Technology's Sweep Only Beginning to Be Felt

February 1, 1996

Technology and its implications for real estate's future have fueled countless articles, seminars, and debates in recent years. But significant changes are in the offing. Are you ready for them? "The entire real estate business is being reengineered, piece by piece," observes Michael Hanrahan, owner of Real Estate Software Advisors, San Francisco.

Hanrahan and other observers expect those changes will be driven by a combination of office and sales force automation, on-line communications, interactive TV, and virtual---on-screen---property tours. In the short run, the computer---a fundamental tool of this technology era---still promises the most significant change in the working life of the typical practitioner.

For years, Hanrahan has counseled the industry on its move to computers. He believes the ease of use of today's affordable computer systems, combined with availability of sophisticated software, eliminates obstacles that once discouraged many from computerizing their businesses.

He advises brokers and salespeople that you develop a technology strategy: "Build a system of tools that'll let you enhance your strengths and overcome your weaknesses." It may begin with something as simple as a cellular phone or pager and grow to include a computer system. Building the right system can prove more elusive than purchasing a piece of equipment, however.

Build a System That Makes You an Information Master

Gerald Matthews, executive vice president of the Florida Association of REALTORS®, and someone who researches and lectures on technology topics, believes brokers need whatever hardware and software will give them ready access to information relevant to the traditional transaction. "I use them all: portable computer, cellular phone, pager, E-mail and network services," he reports. "Everything helps me communicate or get the information I need regardless of where I am or what time it is. I'm just looking forward to the day when I can have it all in one package."

In today's competitive market, Hanrahan says, "to improve profit, you've got to be able to focus on revenue-generating activities rather than costs alone." Integrated office systems, which can track all activity related to the business and turn that information into reports or marketing tools, should be the goal.

Like brokers, salespeople should consider first the information they'd like to have at their fingertips. "If salespeople are analytical, they already understand how a computer with a good database can serve their business," says Hanrahan. Adds Rolf Anderson, a Forest City, Iowa brokerage owner and technology consultant, "Once your data is under control, you can do just about anything you want with it."

A good starting point: contact management software with database management functions. Once the data is in the system, you can use the information for tracking activity, producing marketing materials, or creating desktop presentations. Whether that computer is deskbound or portable will depend on your personal preference and style. One need you should count on: a modem that'll provide Internet access, as well as a host of other communications benefits.

A Web of Debate

Lately, there has been so much hype about the World Wide Web it's difficult to assess just how it will affect real estate. Part of the problem is that all predictions are couched in references to a business world that has evolved without this World Wide Web link. Everyone foresees a role for Internet access, but there's no consensus on what it will be or its long-term significance.

Real estate's early innovators aren't waiting for the answer to reveal itself. Becky Swann, a Texas-based REALTOR® and publisher of the on-line Internet Real Estate Directory and News, estimates that at least 2,500 REALTORS® already have World Wide Web home pages, with more opening up each day. She predicts that real estate practitioners will be using the Internet for communicating, marketing, and farming. "People will have to be on-line or out of business," in her estimation.

Buyers and sellers "will be able to log on and find as much data as they can get from any practitioner today," agrees Hanrahan. "But we won't be selling houses off a screen. Buying property will remain an emotional decision," and a visit to the site an integral part of the process.

The Web is already starting to include the electronic equivalent of the classified listing. But with the electronic listings, prospects also have an opportunity to take a digitized tour of the property; view a map showing where it is in relation to shopping, schools, churches, and the business district; and browse through a history of the area and adjacent properties.

Your Role Will Change; So May Your Workplace

Consequently, your role could evolve from a provider of such information to interpreter of what all the data means for each individual buyer. "Unless you can start bringing consultative value to the transaction, you won't be needed," suggests Matthews. "That consulting fits into the areas where buyers or sellers aren't competent or feel uneasy about making the decision."

The technology that promises to redefine your roles could also force a rethinking of the workplace. With an information and communications link anywhere, anytime, the office's location will become secondary to the processes that fill your workday.

"I don't know whether anyone is going to want to or need to go to an office anymore," agrees Swann. "Brokers may feel they need that kind of control, but there are more options opening up for the rest of us."

The next two years will be chaotic, according to Anderson. In fact, things are advancing so fast, he believes it's risky to project beyond that period. "I think everyone's business card will have an E-mail address, and we'll see much more animated presentations being made on laptops. Technology will change the way we work, but I don't think it's going to replace us."

The Voices of Experience

What can technology do for you? The best indicators may be found in how other practitioners have learned to rely on the tools of the information age.

Today, as publisher of the Internet Real Estate Directory and News, an electronic guide to industry sites on the World Wide Web, Becky Swann spreads the word about the strategic advantages of on-line communications.

She goes on-line for discussions with prospects and peers. "I've used the network to get in touch with salespeople in other parts of the country or world and learn how real estate is practiced there," she says. "People don't move across town anymore; they move across the country. It helps to know what expectations clients bring when they move to one area from another."

Rolf Anderson, a Forest City, Iowa, brokerage owner and technology consultant, cites a more visible benefit from his computer usage. "As soon as I open my portable computer in front of a buyer or seller, it helps open up a new level of dialogue," he says. "People expect us to be sophisticated. When people see me asking them questions and entering the answers into my computer, they become my customer."

If you've been postponing your technological leap forward, you've exhausted your excuses. In every product category, today's market offers affordable equipment that's easily learned and used, and packed with the features and performance that'll enable you to work smarter.

Entrust responsibility for mastering technology to someone else, and you're assigning them the opportunities that should be yours.

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