Virtual Offices: Remote Control

Thinking of taking your brokerage virtual?

July 1, 2007

Replacing your traditional residential real estate office with a virtual operation sounds great in this age of mobile technology. But how do you manage an untethered sales force? Start with the idea that managing a virtual office differs little from managing a brick-and-mortar office. You still need to keep associates on task, for example, and help them avoid carelessness that can lead to legal trouble.

In some ways, management of such issues may become easier. Remote communication encourages people to get right to the point and not waste time kvetching, says Larry A. Whited Sr., CRB, CRS®, head of Cincinnati-based WEBMLS, which has 136 mobile associates throughout Ohio. “It’s the best management job I’ve had in my life,” he says.

One drawback, however, is that you don’t have the opportunity to watch over your associates as you otherwise would. To be an effective, then, you should follow these three rules:

  1. Affiliate only associates who are equipped for the virtual approach.
  2. Create a process for monitoring transactions.
  3. Maximize opportunities for in-person get-togethers.

Starting With the Right People

Here’s a puzzle that might tax even the most logical thinker: If you’re a broker managing a virtual office, do you hire rookie associates or veterans? Tech-savvy practitioners or those with less knowledge but an eagerness to learn?

The answer is, it depends on your perspective.

“You’re not going to have brand-new associates work from home,” says Donald Snider, GRI, broker-owner of EIEIO.com, a virtual company in the Washington, D.C., area. Rookies need training, mentoring, and close monitoring — things that can best be accomplished in person. Snider oversees a half dozen associates at EIEIO.com.

Seasoned associates bring the maturity necessary for staying on task when no one’s around to prompt them, agrees Whited. “If you need somebody to cheerlead you out of bed to go to work every day, stay where you’re at.”

But Chris Crocker, who launched a virtual Coldwell Banker office in Manhattan Beach, Calif., finds that new associates can manage their time effectively. The 16 associates with the office — about half of them tech-savvy 20- and 30-somethings who’ve entered real estate as a second caree — have proved his point, he says.

“We started out looking for associates with a strong technical aptitude but quickly discovered that [the virtual concept] appealed as much to those with little technical experience but a strong desire to learn or grow by adapting to technology,” says Crocker.

The office has become a diverse mix of generations — X’s, Y’s, and boomers. They come into the branch office once a week for coaching; that’s been all the institutional prompting they’ve needed to maintain their productivity, he says.

The Priority of Paperwork

Since a virtual office doesn’t allow you to stop by your associates’ desks for a quick chat, just to touch base about how things are going, how do you keep tabs on things?

You shouldn’t have to, says Whited, at least if you hire pros.

Whited says he doesn’t touch a transaction until the file is complete. Associates follow a checklist. Once they’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, they send him a PDF of the complete transaction.

It takes him about five minutes to review the file to see whether all the bases have been covered: contract signed, disclosure forms executed, and so on, he says.

Snider is more hands-on. Even though he employs a transaction coordinator, he follows each transaction himself and has all listings and contracts faxed to him for review. Because his brokerage is small, with a half dozen associates, he can give each transaction his personal attention.

Beyond handling day-to-day management of all the details, the transaction coordinator relays to Snider any complaints or other messages that come in from clients. The messages serve as an early warning signal: “If there’s a problem with a customer, I’m going to hear about it,” he says.

At Crocker’s Manhattan Beach office, branch manager Shryl Lorino relies heavily on the transaction management platform in overseeing associates’ activities. The platform hosts the forms, calendars, contracts, and other tools that are standard in a real estate office and serves as a central database for everything happening with each transaction. Various views of the database are accessible by Lorino, the associates, and the clients. That way, all concerned can see what needs to be done at any time and who’s responsible. That kind of “total transparency” is great for keeping customers satisfied and for overseeing associates more easily.

The system also enables Coldwell Banker’s corporate attorneys to spot areas where there might be ethical problems or legal exposure, Crocker says. The disclosure statements entered into the system are automatically routed to them.

“If we see anything that the sellers disclosed that we think might be a problem, we can respond to it in real time instead of three months later when the subpoena arrives in our office,” he says.

Lorino is licensed, too, and capable of speaking knowledgeably with customers, he adds. That’s helpful not only in keeping customer service high but also in noticing early warning signs.

Maintaining Social Contact

If there is a weak link in the work-from-anywhere model, brokers say, it’s the minimal in-person contact among colleagues.

Associates who are very social won’t fulfill their emotional needs in a work-from-home arrangement, Snider says, noting, however, that most experienced associates are self-sufficient in this regard. He holds breakfast meetings only as needed to go over changes in law, forms, or procedures. There are no regular meetings in his office.

At Coldwell Banker’s office, however, rubbing shoulders with colleagues is essential.

“The social element of a real estate branch is a very important part of keeping it healthy,” Crocker says. “There’s very much a pride factor in being associated with a firm that has a good reputation in your local area, and the office is a concrete feature of that.”

Associates participate in mandatory weekly meetings in the branch office and out-of-office dinners, get-togethers, and group visits to other branches, he says.

Adding up Accountability

You have your associates and systems in place and are mindful of your associates’ desire for camaraderie. On top of all that, you’re in a great financial position. After all, you’re no longer paying $8,000 to $25,000 a year per associate to provide desk space. Given your lower costs, it might seem as if you could demand less in terms of productivity.

Don’t fall into the trap of lowered expectations, Snider says. A weak associate can cost you a lot in terms of reputation and lost deals when unhappy prospects turn elsewhere.

Snider says he keeps an eye on the number of referrals his associates receive from their clients and customers; if past clients and customers aren’t sending their friends to the associate, there’s a problem.

As one of his measures, Whited requires his associates to close at least six deals a year. That’s more than a productivity check for him, though; it’s a risk management tool. Associates who do less than that volume are at risk of losing their competence and pose a risk of legal liability, he says. By handling a minimum number of transactions each year, he says, “they don’t get themselves and me sued.”

In any case, given brokers’ rising costs and today’s moderating sales climate, you can expect going virtual to gain in attractiveness. Those who’ve jumped into the virtual arena say such an arrangement works for cost-conscious brokers who have good systems and a trusted team.

“Offices are tombstones to the last century’s way of doing business,” says Whited. “You can’t maintain these big offices while commissions are going down. The numbers don’t work.”

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