The Real Estate Dish: 20 Minutes with Hassan Riggs of Smart Alto
Join QuantumDigital’s EVP and CMO Eric Cosway as he gets the latest dish on real estate trends and technology with Hassan Riggs, Founder and CEO of Smart Alto. Smart Alto is a text messaging platform that responds to new real estate leads and past customers within 2 minutes. Smart Alto’s technology qualifies, nurtures and sets appointments, allowing agents to focus on what they normally do best.
Eric: Hassan, welcome to the podcast.
Hassan: Hey, thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Eric: I wonder if you can give us a brief overview of your background and your current role as CEO of Smart Alto.
Hassan: I’m originally from Birmingham, Alabama. I went to the University of Alabama, so “roll tide.” Just wanted to sneak that in there for a second. Really happy about our football team. But, really early in my career, I was an inside sales agent. And so, I know how hard it is to send the text messages, emails, telephone calls to set appointments for some of the top agents in a brokerage. It’s a really difficult job. It’s extremely hard and thankless. And I did that for a while, and really kind of cut my teeth in the industry, and then went on to have other outside sales roles in the pharmaceutical industry, and did marketing, and digital marketing, for large companies like Hilton, and Abbott, etc. And, also got my graduate degree from Columbia University in the city of New York. And, right before I started Smart Alto, I was actually working in marketing at Hilton, and I said, “I know that earlier in my career, we had this really big problem with qualifying these leads, and getting them over to agents, setting appointments.” I knew it was a big opportunity there, and I wanted to kind of step out and solve that big problem.
Eric: And, you know what? I’ll tell you your sales background served you well in inside sales. I really respect that role, because you start to understand the gaps that are there. So, the virtual assistants, these are real people handling the text messages back and forth, and the nurturing communications. Is that correct?
Hassan: Yeah, that’s right. We’ve got real people who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And, their only job is to convert real estate leads into quality appointments. And that’s what they do. They love doing it. You know?
Eric: When you’re looking at someone fulfilling that role, kind of behind the scenes and going through texting, is there a certain attribute when you’re hiring in these virtual manager roles?
Hassan: Yeah, there’s a couple of things that you need—A) you need someone who just has grit. Right? Because, you know, even today a lot of agents—most agents, I would say—they have never actually done the inside sales agent role. Most of the time, they’re like “You know what? I know someone who is an agent, seems like they’re doing pretty well. I see how it is. I know real estate. I can sell homes.” They kind of jump into the agent role without actually ever doing the inside sales agent role. That role, there are two different skills. Most of the clients, before they start working with us, they’re part inside sales agent because, you know, they’re setting appointments for themselves. But then, they’re also part real estate sales professional because they have client-facing responsibilities. And so, those are two different roles with two different skill sets. And so, you need the person to have grit and persistence, and then some sales skills, which we can teach. But you know, one of the things we can’t teach is hard work. We can’t teach that. And so, that’s one of the qualities that we look for, most importantly. But then, I think the thing that really drives the entire role forward is what I like to call “E-math.” And “E” stands for “emotional intelligence.” And, in this role, when you’re in real estate sales, and being in the ISA, the thing that really separates the good from the great is the level of emotional intelligence that they have. And I say, all the time, “Your ‘EQ’ in this business needs to be greater than your IQ.” Because your EQ is where all the money is made. It’s where all the value is built. Because you’re dealing with real people, real humans, who have human needs, and you’re trying to better understand their needs, wants, motivations, and expectations. And so, we do a lot of training on EQ and helping to raise that level of emotional intelligence, because it’s what drives the entire conversation forward.
Eric: You know, I tell you, that makes perfect sense. So, what got you started within the real estate industry?
Hassan: When I was growing up—my mom is a pharmacist, my dad is a doctor—I went to college, and I thought I was going to be a heart surgeon. And I got there, and I was like, “Crap. You know, I’m pretty good at math. I’m pretty decent at science. But that’s not what I want to do with my life.” And, as I was in college, like most people I was trying to figure it out, and I was trying to get as much valuable experience as I could. And, when you’re a young person, it’s really good to start off in a client-facing role. Because, in most roles in corporate America today, you can get hired because of your analytical ability, but you get promoted because of your emotional intelligence, your ability to deal with people. Right? Because, as you grow up, human relationships become really important. So I wanted to get some skills really early in my career in sales. I knew that, and so I started with the inside sales position in real estate.
Eric: So I know that Smart Alto is part of your life, but when I talked to you before, you have, obviously, a full life. Tell the audience about the work you do. You do a lot of work around literacy and education. That’s a pretty interesting area. Can you give us some insight on that?
Hassan: Growing up—I’m going to be very open and share some things about my life—when I was growing up, I had a very difficult time speaking, actually. So I was in—this is, you know, back in the early 80s—I used to stutter really, really badly. So badly to the point to where they put me in special education classes. Because they weren’t quite sure… did I have a learning disability, or was it just I could not articulate myself properly. And so they didn’t quite know what to do with me, and they put me in special education classes. And, at that time, I realized just this big deficit in early childhood education. And I’ve always been an avid reader, and I truly believe that, you know, reading and literacy is the gateway to the world. If you learn how to read at an early age, if you learn how to learn, then you can really open up different opportunities for yourself, and others who you care about. And so, I’ve dedicated a good portion of my time to working with young people, helping them read, helping them learn from some of the greats… contemporaries, also folks who are just very well versed in a specific discipline. So, whether it’s mathematics, which is something I like to read about, leadership is another kind of topic, marketing… we read all different types of things, because I believe getting that broad sense of experience just helps you become a smarter, more well-rounded person in life.
Eric: I noticed from your background, you’ve done work with Big Brothers Big Sisters, a group called Alternative Path, and also Horton Kids. So, literacy is very close to your heart, for sure. How did you solve your disfluency? Did it just come through that process of working with educators, or reading more, or speaking more? Can you walk us through that?
Hassan: I think part of it was just kind of growing out of it. And another part was a lot of hard work. A lot of hard work in speech classes, speaking to my mom… really early, my mom would say, “Okay, here’s a passage from a book. Stand up in front of me and read the passage. So, I got pretty comfortable speaking in front of folks at a very early age. And my mom kind of ingrained that into me. And then now, I’ve made quite a decent living, especially early in my career, in sales roles, where most of what you do is talk. Or marketing roles, where now you are analyzing data and then developing presentations to give people information. Right? Because data is one thing, but information is something different. And so, how do you take this data and then explain it to folks so they can take actionable decisions? I did a lot of that in marketing, and mergers & acquisitions earlier in my career. So, that work there kind of helped propel me.
Eric: Yup. You do an amazing job. I want to shift gears, though. I know that your wife works for the FBI in counter-terrorism, Ashley, and she’s taught you a couple of lessons. One of them you explained to me was the “speed and trust” lesson. I thought that was excellent. Can you give an insight of how your relationship is at home, being married to an FBI counter-terrorism agent?
Hassan: Yeah. So Ashley, my wife, I respect her a great deal because she’s devoted... her life and her passion is protecting America. You know, we have so many folks who are working behind the scenes to keep America safe. And you may not ever know the actual names of those folks, but trust me, they’re working every single day and I live with one of them. I’ve learned a lot of great lessons from Ashley over the course of time I’ve known her, over the past 10 years, and definitely our marriage. And one of the things that we talk about quite often is the relationship between speed and trust. So, if you just kind of imagine the world pre 9-11, where you could go to the airport, and you could get to the airport an hour before your flight was going to take off.
Eric: Yeah, those were the days, weren’t they?
Hassan: I know it, right? It was so fast. You could get to the airport late, you could make it through security checkpoints quickly, and be at your gate within 10 to 15 minutes, have time to grab a cup of coffee, and do anything that you want. But after 9-11, the entire world changed. And one of the things that changed, from the government’s perspective, they said, “You know what? I don’t know if I can trust you. And because I don’t know if I can trust you, I need to make sure, darn sure, that we put you through this security checkpoint, and now you’re going to have to take your shoes off, you’re going to have to take your laptop out of your bag, you’re going to have to take your jacket off, and your belt off, and I need to verify you are who you say you are, and that you’re not a terrorist.” And so, what did that do? That slowed the process down. Why did it slow it down? Because, now the government doesn’t trust you. And so, through that lack of trust came an opportunity, what we call Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check. And a lot of people don’t understand what’s really happening with Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check. They just think it’s, hey, I just go down, I have an interview, I pay 100 bucks, and I’m good. No. What you’re really doing with your 100 dollars that you’re giving to the government is you’re saying, “Hey. I want you to interview me. I want you to figure out who I am, and I want you to verify that I am who I say that I am, and I’m not a terrorist.” I.e. you can trust me. You can trust that if you let me through this security checkpoint quicker, faster, more efficiently, that I am going to simply go to my destination, and I am not going to cause you or anyone else any problems.” So there is a direct relationship between speed and trust, because when someone trusts you, the transaction speeds up. When people trust you, they just do what you say when you say it, as opposed to questioning and having a lot of anxiety. Because those types of things slow the process down. And so, translating that to real estate, if you’ve been dealing with a client—maybe it’s taking you a long time to sell their house, you’ve shown them market data, but they don’t want to sell the house at the price point that you’ve put it at, or you think it should be at, or you’re trying to convince, in that listing presentation, someone to close a deal with you, or are trying to get someone to sign a buyer’s agreement—and it’s taking them much longer than you think it should, data and facts won’t solve that problem. You got a trust problem. You got a trust issue. Because they don’t trust you, now the speed of that transaction slows down quite tremendously.
Eric: So, I agree with that. I actually really love that analogy of speed and trust. So, is there a sense that the service that you brought to the real estate market helps the realtor build that trust?
Hassan: Oh, yeah. For sure. There’s a couple of different ways that you can kind of influence people, move them from zero to one, and one of the ways that you can build trust. One of them is this concept around commitment and consistency. And so, as opposed to trying to get people to take large, gigantic steps towards you, have them take the smaller steps. Right? Have them commit to something that’s really, really small first, execute on that in a way that meets their expectations, and then have them take another step, and another step, and another step. And so, along these small, little steps, you build trust with people more frequently. And one of the ways we do that through Smart Alto is we respond to new real estate leads within two minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So, when someone responds to your Facebook lead ad, for San Diego homes, the ad may go something like this, “Don’t worry about searching all around the Internet for all the single-story homes in San Diego, because I’ve compiled this list of single-story homes in San Diego with [Homeowners Association] HOA dues less than $500. All you have to do is click, and I’m going to send you that list immediately.” As opposed to… when that lead comes in, as opposed to picking up the phone, calling that person, you can immediately engage with them, within two minutes, to start building trust with them, to let them know, “Hey, let me just ask you a couple of more questions so I can verify and confirm that the list I send you is actually the list that you want to get.” And you begin to set those expectations early, and build of that commitment and consistency.
Eric: Listen, as a marketer, that makes total sense to me. As you say that, I’m envisioning a funnel, and you’re taking small increments to help that person warm through the funnel, as opposed to trying to take major leaps that typically aren’t that successful.
Hassan: Yeah, they’re not.
Eric: Well, what about realtors understanding where and when to invest in their marketing. How do you feel about that? Or is this a community that really understands that whole concept and how to invest in marketing? Or are we just not there yet?
Hassan: Just not there yet, and it’s one of the things that I’ve been very disappointed in, just in general. Because coming from the healthcare industry, where I was in sales and I was in marketing, it is driven by data. It is decision making at its best. And hundreds of millions of dollars are put into decision making every single year in those industries. But in real estate, you really don’t see that. So, I’ve just been surprised at how many agents, teams, brokers who, when you ask them questions—you know, “How much did it cost you to get a lead?” “How much does it cost you to get a client?” “How much does it cost you to get a set appointment with folks?”—they just don’t have a firm understanding of the numbers in the business. And so, at face value, you say, “Okay, yeah. So what?” Well, our job as entrepreneurs, our job as leaders of businesses, is to determine how best to use our resources. That’s why we get paid the big bucks, right? Because, we have to say, “Okay. I have all these resources... I have money, I have energy, I have time, I have focus. I have all these assets. Where should I invest my resources?” Well, your job is to eliminate waste. And so, it becomes really challenging for you to know where you should invest your marketing dollars, where you should invest your time, your focus. If you don’t know the numbers—what’s performing well, and what’s performing poorly—if you don’t know those things, how can you as a business owner, as a decision maker in the company, feel confident that you’re making the right decision? Because digital marketing is the closest thing to a crystal ball that you can have. With every ad that you put out, you get more data. Every data that you get back, you can now make a better decision. But if you’re not looking at the data, and making informed decisions, then you’re no better than the person who doesn’t have any data at all.
Eric: You know, I was going to say that. I think, as a service provider to the industry, we own that dilemma as well. We’ve traditionally used, obviously, direct mail, we do Facebook ads as well. And with Facebook ads, there’s just a lot more data available to help close the loop. And the more we buckle in the big CRM systems—and you can tie it back to conversion data and closes—that’s really going to help the realtor get access and get their fingertips on that crucial information.
Hassan: Yeah, and that’s something they just need. And it’s really no great excuse for folks not to have it nowadays, and be diving into it, and understanding where they should be investing their resources. It’s one of the things I do here at Smart Alto, and I encourage my team to do, to continue pushing the envelope on that. And data isn’t always clean. Right? It can be really messy at times. But all these decisions don’t need to be made in the gray. Some of them can be black and white, and it’s our job to try to make those things that are in the gray black and white, when applicable.
Eric: Was there one formal experience over your professional career that’s really shaped who you are as a leader, and as a CEO and as a man?
Hassan: One of the things that I’ve had to really grapple on… because I am the founder and CEO of a technology company, but I don’t have a technology background. Right? So, I’m a millennial. I grew up around technology, but I’m not a programmer. I’m not a software engineer. I’m not a developer. But now, I lead teams who develop software for us. So, going back to what I was saying earlier around understanding that EQ is more important, just in life, than IQ—because, even in real estate, the sale is made when the relationship is built—and I believe, just in general, that relationships drive every single business forward. And it’s one of the things that’s helped me build out teams. Obviously, you need people to have the core competencies to do their job, you can find a lot of smart people, but the folks you want to work with are the ones that have a high level of emotional intelligence, that are able to work well and play well with others in the sandbox. And so, figuring out that and navigating that side of the business has been one of the things that’s just helped me learn, grow and continue to move forward. And running this company has given me opportunities that corporate America could never have provided.
Eric: Yeah, very good. I wrote down EQ earlier, and it just happened to remind me it also stands for “Eric at Quantum.” I’m not going to forget that EQ formula. I’m going to remember it.
Hassan: Yeah, you’re going to remember that. EQ greater than IQ, baby.
Eric: Exactly. One last question. I want to know, has Ashley over dinner told you any great stories that you can repeat on the air? Because I don’t talk to many people whose wives or spouses are FBI counter-terrorism people.
Hassan: You know what? She has not mentioned anything that I can repeat over the air.
Eric: Really? So, do you have “Dear, how did your day go?” and she goes “I can’t tell you.” Does that happen a lot?
Hassan: Yeah, so her job has mostly been top secret. Like there’s some things that she does that ends up in the news. But most of her entire career has been top secret. The only time it wasn’t was recently when she did what corporate America would call a “secondment”—the FBI and the government agencies, they call it a “special assignment”—she did a special assignment I think for six months or so. That job was not top secret, but everything else has been top secret in her career.
Eric: Ah, that’s fascinating.
Hassan: So, those “how was your day”... those are typically one-sided conversations.
Eric: Yeah, you probably do a lot of talking at home. Well, what a pleasure. Hassan, I want to thank you very much for your time today. Really enjoyable podcast. Best of luck with Smart Alto. You guys have grown. I think you said you have 75 folks now. I think it’s fantastic technology, and more of a service, because you’re really, again, creating those fractional moments that combine trust between the consumer and the agent, and doing it in a very elegant way with technology. So, hats off to you. I think it’s fantastic.
Hassan: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate that a bunch, man. And thank you for having me on. It’s a great podcast, and I love being here.
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