Feature: Feet on the Street

Written by Jessica Guerin, as originally published in The Reverse Review.

They work with their feet on the street, their boots to the ground, pounding the pavement. They eschew the modern call center model, the Internet lead search, the impersonal direct-mail approach. They are old-school reverse mortgage originators.

Actively engaging seniors in their local communities, these originators prefer to sit down to discuss the loan face to face at the kitchen table. They build their books of business by connecting with people in person, cultivating strong referral bases through years of hard-earned trust.

Feet-on-the-street originators have been helping seniors with reverse mortgage loans since the program’s inception. Although other sales models have developed over the years, thousands of professionals nationwide continue to embrace this traditional approach and many have found notable success with this method.

The HECM program has undergone substantial change in the last several years and the market environment has been rocky for many as they work to reconcile their business models with shifts in the regulatory landscape. But for those working out in the field, the day-to-day business of selling HECM loans remains largely consistent. For these originators, the mission is simply to get out and talk to as many seniors as possible who might benefit from the loan, educating them and working together to determine if a reverse mortgage could be the solution to their problems.

Spreading the Word Feet-on-the-street originators work hard to educate people about reverse mortgages in their communities—visiting senior centers, attending open houses, meeting with financial advisors and connecting with local attorneys.

Jon Maiolatesi of 1st Financial Reverse Mortgages in Michigan has been originating HECM loans for 11 years. He says he’s tried multiple avenues in the span of his career to connect with potential clients. “I’ve done a little bit of everything, from direct marketing to just walking and talking,” Maiolatesi says. “What seems to be working the most these days is just getting out and talking with people in the community, whether it’s with financial advisors or other people who influence our seniors.”

Don Graves, who has been originating loans for 14 years in the greater Philadelphia area, says he grew his customer base through a radio show he did about reverse mortgage loans. For four years, Graves offered advice about the loan to listeners in four states. “I developed a lot of name recognition through that,” he says.

Graves says he has helped 2,300 clients take reverse mortgages in the span of his career, but has talked with thousands more who decided the loan wasn’t the right fit for them. He says he typically begins a conversation with a potential borrower by pointing out this fact. “I’ll say, ‘What that tells us is that, while a reverse mortgage is good for many people, we know it’s not always the right thing. I’d like to ask you a few questions, listen to your answers, briefly explain the program, and together you and I can determine what the most appropriate next steps will be.’”

Monte Rose of HighTechLending has been working in the industry for 23 years. He says he focuses on developing relationships with professionals who work with seniors rather than the seniors themselves. “I don’t try to connect with seniors at all; I try to connect with the people who connect with seniors,” Rose says. “My referral sources are primarily Realtors, elder law professionals and escrow companies.”

The Value of Referrals However they gather business, most feet-on-the-streeters will agree that at the end of the day, it’s all about referrals. Maiolatesi says most of his business comes from “warm referrals.” “For example, a financial planner [whom a client] has known for years will say, ‘Jon’s a good guy. I’ve known him for years and you can trust him.’”

Graves says his business is also based on referrals and that the model thrives on accountability. “If I mess this up, your attorney will never send me business again. So, I’ve got to be accountable. That’s how it works.”

Graves also says originators need to be careful in how they approach potential referral partners. “If I’m going in there with my hand out, like, ‘Gimme, gimme,’ they’re going to see through that. You’ve got to be building some synergy. I ask, ‘How can I serve your business? What can I do to help you? This HECM may be a resource for you,’” he says. “You’ve got to be willing to serve your partners.”

Colleen Moore of Golden Equity Mortgage in San Diego agrees. “You have to be willing to offer them information,” says Moore, whose business is also built on a strong referral base. “You don’t walk in with your hand out and say, ‘Give me leads.’ You walk in and say, ‘I’d like to share with you some information, give you some education that may in fact be useful for you to expand your business.’ If you use that approach, everything changes. Now they want to talk to you.”

Moore says she advises her team to attend open houses and talk to Realtors, and she stresses the importance of broaching the conversation from the Realtor’s perspective. “I’ll say, ‘Have you ever had somebody who was turned down for a loan because they couldn’t income quality? Have you ever had somebody who was turned down for a loan because of poor credit? … Well, that’s why this is an important tool!” She adds that if you offer potential referral partners information useful to their business, they’ll be much more willing to listen. “Every single time, they’ll take the education. You create the education and you create the relationship.”

“I tell every one of my originators, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask questions and educate,’” Moore says. “We’ve got to break the mold of the old reverse mortgage originator taking calls from the call center and doing the deal. Those are all pretty much needs-based clients. We have got to expand out with the new program.”

Moore says learning to connect with referral partners is essential to finding success as a feet-on-the-street originator. “If you want to do a huge business that will stand through every kind of market, then build your referral base. When you get your first referral from a Realtor, a financial advisor or an estate attorney, you’ll say, ‘Man, I never want to go back!’ Because you don’t have the six-month or one-year process. They come in knowing this is what they’re supposed to do, and you do it,” she says. “If you want to be a feet-on-the-street originator, you’ve got to learn that side of the business.”

Educate, Don’t Sell Many in the industry also say that a good originator knows that it’s not about selling the product; it’s about educating the client. If a HECM is the right fit for the senior, the product will sell itself.

Maiolatesi says he always approaches clients in this way. “A lot of what I do isn’t necessarily selling. A lot of it is just explaining how a reverse mortgage works and seeing what they need it for. I’m always asking what is the reason that they’re looking into a reverse mortgage rather than going right into a sales pitch,” he says. “It’s important to try to figure out what exactly the consumer’s need is before we go any further. Sometimes they may not even need it. There are a lot of people I talk to and it’s just not the right product for them and we stop it right there.”

Moore says understanding the senior’s needs is key. “When you’re a feet-on-the-street originator, you need to be diagnostic. You need to say, ‘OK, tell me where you’re trying to go and I’ll think of some of the best ways to get you there,’” she says. “You want to find out what they are trying to accomplish and if you can meet those needs, you don’t have to sell them. They’re going to want what you have to offer because you’re solving their problem.”

“My belief is that one of the best ways to get business is to educate,” Moore says. “Don’t sell people; educate them.”

Building Trust Face to Face A huge advantage to doing business in your local community is getting to meet with potential clients face to face. By sitting down and discussing the loan in person, many originators say they can get a better understanding of their clients’ needs and can build a deeper, stronger relationship, dispelling any sense of mistrust.

Maiolatesi says he meets most of his clients in person and that it’s much easier to quell suspicions that way. “After meeting you face to face, they realize that you’re OK, you do know what you’re talking about, you’re real and you’re passionate about what you do. It’s amazing how [their impression] will switch, and I just don’t think you get the same reaction over the phone or by mail or through the Internet…. Nothing works better than a face-to-face conversation with prospective borrowers, financial planners, Realtors or any other possible source of business.”

Maiolatesi also says it’s easier to read clients when you’re sitting across the table from them. “A lot of times they may have questions but don’t speak up. You may have to look at their faces or read their gestures to know that they may not understand something you’ve explained.”

Graves says originators have a better chance of developing a referral-worthy connection when they can meet with a client in person. “The value of the kitchen table is that you’ve developed a solid relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Jones,” he says. “You stand to gain much, much more in terms of that person introducing you to friends if you’ve sat with them, if you’ve engaged them at a deeper level and asked meaningful, thought-provoking questions, if you’ve listened to their answers and built something that’s going to make sense for them.”

Moore says sitting down with clients in their homes and talking with them face to face keeps originators connected to the product and the deeply personal implications it has for many clients. Being in their homes allows you to see firsthand how much they stand to benefit from a HECM. “It keeps you involved in the real beauty of this product,” she says, adding that this is especially true for clients who are experiencing hardship. “The needs-based client is an amazing [heartfelt] transaction. It feels great when you’re helping someone who is really struggling.”

Another benefit to meeting in the client’s home is the ability to let other family members sit in on the conversation. “A good portion of our clients bring their children with them, and it might be because I often ask them to,” Maiolatesi says. “I will typically ask the borrower if they have a family member who they’d like to have there or a child who is going to be involved in the process to some degree. I always invite more people to sit down at the education [stage], because the more people I can talk to, the fewer questions that they may have [for the borrower]… If the children aren’t there and the parents are trying to explain it to them after the fact, there might be something lost in translation. Whereas if we’re all sitting there right in front of each other, we can all make sure that everybody understands everything that’s going on with the loan.”

A Challenge With Great Reward While there are many seasoned professionals out there who have found great success originating loans on the street, this sales model is not for everyone. Most will agree that approaching business in this way requires a certain type of personality.

“You have to enjoy people,” Graves says, adding that the job is multifaceted. “I’ve always thought the originator wears three hats: you’re part banker, you’re part social worker and you’re part educator… You’re educating and you’re listening to their stories and then you’re doing the numbers.”

Graves says the job is unique in this sense and requires a good deal of patience. “It’s a slow place, there can be a long turnaround.” To know if this type of work is right for you, Graves says you need to look inward. “You need to determine what your sales DNA is.”

Rose agrees that patience is part of the job. “You have to have staying power. You have to be able to afford to invest in the relationship before it bears fruit, meaning that you have to have enough money to wait it out. You have to be the kind of person who nurtures the relationship by adding value to the referral source’s business.”

Moore says it takes a certain kind of person to find success in this line of work. “It does require a specific social style,” she says. “You have to have capacity to really understand the loan and not be so shy that you’re afraid to talk to people.”

Moore also says these kinds of originators need to be skilled at overcoming people’s skepticism. When people scoff at the product or question its integrity, she says it’s important to respond in a relatable way, broaching it from the skeptic’s perspective. “The minute you climb on that side of the fence with them, they drop it down. Don’t get defensive. Don’t try to defend the product, don’t do it. Climb on their side of the fence and they’re going to be more willing to listen to what is real.”

Those who have found success in this business model will say that if you can rise to the challenge, the payoff is great.

“It is the best way to insulate yourself from any corporate noise that might arise,” Rose says. “You’re building a foundation that will feed you business.”

Graves echoes this sentiment. “You’re building high-trust, deep, intimate, real relationships. That’s going to be dependable and that’s also going to be portable.” Graves has worked for many companies in his 14 years in the industry, including Financial Freedom and MetLife. When these companies shut down their reverse channels, he was able to move on successfully with his book of business in tact.

Finding Success In order to succeed in this business model, seasoned originators say reverse professionals need to continue to educate themselves about the product and be willing to work hard.

“Learn the product in and out. Read everything, learn everything, educate,” Moore says. “And get mentored. I think mentoring by a seasoned originator is huge and I teach it and preach it. It’s a big deal.”

Maiolatesi says one tip for success is being diligent about communicating. “I would tell any loan officer to make sure that you are making new contacts and following up with old ones every day. In the reverse mortgage industry, if you are out of sight, you are out of mind.”

Rose agrees. “You have to call on more people than anybody wants to admit you have to call on to get a real class-A source. So the obstacle is persistence on the salesperson’s part. You have to stay after it. You have to maintain contact so that you’re more top of mind than not… The salespeople who are active will make it, even if they’re not all that skilled yet,” he says. “You have to lay bricks every single day.”

It’s also helpful to be optimistic. Despite recent program changes, this is a great product that can help lots of people. Believing in that message and sharing it with potential clients will help propel your business. As Moore says, “I’m a glass-is-half-full person. I think if you’re feet-on-the-street, you’d better be. If you’re not excited about your product, no one will be.”

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