The Top Producers Survey identifies the key market developments, business practices and career priorities of the nation's top loan officers.

A new component in this year's Top Producers program is an in-depth survey that explores how professionals are pursuing new market opportunities and contend with industry challenges.

The results show a marked digital savviness among Top Producers, many of whom are embracing digital tools and marketing techniques in an effort to enhance referral relationships and increase their operating efficiency. In addition, Top Producers have been more aggressive than the average origination professional in terms of shifting the balance of their volume toward purchase mortgages and away from the weakening refinance market.

Even for these industry standouts, 2018 brings some significant headwinds, with survey respondents pointing in particular to the dearth of available inventory for sale in the housing market.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Top Producers program. The rankings are open to mortgage loan officers and mortgage brokers who work at depository, nonbank and mortgage brokerage firms in the United States.

The Top Producers Survey was conducted in February and March 2018. Nearly 500 mortgage loan officers and mortgage brokers who work at depository, nonbank and mortgage brokerage firms in the United States completed the survey.

Loan officers were surveyed on a number of topics related to recent industry developments and trends, marketing techniques and business practices. Information submitted about 2017 loan production was used to compile the Top Producers Rankings.

A new game plan for the purchase market

A major theme in 2017 was the deterioration of the refinance market and the effects of that trend were felt by loan officers throughout the Top Producers Rankings. Still, the highest ranking Top Producers generated promising results, and more than 80% of respondents said their companies were adequately prepared for the shift.

That preparation seems to have paid off. Top Producers reported a higher share of purchase loans in 2017 than the industry average. That performance may explain why less than half of Top Producers said they were not concerned or neutral about declining refis.

How loan officers view their borrowers

Top Producers are approaching the purchase market by crafting distinct marketing strategies for three categories of homebuyers — move-up, first-time and move-down — as well as refinance borrowers.

Housing market constraints are a high concern

With Top Producers clearly more focused on their purchase loans, it's not surprising that housing inventory shortages, rising mortgage rates and rising home prices were their primary concerns for 2018.

Digital mortgages: Think embrace, not replace

Digital mortgage technology is changing the way business is done and how loan officers view their role in the loan lifecycle.

About 83% of Top Producers said digital mortgage technology is the key to their company's future growth. Digital mortgage refers to a process that incorporates automation and third-party data to make mortgage lending more efficient. This often includes any combination of consumer self-service tools, mobile tech and electronic signatures and documents.

Two-thirds of Top Producers said consumer self-service digital tools were very or extremely important to their career satisfaction, while only 26% think digital mortgage technology will replace loan officers in the next 10 years.

Key to marketing: Strong referral networks

Given the considerable challenges facing loan officers, marketing strategies and referral partners are essential to the success of Top Producers.

Whether by word of mouth or digital, the most widely used referral and marketing resources used in 2017 are also the areas where Top Producers plan to increase their focus in 2018.

Social media savvy gets more loans closed

Facebook and Zillow loan officer reviews are among the most popular forms of social media and where Top Producers are focusing their attention in 2018.

While fewer Top Producers overall used photo-based social media sites like Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest, those that do use them are seeing success and intend to increase their activity in 2018.

Where to work? Efficiency and support staff matter most

When asked to rate on a scale of one to seven how important various factors are to their career satisfaction and where they choose to work, Top Producers rated factors like the abilities of their support staff and underwriting departments higher than personal aspects like base salary and whether they have an ownership stake in their company.

Top Producers also said lenders' mortgage product variety and overall technology strategy were more important than whether their company services its loans or has a joint venture or other formal relationship with a real estate company.

Market confidence strongest in the South

Loan officers throughout the country were decidedly neutral about a number of factors affecting their business, including uncertainty about housing finance reform, the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and appraisal related concerns.

Tax reform concern highest in the West

Top Producers in the West were more concerned about rising home prices and the lower mortgage interest tax deduction cap. Views about the ongoing rise in home prices and recent tax reform legislation produced more varied results.

Where Top Producers are getting started with social

Meanwhile, among Top Producers trying to establish a social media presence, LinkedIn was a higher priority than photo-based sites.