By Esther Muller

The Real Deal
January, 2005

Last month’s column discussed planning for an assistant. Once you’ve decided you need one, it’s important to conduct a search with a plan behind it, or you may find yourself adding to your problems instead of alleviating them with capable help.

Starting a search for someone who can provide top-drawer support is often the toughest step, and the question that I’m most often asked is, “Where do I look for an assistant?”

My recommendation is to recruit from real estate licensing schools. The market is flooded with bright, new aspirants who are eager to put their recently learned skills to real-world use. It’s win-win for both sides: novices have the opportunity to work with and learn from an established agent while brokers will get licensed salespeople who can take on a broad range of responsibilities.

The best opportunities often go to people who don’t wait to be called. Ervin Hechavarria, who now works for Prudential Douglas Elliman, scoured the Web sites of top brokerage firms when he was moving to New York from Washington, D.C. He focused on top brokers and approached the ones with whom he wanted to work. Ervin is now with the Heddings Property Group, a unit of the larger firm. “I liked his gumption,” says Douglas Heddings, managing director.

Like other job applicants, Hechavarria went through the interview process before he was hired. Every broker has a specific trait he is looking for. Alan Pfeifer, a vice president at Halstead Property, seeks out those with business backgrounds. Lorraine Weiss of Prudential Douglas Elliman wants someone who is “super organized [and] very into details.” Outline the skills and job requirements that are most important to you and work from that list as you meet applicants.

Prepare for the interview process the same way you would for a pitch — with a singular focus. Develop a list of questions. Here are some suggestions:

§ Why are you interested in real estate? This position?

§ What do you hope to gain from this experience?

§ What do you expect from me?

§ Where do you see yourself in 12 months?

The answers will give you insight into the person’s career aspirations and expectations.

The interview will also reveal some important business attributes, such as the person’s professional manner, his conversation skills and his ability to perform under pressure. It’s also an opportunity to determine if you and the candidate can work well together. “I want to make sure that the chemistry is right before I make a final decision,” says Pfeifer.

Working with an assistant can be a rewarding experience, unless, of course, it’s not. The stress level in this industry can be high. Don’t take out the day’s frustrations on your staff, who may give less of themselves and take a less enthusiastic view of the business.

Treat them with respect and “give them time to adjust to their new responsibilities,” says Jeffrey Rothstein, a Prudential Douglas Elliman executive vice president and director of sales. Make them feel like they are part of the team. As Hechavarria says, “I have a deep sense of ownership” regarding his team and their work. That pride and loyalty is priceless.

But what happens if the employer-employee relationship doesn’t work out? “Terminating someone is not easy,” admits Pfeifer. “I try to make it a gentle and understanding process. No one goes into a relationship thinking that it will not succeed. When failure happens, it’s upsetting for all involved parties.” Go to your Human Resources Department for guidance. It’s important to know and follow the proper legal procedure if you need to let your assistant go.

You now have what you need to plan for, hire and work with an assistant. Good luck!

Ms. Muller is president and CEO of Esther Muller Consultants.