Tracie Norman recently received a reminder from her customer relationship management system instructing her to contact a buyer client.
So Norman, a real estate agent with the Speicher Group of Olney, Maryland-based Re/Max Realty Centre, did what she often does when she receives such prompts: She pulled up a detailed summary of the buyer’s search activity on her team’s property search website.
And, boy, was she surprised.
The client, who previously had insisted that she would consider properties in only a “very, very specific area” of Gaithersburg, Maryland, had initially set up a search alert for properties in Hagerstown, near the state line with Pennsylvania .
The buyer acknowledged that she was now looking in Gaithersburg when Norman asked about her search activity.
So Norman did the best thing she could at that point: She referred the buyer to an agent in Gaithersburg.
Now Norman stands to earn a referral fee — potential cash that might have been out of reach if not for the software she uses to manage and track contacts.
Rapidly-improving contact management and marketing platforms like Norman’s are serving up a treasure of home buyer search statistics that real estate agents can use to better serve and retain clients. But they also raise privacy concerns by potentially exposing information that buyers may not have consciously chosen to reveal and could be used to manipulate them.
‘We track everything you do’
BoomTown, the real estate software used by Norman, exemplifies the next-generation software that real estate agents are using to better understand and interact with clients, wrapping together a property search website with marketing, task management and customer relationship management systems.
Norman is prompted to reach out to contacts based on their search activity on her team’s BoomTown-powered property search website or reminders she’s set up. (She recalls previously putting the buyer she referred to the agent in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in a biweekly reminder regimen.)
She can see contact profiles that show her previous emails, text messages and conversations with them.
The profiles also boast deep analytics on contacts’ search activity, including how many times they have visited certain listings, listings where they used a mortgage calculator and listings they’ve emailed.
“We track everything you do,” said Matt Arout, BoomTown’s “go-to-market program” manager.
“Every action you click, print a flier … every time you do a mortgage calculator — that’s all there.”
The goal is to empower real estate agents with intelligence that can help them seamlessly shepherd their clients to the closing table.
“I’m able to call them and look like the hero for finding this house for them,” Norman said.
That’s not to say search history is a perfect predictor of search preferences. “Window shoppers” will browse properties way outside their price range.
But, to the trained eye, search analytics can easily expose clear conflicts between what buyers say they want and what they actually want, or, at least, are open to considering.
The search summaries provided to Kasey Jorgenson by Kunversion, another powerful contact management and marketing platform, have revealed multiple times that some of his clients or leads are more interested in properties in Phoenix than homes on his turf: Austin, Texas.
In other cases, analytics have strongly suggested that buyer clients and leads were actually looking to purchase two-story homes, despite saying they were after only single-story homes, according to Jorgenson, who heads up the Jorgenson Realty Group of Keller Williams Realty.
“People say things and do things all the time that are different from what they tell you, and you can see that in their activity,” he said.
Keep buyers coming back
Most real estate agents would have had a tougher time uncovering such inconsistencies a few years ago when many agent and broker websites were hopelessly clunky and didn’t plug into customer relationship management, marketing and task management systems.
But that’s changing rapidly.
Using marketing and contact management platforms “is the only gig in town” for newcomers to the industry who can’t rely on referral or repeat business, claims Justin Tracy, chief technology officer at Kunversion.
The “gig” hinges on prompting clients to adopt property search websites plugged into their contact management and marketing systems.
That first step is to lure contacts into registering their contact information on an agent or broker website, so the tracking system can kick into gear. The second step is to keep those contacts coming back.
That might seem like a tall order in the face of today’s immensely popular listing portals, but many real estate agents are pulling it off by touting the timeliness of their websites’ listings and casting their user experiences as cutting edge.
“If you give the automated [listing alerts], they entirely abandon those other portals,” said Ben Kinney, founder of collaborative task management system Brivity and natural-language listing search portal Blossor.
And that can pay off big time for real estate agents.
Chris Speicher, who helps head up the Speicher Group, said one agent
on his team used BoomTown to discover that a buyer who had said he was hunting for luxury properties on the outskirts of Bethesda, Maryland, was actually more interested in properties downtown.
“We got him out of his new construction contract on a $2 million home, and he’s now putting in an offer on a $3 million condo in the downtown area, but we wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t been watching his search activity,” Speicher said.
The agent on Speicher’s team was able to steer the buyer to the condo by directly confronting him about the new flavor of properties he was sampling online.
But not all real estate agents like to bring up the intelligence that spurs them to call buyers.
Do clients care?
BoomTown user Asif Khan, who heads up a team part of Re/Max All-Stars Realty Inc. that covers Toronto, Canada, said his team has seen much better results at engaging leads and clients ever since the team quit mentioning their search activity.
“We don’t come out directly and say … ‘I know you emailed this to your wife,” he said, adding that he thinks that Americans may be more receptive to conversations about their search activity than Canadians.
Ian Batra, a Cupertino, California-based real estate agent with Intero Real Estate Services, agrees with Khan’s approach.
Batra says that it’s typically better to ask questions that tease out what he already knows based on his review of the buyer’s search activity in Kunversion’s contact database.
Rather than saying, “Are you interested in Milpitas [California]?” to a client who’s search activity suggests that they are interested in that community, he’ll say, “Are there any other areas besides Sunnyvale [California] that you’re interested in?”
Mary Murphy — whose team, The Platinum Group of Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate, covers San Mateo County, California — takes a different approach.
She says she makes a point of telling her clients that she can see what they’re looking at when they use RealScout, a platform geared towards helping agents collaboratively search with their clients.
Yet Elizabeth Davis, one of Murphy’s clients, said she wasn’t fully aware, at least right out of the gate, that Murphy could see her search activity on RealScout.
Not that it bothered her.
Davis said she wasn’t surprised at all when she realized that Murphy had used analytics to determine that she had shifted her focus away from communities in the northern part of the San Francisco peninsula towards communities farther south. (Murphy offered to refer Davis to another agent, but Davis kept her.)
Many real estate agents concede that plenty of consumers they track online probably don’t realize their search activity is being monitored and analyzed (who actually clicks the hyperlinks on registration forms to read privacy policies?).
“I don’t think any of our clients are fully aware of how much of their activities we can see,” Norman said. “I wouldn’t be.”
Still, many agents believe that consumers who hand over their names, emails and phone numbers for the right to use agent or broker websites have given real estate agents tacit permission to track their search activity, even if they don’t realize it.
“I think there’s a realistic expectation that chances are that an agent is going to be able to view that information,” said Jarad Hull, CEO of real estate software provider Blueroof360.
Moreover, buyers who find out that they’re being tracked tend not to care anyway, agents say.
Some agents advise against bringing up buyers’ search activity, particularly if the buyer is a lead or new client. Others recommend the opposite.
But nearly every agent interviewed for this article said they’ve never alienated a lead or client by mentioning their search activity. (The exception was Khan, the Canadian real estate agent.)
Doesn’t matter, said Laura Moy, senior policy counsel at the Open Technology Institute at New America, a consumer advocacy organization.
Monitoring clients’ search activity without their knowledge still raises clear privacy concerns and could sometimes put them in a vulnerable position, she said.
“If clients would be surprised about something that the service is doing, that’s hugely problematic,” said Moy, who leads a team that lobbies for privacy protections. “It completely undermines this idea of notice and consent that underpins the privacy framework in the United States.”
In fact, Moy herself wasn’t aware that the Redfin agent she was recently working with to find a home in Montgomery County, Maryland, might have had access to her search history online.
“It’s almost embarrassing to admit this because I do consumer privacy law and I ought to have known this,” she said.
She finds the possibility that Redfin could see her property search activity “creepy,” and maintains that the “societal norms around search history generally are such that my search history wouldn’t be available to another person.”
Real estate agents who have an unfiltered window into their clients’ search preferences could use what they see to manipulate clients, she said.
Perhaps a buyer tells her agent she’s looking for a home in a price range that’s below what she’s actually capable of buying.
Keeping her price limit to herself, the buyer might reason, could reduce the likelihood that her agent would try to show her homes that push that limit.
“They know their agents will show them things outside their price range anyway,” Moy said.
But if a real estate agent could see that the buyer was browsing homes that exceeded that price range, the agent might feel comfortable pressuring the buyer to look at more expensive homes, potentially resulting in buyer’s remorse, she said.
And what about situations where two agents at the same brokerage are representing both sides of a transaction?
The listing agent could theoretically open up a buyer’s dossier in her broker’s customer relationship management system and get a better sense of how much that buyer would be willing to spend.
One last scenario:
One day, a buyer searching for properties listed at $100,000 contacts an agent for assistance. On the same day, another buyer visits one $2 million property on the agent’s site, but does not contact the agent.
The agent’s contact management system might prompt the agent to engage the second buyer over the first, even though the second buyer didn’t ask for help and the first one did.
That could represent a case of big data producing a discriminatory effect on a certain demographic, an issue that the government has been examining closely lately, Moy said.
But real estate marketing and contact management platforms that hyperlink on registration forms to privacy polices probably have their legal bases covered for now, she added.
That could change, however, if Congress passes Internet privacy laws championed by President Obama, particularly the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which would give consumers the right to control what personal data companies collect from them and how they can use it.