In 1999 Tina Mitchell was at a crossroads with her professional life. She was a successful hotel industry manager but was ready for a change and had two completely different options to consider: a wine distributorship or the lending industry.
Mitchell opted for mortgage lending and after 3 ½ years as a loan originator, she is confident it was the right choice. Last year she closed $66.8 million and 454 loans for Wells Fargo Mortgage in Bellevue, Wash.
Prior to embarking on her lending career, Mitchell had been a food and beverage manager at a Holiday Inn for several years. She enjoyed the work, but when the hotel was sold to a larger chain, she felt it was time for a move. “I wanted to make sure my new career provided me with greater control over my financial success,” she said.
After careful evaluation of her two options, Mitchell went to work for a Bellevue mortgage brokerage. Her initial focus was on generating Realtor business. “The first thing I did was go next door to the Realtor office,” she noted. “I introduced myself and offered to talk about new loan programs to the agents.”
Mitchell, 34, also did something that many originators ignore: she asked for the broker’s advice on how best to develop relationships with the agents. “I wanted to know how I could assist the agents to establish rapport. One thing she suggested was to visit agents during their floor time. I did that and brought cookies, which was well received.”
Mitchell’s hotel experience provided her with another idea, hosting an espresso bar at Realtor offices. She hired a company to set up the portable refreshment stand outside of the offices, after the real estate agents’ meetings were over. “This was an ideal time because we caught them as they were leaving their weekly meeting and going to their listings. It was very popular and was basically how I obtained my first quality circle of real estate agents.”
In a further effort to expand her leads, Mitchell began holding weekly first-time borrower seminars with a ReMAX agent in 2000. They use telemarketing to reach prospects and hold the seminars at libraries, schools, and other public locations. Mitchell concludes her presentation on the basics of homeownership by encouraging attendees to join her for an individual consultation. “We typically average 30 prospects and about 40 percent of the participants are referred by previous attendees. They’ll go back to their office and tell others about the how helpful the seminar was.”
The seminars have become a major source of business for Mitchell; last year they accounted for approximately 60 percent of her production. She emphasized that this amount will gradually decrease as her referral network continues to expand and she relies less on new leads. “I’m constantly building my database which will add to my referral network and eventually I’ll have to do very few seminars.”
During her first year as an originator Mitchell was already developing a solid base of business, but a turning point came in 2000 when she began to automate her customer contact system. She attended a conference where speakers emphasized the importance of an organized database and unlike many originators who find it difficult to implement newly learned strategies, Mitchell wasted no time in creating her own system. She selected Top Producer, a real estate software program that enables her to personalize her customer/prospect database with loan details, birthdays, anniversaries, and other essential information. The program is designed to provide a daily list of everyone who is to receive a letter or card. All Mitchell’s assistant has to do is pull up the list on her computer screen, select the print option, and wait a few minutes for the day’s personalized mailers to be prepared, ready for folding and enclosing in an envelope. With this system in place, Mitchell was able to significantly expand her customer communications program, which now includes:
- A series of 10 different letters that address various issues of the loan transaction, including specific terms, closing costs, and interest rates. The letters are sent every two weeks starting just after their application. “My goal is to educate them and make it less stressful,” she explained. “I’ve found that by the time they get to closing, they are comfortable with the entire process.”
- Special letters, for example those sent during last year’s heavy refinance period. Mitchell developed two versions of a refinance letter; one aimed at homeowners whose current loan/rate made them less likely to warrant a refinance, and another for customers who could benefit from a refi. “The customers who had a loan that wasn’t right to refinance appreciated the letter because they had received mailers telling them they should refinance and they had questions. They knew that we were thinking of their interests.”
- Anniversary cards sent after the borrower has been in their new home for a month, six months, and a year, and annually thereafter.
- Holiday card sent between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- Birthday cards for customers and their children.
- Thank-you cards to acknowledge past customers’ referrals.
- Monthly newsletters to both past customers and referral sources. “It lets customers see my face every month and maintains general visibility, which is so vital,” she said.
“Everything is automated now, what a client gets depends on their place in system, whether or not they have attended a seminar, for instance. I’m convinced that a number of loans would have slipped through the cracks if we hadn’t been automated. I strongly suggest that other originators do something similar.”
Mitchell is continually monitoring the response to her customer database program. “I make an effort to treat every contact as a prospect. If we don’t meet or take an application after 10 weeks of marketing, we put their names into an inactive status. However, I never stop marketing to past customers.”
In addition, Mitchell calls her customers one week after closing and then on an annual basis. She has recorded a series of messages and each day the automated program lists those customers who are to be called. For example, the annual message starts with the greeting “It’s been a year and I wanted to touch base and see how you are doing.” Her assistant merely has to e-mail Eppoffect (their outsourced service) instructions for the specific message and the day/time the calls are to be made. “I’ve only been in the business for four years, but I already have too many people to call myself,” she said. “That’s why the automated system and outsourcing works so well.”
Mitchell is always on the lookout for new ideas to incorporate into her program. “I have a wish list, with a lot of things I want to add,” she said. “However, I only work on one new thing at a time; you can get bogged down if you try to do too many things at once.”
Mitchell credits her support team with making it possible to coordinate the diverse origination techniques and day-to-day operations. “Team Mitchell” includes Torinda Ray, executive assistant; Heidi Harris, loan assistant; and Susie Monroe, processor. “There’s no way I could do the volume without their invaluable assistance,” she said. “Having them handle the many administrative and related tasks allows me to focus on working directly with customers.”
She includes “Team Mitchell” in all communications materials and introduces the support staff to agents and other referral sources. “It’s a strong selling point,” said Mitchell. “Agents and others know that if they can’t reach me, one of the team is always available.”
The team has developed a time-efficient approach that enabled them to close 316 loans last year. They first fax or e-mail a condensed 1003 form that the borrower completes so that Harris can obtain any additional information and complete the full application. While Mitchell doesn’t actually take the applications herself, she has contact with all customers on at least two occasions: the face-to-face meeting when loan options are discussed and the subsequent phone conversation when the borrower advises that he or she has made an offer on a home. By conserving her time in this manner, Mitchell can focus on getting to know the customer better and plant the seeds for long-term loyalty. “Because I don’t have to worry about the paperwork as much, I can spend more quality time with customers and learn about their needs. This also helps us achieve greater overall production.”
Mitchell modifies her voice mail message five times a day to reflect her changing schedule, letting callers know that she or an assistant will respond as soon as possible. “For example, that way they know that the reason I’m not calling them back right away is that I’m in a two hour meeting,” she noted.
She has also developed telephone scripts as a way to ensure that the team members communicate with customers and prospects in a consistent manner. The scripts cover such common topics as interest rates, appointment scheduling, and tax benefits of homeownership. “The scripts help ensure that the caller is getting the same complete answer every time and that overall everything runs smoother.”
In her nearly four years as an originator, Mitchell has had an opportunity to observe the work habits and characteristics of other top producers. She is adamant that having some type of assistance is critical. “You’ve got to have a team to get to a higher level. You have to be willing to invest your own resources if necessary, to build your team,” she stressed.
She also emphasized the importance of “working smarter. Part of this involves focusing on the money-producing activities,” she said. “This is hard to do at first, but it’s a critical element. Originators often devote too much time to operational and other areas that don’t contribute to bottom line loan generation.”
In addition, she is a proponent of the “One Timing” concept. This essentially means that it is much more efficient to create a model of a task so that it can be repeated without having to follow the same series of actions. She cited the example of the refinance letter strategy she introduced last year. Rather than be inundated with calls from past customers who weren’t suitable for a refi, she sent them all the same letter that answered most of their questions. That one action eliminated many unnecessary calls and gave her additional time for more productive work.
Mitchell has a good grasp of what makes a successful loan originator. She continues to be goal oriented as she looks ahead to the next few years. She said she is on track to do about the same production as 2001; this year most of it is purchase business. Her short-term goals include developing a personal Web site in conjunction with Wells Fargo and a videotape that will explain the closing process. “This will be a great educational tool that we will send to borrowers,” she said. “It will also introduce them to our team.”
On a long-term basis, she would like to hire an associate originator, allowing her to concentrate on maintaining relationships with past customers. Meanwhile, she looks forward to each day as an originator. “I love what I’m doing,” she emphasized. “When I started I had no idea how much pleasure I would get by helping people achieve their goal of homeownership. My career move turned out to be such a blessing.”
Tina Mitchell offers the following tips for developing an effective seminar program.
1. Conduct the seminar with a partner, a real estate agent for example.
2. Establish detailed, “how to” content that will provide attendees with all of the basic information they need.
3. Make sure your program is appropriate for customers with different economic positions and interests.
4. Strive to have a consultation with as many attendees as possible on the seminar day.
5. Maintain a comprehensive database of all participants.
6. Follow through so that you convert seminar attendees to customers.
7. You also want to make sure that those who are unable to attend one seminar will eventually attend another.