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Humorous images, team yield serious sales for Whitsitt

By: Jim Shettles   


There's an adage that you can't change a first impression, and real estate agent Chet Whitsitt doesn't mind if the first impression of one of his advertisements is laughter -- he just hopes people remember his name.

In his 20-year career, the native Memphian can boast sales exceeding $150 million. Since 1985 he's worked for.

Crye-Leike Realty where he's consistently ranked among the top five of the firm's 1,500-plus agents. He contributes much of this success to his offbeat advertising strategy.

Whitsitt's an independent contractor, exchanging a cut of his commission for office space, support services and Crye-Leike's name recognition. However, for all practical purposes, he's self-employed and knew he had to raise his own name recognition.

"About 10 years ago I decided I needed to stand out from the pack ... My sales never took off until I started investing in my business. You have be willing to spend money to make money," he says.

Whitsitt's quest for name recognition began with an idea that seems basic enough but was an industry innovation at the time. He decided to have a metal plaque created bearing his face's image to hang on "For Sale" yard signs.

"I was the first person in the country to do this. I tried to patent it but couldn't establish my claim. Just having a face to attach to my name helped me tremendously," he says.

Whitsitt has no marketing background and has never used an ad agency. He's on a non-stop hunt for any idea, joke, expression or trend he might incorporate into his material and doesn't mind asking permission to use something.

"Next I came up with a logo thanks to a supervisor at the agency that had a habit of saying, `check with Chet' all the time. I combined that phrase with a check-mark because I want folks to check with me when they have a real estate need -- it was perfect," he says.

The humorous ads began with an idea from his family's background in the cotton business. He wanted to create a mailout with a picture of him standing in a cotton field with a caption, "outstanding in his field." Cotton was out-of-season so he stood in a football field instead.

Whitsitt mails a blitz of material to past, current and potential customers. Most of them combine his posed photo and some phrase to make a pun. Some are quite funny while others are so hokey they can elicit a cringe.

His most successful campaign, an annual Halloween card, has taken on its own life. A few years ago he attached his face to drawings in costumes and asked the recipients to vote for a favorite. Characters included "Air Chet" on a Michael Jordan torso, a skeleton for "Phen-Fen Chet" and he donned a notorious beret and hairstyle for "Monica LeWHITsey."

"People liked it so much they started doodling some costume or idea drawings and sending them in," he says. "Now we run a contest, I have thousands of them, I printed several "Best of Chet" costume ads last year."

He runs ads in local publications and makes extensive use of merchandising gifts, whether he's handing a personalized memo pad to an employee at a drive-through or sending fairly elaborate gifts to customers he's just dealt with.

He's managed to garnish some free publicity thanks to one gimmick -- distributing bushel-size bags of popcorn bearing his face and the line "Chet's popping up everywhere." A couple of radio station morning shows have discussed, or "dissed" Whitsitt's promotional tactics, even joking on-air with him.

FedEx's Global Sales Department named him "Zaniest Marketer of the Year" with a couple of executives awarding him a plaque at Crye-Leike. The congratulatory letter admitted that he was asked to submit material for the purpose of "picking his brain."

Marketing attracts customers to Whitsitt, but he quickly credits his two co-workers, both licensed agents, with giving him the ability to take care of business. He's been with personal assistant Janice Benson for eight years and worked in partnership with his wife, Judy, for more than 11 years.

"I'm probably the only agent in Memphis lucky enough to have someone as knowledgeable as Janice working with me," he says. "She can handle any complex problem that a customer might be experiencing. Closing a real estate deal is very complicated, the clients need help -- Janice can take care of anything our clients need.

"Judy was working at a different Crye-Leike office when we met. Soon we began working as a team and then wed. We sell more together than our combined figures would be working separately," he says.

Judy Whitsitt agrees "three heads are better than one."

"You can't be in more than one place, or speak to more than one person at a time," Judy Whitsitt says. "The three of us are interchangeable -- they're customers for all of us. Chet and I work together; if we're showing a listing and get a phone call, one of us continues with our in-person client and the other handles the call. It's much better than working alone."

Whitsitt began his marketing campaign to attract new customers, but now referrals are the key to his business. Attracting attention through silliness is fine but a home purchase is the greatest investment most people ever make and he doesn't take customer service lightly.

"I'd never advise one to do something I wouldn't advise my parents to do or do myself," he says. "A satisfied customer is very important even if we never do business again. I want everyone to recommend me to their acquaintances."

He uses a questionnaire to create an info data bank on a customer's family and keep in touch with them. Even the family pet receives a birthday card. He uses mail outs to create a long-lasting relationship whether for a future transaction or more importantly, a referral.

Karen Smith recently had Whitsitt sell her Collierville home and then purchased a new home from a developer in Sterling Square. She trusted Whitsitt, so she hired him to handle the purchase.

"He's a unique salesman because he's a good listener. He was never negative about anything and displayed great professionalism by not finding fault or putting anybody down," she says.