Michelle Stephens remembers her first day in real estate, 11 years ago, like it was yesterday.
She was a fresh-faced, nervous, 20-year-old who, it’s safe to say, had a handshake a little like a wet fish.
“I’ll never forget it,” Michelle chuckles.
“I went around and met everyone in the office and shook their hands, only to later have this older lady pull me aside to talk to me about my handshake.
“She said, ‘Shake my hand,” and when I shook her hand she told me, ‘That’s not how you shake a hand. We’re in a male-dominated industry. This is how you shake a hand.’
“What she was telling me was to be assertive, and that has always resonated with me.”
More than a decade and a lot of hard work and assertive handshakes later, the OBrien Real Estate Carrum Downs agent is at the top of her field, taking out the Annual REA Excellence Award for the Top Residential Salesperson in Victoria.
Michelle was the only woman to take out the top state or territory award, with her male counterparts scooping the other seven accolades around the country.
While she’s happy to fly the flag for the girls, Michelle says it’s not a role she consciously thinks about.
“I know everyone says it’s a male-dominated industry, but I don’t find it like that,” Michelle says.
“It might have been previously, but today our top salespeople at OBrien Real Estate are females, and they have been for the last three years, I think.”
Instead, Michelle prefers to focus her attention inward and says one of the biggest challenges real estate agents face, especially when they’re just starting, is self-doubt.
“Everyone, in every industry, has self-doubt,” she explains.
“I remember in the beginning thinking, ‘Why would anyone entrust a 20-year-old with selling their home?’
“But then I realised that if I didn’t believe they could trust me with their biggest asset, then I couldn’t expect them to trust me.
“So I started to believe that while I was young, I brought a lot to the table, and I would work my ass off to get them the best result.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female; the biggest thing is to believe in yourself because if you don’t, no one else will.”
Michelle certainly had her nose to the grindstone in 2020, recording her best year in real estate, even with many weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns in Melbourne.
She sold 210 properties last year and wrote about $2.5 million GCI, up from about $2.3 million in 2019.
“It was my best year ever,” Michelle says.
“I was really shocked (to win the AREA) but absolutely ecstatic.
“My median sale price, of $650,000, wasn’t as good as a lot of the other agents that I was up against, so when I found out I had won, I was over the moon.”
Michelle says taking out the coveted award was not something she thought about day-to-day, but it would help back up her claims about being a top agent when standing in potential vendors’ living rooms.
“Everyone knows realestate.com.au, and to be able to say I was the winner for Victoria carries a fair bit of weight,” she says.
Michelle recorded the standout year despite the real estate market essentially stopping dead in its tracks when Melbourne suffered through multiple COVID-19 lockdowns.
“I went from having my biggest month in real estate to being in lockdown,” she recalls.
“I’m always running at a million miles an hour, so it was a real struggle to stop. I actually got quite sick when I stopped because my body was so used to running so quickly that it almost went into shock.
“But then my Dad said to me, ‘Michelle, enjoy it. Enjoy this time because you’re not going to have this kind of time again. Don’t focus on what you’re missing out on, just appreciate the time because you’re not going to get this time again until you retire.’
“So I started enjoying it, appreciating it and doing things, like my garden, that I never normally have time to do.”
But that doesn’t mean she forgot about real estate entirely.
No, Michelle kept in touch with her vendors weekly so they knew she was there to support them and that as soon as lockdown finished, she’d be back working tirelessly to sell their property.
“I’d call my vendors just to check in with them,” she says.
“I didn’t have anything to tell them about real estate. There’s only so many times you can call them to say there are no inquiries on your home and no one wants to buy it, so it was more about checking in with them and asking how they were going.
“It was about letting them know that I hadn’t forgotten about them and reassuring them that as soon as we got out of lockdown we would be selling their home.”
In fact, Michelle says it’s her dedication to customer service that sets her apart from her competition.
She ensures that either she, or a member of her team, is at every appointment throughout a vendor’s sale campaign, including building and pest inspections and when photographs are taken.
“I don’t just say to my vendors, ‘Can you be home for this?’” Michelle explains.
“At every single appointment I ensure someone from the team is there.”
Michelle is the first to admit she couldn’t do what she does without her team, which includes her husband Lenny Bellinger, her sister Kirsty Stephens, Jae Lukey, Bree Tainton, Michelle Ferguson, and Tamara Yeoh.
An all-rounder who can take on any task thrown at him, Lenny’s focus is on nurturing buyers through the purchasing process, while Jae is Michelle’s team leader and responsible for handling the selling process from sale through to settlement, as well as customer care.
Bree is the marketing coordinator, and it’s her responsibility to organise the photography, stylists, garden maintenance, repairs and advertising copy.
“Bree gets the properties ready and she gets them online,” Michelle says.
Michelle Ferguson and Kirsty both work part-time and focus on buyer work and database maintenance, while Tamara is Michelle Stephens’ executive assistant.
“I’ve got an amazing team and I couldn’t do what I do without my team behind me,” she says.
Michelle says the COVID-19 experience was instrumental in her hiring Tamara and changing some of the processes in her business.
Stuck without the ability to hold open homes due to COVID-19 restrictions, Michelle says she suddenly had hundreds of phone calls and emails from buyers wanting to inspect homes privately, but she could not respond to everyone in a timely fashion.
“I’d go into an appointment and come out and I’d have 10 missed calls,” she says.
“Now, with Tamara on board, she will babysit my phone when I’m on appointments, she will reply to emails and she also gets all of my packs ready for appraisals.
“Today, when people want something, they want it now. They don’t want to get your voicemail, they don’t want to wait for an agent to call back, they want to know when they can look at that house, and they want to know now.”
Michelle is currently on the hunt for a junior to join her team to help ensure the commitment to have a team member at every appointment is maintained.
“With a big sale base where you’re talking about 200-odd transactions, that means you’ve usually got 200 bank valuations and 200 building and pest inspections,” she says.
Another key area of focus that fits into Michelle and the team’s dedication to customer service is their attention to detail when it comes to buyers.
In the current seller’s market, Michelle says buyers need a good relationship with agents more than ever, and it’s vital agents remember that buyers one day become sellers.
“Even if they miss out on buying with you at one stage, when it comes time for them to sell, they remember you and say, ‘You really pushed me, and I want you on my team this time’,” she says.
“I’m paid to get the best results for my vendor, and if I’m not asking hard questions and if I’m not pushing you (as a buyer), I’m not doing my job.”
This year Michelle has clear goals to better what she did in 2020, and she’s off to a flying start, recording a new best month in real estate in February.
“I wrote $390,000 GCI, sold 27 properties, and I listed 36 properties, including eight off-the-plan,” she says.
“It was a busy month.”
Michelle doesn’t plan to rest on her laurels though.
“I really want to do $3 million GCI this year,” she says.
“Once I do that I’ll probably want to do $3.5 million. I like to push myself.”