Getting Wired: Technology Makeovers

What happens when two tech experts take on two technology-leery students? You get near-hands-on advice on making tech investments pay off.

March 1, 2000

After three years in real estate, Susan Sanders says she’s ready to kick up the volume on her business. What better time to be offered a technology makeover? Nothing like a pile of state-of-the-art equipment, expert advice, and the pressure of a national audience to help you succeed.

In November, Sanders, of Iowa Realty, West Des Moines, Iowa, and another lucky practitioner, Gracinda Maier, of Prudential California Realty, Del Mar, Calif., were chosen for a technology overhaul.

“The timing’s great for me. It will help me focus and really boost my sales,” Sanders says.

Choosing makeover candidates wasn’t easy: There’s no simple way to pick two of 750,000 readers for a high-tech conversion (see “What Gracinda and Susan got”). With the help of two real estate technology experts--Rolf Anderson and Saul Klein--we selected Sanders (page 40) and Maier (page 42) because they represented the type of real estate professional with the most to gain from technology: Each had a solid business and was comfortable with computers but wasn’t using technology to the fullest. Both were motivated to learn and committed to making the effort. Just as important: Sanders and Maier live near the experts, Anderson and Klein, respectively, who’ll serve as their tech mentors over the next year.

The makeovers commenced in December 1999, and over a five-week period, Anderson and Klein assessed the two practitioners’ needs and recommended improvements to help them become more efficient, appear more professional, communicate more frequently and more easily, and ultimately make more money.

As with anything new, there’s a learning curve to climb when attacking new technology. “You get these wonderful toys, and even though I’ve seen them before and even used some of them, it’s still a lot to take in,” says Maier.

Sanders got frustrated with one of her earliest assignments: to enter her contact list of about 250 names into a database. “But suddenly a light came on. I realized that when I’m done, this software will walk me through all the steps I used to have to remember to do on my own,” such as ordering tests or checking on financing. “I began to see how this will save me time and make me more productive in the long run.”

That’s great for Sanders and Maier, but what about you? Read on: By putting the experts’ advice to work, you too can see dividends from your technology investment.

No.1: Susan Sanders

Iowa Realty, West Des Moines, Iowa
Years in business: 3

Technological starting point: Used a computer for correspondence and e-mail to communicate with clients. Had no Web site beyond a name-and-address page on Iowa Realty’s site. Had used a digital camera to take photos for the MLS.

Attitude: Sanders is leery of technology for technology’s sake but isn’t intimidated by it. “I’m open to technology, but I haven’t taken advantage of it in my real estate business,” says Sanders. “But after three years in business, I have enough clients that I can’t keep everything in my head any longer.”

Tech mentor: Rolf O. Anderson, CRS®, Rolf Anderson Seminars, Forest City, Iowa;

Greatest need: “Like many of us, Susan needs to communicate more with her sphere of influence,” says Anderson. “She’s concentrating so hard on working with current buyers and sellers that she’s forgetting about maintaining contacts.”

Business on the go

Susan Sanders doesn’t work straight nine-to-five days. “I spend time with my kids during the day,” she says. “I go to their swim meets, then catch up on work at night.”

For Sanders, technology is a way to keep her business going while she’s on the go.

Perhaps that’s why she’s so taken with one of the newest mobility tools--the Supra eKEY Palm Vx, a pocket-size computer with all of Palm’s personal productivity functions, plus Top Producer software. She uses it to log her to-do lists, lockbox codes, auto expenses, and her kids’ Social Security numbers; to take notes on home inspections; and to keep her daily schedule. “I love the calendar functions,” she says. “I didn’t even purchase a 2000 paper calendar.”

By April, Sanders’ eKEY will have MLS access and be fitted with a case that will open lockboxes and track showing activity.

Instead of a keyboard, eKEY users write with an implement called a stylus to input information. The eKEY rests in a charger each night while it automatically synchronizes information with the user’s desktop computer. Each night the eKEY will also download local MLS property data and member rosters so that users can access and sort MLS data from the road without a modem connection.

Sanders’ mobility toolbox also includes her first laptop computer. Aside from keeping her mobile, the laptop will also help her serve her clients better. “At Sunday open houses, I’ll have live MLS access from the laptop,” she says. “I’ll also be able to access Iowa Realty’s intranet to download forms like purchase agreements.”

Having mobile access to her contact database will also help her be ready for clients’ requests. “At home or in the office, I’ll have the laptop on and in front of me so that when I get a phone call, I can find that person’s entry and be familiar with the file right away.”

New tools add coat of polish

Sanders expects that these and other tech tools will enhance her professional image. Using the Kodak digital camera and the HP color printer, she can now produce high-quality color postcards and flyers to impress her clients and potential buyers.

Sanders had used an older model digital camera and was already sold on the time- and cost-saving benefits of going digital (no running to the one-hour developer with only 10 shots on a roll to get pictures for a new listing). But with the new camera, which is faster, higher resolution, and easier to use, she says she’ll probably use more photos to help market her listings. “I can take good indoor room shots with the wide-angle lens,” she says.

The ‘e’ in marketing

Sanders built her business through referrals. Now she’ll use e-mail to market herself more aggressively.

“I’m looking forward to getting an e-mail marketing program started,” she says. “I’m eager to see what business I can generate with a more proactive approach.”

Sanders plans to launch a quarterly e-newsletter. She’ll save money on printing and postage and will draw traffic to her Web site by linking to information.

Job one from Anderson: Start collecting e-mail addresses. “It’s surprising how many people you get e-mails from that you can add to your list,” she says.

After transferring all her contact information into contact management software On-Line Agent, Sanders was able for the first time to put her past customers on a periodic contact schedule, using their closing date as the launch date.

Her goal is to have more frequent contact--via e-mail and print--with a select group of people. “I’m not comfortable with cold calling or mass mailings,” she says. “But this database will help me contact more often the people I know and customize the communication.”

To start, Sanders created a database of contacts, including past buyers and sellers, top area salespeople, neighbors, her accountant, and even her piano tuner. On-Line Agent will help her categorize and sort her contacts by group so that she can automatically generate customized letters to past sellers, referrals, or church contacts, for instance.

“Of course, I could write my own letters--my background is in writing and marketing,” says Sanders, “but I’m just not doing it, so why not let someone else do the work for me?”

The payoff

Sanders projects that, working with Anderson, she’ll see a 25 percent to 30 percent increase in sales volume the first year. “Being in front of my customers will generate repeats and referrals that I’m not getting now,” she says.

Perhaps most important, Sanders expects that her new automation will reduce her stress level by relieving her of the responsibility of remembering the details of every transaction. “I carry a lot in my head right now,” she says, “and I look forward to being able to free up that space.”

No.2: Gracinda Maier

Prudential California Realty, Del Mar, Calif.
Years in business: 17

Technological starting point: Was using a computer to access the MLS, do CMAs, and print labels. Used contact management software to keep phone numbers and used e-mail (minimally). Had a Web site, but it was unsophisticated and static.

Attitude: “I’ve been able to get away with not making the most of technology, but I’m not going to be able to much longer. Consumers are demanding more. Fortunately, technology’s getting easier.”

Tech mentor: Saul Klein, InternetCrusade, San Diego, Calif.;

Greatest need: “Connectivity--the ability to use the Internet to communicate with her sphere of influence” to market and prospect, says Klein. “Gracinda had a good pool of buyers, but she didn’t have a steady flow of listings coming in. She’ll get more listings as a result of regular communication.”

The sharper image

Gracinda Maier’s motivation to put high tech to work is the subtle nudge she’s getting from her clients. “Consumers are demanding more, and we almost look obsolete if we don’t use these tools,” she says.

Maier says she needs to know at least as much as her clients do. “Recently, clients walked in with a PalmPilot and pulled up all the addresses of the houses they wanted to see and the times of the open houses, and I was flipping through my notes trying to keep up.”

Aside from helping her appear more professional, Maier expects these tools to improve the level of service her clients receive and therefore lead to new business and more referrals.

“I think this will help me get new business--how much, I don’t know,” she says. “But I definitely think these tools will prevent me from losing business. In the past, potential clients might have decided not to do business with me because I was doing business the old way.”

Maier already had a Web site, but “it wasn’t productive. It was just there,” she says. “I know some Web sites are bringing in business, and I want to take advantage of that, too.”

Tech mentor Klein recommended that Maier maintain at least two sites. Her site at REALTOR.COM is like a Yellow Pages ad: It’s a must-have for the tremendous consumer traffic it attracts, he says.

For a Web presence of her own, Maier also has, where she has links to her listings, and offers other useful information, such as local school data and the condo covenants for a development she works in.

Customer service: adding value

“I used to have the attitude that by the time I meet with my clients, I should be prepared, so why would I need to mess with a laptop?” says Maier. But when she discovered all the ways she could benefit her clients by using a laptop, she reconsidered.

Maier plans to use PREP Presentations, which offers a library of listing presentation templates. By using her laptop during listing appointments, she says, she’ll be able to do live net sheets, calculate mortgage payments, and print out MLS sheets with color photos right in front of the client.

She’ll also be perceived as more valuable to her clients, she says. “It’ll be great to be able to access the MLS from the car and get instant information.”

Maier figures the laptop will also save her time. “If I’m meeting with a client, I can input my notes into the contact manager right there,” she says. “I don’t have to write it on a piece of paper, go home, lose it for a while, then finally input the information.”

Marketing power

Like Sanders, Maier plans to develop an electronic marketing program to bring in additional business. “I like the idea of farming by e-mail,” she says. “I don’t think e-mail will replace older methods of marketing, but it will be another way to market.”

Tools like digital cameras, color printers, and contact management software will make it easier to create postcards and flyers and to send a lot more of them, she says.

Previously, to send a postcard mailing, Maier would send photos and text to one department at Prudential, wait three or four days to get the designed card back, and then send it to another department to be mailed. “Now I can do most of the work myself.”

Editor’s note:Watch for a follow-up story in the fall on Maier’s and Sanders’ progress.

What Gracinda and Susan got

We couldn’t have accomplished this presentation without the help of a number of generous donors. Thanks to Rolf Anderson and Saul Klein for donating their time and expertise and to the following vendors for contributing the technology tools.

  • IBM ThinkPad laptop computers, model 1412 with Celeron processor, 32MB RAM, and 5GBhard drive.
  • i-Lead home page custom Web sites at, platinum level (one year).
  • Hewlett Packard, HP 970Cxi photo-quality color printer with duplex attachment; print speed of 10 pages per minute.
  • Internet Crusade, InternetCrusade Web sites, which can be maintained and updated by the user without programming knowledge, plus Web presence video.
  • Kodak, Kodak DC280 zoom digital camera with 2 megapixel resolution, superwide angle lens, and 20MB memory card that holds up to 245 pictures.
  • Moore Data Management Services, On-Line Agent 3.0 contact management and prospecting software.
  • PREP Software, PREP Suite 4.0 contact management, marketing, and presentation software with training videos.
  • Supra Products, SUPRA eKEY Palm Vx loaded with Top Producer software and soon to feature access to MLS property data and member roster, lockbox functions, and showing tracker.

Sara Geimer is the manager of REALTOR® Magazine's Good Neighbor Awards and a former senior editor with the magazine.

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