loud, sent her my address, and I said, “I know what you’re up to,” or something like that. Anyway, that’s what she means about it being second nature.

Abby also told me she wants part of her sphere outreach to include client-appreciation events. She’s in the early stages of forming a team and last November, they rented a movie theater for Frozen 2. And Abby said that was a huge success. They had planned, in fact, to do another big event this month, but that obviously had to be postponed due to COVID-19.

So, far, we’ve talked about two pillars of Abby’s referral business – community involvement and using cards to stay top of mind with her sphere … and with podcast hosts as well. As I look at that list of transactions that Abby sent, there were several deals that came via agent referrals. And that’s the third pillar.

Now, Abby works about an hour West of Washington, DC. It’s an area with a lot of second-home and vacation-type properties, cabins on the river and such. And she says they’re good deals especially compared to big city prices. So, I asked her what she does to get so many agents to send their referrals her way.

Abby: My whole career, when I worked with other Realtors, I truly enjoy like all aspects of the transaction – working with the seller, the buyer, the listing agent, or the buyer’s agent. And I’d always looked at it like we’re trying to help two people – one person sell, one person buy. Let’s work together. I have seen other instances where a lot of buyers agents and listing agents butt heads and it’s kind of like they’re fighting for the client. And they are just going to win.

So, I’ve never been adversarial like that. I’ve always tried to work with the other agent. And I think I formed such excellent relationships with agents on the other side that then when — if they’re working in Winchester, which is about 20 miles from here, they may not wanna go down to southern Shenandoah County, so they just end up saying, “Hey, Abby, I’ve got listing for you. And how about a 25% referral fee?” And I say, “No, problem. I’d love to help.”

And that’s kind of just blown up over the past two or three years. And I think people are…the market started getting so hot and we started getting so busy, agents were sticking to their area more and referring out clients that were out of their area. So I’ve got a ton of agent referrals lately.

Matt: Got you. There was an episode that we had on “The Walkthrough.” It’s probably a month or so ago. Melinda Elmer, an agent down in Southern California. She talked about this a little bit. I think she said, “We’re not drama. We don’t bring drama to the transaction. So other agents prefer to work with us.” It sounds like you’re saying sort of the same thing. It’s make it easy for other agents to want to do business with you.

Abby: Absolutely. I mean, that even comes into play when you’re talking about multiple-offer situations. And you have offers on the table for your buyer. And I’m gonna hope that I have a relationship with that listing agent that says, “Here, these three offers are identical. But I know that Abby is gonna get this thing through to closing with, you know, non-drama. And hopefully, choose our offer.” So, it comes into play there as well.

Matt: Yeah. And I think that’s the perspective that she was coming out with was the multiple offers. It also plays into agents wanting to send you business because they know that you’re gonna take good care of their clients. Are you also like regularly communicating with other agents on social media and elsewhere?

Abby: Oh, yeah, I keep in touch. I send agents the congratulations cards and —

Matt: No, do you really?

Abby: Yeah, I do. Yes, absolutely. My relationships with them are also just as important as my past clients.

Matt: Okay. So, there’s the trick right there. The Send Out Cards thing isn’t just for clients. You’re sending gifts to the other agents as well. I get it.

Abby: The second they send me a referral, they get a card and brownies, too. I mean, I’m thankful for their referrals as well. So, I don’t leave out the loan officers or agents, either.

Matt: We talked about, you know, you’ve got this amazing referral business going on. What do you see as the benefits to this? I mean, you must be loving this.

Abby: I absolutely do love it. The benefits of working referrals rather than random internet leads is these folks were sent to me by people that they know and trust. And they’re coming to me wanting to work with me, already kind of feeling like they know me. There’s already some sort of built-in trust because they were sent to me by someone that’s already used me before.

And just 9 times out of 10, that transaction goes so much more smoothly than if I’m getting a random internet lead that doesn’t know me. They don’t know my years of experience, years in the business. They don’t know anyone that’s ever worked with me before. I just think sometimes, I’m really fighting hard to try to earn their trust or gain their respect and it can be a rough road with those leads.

Matt: You mentioned random internet leads. At any point along the way, I mean, you’ve been in business 15 years — at any point along the way, did you try, you know, buying the internet leads? You know, Zillow or Realtor.com or wherever it may be?

Abby: I did. So, I went a whole lot of years not buying leads at all. And I would tell everyone, “Nope. Never bought leads and I’m not gonna do it.” And then, since I started forming this team, I have two buyers agents. This winter, when things sort of did the regular winter slowdown, I was like, “You know what? Why don’t I just give the Zillow leads thing a try. I’m gonna sign up. And maybe we’ll get some more buyers to keep them busy.”

And it just went terribly. We kept getting leads that already had agents or leads that were not approved and were not interested in getting approved, leads that would schedule an appointment and then cancel when you’re already there and not show up. It was just, it did not go well at all. And I was like, “Nope, we’re not gonna do this anymore. We’re gonna stick with our referrals and work more on reaching out to our sphere to continue to keep those referrals coming in.”

Matt: If someone is listening to this right now, an agent, and maybe they have also been struggling with the online leads, maybe they’ve been struggling to focus on their database, what’s your takeaway advice for them?

Abby: I think they should get involved in their community. And they should get their face out there and think of where their passion lies and where they want to help and go and do. And just get your face out there. I think that they should be on social media. And they should be recognizing when people in their sphere, you know, need … deserve a congratulations card or a thank you card and reach out to those people and go the extra mile and send them a handwritten card rather than a message on Facebook.

So, it doesn’t have to be…I rarely sell myself. It’s just keeping in touch with people. And they know that this is what I do. So, that translates to them calling me. But it doesn’t have to be constant selling yourself. Of course, you know, on the back of the card is my Realtor information contact info. But I’m not in their face about it.

(Speaker: Matt McGee, Host) Not in their face. That’s the thing about building a great referral business is that you end up doing a different type of marketing. It’s less aggressive, less salesy, for lack of a better word. Great stuff, Abby. Thank you so much.

Okay. We have a HomeLight Home Run segment coming up for an agent in Boise, Idaho. But first, let’s do our takeaway segment. And this week’s takeaways revolve around the three pillars of Abby’s referral business.

Number one is community involvement. She’s so involved with stuff around town that local organizers are afraid they’re asking her to do too much. And Abby is not just writing checks, but showing up and getting involved in school, church events, community events, local sports and more. Whatever community involvement you are passionate about, make sure you attend, make sure people see you face to face.

The second pillar is Abby’s past clients and sphere. And she sends them a lot of cards — I mean, snail mail — to mark things like anniversaries, job promotions, and so forth. She uses a website called sendoutcards.com. It all helps keep Abby top of mind with her sphere. She also mentioned that she sends prospects cards and gifts as soon as she leaves a listing appointment. And any agent who sends a referral also gets a card and gift.

The third pillar is agent referrals. And Abby explains that she considers every transaction a partnership. It’s not a battle to see who wins or losses. It’s a partnership to help both parties win. And by building relationships like that, Abby says she gets more referrals from other agents.

And then the last takeaway is all about the benefits. Abby said that new clients come to her and they’re already pre-sold. They have a recommendation from someone they trust and she doesn’t need to do a big sales pitch. Great stuff.

Our HomeLight Home Run segment comes to us from Barbara Dopp in Boise, Idaho. Barb leads a 10-agent team called Agents With a Smile. And she says the team put 28 homes under contract just in the month of May alone. That’s definitely a Home Run in our eyes. Congrats to Barb and your team.

If you have a Home Run to share, you can get in touch any time. Leave me a voicemail by calling 415-322-3328 or send an email to walkthrough [at] homelight.com. That’s also how you can send in any questions or feedback about today’s show.

So, that’s all for this week. Thanks for Abby Walters for joining us. Thank you for listening.

My name is Matt McGee. Remember at HomeLight, we believe in real estate agents. That’s why we created “The Walkthrough.” We’re on a journey to find out how great real estate agents grow their business, stand out from the crowd, and become irreplaceable.

Go out and safely sell some homes. We’ll talk to you again next week. Bye-bye.

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