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Quick response to online inquiries is a success imperative today, according to Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff. His reason: the growing use of mobile devices.

"To be successful in the Internet era, agents need to be almost instantaneously responsive to customer inquiries.

"The Internet has trained us to be able to answer any question in the world within a few seconds, so agents need to adapt to this reality by responding to online leads almost instantaneously. The proliferation of mobile devices raises the stakes even further and requires agents to be even more accessible and responsive," according to Rascoff.

If he’s correct, some hard questions need to be asked and the implication of their answers understood completely.

The auto industry has learned, and the homebuilding industry is catching on, that live chat is the solution for the "I need information now" crowd.

Live chat just might be the third leg to the three-legged Internet communications stool. The other two legs: e-mail and texting. The difference in live chat is the management and support required.

When it comes to engagement with prospective clients, live chat has no peer. Neither does it have a peer when it comes to the need to be monitored, which on its face sounds way beyond the pale. But when we stop to think about that and understand it, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.

I didn’t really know who I could speak with to help me understand how a professional e-commerce service uses live chat, so I turned to the always progressive, aggressive auto industry. Along the way I ran across a downloadable book, "Seven Reasons Live Chat Fails," but have not read it yet.

Live chat is for those house hunters who don’t want to get involved with an agent and don’t want to send an e-mail to the agent.

According to Justin Brun, e-commerce manager for Acton Toyota in Littlefield, Mass., "When a chat comes through there is a sense of urgency. These are visitors who do not want to complete a form or talk to the dealership. They may want to talk about a specific car, our service or something related," he said.

His nine-member e-commerce sales staff is completely separate from the showroom floor sales staff. All leads are first engaged by the vendor that provides the platform. The vendor delivers contact information and some additional data that can help make the sale.

"Our sales force focuses on selling those engaged by live chat when we receive the results of the first contact engagement. We are completely satisfied with our model," Brun said, which he has been using for two years.

Some users click a "live chat" banner, while others respond to a pop-up notice asking if they require live help.

My own experience is that sometimes I engage and sometimes I will respond when the site engages me first. What about your experience?

When I asked Brun if he had any recommendations for the real estate industry, he responded, "No, but remember: Monitoring the chat conversation is key, to ensure accuracy, that the visitor is being treated properly, and that the brand is protected."

This is not much different than a broker handing an agent a lead and having the agent call that prospective client. What is different is that your website has a live and trained receptionist engaging the customer and capturing information, beyond contact data, to help the sales agent know what to talk about when contacting the inquiring customer.

I know what you are thinking. I would, as a broker, be thinking, "I’m not paying for it. If the agents want it, let them pay for it."

But this is live chat. This is the age where we discuss relationship-building every day but will use text and e-mail to keep from having to actually speak to someone.

Live chat is about increasing revenues through sales that may have otherwise been missed.

Looking beyond lead capture, the recruiting potential is enormous, especially if you are the first broker in your market to offer live chat capabilities to new recruits.

For example: Your competitor offers "the latest technology." You offer technology and referred prospects.

If you were an agent looking for a change, which of these two offers would be most interesting to you?

Unlike the auto industry, brokers don’t have the luxury of a retail operation where prospects come to the store, or a product they can sell unseen, so a referral program would be in play, no doubt, and actually could be a revenue stream for the broker.

How do you structure a live chat e-commerce department in the brokerage? Think of the relocation department model.

When it comes to live chat for real estate agents, who is best to engage the lead? Should you keep it in-house? Should your agents handle it? Or should you use a trained and staffed third-party service?

When looking at something new, I usually went to the vendor solution, if affordable, because I could learn more, and faster, about the process, systems and results from the vendor. I could later make a decision about whether it made sense to take it inside the company.

Live chat will either prove to work, or not work, in a short period of time, so whether you take the engagement services inside or use an outside source the risk shouldn’t be that great.

The point: The demand for "instantaneous engagement" will grow. Live chat is a service that will grow with it. Therefore, the need to research and learn more about live chat for your company is important.

If you are in the game for real, and are facing production and recruiting challenges from serious and growing competition, maybe it’s time to have a live chat with a live-chat provider. So you can keep up with inquiring minds that want to know. Now.

May I help you?

David Fletcher has been a Florida real estate condominium and new homes broker for 30 years. He is the founder of New Homes Niche, a builder-certified co-broker training system designed to assist prospective short-sale buyers move into new homes. You can reach him by e-mail: davidf@newhomesniche.com.

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