Chip Barkel is with eXp Realty located in Toronto. He is the Local LeaderⓇ for Willowdale on Parkbench. Chip talked about his story in his chapter of the upcoming book, Becoming a Local LeaderⓇ, which is a book that features 22 real estate agents. These are top real estate agents, who have built their business on relationships and referrals in specific geographic areas. It goes through their stories on how they did it and some of the philosophies they have on how they’ve built a business on relationships and referrals. 

You wrote this chapter and you want to be a part of this book because you have a message that you want to share with real estate agents out there and with the industry. What is your main message to people if you are to sum it up? What do you hope they will get from reading your chapter?

It’s really quite simple. What my chapter is about is building relationships within your community. To be a good neighbor, to have good neighbors, you have to be a good neighbor. It’s very simple. It kind of goes back to when we were kids and your mother would say, “Be nice and treat people the way you want to be treated.” It’s very simple. But some of us have lost touch or lost track of that. 

Relationships matter. The more exposure and the more you can relate with your neighbors and your community, the more they will get to know you, that whole adage that we’ve heard a million times. “People do business with people they know, like, and trust.” I would add, “and remember”. And so yeah, it’s all about building relationships.

You talk about people losing track and losing touch with what is fundamental to real estate. Real estate is a relationship-based business. It is a people business. Why do you think agents have lost touch with that side of the business? 

Well, I think a lot of people don’t want to invest the time. It can take a little bit more time. People want instant gratification. They want to take a pill to fix things. “I’ll pay some money, buy some leads, and then I’ll have business.” It doesn’t quite work that way. You can buy leads, sure. They’ll take your money. But, what’s the quality of those leads? Are they seriously looking or are they just kicking tires? It again goes back to quality.

What would you say is the downside to the immediate gratification for agents? Some are like, “Hey, I’m just going to do things to get a deal now. I’m going to make decisions with where I spend my time and money for the immediate.” What have you found is the downside that maybe new agents don’t see what problems that could cause down the road?

Well, you can either be a transactional agent, or you can be a relational agent. I don’t think it’s really possible to be both. Obviously, you want to have transactions under your belt. But a strictly transactional agent will do the deal and you just don’t hear from them again. It’s a very personal intense relationship when you’re dealing with an agent. 

Before I was a licensed agent, I met an agent at a showing. I left the showing saying, “That house is not for us.” But I said, “If we ever sell, we’re using her.” That was based on 10 to 15 minutes being in the house with her. She was personable. She was engaged. She was relatable, and all those things that I think are important. 

It’s very intense. We bought, we sold. Actually, we had three transactions with her in like a year. So, you have this really intimate relationship and intense relationship until closing. And then boom, it’s over. This was someone I liked. I liked hanging out with her. If she had picked up the phone once or twice every six months and said, “Hey, how are you Chip?”, it would have been great. But she’s just not built that way. 

Come the recession, people like that will suffer because people will continue to buy and sell. Those relationships will really matter when there’s a downturn. So, when things are going great, it might not matter. You may still get business. But when push comes to shove, you want somebody who’s going to be on your team and feel like they have a relationship with you and are invested in that relationship.

I’ve heard that before that in a recession or downturn, relationships matter more. Your database, your sphere of influence, your brand matters more. Is it because ads get too expensive? Or is it because the consumer doesn’t listen to ads as much? What is it that makes relationships matter more?

I think in tougher times, it’s that much harder to break in. There’s less business to go around and there are more hungry agents. I think that’s really what it is. It’s harder to reach those people and kind of crack the nut, if you will, because there’s going to be a lot of hungry agents out there. 

People tell me, “My mother could have used any number of agents.” I say, “Yeah, there are 60,000 agents in my MLS. You’re right. She could have. I’m thrilled and honored she chose me.” And so, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s like when push comes to shove, those 12, 15, 20, 30, 50 agents are knocking on the door and you are saying, “No, no. I have an agent.”

Let’s zoom out and get to know Chip a little bit. Please tell everyone a little bit about yourself and why you got into real estate.

Well, real estate was always the road not taken for me. It was always a real interest. When I was in my teens, I had a small business that I ran. It’s an antiques business. I went to university, came out with a teaching degree thinking, “Well, no matter what I do, I could teach as kind of a fallback position.” And I did that. I taught for a couple of years. It was a time when there weren’t a lot of teaching jobs out there. It was a little bit unstable. I felt vulnerable so I thought, “Well, why don’t I learn programming, whatever that is, and I can teach that?” So, I became a computer programmer. And eventually, after a few years, went into corporate training. And so, I then taught computer programming for a number of years. Again, my teaching, the computers, kind of put them together. 

Real estate was always there as kind of an interest but it’s really hard to leave a full-time salaried position for a job that doesn’t pay anything. There’s a famous quote that with real estate, you’re right, there’s no ceiling, but there’s no floor to what you can make either. So, I was kind of conscious of that. I’m not sure. One point, my company was bought out by another corporate takeover. I was downsized. I thought, “Well, if not now when will I ever do it? This is my opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do and follow my passion.” So, that’s when I went to real estate.

If you had to start all over again today, what would your advice be for them? How does one make 50 to 100 grand in their first year or more? What would be your game plan if you were to do this again?

Well, I belong to a lot of Facebook groups with a lot of new agents and I tell them the same thing, build relationships. That’s where I come from, it’s what I believe. Can you do it some other way? Maybe. But for me, this is kind of the tried-and-true method. 

My first listing client actually called me. Not the other way around. In fact, I had helped her with something. She wasn’t a friend. She was a vendor. I was actually her customer. She called me and asked me something about real estate. I gave her some advice and then, I called her back and said, “I’m going to be joining the brokerage that I referred you to.” She said, “Well, when you land, give me a call, we’ll have lunch.” So, she took me to lunch to celebrate my new career. And a week later, she called me and said, “I’d like you to list my house.” So, it was based on that relationship that I had built.

Relationships is this word that everyone just talks about in real estate. So, when you think about breaking it down, what does that mean to focus on relationships, to build relationships? What are the things that you’ve done that other agents don’t do that allow you to get clients through relationships and referrals?

Good question. I think it’s about giving to give, not to get. With her, I made it clear that I chose her over a lot of other vendors. I referred her business. I was thrilled to be able to use her. She was a vendor for outdoor lighting, and I used her for my house. Now, there was a vendor for outdoor lighting that came with the landscaping package. And I was like, “No, no, no. I got a better feeling from her. I’m going to use her.” And then, she came back to me and said, “What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” 

I could have just said, “Well, why are you asking me? It’s your business. Do whatever you want.” But I didn’t do that. I gave to give. I invested and it came back. It’s kind of this karma. We attach a lot of words to those things but it’s the same thing. 

In my neighborhood, when I first became an agent, I sponsored a yard sale, a street sale to let people know, “Hey, I’m Chip. I’m here. I’m an agent. This is who I am. I’m one of you. I belong in the neighborhood.” I ended up getting a fairly sizable listing from that as well. So, it’s being present, and not being present for your own profit, but just being present to say, what can I give to the neighborhood? What can I give to you and your business? 

A lot of business networking groups when you say, “Tell me about your business. What kind of a client would be the best kind of client to refer to you? It’s not about me. It’s about you.” I think that’s the difference that a lot of agents don’t follow.

I can hear some agents being like, “Well, I’m afraid if I do these things that just may not work. I’m worried that I will spend time and money on people and care and give and then I just won’t get anything in return and then I’ll have nothing.” What can you say to an agent who has that thought?

You could do the same thing with cold calling or door knocking. Even in 90 degrees or 30 something Celsius, I could spend days out there knocking doors in the heat and get nothing out of it. It’s the same thing. It’s a risky business. You’re self-employed. It’s up to you to build the business. There are no guarantees. 

What makes you feel certain in all the stuff that you do that’s relationship based, database driven, that it will end up working?

In the beginning, it was just an innate sense. You know, my core gut. That’s kind of how I’m built. I’m more relational as a person. I hoped it would work. I believed in it. It’s like anything else. If you believe something’s going to work or you believe something won’t work, it’s not going to work. It’s who I am. It’s how I like to live my life.

One of the things that you do that other agents would go, “What?” is you spend time and money and energy helping local businesses, schools, community groups, nonprofits? How do you justify in your head what you believe about why it’s a good use of your time and energy?

Well, they are your neighbors. These businesses are in your neighborhood. They’re your neighbors. They may not own property in your neighborhood, but I bet you they do own property somewhere. Like this outdoor lighting woman. She didn’t call. She emailed me. “I’d like you to sell my house. List my house for sale.” It was in Oxbridge. And I was a new agent. It was my first listing. I hung up the phone. I was like, “I’m in Toronto. Where’s Oxbridge? Can we sell in Oxbridge?” I figured it out. “Oh, it’s part of our MLS. I drove up there to do a little tour around. She had decided strategically that she wanted a Toronto agent because she thought that the buyer would come from Toronto. She knew me, liked me, and trusted me. 

Some agents also think about that and they say, “I don’t want to focus too much on a specific geographic area, because I’m afraid I might pigeonhole myself.”

Right. Well, I don’t either. That’s the last thing I want to do. I always tell people. I am relationship oriented. I go where my clients take me, whether that’s all across the GTA in Toronto. My rule of thumb is I’ll go about an hour and that’s about it. That’s the furthest I’ll go in travel time. I either want to know the area or when I figure I can learn enough about the area quickly to represent my clients, whether they’re buyers or sellers, represent them well.

When you think about some of the lessons that you’ve learned, things not to do that you would impart to agents to help them not waste time and not go through some of the trial and error that you did, what would be some of those lessons?

Well, what not to do is don’t buy every shiny object that comes down the pike. We all get called all the time about, “Oh, I want to sell you this. I’ll sell you that.” However, having said that, I became a client of Parkbench as a result of one of those calls. I said, “Well, I’m willing to listen. Tell me how it works. Tell me what it’s all about.” And I realized, a lightbulb moment for me, an aha moment was when I thought, “Well, Parkbench is going to build this website for my neighborhood and they’re going to add content around festivals when we could have festivals. And events, news, and clippings from my neighborhood.” All I have to do is interview people, get to know people in the neighborhood, and interview them as business owners. I thought they’re a bigger organization than Chip Barkel. So, SEO wise, I decided that was probably something to look into. I thought, “If it doesn’t work, I’ve tried other things that didn’t work.” But it made sense. I think that’s what you have to do on the positive side. Is what you’re trying to do make sense? Because you can’t do everything yourself. You want to leverage time and money. However, a lot of these things with buying leads and other gimmicks that come along, a lot of them don’t make sense. So, you have to have a little bit of a gut feeling and use judgement in there as well.

We’re in a time where inventory is still in shortage and there’s a huge buyer demand. The market is pretty crazy. It’s 2021. Have you tried anything that doesn’t work to help you get listings? 

I tried things earlier in my career. Google AdWords and some of those kinds of things. It was like, “I didn’t see anything from that.” I just stopped and moved on. And that’s why I always look at the price point of something that comes along. I also send cards and have a relationship marketing business, and sending cards is a big part of my business. It’s really cheap to do it. So, even if it doesn’t work, I haven’t lost a lot. And with Parkbench, it’s an amount of money that’s manageable on a monthly basis. So, try it. Let it prove itself one way or the other. And if not, then move on and know when to cut it off and say, “Okay. I tried that. It didn’t work. We’re going to move on.” 

But in terms of what to do, things like Becoming a Local LeaderⓇ book that’s coming out, you’re going to have 20 chapters of agents that have experience and are saying, “This works.” All you have to do is buy the book, read it, and implement it. It’s all there. It’s like, “I wish that book existed when I started because it would have made my life a lot easier.”

When you look at what you spend your time on, what are the other things that you do to grow your business right now?

Well, I have a business plan. As I mentioned, I send cards. I send probably about nine cards a day when you average it over a year. Some of those are groups and cards. Happy New Year, happy spring, ice cream in the summer because it’s a fun national ice cream day. It’s kind of a fun holiday to celebrate. Thanksgiving. If I know when your birthday is, the birthday card. Just keeping in touch. 

I also have a monthly newsletter that I send out either email or paper. Right now, in fact, today, I worked on an article for that for my July issue. It’s called Garage Envy. It’s about making over your garage, turning it from storage space to living space. I try to put as much fun into it as possible, not just make things, you know, “Do you want to sell your house? Do you want to buy a house?” 

Also, I mentioned relationships. I do pop-bys three, four, or five times a year. This summer I made jam, strawberry, blueberry, and peach jam. It had a label that had my name on it. “With Chip, you’ll never be in a real estate jam.” And for me, that’s something that’s going to hang around in the refrigerator with my name on it. It will sit on the table. So, it’s sticky. Literally and figuratively. 

I also created jar openers. A lot of these pop-buy gifts that people use I think are really corny and kind of like, “That wouldn’t fly for me.” So, I thought I’ll only give something away that I wouldn’t mind using myself. I had these house shaped rubber jar openers created to help you open up a jar that’s kind of stubborn. And again, it’s going to sit in their drawer. It has my name on it. I don’t care if they never use it. But every time they open their cutlery drawer, they’re going to see my name. 

In October, I give away pumpkin pies. It’s a reason to knock on their door and say, “Hey, how are you doing?” It’s not about the $2.50 pumpkin pie. I remember a couple of years ago I knocked on this woman’s door. It was the very first pumpkin I was giving away. She says, “Oh, come in. Come in.” She goes, “I’m going to be 90 in the spring. And I think it’s time to sell.” Well, was it that $2 pumpkin pie? No. It’s the relationship that I had built. Rather than some stranger knocking on our door saying, “Well, who are you and what do you want?” 

And then at Christmas, I make mincemeat. I think part of the jam and those gifts, it’s the experience. It’s not what it is. I had this one client, she was 94 years old. She said to me, “Your mincemeat tasted exactly like my mother’s mincemeat.” I was like, “Your mother? Wow. Well, actually, the recipe is probably older than your mother because it’s from the late 1800s.” So, that helps you become more memorable. And so, those are the kinds of things that I do. 

The theme that comes to mind when I think of a RealtorⓇ is to be memorable. It’s for people to remember you so that when they want to buy or sell, they go, “Hey, Chip. Can you come to my house? Hey, can you help me buy a home?” And if their friend asks them for a RealtorⓇ? “Oh, yeah. I know a guy – Chip.” And so, it’s like, how do you do that? And if you ever do research about marketing, the number of ads that you’d have to put in front of a person to make an impact on their brain so that they remember you just keep going up and up and up and up year after year. We’re bombarded with so many ads so that we just all keep getting more desensitized to it. And just like you talked about that open house conversation, 15 minutes. I like you and I remembered you. All these things you’ve done for people in your database that you know, it is giving them an experience, which makes them have a feeling. We all can close our eyes and remember this amazing concert we’ve been to. That’s one concert, one thing you’ll never forget forever for the rest of your life. And it’s like, what can you as an agent do for people to kind of evoke feeling an emotion and create an experience because that one thing could actually be the memory that locks you in?

I think it’s important to remember to make it about them, not about you. My partner came home from work a couple of years ago. Partners say, “Oh, somebody at work.” You know the name, but you’ve never met the person. So, he came home and said, “Oh, this guy at work. He’s leaving. He’s going to get a new job. He’s leaving.” And I said, “Well, I will send cards. It’s what I do.” I said, “Well, let’s send him a card congratulating him with his new job.” 

Now, I wasn’t calculating enough to think when people buy real estate when they get married, get divorced, have children, or get a promotion, and get a new job. I just wanted to say congratulations. We’re going to miss you. The new place is lucky to have you. Well, two months later, who called me out of the blue? This guy saying, “I want to buy a condo.” He’s a first-time buyer. That’s great. We found him a place in a couple of months. That was two years ago. This past Christmas, I got another call from him. “Hey, remember me?” “Well, of course, I do.” He said, “I’m in a relationship. I want to buy a house. We’re going to move in together so I want to sell the condo.” I helped him sell his condo. I helped them buy a house. And so, it’s that relationship had been built because I stopped to say, “What can I do for him? Let’s congratulate him. Let’s say they’re lucky to have you. Good luck.” It wasn’t you know about, “Remember, I’m a Realtor.Ⓡ” I don’t ask for business that way. It’s not necessary. 

If people want to get in touch with you, if they want to learn from you, if they want to refer business to you, if they want to hire you, how can they get in touch with you?

Why do you think an agent should read Becoming a Local LeaderⓇ?

Well, the secret sauce for the 22 authors is in that book. You don’t have to do everything. I always say a table has four legs. I like to have four things and four pillars that I work on. Read it. Some of the stories will resonate with you, and some of them might not. Do what you find you’re passionate about. People say, “Well if you do what you love doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.” And you’ll probably be better at it. So, find what works for you, what resonates. Try it. If it doesn’t work, try something else. But it’s like a cookbook. There’s a recipe book for 22 recipes and you’ll find one that you like.