My Mentor Told Me

Editor’s note: This column is an ongoing series of vignettes recalling the sage counsel and advice received by SEC members and candidates from their mentors that have made a difference in the way they do business. Please feel free to jump in and tell us how your mentor changed your business life. Send your insights to Bill Stonaker at

Why two ears and only one mouth?

God gave you two ears. They are for listening. God gave you one mouth. It is for talking. Why do you think He gave you double the ears? Maybe you should listen twice as much as you talk.

This must have been some old Chinese proverb or something. But it is so true.

-Bill Stonaker, S.E.C.,

A salesman needs to be liked, a counselor likes to be needed.

My real estate training, before I took the six-day exchange course in the mid-1970s, was that of a real estate “salesman.” I attended the popular seminars, read books, watched videos, and learned how to convince people, to overcome objections, and learned the tricks of the salesman trade to get customers to do what I wanted them to do, to list or to buy. However, I have never possessed the outgoing, people-pleasing personality that most successful salesman seem to acquire at birth. The role of a salesman was never right for me. It fit me like a bad suit. Furthermore, my training before real estate was that of an aerospace engineer, a role much better suited to my personality. I was also concerned that my 20 years of experience in math, critical analysis, and problem solving was being wasted in my uncomfortable pursuit of real estate sales.

Then, I attended the exchange course offered by Jim Brondino, and five other top-notch instructors. In that class, one of the sessions was focused on the difference between a salesman and a counselor. One point really hit home with me. They brought to our attention that the personality of a successful salesperson is unique in that they are very people-oriented and typically have a physiological need to be liked by others. They also discussed the fact that people who counsel for a living are often more analytical, less people oriented, and are more inclined to feel comfortable when others have a genuine need their services. The instructor summarized by saying, a salesman needs to be liked, a counselor likes to be needed.

Wow, for me, right on! Not only were they giving me valuable, money-saving information vitally needed by clients, they were providing me with access to a special marketplace that was also needed by clients. Moreover, they were telling me that I no longer had to play the role of salesman! Since that moment, I have always thought of myself as a counselor, never as a salesman.

-Virgil Opfer, S.E.C.

Listen, pause, listen!

When working with a client, always listen to what the client says. Don’t try to impress him with what you know. Once you know what he knows, you can counsel with knowledge.

When a client interrupts you, stop and listen. Pause. Let him get it all out. When he interrupts you again, pause again. Sooner or later, he will listen to what you have to say.

Many times clients are emotional about their real estate decisions. They take it personally. Did they “win” or “fail” when they acquired the property you are working on? Let them exhaust their emotions before trying to guide them.

From the old CCIM 104 Course (since canceled) Computers can’t teach us things like this!

-Bill Stonaker, S.E.C., CCIM

Jack of all trades, master of none.

Early in my career, a broker friend observed that my company had a residential division, a syndication division, a property management division, and I was just getting started in the exchange field. One day, he asked me how I expected to be proficient in all of these arenas when I was competing with experts who had limited themselves to only one field. My naïve answer was that there are clients out there who need these services and why shouldn’t my company try to provide them all. In the next few years, I discovered that he was right. I dropped the residential offices, eliminated the property management services, assigned part of the partnership management to a partner and concentrated on tax-deferred exchanges. I tried to learn as much about the equity marketplace as I could. I stopped trying to be all things to all people. I learned that I could be more successful, make more money, and have more leisure time if I concentrated on one thing that I was passionate about.

-Virgil Opfer, S.E.C.

He who cares least wins.

In a class on negotiations presented years ago by Dan Harrison, he made a strong impression on me with the simple words, “He who cares least wins.” He was referring to the fact that in any negotiations, it is usually true that the party with the least at stake who has the physiological advantage. Therefore, if you are acquiring a property, don’t fall in love with it until after all of the negotiations are over. Tipping your hand to the seller that you really need or love the property gives the seller the top cards. On the other hand, if you are the seller, you need to avoid the appearance of any urgency to sell.

One of the most difficult negotiations is when the buyer is under the time pressure of a delayed exchange, the escrow has closed, and the 45-day clock is ticking. Many buyers in this situation often feel that their “cash is king” and their cash (held by an accommodator) can command a discount from the seller of the replacement property. After all, the buyer probably grudgingly conceded a discount when he sold his relinquished property for cash. However, knowledgeable sellers understand that the time constraints imposed by the tax code tip the power to the seller’s side of the negotiating table, so try to avoid disclosing the buyer’s requirement to acquire a replacement property until it is absolutely necessary.

-Virgil Opfer, S.E.C.

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