How tech-savvy brokers deal with second job: proptech ‘ambassador’

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Technology is put in place to make things easier, and ultimately, more affordable. The more efficiently a business can run, the easier it becomes to operate, and then scale. Just ask Jeff Bezos.

Real estate professionals like to think their tech investments are moving the industry in this direction. But on a fundamental level, brokerages don’t operate like an assembly line. They rely on agents — people who may not want, or think they need, the technology necessary to improve burdensome transaction processes.

Still, some forward-thinking brokers are trying.

Brokers who invest in sophisticated, integrated tech stacks often find that they have to sell their own agents on the technology’s merits — a time-consuming and often frustrating task, according to real estate professionals who spoke with Intel for this piece. In interviews with brokers and agents, Intel sought to understand what practices work best for brokerage companies trying to get the most out of their technology, as well as the factors holding some firms back.

The picture that emerged suggested that some brokers are dealt an easier hand than others. Smaller operations reported having a leg up in achieving stricter buy-in across the board, while larger operations sometimes succeeded with a softer, more balanced approach. Ultimately, buy-in often comes down to the agents themselves.

Some agents are eager to check out new tech, Intel learned. But many are satisfied doing it their own way with only a basic suite of services consisting of eSignature tools, lockboxes and tools from MLS vendor partnerships, according to the 2022 National Association of Realtors Technology Survey.

These insights and others below emerged from Intel’s conversations. And they carried implications for whether real estate’s complicated ecosystem will ever arrive at a consistent level of service for brokers, agents, buyers and sellers.

A portrait of a tech-fueled operation

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Craig Rowe | Inman

Investing in a sophisticated tech infrastructure can reap benefits for a brokerage. But it also creates obligations on a broker’s time and attention — especially in winning over agents — that can be a challenge, Blackbook Properties broker-owner Sep Niakan told Intel.

“You have to sort of become the ambassador for the product, the cheerleader, and then follow up with success stories that people have had,” Niakan said. “You have to show them how it will make them money and save them time.”

Niakan’s business, which serves agents in the luxury high-rise market in Miami, operates with a small staff that depends on its highly integrated technology stack. Without such a sophisticated tech setup, Niakan said, everything they do “would fall apart completely.”

It all starts with a lead-catching website, which Niakan has linked to his CRM, the popular industry option Follow Up Boss, or FUB.

“Our CRM is deeply integrated with our website,” he said. ”So literally everything anyone does on our website, we can see what they’ve done, where they’ve gone. When we contact them, we don’t use our phones, we use FUB’s power-dialer so we can actually have a history of all texts and phone calls made back and forth between different leads and prospects.”

From there, tags in the CRM will activate newsletter subscriptions with SendGrid, an enterprise email marketing platform used for automating sales communications for very large tech companies like Uber, Airbnb and Instacart. The service heavily promotes its integration flexibility, making it an ideal option for Niakan.

“The first thing I do is make sure that the tool integrates with other things, with hopefully an API but if not, at least it has a pretty robust integration with the various other tools that I use,” Niakan told Intel. 

Niakan’s use of tech doesn’t stop there. He’s an active user of Slack, the workplace chat app that can reduce in-house email.

For transactions, he’s also reached outside the industry to experiment with a project management solution called Monday. This product is designed for organizing complex, multi-party business actions. If it goes well, he has himself a competitive advantage by finding a solution that is not in use at just any other brokerage.

“I typically like to use best-in-class products, I’ll pay for the premium,” he said. “You usually get what you pay for.”

On top of actual money, Niakan invests a great deal of his time creating his own training videos. He’ll record himself using specific features, have them edited then saved and categorized on Google Meet. He also records and edits weekly team meetings.

“My editor slices them up into the different topics,” Niakan said. “And we have a massive video library of every topic that we’ve discussed over the years. Then I sub-categorize [the videos]. It’s all stored on Google Drive.”

Niakan’s tech stack is well vetted and integrated, casting a wide net for leads and leveraging a traditional, tech-enabled sales funnel to nurture, convert and close. And it’s all designed to bind with collaborative solutions like Slack and Google Meet.

This level of commitment to technology isn’t typical, and managing it isn’t a passive endeavor. It takes a great deal of time and money — a reality Niakan willingly accepts if it means his business will benefit. But it all comes down to getting the agents who use these services on board with his ideas.

Niakan stresses that the training has to be specific to how and what they sell. Most vendor-provided trainings are about how to use a specific feature, not how to apply it to the everyday.

“You need focused training on actual use cases for agent X, agent Y, and agent Z,” he said.

Striking a balance

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Image by Craig Rowe | Inman

Part of why Niakan’s approach works so well is that he runs such a small operation. In larger offices, it’s not quite as easy to leverage such narrow use cases for technology, Intel found.

Brenda Thompson is the managing broker and owner of HomeSmart Stars in Plano, Texas, where 115 agents hang their licenses. She’s long integrated software into her personal practice and is proud to consider herself an early adopter. But it’s not a label she expects all of her agents to equally acknowledge.

“You have to find their comfort level, explore a little bit,” she told Intel.

“If you don’t know them well, you ask a few questions to see what level of a tech space they’re in. And sometimes you point them to the simplest [product] that’s maybe template-based, and it’s turned on for them and they have everything they need,” she said in reference to marketing software.

Thompson discusses with her agents how they like to market and communicate, and helps them decide which solution best tackles that.

She finds it best to provide her sales teams with technology options, but options that she’s chosen, like Chime and kvCORE, or HomeSmart’s in-house software, for example. Thompson said she feels a little like a technology salesperson at times, but not a pushy one.

“I let them know about something that I’m excited about, that can help their business,” Thompson said. “I don’t feel like I really have to twist their arms or try to pitch them on the product.”

She knows some agents doing great business without any semblance of a web presence.

“But, most agents recognize the need for tech help in keeping up with their current transactions, and keeping up with past clients,” she said.

Thompson leans on her more tech-savvy team members to help those who may not yet be power users, and feels that having to access the vendor’s support structure can lead to more angst.

“I do have a couple of people on each platform that can answer a few basic questions, because there’s already a common relationship there,” she said. “I find that if I have to turn them over to go to the chat bar on the third-party vendor site, there’s a disconnect.”

Thompson advises fellow brokers that when choosing a system for their office, they should do exactly what they would expect of their agents and, in many ways, of their homebuyers.

“They need to spend the time upfront to explore and investigate what they want for their office, what they want for their agents, and find a tech tool that best supports all of their wants and needs, kind of the pros and cons, the must-haves,” she told Intel. “They need to demo, they need to ask for reviews and maybe even get a list of users that they can call.”

Expect implementation to take longer than what the label says, Thompson advises. Lean on a single internal contact at the vendor during that time, and once it’s in place, stand by that decision.

“They need to be 100 percent invested in that product,” Thompson said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t listen to thoughts and advice on other products, it just means that they need to say, ‘This is what I’ve chosen.’”

Niakan agrees, admitting that he’s often working as a technology sales professional.

“I’m not only selling tech every day to my clients, who are my agents,” he said. “But I’m also training every day. And I am guiding them on how to use it.”

He says he encourages agents to think about which questions or comments need to be in what Slack channel, for example.

“For me, tech and business process are the same thing, whether it’s nudging someone to go from one [Slack] channel to another or use their CRM instead of their phone. It’s all about business processes.”

Like all smart business leaders, Niakan and Thompson are always on the lookout for ways to continue to improve the operation, but admit that proptechs like to pitch, and there’s always something else that earns their attention, whether needed or not.

Niakan says he goes with his gut when it comes to switching or trying something new. When things are going well, he subscribes to an, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” mentality, often deleting emails from vendors he has no use for before reading.

“If there’s something in my belly that says things need to get better, that’s when I look at the product I have and ask them about it,” Niakan said. “‘Hey, I feel like there’s got to be a better way than this.’”

Thompson does the same thing and sees it as productive relationship-building with her trusted technology partners.

“There are always going to be new things that come out that you think gosh, I wish my product, whatever it is, had that feature,“ Thompson told Intel. ”Investigate it a little bit, then go back to the company you’re working with and ask if that’s a feature they’re looking at.”

Thompson sees AI as a great example of an emerging technology that will grab a lot of brokers’ attention. She’s into it, she said, but isn’t ready to dive in headfirst.

“Committing to something new is huge; it’s a lot of work,” she said. “If you decide you’re going to sunset a product, and convert all of your agents and all of your business over to product No. 2, that conversion is painful.”

Plus, Thompson maintains what some consider an “old school” balance, holding firm to the notion that overly digitized communications can jeopardize relationships, and that too many texts and too much email dilute sincerity and intent.

“We need to be able to remind ourselves to have actual conversations in life,” she said. ”It’s easy for either of those platforms [email and text] to be too short and too quick. And you’re relying upon the mood of the person receiving it to receive it in the manner that you were trying to deliver it.”

Brand vs. productivity

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However, sometimes technology becomes a friction point that can come between agent and broker.

“I know agents who couldn’t download or even access their email inbox when leaving a brokerage,” said Karen Stone of Park City, Utah, who holds a license there and in New York City. “The broker wouldn’t allow it.”

What Stone, an Inman Ambassador, is saying is that when a broker is having a hard time getting a technology recommendation to be heard, it may stem from a longstanding distrust that whatever is entered into a CRM or written in a blog on a company website ultimately becomes property of the company.

Stone said she has a great balance now, with brokers at two firms that trust her decisions and offer a good deal of technological flexibility, but it wasn’t always the case.

“Brand, so many of them care more about the brand than the agent,” she told Intel.

Thus, Stone seeks opportunities to leverage marketing tools that minimize the broker’s colors and logos, but with the understanding that she very much respects who she works for.

It’s true that good agents succeed when given autonomy and the freedom to make informed decisions about the tools they use to close deals. But a certain level of knowledge from a broker about the tools available to their agents should be an expectation of the job, especially today.

Another source of mistrust stems from brokers not doing enough to expose themselves to new products and ideas, she said. Stone introduced a fast-growing marketing and presentation tool at a sales meeting, and was essentially blown off because the broker hadn’t heard of it.

“But it’s all over the Inman show, and they don’t go to those,” Stone said. “And then think about all the rest of the brokers in the industry that don’t attend industry conferences. Where do they learn about what’s good for their agents?”

As independent contractors, it can be argued that it’s up to the agent to determine what’s best for them and their clients. Yet, the industry depends, legally, on the brokerage model, and brokers fight hard to find, retain and build trust with agents. Part of that implicit promise to provide for them includes knowing what tools the industry offers.

Many brokers can get by offering relatively little, as evidenced by the NAR survey indicating that the most rudimentary advancements are considered “impactful.”

Digital signatures have been legal for almost three decades and are considered commonplace to any consumer younger than 60, lockboxes have virtually no measurable impact on an agent’s career success and “MLS apps/technology,” also named in the survey, are paid for by the agent through association dues.

The fact that these three categories are considered important is tantamount to a car dealer touting intermittent wipers or the ability to save a radio station.

In response to a more direct question about brokerage-provided technology, according to the survey, “Respondents found that these technology tools provided by their brokerage were very valuable: eSignature (67 percent), Lockbox/Showing tech (53 percent), transaction management (45percent), and video conference (40 percent).“

Transaction management tools, again, can largely be considered a simple cost of doing business, a basic expense for any real estate business considered even remotely aligned with consumer needs, and the same can be said for access to a showing solution. Video conference tools are also inexpensive and in many cases, free.

Less than half, 35 percent, said their brokerage provides them with all the technology tools they need and just over a quarter, 26 percent, responded to that question with “strongly agree.”

If lockboxes, showing solutions and video conferencing are considered “all the technology needed to succeed,” then the industry is staggeringly unaware of the current array of sophisticated business tools that exist on the market.

Furthermore, who’s to blame for that sprawling knowledge gap?

Stone seemed miffed, to put it mildly, when Intel shared the NAR survey with her.

“I pay for my own e-signature tool, I pay for my lockboxes. Is this a cost of doing business? Is this where my split goes?” she told Intel.

“It’s an interesting dynamic, and I can totally see value if the brokerage is paying for and supplying me with tools that help my business. But if they don’t innovate or constantly aim higher, then what are the agents really getting? The same old? I think so.”

The buy-in struggle

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To some, Stone might be an outlier. But such a tech-seeking agent would be greatly appreciated by Nelene Gibbs, principal broker and owner of two firms, one in Virginia and the other a bit south, in the second-home market of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

She told Intel that she’s tried to pitch software products to her team over the years, but there’s simply no buy-in.

“Everyone wants to do their own thing, and I got to the point where I was like, ‘Well, you guys do that then,’” she said.

Asked why her agents wouldn’t want a solution provided or recommended to them, Gibbs is at a loss.

“I’ve had a brokerage for ten years now, and maybe it’s the breed of the person who becomes an agent, they’re so independent,” Gibbs said. “They don’t need anybody.”

Gibbs, who also actively sells, said she has spent “tons of money” on sales training programs for her offices, even self-paced offerings that allow for at-home participation.

“I’d start off with six or eight [agents] and by the end, I’d have one or two,” Gibbs told Intel.

She would monitor logins only to find nobody joined.

“I just felt like I was spinning my wheels, and I don’t know if they don’t see the value in it, or don’t think they need it,” Gibbs said.

She said she speaks with other brokers about ways to engage agents or switch it up to spark interest. Her only option is to offer transaction mentorship when it’s needed and assist them with other challenging aspects of the job.

Gibbs admits to being more relationship-based than performance-focused, telling Intel she understands bad months happen, and that there’s always an ebb and flow to the business. She hopes her agents take the same approach with their clients.

Like Stone, Gibbs wonders where some brokers and agents find out about new ways to help to their business.

“I love technology, and if I find something that I think will help their business, I’m willing to invest,” she said, but the traction isn’t there. “As a broker, it can be really frustrating.”

In April, Intel conducted its first survey on how brokers and industry leaders choose and implement business software. Our results showed that a single, end-to-end application remains elusive and that brokers largely reflect Gibbs’ approach: Let agents figure out what works best.

One question asked respondents who work at companies affiliated with major brands if they use that brand’s entire tech stack. But only 12.5 percent of the people who responded to the survey said that they do.

Meanwhile, 42.3 percent of respondents who were affiliated with a major brand indicated that they use “some” of their firm’s tech. (Another 36 percent of respondents worked at companies that aren’t affiliated with a major brand.)

This aligns with Thompson’s strategy of using what HomeSmart provides in conjunction with third-party tools.

Intel’s survey asked specifically about providing CRM applications. Only half of respondents did, Intel learned.

About 35 percent of respondents indicated that they give agents both options — indicating once again that it may be common for industry members to pick and choose which pieces of their companies’ technology they want to use.

Do consumers count?

The industry, it appears, remains in flux about what technology brokerages should provide. It’s a malleable marketplace that requires the skills to read your people. If some value guidance, others require it, and many don’t want it, is it any wonder the industry lacks a coherent customer experience?

To end-users of real estate services — buyers and sellers — this endlessly variable application of technology comes with the burden of not knowing what to expect from their next transaction, especially if they’re agent is different or has moved to a brokerage with an entirely alternative tech stack.

Will I have to download a new app to see where the deal stands? My last agent did a bunch of video marketing, will you? Why is there no Matterport tour, or iPad at my open house?

There’s value to the concept of “creating systems.” Amazon isn’t what it is merely because of product variety or good marketing. It’s largely because consistency breeds familiarity, which results in trust. It’s the same process every time, with the same technological efficiencies.

To the broker and their agents, every real estate office is its own business with its own balance sheets and operational directive. But to the consumer, every brokerage is providing the same service. The expectations are the same.

Or maybe not.

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