Developing an Internet Niche for the Deaf

Use technology to facilitate sales to the hearing impaired.

June 1, 2001

How would you go about helping a deaf person buy a home? If you can use the Internet to e-mail listings, load virtual tours, and create CMAs and other documents, you are on the right track. But what happens when it's time to talk?

Most Internet-savvy practitioners want to leap from the Internet to the phone, and that's where communications break down when helping deaf clients, says Austin salesperson Penny Payne. And, you will need a strategy to help your deaf customers get through closing.

Payne first learned sign language so that she could communicate with her deaf aunt. She had never really considered making a niche business helping deaf clients until she realized that Internet technologies could help her do so. As one of only two salespeople out of about 4,300 in the Austin area who can "sign," combined with her love of the Internet, Payne is in a unique position to build a niche, fueled by many referrals. Although she is not deaf, almost 100 percent of Payne's customers are. Payne sells about 25 to 30 houses a year and helps between three to five deaf buyers every month.

To assist her deaf clients, Payne has developed a unique set of tools ranging from signing, to a special phone technology for the deaf, to a Verizon tri-mode phone system, to the use of Internet technologies including e-mail and a Web-based transaction and closing platform.

Not all deaf people read lips, speak English, or can talk on the phone, explains Payne. Some have to use a phone interpreter technology, (she uses Texas Relay) that allows automated-live translators to participate in your conversation with a deaf client. The translator puts what you are saying into text, so the deaf client can read what you are saying, and what the client says into voice so you can hear it. For this reason, voice communication will actually slow things down when you are working with a deaf client. But, that's a hurdle that is easily overcome, says Payne, who makes much greater use of quick e-mails and other technologies to communicate faster and more efficiently.

"E-mail has cut down on my mobile phone calls, because staying on the line with Texas Relay is time consuming," says Payne. "I went from $350 in phone bills per month, down to $89."

Internet adoption is crucial for salespeople, believes Payne, particularly those who wish to serve the relocating customer. Where she lives and works, Austin is quickly becoming the Silicon Valley of Texas, and has been a top ten national relocation destination for the past three years. Payne says that many people who are deaf enjoy good careers in technology fields where much of their communications between associates and customers can take place online. So, knowing how to use Internet tools is helpful to Payne not only because her clients are deaf, but also because they are usually highly versed in Internet technologies themselves.

Payne helps a lot of relocating buyers, such as deaf first-time homebuyer, Steven Ondrias. One of the technologies she used to serve Ondrias was online transaction management and closing technology from Expeditrix, a Texas application service provider. Expeditrix makes a product called SmartClose that allows customers of salespeople and title companies to view documents pertaining their transaction in a secure environment.

Basically, SmartClose unites all participants in a home closing to an online environment: the salesperson, title or escrow company, the buyer, seller, mortgage companies, attorneys, and other participants, notifying each one by their preferred communication method (e-mail, PDA, fax, phone) when a document has been received. Because the clients can see documents for themselves, they are less intimidated by the long, paper-laden transaction closing process.

"Steven's family lived in Houston and his brother was a lawyer," recalls Payne. "He wanted to be in touch with his family. He got to share his SmartClose code with family members so they could get online and look at the inspection report, survey and other documents. He would ask them, "Should I sign this?" and they would e-mail back and give him the OK.

Payne says that stress was significantly reduced all the way around, even at the closing.

The American Deaf Association requires that an interpreter be present for closings involving deaf principals. "It just made it all easier," says Payne. "Steven came to the closing with his interpreter, and it made the interpreter's job easier because Steven didn't have to go into detail explaining things. The documents are right there online."

Despite the ease of technology, Payne's signing is an important plus for her clients.

"It's personally rewarding," says Payne. "I am better at communicating with my aunt, but I have taken classes to improve my vocabulary. Every vocabulary word has a sign name so you don't have to finger spell it. "

Explains Payne, "The sign for computer is to put your hands in the air, cup your hands so they look like two letter "Cs" and pull the left hand slightly above and wiggle your hands slightly."

And what is the sign to celebrate a closing? Laughs Payne, "You wave your hands above your head and wiggle your fingers!"

(c) Copyright 2001 Realty Times. Reprinted with permission.

Blanche Evans is a writer/editor and CEO of evansEmedia. Formerly, she was a senior editor with Realty Times, where she was named by REALTOR® Magazine as one of the most influential people in the real estate industry.

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