Tell the TRUTH early and often. Do people want to hear the truth? Not always, but it’s important. The clients who are interested in selling their home for top dollar in a short amount of time want the truth. The key is to address the issues non-emotionally with reason and expected result to follow. Sellers hope that you will not notice stains on the wall to wall carpet that they have successfully covered with a throw rug or tried unsuccessfully to clean. I gently explain that buyers will expect new carpet and are willing to pay for its value to THEM. It’s not about the seller, but the buyer. My job is to identify “negative” issues that will impact the list or sales price of a house and provide cost-effective solutions to address them. This is not a personal observation, but a professional and objective one. The ultimate decision to replace the carpet is theirs to make. My job is to advise them of the impact of this decision on the sales process.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Caroline Carter. Caroline Carter is founder and CEO of Done In a Day, a Washington, DC-based home transition and move management company that has helped more than 2,000 families prepare their houses to sell for top dollar and avoid the chaos and stress of moving. Regardless of price point, the home transition process is the same for everyone, and it is an emotional, financial and physical roller coaster. Caroline’s reputation of being able to get the job done quickly, easily and with fiscal responsibility is hard-earned. After facing a divorce that upended her life and family home, Caroline — then a newly single mother of three — built her business from scratch over 14 years into one of the top real estate service providers in the Nation’s Capital. Her extensive experience with homeowners — at their most vulnerable — led Caroline to develop the Total Home Transition℠ process. Caroline is passionate about pointing out landmines and sharing her unique approach when assessing and staging a house to sell quickly at top dollar while navigating the marathon of moving while helping homeowners save both time and money. In her first book, Smart Moves: How to Save Time and Money While Transitioning Your Home and Life, Caroline walks readers through her approach, sharing expert advice designed to empower homeowners as they make decisions regarding their largest financial asset. Preparing and staging a house to sell doesn’t have to break the bank. Empty, evaluate, execute is her decluttering method, and it is aimed at bringing in top dollar. Cleaning out is not only about joy with Caroline, it’s about money, too. Yours. Her expertise was built through partnering with sellers and top-producing real estate agents in one of the most expensive and competitive real estate markets in the country. She has worked with everyone from the Who’s Who in politics, business and the media to busy families making a major life change. Caroline is regularly invited to share her “Smart Moves” with a variety of audiences, including real estate agents seeking advice for clients, adults helping aging parents downsize, and baby-boomers, empty-nesters and millennials wanting to right-size their lives. A frequent guest on television and radio shows, Caroline is a sought-after expert for her pithy, practical advice, entertaining stories, and money-saving home staging and moving hacks. She has been featured in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, the Washingtonian, HGTV, Good Morning Washington, The Wall Street Journal, and Real Estate Today, among others. Caroline lives outside Washington, DC with her three children. She is currently undergoing her own total home transition as her children are ready to leave the nest. She recently packaged and sold her own house of the last 11 years in 8 days, for full price.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2005, I was 41 years old and newly separated with three kids ages 4, 6 and 8 and had not worked outside the home for over 12 years. For the first time in my adult life, I had the responsibility of providing financially for my family while living in an expensive suburb outside of Washington, DC. I was alone and riddled with anxiety thinking about what it would cost to live there. Was I crazy to even contemplate it? Possibly. I needed to find a job with a flexible schedule to care for my kids and one that would allow me to rest in the middle of the day due to a bout of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome years earlier. So, working for someone else was out. I was good at two things; bargain shopping to create a “look” for less and creating order out of chaos. Good skills, sure, but could I monetize them sufficiently to support my family and stay in the area? I decided that I had to try and hung out my “shingle” to inform everyone I knew that I was available at $50/hour to organize anything related to the home. I crossed my fingers and believed that the phone would ring. It did. The first “project” was for a family friend who had unexpectedly lost her husband while living in San Francisco. She purchased a house sight unseen in DC and asked me to assess what needed to be updated both inside and out for her to move in with her two small kids ages 4 and 6. She needed a year to do nothing but settle into her new community and help her children heal. I knew this and immediately agreed. I sourced local experts to paint, refinish floors, update lighting and replace carpet, re-landscape and be ready to greet the 53 ft moving truck full of household goods I had never seen. After several weeks of coordinating and supervising the project, the truck arrived, and the house was “staged” using their furniture and personal items. The family immediately followed and was able to focus on settling into their beautiful new home and begin the healing process. I had never heard the term home staging used before, but I had found my niche and knew then that I could build a company based on this concept.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t really have any “funny” marketing mistakes, but the first big “mistake” I made was one that almost devastated my new, small company. When I first started, I created a work contract with language that allowed the seller to roll the cost of our work, the “project”, into their house closing. We did a $8,000 project for a new client who also happened to be an attorney and when the house didn’t sell within 30 days, he used that language and refused to pay the invoice and then took the house off the market. He paid me $3,000 for the services we provided, which he determined was “fair” and argued that his house did not sell so he did not have to pay the balance of the contract at the close, since there would be no closing. This financial mistake forced me to create a contract that was sound and enforceable in a court of law. Although it was a costly mistake that forever changed the way I do business, the harder life lesson for me as a new small business owner was the realization that not everyone is honorable or fair.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Service, first and foremost. After 14 years of servicing the Metro DC real estate industry, I am known as a “truth teller” with a strategic plan. Being completely honest about what a home needs, in order to sell and garner the highest ROI (return on investment) is sometimes hard for a seller to hear, but it is always appreciated by those who are interested in making buyer-based, educated and non-emotional decisions to get their house ready to list and sell. Last Spring, an agent asked me to consult with a couple that had decided to downsize. The agent informed me that all that would need to be done was to “spruce up” the property to sell. THEY estimated it would take 5 days. The couple lived in a 6,800 sq. ft. home that they hoped would list for over $5 million. After touring the house to assess what would need to be done to sell at top dollar both inside and out, I mentioned to the agent that while 5 days might be enough to “spruce up” the listing, it was not nearly enough to actually prepare the house so the client could accept a quick cash offer and move immediately. I believed they needed to be fully prepared to move and in order to sort, organize, purge, donate and pack to move to the new location, it would take roughly 15 days. Only THEN would the client be truly prepared and ready to go. The agent was eager to list quickly and asked that I only discuss a 5-day project. Against my better judgement, I discussed that a 5-day project could only be cosmetic in nature and would not focus on getting them prepared to move to another property. The client asked what it would take to be truly “ready” to move. I described our unique process of sorting the entire house to pack to store and move as we staged it to sell and she immediately agreed that this was the best option for her. At the end of the 15 working days, the house was listed and sold immediately with a full price cash offer with a 10-day close. The sellers accepted and placed all their household goods in storage. Six weeks later we were unpacking the goods in their new apt when the husband pulled me aside and said: “Caroline, I believe in giving credit where credit is due. If we had not listened to your advice of preparing for the sale and move at the same time, we could never have accepted the offer with a 10-day close, so thank you.” That was the highest compliment I could ever have received.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, publishing my first book was an accomplishment and seeing early sales success of SMART MOVES: How to Save Time and Money While Transitioning Your Home and Life is the first step in our long-term marketing plan to broaden out my personal brand and to educate and guide sellers outside of our Metro Washington DC service area. The next step is to offer an interactive online consultation to sellers across the country who need to know exactly where to focus their attention to position their house to sell, with cost effective, fast and easy cosmetic updates while preparing for an upcoming move. This online platform will allow us to intimately connect with sellers who understand the importance of working with a “truth teller” and an emotional partner who truly has THEIR best emotional, financial and physical interests at heart.
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
In my opinion, branding or brand marketing is synonymous with a company name, its reputation and the solutions it promises to deliver to its clients and/or customers. Branding is the core of any company’s messaging, it’s the story at 50,000 feet. I purposely did NOT use my name for the company back in 2005, however, over the last 14 years my name has become interchangeable with the brand. My personal and professional reputation is now identified with our promise to create a successful transition for each family. It represents our client-focused, fiscally responsible solutions, creating successful home transitions across all price points. Branding is also about truth and education. Product marketing or advertising help the ground level stories come to life, by highlighting the expertise, products and proven solutions any company is offering the marketplace — it supports the brand story and connects the prospects and potential customers to the company, as well as engaging and keeping the current client-base connected.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
In the beginning, the Done In A Day concept, on paper, was just another start-up destined to fail. I started the company with basically no resources, had little or no experience in the real estate industry, no real business plan and no mentor. I had not worked outside the home for over 12 years — BUT the one thing I did have was my instinct for survival and my belief that I could do it and it would be a success. The name of the company was Done In A Day, but in reality, the brand was me.
I knew there was a market for the services I wanted to offer and believed I have an innate gift to “beautifully design a space on a budget”. A naturally good salesman, I was committed to providing the best possible financial and emotional solutions, with a positive attitude, every day. Each project was and still is, a precious gift to me, and I truly connect with the families we work with each day. I humanized their issues — their projects were my projects, assuring them that what they were facing was “normal” and alternated between team leader, when they needed direction and cheerleader, when they needed encouragement. We had to work through the often difficult emotional and physical challenges clients faced when selling one home and moving to the next. One happy client at a time was our daily focus and we built the brand with that in mind every day.
You can spend thousands of dollars to create, design and build a brand, and even more to maintain it, but if you don’t deliver on what is promised, it won’t matter at all. This business was truly built on referrals and word-of-mouth recommendations from clients and real estate agents. We did some small space local advertising in the beginning, but for the most part, didn’t advertise, our clients (both sellers and agents) did the advertising and marketing for us. We utilize regular email marketing communications, with an organic social media approach to advertise and market the business. Sharing positive client experiences, understanding what clients (sellers and real estate agents) truly need to know to do business with us and delivering on what we promise has always been the goal. We understand what sellers need to do and even today, the business is 80% referral based.
I am a firm believer in a balanced approach when developing marketing and advertising strategies for any business, of any size. Use automation and segmentation properly and effectively and don’t automatically outsource everything to just save time or money. Don’t undervalue a personalized, organic approach. Use data to make decisions, but don’t rely on it for everything you know about your prospects and customers. AI is amazing, but don’t lose a personal connection to your target audience. No one will ever know your better than you do. Your brand voice is critical and if it gets too diluted, you may not get it back. Even the biggest brands have made mistakes, but the greatest brands recognize, course correct and overcome. I believe the best company brand and advertising messaging follows one simple rule: are they telling people what THEY NEED to know in order to do business with them or are they telling people what THEY WANT them to know about the company. It’s a very fine line, but it’s an important difference.
Can you share 5 strategies that a small company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
1. Tell the TRUTH early and often. Do people want to hear the truth? Not always, but it’s important. The clients who are interested in selling their home for top dollar in a short amount of time want the truth. The key is to address the issues non-emotionally with reason and expected result to follow. Sellers hope that you will not notice stains on the wall to wall carpet that they have successfully covered with a throw rug or tried unsuccessfully to clean. I gently explain that buyers will expect new carpet and are willing to pay for its value to THEM. It’s not about the seller, but the buyer. My job is to identify “negative” issues that will impact the list or sales price of a house and provide cost-effective solutions to address them. This is not a personal observation, but a professional and objective one. The ultimate decision to replace the carpet is theirs to make. My job is to advise them of the impact of this decision on the sales process.
2. Provide consistent results in process and service. In other words, do what you say you are going to do. The preparation and sale of one home and the effort to move to the next is the same emotional, financial and physical process regardless of price point and location, the difference is the family dynamic and backstory, scope, and number of moving parts to complete the transition. I rarely know the first two but understand the importance process plays in the last two. Setting expectations regarding the overall scope and schedule of THEIR project is critical to prepare them for the highs and lows they will experience and how they can address them successfully. Consistent superior client-focused service is difficult during an emotional life changing event but necessary to guide the seller when they are pushed beyond all endurance to complete the transition.
3. Value time and be on time with a smile. There is nothing more important than our clients’ time. Reliability is important for consistency in project management. The hours we begin and end each day are always the same unless otherwise agreed with the client. Our teams are always well presented and arrive with a smile. When the final invoice is sent a recap of the value of the service provided is detailed to remind them of all that was promised, agreed to and delivered.
4. Be accountable. Your reputation and your word are your promise, not your signed contract. Over the course of 14 years and over 2000 home transition projects mistakes have been made. Mistakes that are clearly our fault. I immediately acknowledge the mistake to diffuse the situation, apologize, make restitution in various forms and move on. I stand firm when a client is trying to strong arm me or my teams and take advantage of a misunderstanding, difficult situation or mistake. The client is not always right but if you want to get paid for work that is completed it may require a compromise you must be willing to make. You may choose not to work with that client again, but you will get paid. Documenting changes to a contract is also critical to jog client’s imperfect memory of events and will support a difference of opinion when it arises.
5. Set clear expectations. Be sure that the service that you are offering is the service that the client is expecting. Boundaries must be laid out both verbally and with an iron-clad contract describing the scope, schedule and responsibility of both parties. CEO availability is also critical. A client whose project would not begin for another 3 weeks decided to get started on sorting and packing a large library of books. He did not pack the books, his wife did and proceeded to carry 50 heavy boxes down two flights of stairs to the garage and threw out her back. It was Sunday and he called multiple times and left irate messages, blaming us. On Monday morning I calmly returned his call, listened to him and reminded him that we were not to start the project for another 3 weeks. Boundaries.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I think there are many, but Home Depot clearly stands out for me. The company has built a recognizable service brand that is consistent, reliable, readily accessible and inexpensive, regardless of location. It empowers anyone with the confidence to believe that no “DYI home project” is impossible with their guidance. It continues to adapt and change with the needs of each generation and every consumer knows what to expect when they see or hear the name Home Dept. Our company has worked hard to do the same on a much smaller scale. We are truthful, reliable, accountable and focused on the emotional, financial and physical well-being of our CLIENTS first. We believe that by educating, empowering and guiding our clients, they too can create a smooth home transition. A company does not have to have scale to hold itself to a higher standard of excellence. There is opportunity daily to listen to clients about suggested improvements and most of all deliver the same level of service every time. Like Home Depot, our clients have created the backbone of our company, through referrals and repeat business and are the best resource for the future success of our company.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
I believe that brand building is based more on showcasing your reputation, thought leadership, services and positive solution-based results across different mediums and if done effectively, consumers can find you when the need arises. This is a longer-term strategy that differs from any individual advertising campaign that is looking to generate immediate sales or engagement. There is need for both strategies to build a successful company that adapts over time.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
All our social media profiles provide an instant and effective personal connection to my personal brand, the company and offers a way to share information with an ever-growing list of connections and people interested in what we are doing. I love the ease with which you can engage and share and it’s amazing that consumers have access to influencers in any field. I would encourage any company to take advantage of building thought leadership. Embrace the best of what these platforms can offer, tell the truth and be a resource to people with positive and helpful information, remembering to focus on what they need to know about you to do business with you.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Build boundaries into your schedule at the outset and stick to them. In this day and age when you own a business, others expect you to be “on call” 24/7. Don’t expect this of yourself as it is not sustainable. Just say no. Let your teams and clients know when you are available and when you are not. Have a balanced life. Eat well, sleep well, exercise your body and mind each day. Plan vacations and schedule time to check email once per day. The to-do list is never-ending, and it will not change. Prioritize.
When building a team, surround yourself with experts who are smarter than you. Be sure their skills are complimentary to yours. Don’t micromanage. Give them room to grow and encourage innovation and input. Build a layer between you and your teams while still being available and open to issues that arise that need your attention.
Establish process and procedures clearly at the outset. Do not wait and wing it. Rely on you process and procedures to allow you to focus on the client and a successful outcome. Do not reinvent the wheel. Never stop educating yourself.
Be an expert in your industry and make it a practice to read, watch or listen to other leaders every day that you relate to and aspire to emulate. Own your space and share everything you know readily with others who will benefit from your expertise. Don’t be afraid to “give it away”. Lay it all on the line.
Deep breathe often to center yourself, your thoughts and actions. A day is over before you know it and each new day presents an opportunity to be a better version of yourself than the day before. You are human — own it. Expect to make mistakes and realize that you are grateful for these mistake as you will never make the same one again.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My mission is to change the way people approach the life-changing decision of selling a home and moving from fear, anxiety and chaos to embrace the belief that it can be a calm, controlled, confident and strategic total home transition. To demystify the process and combine two separate events (selling and moving) into one continuously related event. It begins by understanding which decisions you will be expected to make and how they will affect your own process. The 10-step Total Home Transition process can be utilized by anyone regardless of location and price point. I wrote the book SMART MOVES: How to Save Time and Money While Transitioning Your Home and Life to provide a resource for ANY seller and provide them a plan to save time and money, while addressing the financial, emotional and physical issues that arise when the decision has been made to sell and move.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Shoot for the moon even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” — Les Brown
When I’m alone, sitting at my desk I think of this quote. Each day I visualized the success of this business and how to provide for my family. I still do it 14 years later. No problem is too big to find a solution and I still believe that I have the drive and determination to accomplish anything that I set my mind to do. I don’t allow fear to cloud my decisions and actions. I aim for the impossible and have always trusted my instinct to assess and adapt as both the company and I evolve.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Yes, there are two people that I admire greatly who have built great companies based on simple messages of honestly and truth:
Ken Langone of Home Depot. Home Depot has been my one-stop DIY shop for over 14 years — they have everything our clients need to inexpensively update a house, regardless of price point, both inside and out. The consistency in quality product and service is unmatched in the industry. Home Depot is service defined and welcomes everyone regardless of expertise. What a prefect concept — ALL are welcome and empowered to create the look for less.
Oprah Winfrey built an empire based on TRUTH. One person changed the way we view so many difficult emotional and taboo topics and made such an impact on the world with her book club that I cannot help but admire her. She stayed humble and true to her core. She connected with us and made us feel human and worthy when it is so easy for us to feel otherwise. She continues to share that gift with the world. We are not alone with Oprah.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Email: [email protected]
Caroline Carter: https://www.facebook.com/CarolineCarterSMARTMOVES/
Done In A Day: https://www.facebook.com/doneinadayinc/
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.