By: Jim Shettles
|There's an adage that you can't change a
first impression, and real estate agent Chet Whitsitt doesn't mind
if the first impression of one of his advertisements is laughter
-- he just hopes people remember his name.
In his 20-year career, the native
Memphian can boast sales exceeding $150 million. Since 1985 he's
where he's consistently ranked among the top five of the
firm's 1,500-plus agents. He contributes much of this
success to his offbeat advertising strategy.
Whitsitt's an independent contractor,
exchanging a cut of his commission for office space, support
services and Crye-Leike's name recognition. However, for all
practical purposes, he's self-employed and knew he had to raise
his own name recognition.
"About 10 years ago I decided I needed to
stand out from the pack ... My sales never took off until I
started investing in my business. You have be willing to spend
money to make money," he says.
Whitsitt's quest for name recognition
began with an idea that seems basic enough but was an industry
innovation at the time. He decided to have a metal plaque created
bearing his face's image to hang on "For Sale" yard signs.
"I was the first person in the
country to do this.I tried to patent it but couldn't
establish my claim. Just having a face to attach to my name helped
me tremendously," he says.
Whitsitt has no marketing background and
has never used an ad agency. He's on a non-stop hunt for any idea,
joke, expression or trend he might incorporate into his material
and doesn't mind asking permission to use something.
"Next I came up with a logo thanks to a
supervisor at the agency that had a habit of saying, `check with
Chet' all the time. I combined that phrase with a check-mark
because I want folks to check with me when they have a real estate
need -- it was perfect," he says.
The humorous ads began with an idea from
his family's background in the cotton business. He wanted to
create a mailout with a picture of him standing in a cotton field
with a caption, "outstanding in his field." Cotton was
out-of-season so he stood in a football field instead.
Whitsitt mails a blitz of material to
past, current and potential customers. Most of them combine his
posed photo and some phrase to make a pun. Some are quite funny
while others are so hokey they can elicit a cringe.
His most successful campaign, an annual
Halloween card, has taken on its own life. A few years ago he
attached his face to drawings in costumes and asked the recipients
to vote for a favorite. Characters included "Air Chet" on a
Michael Jordan torso, a skeleton for "Phen-Fen Chet" and he donned
a notorious beret and hairstyle for "Monica LeWHITsey."
"People liked it so much they started
doodling some costume or idea drawings and sending them in," he
says. "Now we run a contest, I have thousands of them, I printed
several "Best of Chet" costume ads last year."
He runs ads in local publications and
makes extensive use of merchandising gifts, whether he's handing a
personalized memo pad to an employee at a drive-through or sending
fairly elaborate gifts to customers he's just dealt with.
He's managed to garnish some free
publicity thanks to one gimmick -- distributing bushel-size bags
of popcorn bearing his face and the line "Chet's popping up
everywhere." A couple of radio station morning shows have
discussed, or "dissed" Whitsitt's promotional tactics, even joking
on-air with him.
FedEx's Global Sales Department
named him "Zaniest Marketer of the Year" with a couple of
executives awarding him a plaque at Crye-Leike. The congratulatory
letter admitted that he was asked to submit material for the
purpose of "picking his brain."
Marketing attracts customers to Whitsitt,
but he quickly credits his two co-workers, both licensed agents,
with giving him the ability to take care of business. He's been
with personal assistant Janice Benson for eight years and worked
in partnership with his wife, Judy, for more than 11 years.
"I'm probably the only agent in Memphis
lucky enough to have someone as knowledgeable as Janice working
with me," he says. "She can handle any complex problem that a
customer might be experiencing. Closing a real estate deal is very
complicated, the clients need help -- Janice can take care of
anything our clients need.
"Judy was working at a different
Crye-Leike office when we met. Soon we began working as a team and
then wed. We sell more together than our combined figures would be
working separately," he says.
Judy Whitsitt agrees "three heads are
better than one."
"You can't be in more than one place, or
speak to more than one person at a time," Judy Whitsitt says. "The
three of us are interchangeable -- they're customers for all of
us. Chet and I work together; if we're showing a listing and get a
phone call, one of us continues with our in-person client and the
other handles the call. It's much better than working alone."
Whitsitt began his marketing campaign to
attract new customers, but now referrals are the key to his
business. Attracting attention through silliness is fine but a
home purchase is the greatest investment most people ever make and
he doesn't take customer service lightly.
"I'd never advise one to do something I
wouldn't advise my parents to do or do myself," he says. "A
satisfied customer is very important even if we never do business
again. I want everyone to recommend me to their acquaintances."
He uses a questionnaire to create an info
data bank on a customer's family and keep in touch with them. Even
the family pet receives a birthday card. He uses mail outs to
create a long-lasting relationship whether for a future
transaction or more importantly, a referral.
Karen Smith recently had Whitsitt sell
her Collierville home and then purchased a new home from a
developer in Sterling Square. She trusted Whitsitt, so she hired
him to handle the purchase.
"He's a unique salesman because he's a
good listener. He was never negative about anything and displayed
great professionalism by not finding fault or putting anybody
down," she says.