As any half-competent real estate agent will tell you, in order to survive in the industry, you’ve got to hustle. In the United States, where real estate has been white hot since the late ’90s, agents are especially competitive, necessitating instant communications between them, their offices and their clients.
According to Mike Crowley, VP of the Century 21 Automated Real Estate Center in Southern California, agents in the Orange County region spend approximately 90 percent of their time on the road. One missed call could mean a lost sale.
“Besides needing to reply to customers very quickly, realtors—by the nature of their business—are out in the field and out on the road, and they need the ability to not be out of contact with their clients,” says Crowley. “They must always be able to contact their clients and sellers easily. With the unified communications and messaging technology, they are able to do that, and they are able to concentrate on more things at the same time, and they are able to do them all simply and easily.”
In an effort to boost communications between agents and their clients, the company recently implemented the Seneca system by Applied Voice & Speech Technologies (AVST), a developer of enterprise communications technologies based in Foothill Ranch, Calif. As a result, Century 21 agents are not required to be at their desks nearly as much as before.
“Letting people do things while they are on the road is a tremendous benefit,” notes Denny Michael, VP of marketing at AVST. “Being able to communicate faster, better and more efficiently, and being connected to a potential buyer faster, is going to be beneficial. When you are out on the road and you need to connect to e-mail, fax messages or voicemail, it’s great to have all of that on a centralized system.”
AVST’s system enables Century 21 agents to better manage their voice, fax and e-mail messages in several ways. First, they may list just one phone number in their advertisements, since, if they choose, all calls may be automatically forwarded to their mobile phone. The system is driven by voice-activated commands that don’t require users to memorize a set of keystrokes to perform specific tasks.
With the AVST system, users listen to their messages (which, whether they are voicemail or e-mail, are read back via voice technology). Instead of returning to the office to answer e-mail, users can dictate messages to the system and send them from the road without having to type a word. There are also a variety of helpful features.
“The ‘Acknowledge’ feature is for when you are in the middle of a task—like going through security at the airport—and you really can’t have the conversation, but you want to let the caller know that you are busy right now and that you need to get back to them,” Michael elaborates. “You have several choices: you may accept the call, delete the call or acknowledge the user.”
“Whisper Tone” acts as a virtual secretary: If you are on one call and another call comes in, the system will, on a separate channel, “whisper” the name of the caller, helping you to decide whether to interrupt your current call or not.
The system is actually safer, too, since its hands-free feature doesn’t require one to enter keystrokes while driving. “The hands-free aspect, where you are able to drive your car with two hands on the wheel, is much safer,” says Michael, “as is using a voice command rather than having to look down for a phone number and trying to dial the phone while driving.”
On the Go and In the Know
Like Crowley, Dennis Otto, a realtor at Pacific Union in the San Francisco Bay Area, is constantly searching for more efficient ways to conduct business in this especially heated market. “The biggest thing is the fact that we don’t sit at a desk all day. We are out and about, and a lot of what develops over the course of the day develops very rapidly,” he says. “For example, I might be at one appointment, and the next appointment might develop. To be able to access information about a location or communicate with a client without having to go back to the office to get that information is really helpful to me.”
Otto recently began using Smart2Go, a mobile GPS and mapping system developed by gate5. Compatible with a number of PalmSource, Pocket PC, Symbian and various other PDAs, this software acts as a personal navigator that provides directions as well as information on local venues, such as coffee shops, restaurants, movie theaters and attractions.
“An advantage of having mapping, navigation and content with you all the time is that you don’t feel the need to go back to the office to see if something happened there,” explains David Rolf, managing director at gate5 North America. “If you get a call from a client because they saw a place at 8:00 p.m. and they want to get moving on it, but they want to know things like how long their commute would be to work, or what the nearest metro stations are, having a map of the entire city and that information with you is clearly an advantage.”
Rolf adds that the information Smart2Go provides is stored locally on a data card, eliminating the need for its dependence on cellular networks, which aren’t always reliable.
Otto notes that the incorporation of mobile technology into his work life enables him to better enjoy his personal life. “One of the other difficulties of real estate is that it is far from being a 9-to-5 job. To be able to maintain a social life and personal life outside of work, and integrate those with work, is sometimes difficult,” he relays. “If you have the mobile technology in your hand, it saves a lot of the hassle of running back and forth to the office while you are trying to integrate other things into your life.”
The biggest challenge Century 21 faced after installing the new system had little to do with the technology itself, Crowley explains. “Looking back at when we did the install a year and a half ago, the challenge was the learning curve. It was a completely new way of doing things for people. People were still ingrained in the old way of: call the voicemail system, check the message, write it down, hang up, call the person back and so on.”
Michael maintains that once users are aware of all of the features that are available to them, the system is relatively easy to operate. “For example, the fact that you can have your e-mails read to you—text to speech—via your cell phone is very powerful, and very few people actually know that this exists. It is so much more convenient over having to go and plug in a laptop somewhere or find a Wi-Fi set-up if they need to know how to connect, or go back to the office to get that information,” he says. “Having that power and understanding how to use it is part of the learning curve. It’s there—the technology that supports it is there. Once you have it, you really don’t want to go back to doing things the other way.”
To operate the system, the only thing that users must know how to do is deliver simple voice commands—much the way the characters on Star Trek do when interacting with the ship’s main computer. “Prior to voice we had DTMF, which is basically touchtones. You had to remember a series of keystrokes to forward a message or make any other action happen,” Michael notes. “With a voice-driven system, you say: ‘Get new e-mail.’ Once you have said that phrase, it’s ingrained. ‘Forward e-mail’ is another command. It’s very easy once you understand those steps.”
Crowley estimates that it was approximately one month after the installation before things were running smoothly. “When we first did the install, a mass education process was required. That, for companies considering technologies like this, is the key. If you educate people up front, it works better,” he advises. The bulk of Century 21’s staff, or approximately 80 percent of the personnel, was proficient at using the system within a month. Others were trained as required. “Once you are able to bring people into the system incrementally, one by one, you can give them more hands-on training and get them up to speed within a few days.
One of the most significant benefits that Century 21 has recognized is the decreased need for its agents to work out of the office, which resulted in the company downsizing its Orange County location. “This has played hand-in-hand with our strategy as we went forward with the installation,” Crowley explains. “At the same time we installed the system we also down-sized to a smaller footprint. We are housing the same number of agents in a smaller facility. In conjunction with the voice and the unified messaging capabilities, we have seen, over time, that our agents have been more flexible and more mobile, and have not had to use the office all that much.”
Crowley counts himself among these professionals. “In looking at my personal habits over the past year and a half, I have almost completely untethered myself from my laptop,” he says. “I go from office to office quite frequently, and I find, more and more, that all I need to have with me is my combination PDA/cell phone. And if I need to do some computer work, I can use one of the public workstations in one of the offices and do it from there. I am mobile, but still efficient and productive.”
Michael predicts that as companies begin to recognize the return on investment of voice-driven mobile technology, systems like AVST’s will become the standard. “I think that the adoption curve of speech, from a manufacturer’s perspective, has started to increase dramatically as more and more customers are aware of speech and are now asking for it,” he says. “They are starting to see it, so they can recognize the benefits. In the old days, it was hard for them to recognize the benefits. Until you start seeing people using the technology, you can’t always see the benefits.”