Brokerages are finding they need the right technology and training to bring their agents squarely into the mobile, paperless future, and leaders with several brokerages — large, medium and small — have shared with Inman News some insights they’ve gained into challenges surrounding agent adoption.
Keys to agent adoption include picking an easy-to-use collaborative transaction management platform and employing the most effective training and persuasion strategies, leaders with Long & Foster Real Estate, Pacific Union International, Paragon Real Estate and Berkeley Hills Realty say.
“The simplicity of the system (you’re bringing on board) is important,” said Cindy Ariosa, a regional vice president who manages 40 offices and close to 3,000 agents for Long & Foster. According to Real Trends data, Long & Foster is the third-largest brokerage in the U.S. based on 2012 closed transactions.
Ariosa said Long & Foster built a proprietary transaction management platform 10 years ago that made the firm’s transition to a paperless operation relatively seamless. The platform automatically pulls the forms the agent needs — which can depend on where their deal is taking place — and auto-populates the forms using templates filled in by the agent.
The transition Long & Foster made to an electronic accounting system four years ago has also boosted paperless adoption, she said. If agents want to get paid, they have to submit scanned checks and documents. The firm doesn’t even accept paper contracts or physical checks anymore.
This year, the firm transitioned all of its data to the cloud so agents can access any of their documents from any location and any device, Ariosa said.
Long & Foster rolled out training on the new cloud system in the same manner as it has for other new technologies.
First, Ariosa said, the brokerage trained the branch managers and office support staff so they could be the experts and help answer agents’ questions. Then, it offered a variety of trainings to the agents. The company brought laptops to in-office seminars where agents could learn in person, hosted webinars so agents could learn remotely, and developed a reference library of three-minute YouTube videos breaking down specific aspects of the tools.
Which is not to say the transition to paperless has been totally smooth or immediate. Currently, 30 percent of Long & Foster’s agents aren’t using the Authentisign e-signature platform the brokerage offers, Ariosa said. But with this technology, she said, the brokerage is letting the consumer demand guide the transition.
Ariosa said Long & Foster also sells paperless to agents as a tool for them to create a more professional image. Showing up with a contract that’s been digitally filled in with all boxes clearly checked and the seller’s name pretyped makes agents look like they have their act together, she said.
Pacific Union International, a firm with 21 offices and about 450 agents in the San Francisco Bay Area, has also had to be persistent in pursuing the transition to paperless, said Christina Bonner, the firm’s vice president of operations.
“It has been a slow transition,” Bonner said. Until recently, the firm’s transaction management platform, TransactionPoint, was one source of the hang up, she said.
The program has been slow to accommodate a paperless environment, Bonner said, but has made great improvements in the last year. Part of her goal for the last half of 2013, she said, is to figure out how the firm can use the system more efficiently.
The other main challenge of the firm’s digital evolution, Bonner said, has been convincing agents to make the time investment to learn and adopt a digital workflow.
“With the crazy nature of the business and the pace at which agents and transaction coordinators move, many do not feel that they have the time to throw a wrench in their system by learning yet another program,” she said.
As an experiment, Pacific Union is requiring that all of its agents in Marin County work with a transaction coordinator who is responsible for managing all of their files paperlessly.
“Agents don’t need to access TransactionPoint unless they want to pull up their old files or give clients access,” Bonner said.
Pacific Union also provides an incentive for agents to use Transaction Point by providing discounts on the deductible for their errors and omissions insurance, although Bonner says that perk is likely to be going away.
Bonner said paperless is especially appealing to Pacific Union because of the expected savings from eliminating storage costs, and for paper itself. In offices that have made more processes paperless, the savings have been significant, she said.
Pacific Union uses DocuSign for e-signatures. Like Long & Foster, the firm has relied on client demand, which has been high, to push agents to use the technology, Bonner said.
Paragon Real Estate, a 150-agent firm based in San Francisco, is an example of how firms that don’t have the resources to develop their own platforms can go digital. CEO and co-founder Bob Dadurka said the firm has hired a consultant to help it go paperless.
“The biggest challenge in delivering mobile technology to our clients and agents is that we struggle to find vendors who have put together enough of the agents’ workflow for us to feel confident in introducing it to our people,” Dadurka said.
Apps need to be streamlined, simple, and clearly show how they can save agents time, Dadurka said. If they’re not, agents won’t feel compelled to spend the time learning a new system, he said.
“When the user experience is as easy as the best iPad apps, then the adoption rate is very high,” Dadurka said.
Paragon Real Estate currently uses digital marketing from Imprev Inc., digital signatures from DocuSign and comparative marketing analysis software from TouchCMA. Dadurka said another challenge the company is extremely interested in overcoming is the lack of compatibility between some systems used by brokerages.
“Rather than a brokerage focus on the technology, we think the industry (the San Francisco Association of Realtors, California Association of Realtors and the National Association of Realtors) should adopt a platform,” Dadurka said.
In the absence of that industry lead, Paragon Real Estate is hoping two or three large competitors will band together and agree to adopt the same platform, said Anita Head, the brokerage’s president.
Head said vendors building technology for brokers and agents should understand that “people will adopt anything if it’s going to help them be more efficient, achieve a better quality of life and enhance their business.”
Tracy Sichterman, owner of Berkeley Hills Realty, a 20-agent brokerage based in Berkeley, Calif., has focused on helping each agent adapt and “buy in” to the practical applications of the paperless office she’s trying to build.
Sichterman paired one top-producing agent who was reluctant to delve into the world of cloud-based documents and e-signatures with a younger agent, who agreed to provide tech support in exchange for a referral fee.
It was a win-win, Sichterman said. The older agent got an assistant, and the younger agent who is just starting out in real estate secured a more reliable income.
Berkeley Hills Realty is investing in training and support staff to help agents with the transition to paperless, but Sichterman says that won’t always be the case.
“The company crutch has a deadline, as the goal is to get everyone either self-sufficient or paying for the help of an assistant that they probably needed anyway,” she said.
As an older brokerage, the firm has faced the challenge of converting all of its paper files to digital documents and then shredding them, Sichterman said.
“The storage companies charge a lot to scan old paper files and then charge again to destroy the paper.”
Like Paragon Real Estate, Berkeley Hills Realty has found it challenging to identify technologies that are compatible for all agents.
If the firm wants to use Google Drive, for example, it must get agents who don’t have a Google account to set one up. If it wants to have an auto-fill system for Microsoft Word, it must make sure all agents have access to the appropriate version of the software.
But the paperless push by the firm doesn’t affect the client at the moment, Sichterman said. The firm will still use paper for the clients that prefer it. But when those paper forms come into the office, she said, they’ll have to be converted into digital formats and be uploaded for storage and review.