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How to Hire a Great Assistant

By Dixie Taylor

Find the right kind of help—at the right time. Here’s how.

Dixie Taylor and her assistant Anita
By the time I decided to hire my first assistant, I was already frazzled, stealing precious time from my family in order to get my daily workload completed. I was eight years into my real estate career, and staunchly determined to handle everything from phone calls to open houses to transaction management on my own.

Then I woke up, and realized that I needed help. Twelve to 15-hour workdays were more common than not. My business was growing at a steady pace, but when I finally set out to hire help, I barely had time to handle the recruiting, let alone the training and delegating that comes along with hiring an assistant.

But I did it anyway. I’ve had several unlicensed assistants since then who work about 30 hours a week, takes photos, makes and delivers brochures, installs lockboxes, sets up inspections, inputs data into the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) and calls sales associates for showing feedback.

I’ve learned a thing or two about where to find them, what criteria to use when hiring, how to delegate tasks and what rewards come from finding the right one. Here are a few of my secrets:
1. Know What You’re Looking For
You really don’t want to train your next competitor. I made that mistake with my first assistant, who really took the bull by the horns, learned everything about the real estate business, and then got licensed and struck out on her own. While I don’t oppose someone reaching that kind of success, the fact that I trained her for two years and then watched her become a competitor was neither what I expected nor in my best interest.

My next assistant wasn’t so gung-ho, but she was very detail oriented and well organized. Unfortunately, she also loved to talk, and wandered the halls during the workday, speaking with anyone who would listen. It was a real problem, and it spilled over into the time she spent talking to sellers and giving them feedback about their homes. 

When hiring, I look for people who have good phone, computer and organizational skills, all of which are vital in the real estate business. I struck gold with my fourth assistant, Anita (standing in photo), who possesses all these skills, plus a personality that lends itself to developing rapport with buyers and sellers. She interacts with them by phone, e-mail and mail in a way that they really enjoy.

2. Look in the Right Places
I’ve found all my assistants through personal and business networking. One of them was an existing assistant at another office, and had just been laid off. Another came to me through a title company referral.

The other three—current assistant included—were customers who bought homes through me. I ran into my current assistant at a Panera Bread restaurant a few months after selling her a home, and she told me that she was looking for a part-time job. “Funny you should say that,” I told her, “because I’m looking to replace my assistant soon.” I was particularly interested in hiring her because not only did she possess the necessary skills (computer, phone and interpersonal), but she had no interest in being a sales associate in the foreseeable future. At some point, she may want to get into the business, but she’s someone I would completely trust and encourage to work with me if she decided to become licensed.

I suggest that, rather than putting an ad in the paper, you consider turning one of these individuals into your next assistant. I’ve taken that route three out of five times (by approaching them after the transaction closed, and asking if they’d be interested in working part time and learning the ropes). It’s worked well for me.  
3. Invest in Training
Training may add to your already-heavy workload, but without it there’s no reason to start looking for an assistant. I’d say that I spend a solid month training every new assistant, with follow-up training handled on an as-needed basis. I start by showing trainees how I handle important tasks such as filing, and I train them on the color-coded file system. I encourage autonomy by allowing them to set up their own system, if they feel it will work better for them, but I always make sure that it syncs with my own approach.

I pay an expert to get my new assistants up to speed on Top Producer, which I use for customer relationship management. This makes more sense than my sitting in the office for hours on end trying to impart that knowledge.

During the training period, I begin delegating specific tasks to my new assistant, who in exchange for an hourly salary plus a bonus for every closed transaction, comes out of the training period ready to input data into the MLS, handle listing brochures, call sales associates for feedback, create weekly reports for sellers, make up ads, and process listings and sales contracts from concept to completion (including inspection arrangements, title company work, and all phone calls and paperwork associated with the listing or contract).
4. Create a Flexible Schedule
The assistants I’ve worked with are usually looking for flexible schedules that allow them to have a life outside real estate, and I respect that by offering hours within the 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. range, with room for variability when needed. This is a perfect setup for a feast-or-famine business like real estate. When there’s a lull in my business, I’ll cut their hours down to four days a week until things pick up again. And, if I have several deals ready to close and more on the way, Anita may work later in the day—or on a Saturday—to catch up. Her loyalty and dedication are priceless.

The idea is to set up an arrangement through which both you and your assistant(s) are productive and happy without being overworked.

Looking back, I realize that I should’ve hired help sooner in my career. The stress relief has been benefit enough. When I go out on listing appointments, I use my assistant as a selling point (by, say, letting sellers know that I have someone on hand who will restock their fliers and handle their phone requests on the spot), and I can be confident that someone is always there to pick up the slack.

What are you waiting for? Hire an assistant. Don’t make my mistake and wait until it’s almost too late.

Dixie Taylor is a sales associate with Keller Williams Heritage Realty in Altamonte Springs.