In the days before the internet, to buy real estate you couldn’t begin without an agent. The only way to know what homes were on the market, besides going to a real estate office, was to drive around and look at “for sale” signs, an inefficient system at best. To look at houses for sale you would go to your local real estate office who would bring out a book of MLS (multiple listing service) sheets showing the details on homes for sale.

Today, the majority of those who want to buy a home begin on their own with an app or website. There are plenty of apps where you can draw a search in your desired area, search by school district, view homes on the market (and those recently sold). You can even see homes that aren’t for sale yet but are about to come on the market. Zillow, the most popular engine for real estate search, recently unveiled a feature called “Coming Soon” that gathers up homes that aren’t on the MLS yet but will be soon.  Through Zillow and other sites, anyone can view property records and find out what the last home sold for and also find out what nearby properties transacted for.

With all this information available needing an agent in the buying process seems less and less necessary, a perception that is common lately. When faced with this objection, real estate agents often remind the consumer that the buyer’s agent is a free service because the commission is paid by the seller of the home to both the buyer’s and seller’s agents. It’s free hardly seems like a persuasive argument. Having an agent on your side during negotiations is important but what the customer remembers isn’t just the money saved, it’s what the whole transaction felt like.

Today the best buyer’s agents offer an experience a bit like a sommelier. You can buy wine in a fine restaurant without their advice and assistance but a sommelier adds value to the process.  Those who care passionately about wine and read up on the best vintages may not need a sommelier as much as those who are less experienced but the practiced sommelier can handle both customers. For the customer who has done the research, the sommelier can help verify the choice, perhaps adding more information or even simply sharing the moment of acquisition with the buyer.  For those who are less certain about choosing wine, the sommelier can use their years of training to help guide and educate.

The sommelier experience, at its highest iteration, is not about the upsell, it’s about customer service. The sommelier is an advisor to your future pleasure, to make sure you leave happy, to make sure you tell your friends about the great night, and the great wine. Real estate agents, who still work in a business that is mostly referral, often need to think the process itself. It’s not just about knowledge but knowledge in service of the customer. The sommelier and the real estate agent are both trained professionals but the best see it as both a job and a calling and the best are able to amplify and augment the experience for the client.