SAN FRANCISCO — Going paperless can save real estate professionals time and money and help them provide better customer service, according to Cary Sylvester, a speaker at the Real Estate Connect conference Wednesday. Sylvester is executive director of technology for Keller Williams Realty International.

Although it’s an expense to go paperless, in a 25-person office at one transaction per agent a brokerage can save almost $20,000 a year in printing, gas and document storage costs, she said. And that’s not counting the extra time agents gain when they give over to technology the drudgery involved with data entry, copying and faxing.

That frees the agent up to provide what’s most important — better customer service, Sylvester said. "It’s giving you time to be that relationship-builder in your business … (to) get back into the business of real estate."

Defining paperless

Going paperless doesn’t mean agents should print out a document, fill it out, scan it and email it. "Paperless" does not mean simply using less paper, Sylvester said.

She outlined four components of a paperless transaction: transaction workflow, online forms, document storage and electronic signatures.

1. Transaction workflow: A transaction management system can help real estate professionals ensure they’re compliant with rules and regulations and streamline the transaction process. "The process of a real estate transaction doesn’t change — why reinvent the wheel every time?" Sylvester said.

Keller Williams has partnered with paperless technology company DotLoop to provide its agents with eEdge, a lead management, contact management, marketing and transaction management platform. Other transaction management platforms include SureClose and TransactionPoint.

2. Online forms: These can help real estate professionals reduce unnecessary data entry and save on printing costs. They’re also easy for customers to use, Sylvester said. Examples of online forms products include zipForm and Form Simplicity, which was created by the Florida Realtors association.

3. E-signatures: Electronic signatures can save agents money on printing costs and gas. Because clients can sign anywhere, anytime, agents can provide them services wherever they are — whether on vacation, away on business, or simply busy. Clients don’t have to change their lives in order to deal with the transaction, Sylvester said.

4. Document storage: When real estate brokerages across the country are trying to shrink their office space, storing documents in the cloud can provide considerable cost savings. Online document storage can also be more secure than having an agent carrying around important files, Sylvester said.

All contracts and paperwork are kept together throughout the transaction and available for follow-up with clients after the transaction has closed. Sylvester suggested that agents keep former clients engaged by periodically reminding them that any documents pertaining to their transaction are available at a moment’s notice.

Clients have two big fears when it comes to doing a paperless transactions, Sylvester said: e-signatures and security. She advised agents to remind consumers that they use e-signatures every time they go to an ATM or use their debit card.

As for security, she recommended working with a reputable company whose business is storing information online and who follows compliance procedures. "You cannot take chances with these," Sylvester said.

Gmail, for example, is not a good place to store clients’ confidential information, she said. It’s too easy to send documents to the wrong person or to email the wrong file. Services such as Google Docs, Dropbox and MobileMe are fine for sharing documents, but not for long-term storage, she said.

Most agents are required to keep their transaction files for seven years and "Google Docs may not be going anywhere, but I’m not going to (bet) my life, my business, on someone that I don’t have an agreement with," Sylvester said.

Office security is also important. If agents use their own servers to save files, they should back up that information in at least two ways and ensure firewalls are up to standards, Sylvester advised. And don’t share passwords and other sensitive information with colleagues indiscriminately.

"It’s not just the technology security … make sure only the appropriate people can access the information," she said.

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