The last time San Diego-based multiple listing service Sandicor Inc. changed tech platforms, the transition did not go smoothly.
“Armageddon” is what San Diego broker Kris Berg, an Inman columnist at the time, called it. She called the date of the switchover — May 28, 2008 — “the day the music died.”
Hyperbole aside, thousands of real estate agents still reeling from the housing bust found themselves logging in to an MLS system that day that many found bewildering at best, and broken at worst.
Sandicor President and CEO Ray Ewing acknowledges the changeover — from CoreLogic’s Tempo 3 system to Tempo 5 — “did not go very well at all.”
Five years later, Sandicor inked a deal for a new MLS platform, Paragon 5, offered by Lender Processing Services (now Black Knight).
Black Knight counts more than 220 MLSs representing more than 250,000 members as customers. Sandicor, with 18,000-plus members, is the company’s second-largest MLS account.
Announcing the four-year agreement with Sandicor, Rich Lull, now managing director of Black Knight MLS Solutions, called the deal a “huge” win for the company, demonstrating that “we can step up and play with the big boys.”
Don’t move the cheese
But did Sandicor learn from its previous effort? Ewing says yes.
His first piece of advice to any MLS considering a new platform: Do not move the cheese too far. When converting to Tempo 5 back in 2008, Sandicor decided to also update its listing input forms, which were some 15 years old at the time and based on defunct MLS books.
“Our grand thought was just do it all at once,” Ewing said.
That was a mistake. Not only did the MLS system itself change, but the forms looked completely different. Agents were not pleased.
“We not only moved the cheese, we changed the flavor of it, too,” Ewing said.
“You have the change of what the data schema was and you also had a change in their workflow and where they would do things and get things done.”
This time, Karen Dupriest, Sandicor’s director of product management, took pains to make sure input fields and listing detail reports for agents and clients stayed the same, aiming for familiarity rather than changes that could perhaps improve efficiency but would be frustrating to agents, Ewing said.
She communicated with Black Knight’s staff several times a day, often via email and project management system Basecamp.
“An MLS (should) stay involved with their vendor. Don’t just hand over the keys to the car and say drive it for me,” Dupriest said.
And the candidates are …
When it came to actually choosing Paragon in the first place, Sandicor decided on more of a hands-off approach. The MLS employed no consultants and chose to give vendor candidates and Sandicor members more direct access to each other.
“We kind of took ourselves out of the communication path. We just watched what was going on. We didn’t want to be a filter there. The vendors got to say what they wanted to say,” Ewing said.
In the previous conversion to Tempo 5, the MLS had gotten quite a bit of criticism that only “techies” or a small group of people had had input into the new system, resulting in a steeper learning curve than with the previous system, he said.
This time around, Sandicor put together a task force comprised of 67 people that included brokers, agents, appraisers, broker assistants, association staff and others. The task force first met in December 2012.
Sandicor wanted a system that would scale to its size as a regional MLS and offered ease of use. Most importantly, the MLS wanted a system that would perform well on a variety of mobile devices. At that point, Sandicor was using both Tempo 5 and CoreLogic’s Fusion platform, both of which were developed before the advent of the iPad tablet.
“We really wanted something that was HTML5 responsive, that didn’t have to have an app, (that) was browser-based,” Ewing said.
In a membership survey, members were asked if they were willing to sunset Tempo and Fusion for better mobile performance and 84 percent of nearly 500 respondents said yes, according to Sandicor. When asked whether their MLS system should work on PCs, Macs and mobile devices, 97 percent said yes.
CoreLogic had hoped that Sandicor would switch over to CoreLogic’s more mobile-friendly Matrix system, Ewing said, but the MLS decided to instead see what else was out there.
Other than Tempo and Fusion, the MLS system contenders were: Matrix; dynaConnections’ connectMLS; FBS’ flexmls; and Black Knight’s Paragon 5 MLS. All three of the latter platforms have gotten high marks for end-user satisfaction the past couple of years in Clareity’s Consulting’s MLS Customer Satisfaction Survey.
Satisfaction with Matrix has declined over the past few years, a change partially attributed to Matrix’s rapid growth. Currently, more than 460,000 subscribers use Matrix, and CoreLogic has hired extra staff to deal with its planned ramp-up of Matrix to about 600,000 subscribers by the end of 2015.
After forming the task force, Sandicor had the new MLS contenders come in at the end of January 2013 and conduct hourlong presentations. Shortly thereafter, the North San Diego County Association of Realtors (one of the three associations that own Sandicor) held a business and technology expo and each vendor had a booth there to introduce their systems to members.
The task force then test-drove two of the systems using a script provided by Dupriest for a couple of weeks and then repeated the same process for the other two systems.
The cost of the systems was not a consideration in the selection process because the pricing was about the same for each, Sandicor said. Sandicor declined to disclose the pricing.
Two systems emerged as the top contenders: Matrix and Paragon. Sandicor had both vendors come and present to the task force again, jointly this time. The MLS set up two projectors and had each vendor run through a specific set of tasks, show how their system worked on an iPad, and take questions from task force members.
Letting the vendors “touch” the decision makers was “invaluable,” Lull said, because it allowed the vendors to both educate them and, more importantly, learn how members saw their workflow.
Sandicor then had each vendor produce five or six videos for the general membership showing how their system worked. A survey found that the membership was fairly evenly split between Matrix and Paragon, though comments suggested that the learning curve for Matrix was a bit higher than that for Paragon, which was more similar to the Tempo system, Ewing said.
After the demonstrations, the task force overwhelmingly chose Paragon over Matrix, he said.
Black Knight’s last big MLS coup was in 2012, when it rolled out an entirely new MLS system, reInsight, with Georgia MLS, the fifth-largest MLS in the nation at the time with more than 25,000 members. In that deal, the company had spent three years working with Georgia MLS to customize reInsight and make it more attractive to larger players. But that doesn’t mean it ignored Paragon.
“At the same time we invested in the same product in Georgia, we also invested millions into Paragon to become cross-browser and mobile-friendly and to be able to scale larger in order to be able to take it up market,” Lull said.
That was a good decision in hindsight, he said, because it allowed the company to show it could meet the needs of MLSs with more than 15,000 members.
For example, Sandicor is a regional MLS that needs to keep the records for its three shareholder associations separate from each other, Ewing said, and Paragon was able to accommodate.
Black Knight also allowed Sandicor to license its software, but host the MLS system itself, saving Sandicor the hosting costs Black Knight’s other MLS customers incur.
Among the reasons for the Tempo 5 rollout problems? No beta testing.
Now, Ewing recommends testing in a staged environment first. “Don’t go from development to production,” he said.
With the transition to Paragon, brokers, administrative staff, association staff and various “techie gurus” in broker offices got to test out the system for two weeks before the system was released in parallel alongside the existing Tempo and Fusion systems, according to Ewing. Paragon spent five or six weeks in parallel before a complete cutover at the end of May.
“The conversion itself actually went very, very well. It was the best one we’ve had,” Ewing said.
Berg, broker-owner at San Diego Castles Realty, agreed that the transition to Paragon went “fairly smoothly.”
“It is likely that the Tempo conversion disaster was a fresh enough memory for so many agents that they heeded the warnings to attend training prior to the switchover,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean everyone has been on board.
The members “now have to learn something new. Some of them have to take focus away from their business and say ‘How do you do this now?’ It interrupts their daily life and they’re just not too happy about that,” Ewing said.
“People do not like change, they really don’t.”
But that generalization does not apply to everyone, he said. “This is the first time we’ve really had people who were anxious to change, (asking) ‘Why didn’t we bring (a new system) up sooner? What’s taking so long?'”
Berg said she had yet to talk to anyone who is thrilled with the new platform.
“Certainly, there will be grumblings whenever something ‘new’ is introduced. But, having spent a little time on a committee looking at options years ago, I believe there are other, far superior products available,” she said.
“A lot of us are finding many of the Paragon components and much of the functionality to be sluggish and, even, inferior to Tempo. In short, we gained cross-browser capability but sacrificed much in the process.”
Roberta Michelson Murphy, broker-owner of San Diego Previews Real Estate, said there was “nostalgia” for Tempo among her agents.
Their primary problem with the new system is an inability to slide from one listing to another to compare listings, she said. While Tempo allowed agents to scroll from listing to listing, Paragon makes them click each listing individually.
“It may sound like a little thing,” but when an agent has to go through 40 or 50 listings to pick out the six that fit for her client, it’s “cumbersome,” she said.
She also misses having agents’ email addresses included in the system because now she has to go searching for them.
But overall, she said she likes Paragon. She was excited to have mobile and Mac compatibility. She also enjoys what she called “a very cool feature” not available in Tempo — links to a slew of resources directly from each listing all on one place, including a mortgage amortizer, map, listing history, Infosparks market analytics, Realist tax record, SentriLock lockbox availability and Walk Score.
“If they can correct these minor issues, I think we’ve got a winning system,” she said.
Sandicor noted that many of the complaints have come from members who did not attend training — the scrolling issue noted above, for instance, is likely a training issue, the MLS said. But the email address change was deliberate and meant to ward against those who might download thousands of email addresses to sell in bulk.
“Having undergone several large-scale MLS platform conversions — some more trying than others — it’s become clear that no single technology can please every user 100 percent of the time,” Ewing said.
“People become used to doing things a certain way, and diverting from those processes to a new method can be disconcerting — even aggravating.”
As with Tempo, Sandicor will continually make adjustments and enhancements to the system based on feedback, he added.
But he said the “vast majority” of members are “extremely pleased” with the switch to Paragon — especially those who have taken the time to learn about the new system’s capabilities and nuances.