The popular television show “Shark Tank” features entrepreneurs vying for the investment and support of a panel of investors. We have borrowed the term “Shark Tank” for our internal phone system at our brokerage.

Almost four years ago when I started our company, I ordered a single phone line from the local telephone company supplier. It cost $89 per month plus tax. It worked great with a single broker/agent answering the phone … until the calls became more frequent.

Then it was time for a second line. And if I remember correctly, it was going to be additional $50 per month (plus taxes, of course). And I would need some phone equipment to handle the extra line.

I could see where this was going. My plans were to add agents and grow the business, but the phone system looked like it would be a major drag on my overhead. My goal was to have “live answer” from agents no matter where they were stationed. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to park agents behind desks, so I needed an “all agent ringing” capability that supported mobile agents and an occasional agent riding a desk in the office.

I monkeyed around with Google Voice, and that worked for a while. It helped me manage a couple of agents, and it put calls through to more than one of us simultaneously until someone answered the phone. But this took a wrong turn when voice mail answered the calls and callers didn’t find an agent.

Live answer has always been a priority for me. Years ago I worked in another industry, and one of our clients — a very large national company — had a live-answer policy. This was during an era of growing voice-mail popularity, but this company insisted that callers speak to a member of its staff, no matter what. No voice mail.

That stuck with me. I truly believe it is critical to offer the ability to talk to a live agent on the phone when people call us.

Of course, I could always hire a receptionist. There are even companies that outsource that function and have “virtual receptionists.” That option is not for me, and here is why: In most of the states where we operate (Florida has some limited exceptions), non-agents can’t disseminate information to consumers. None! So even if the local MLS (multiple listing service) on the Internet reveals that there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms in a new listing, a nonlicensed receptionist can’t provide those details to a caller.

I was still on the hunt for a solution. In my research, I found a number of articles that indicated I should have both a PBX (private branch exchange) and VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) system.

I embarked on a journey of setting up a hosted PBX on a server in New Jersey, and I set up a VOIP system to handle our inbound and outbound call needs. It wasn’t easy, and it had some fits and starts, and I wouldn’t recommend this approach to most, but it is certainly the most cost-effective solution if you can make it work. I settled on a FreePBX installation and had AASTRA phones installed in our main and branch offices.

Now when calls come in, phone calls ring to the cellphones of the agents assigned to that office. The system uses “call confirm” to ensure a live person answers the phone. We have one office, and it has 40 agents assigned to it. When the phone calls come in, it rings on all of their cellphones and on the desk phones in the office. (There is still no receptionist.)

Why do we call this system a “Shark Tank” system? Simple — the first available agent gets the call and helps the customer.

You have to be quick. Agents have also learned that there is a split-second advantage to being in the office, as the desk phones ring slightly sooner than the cellphones. It’s a great way to encourage some agents to stay for a while in the office.

We have eliminated floor duty. There is simply no reason to schedule agents to sit in the office to answer the phone. They can do that anywhere.

Do you see this as a recruiting tool? Good, because it works as one and is a key part of how we democratize our lead distribution. You want more leads? Answer the phone.

Fortunately for those who don’t want to tackle the technical aspects of this, there are “off-the-shelf solutions” such as 8×8 and Grasshopper. They can do many if not all of the things that I mentioned, but they are significantly more expensive than the one I cobbled together.

One thing is for certain: The traditional phone system and way of managing floor time is evolving in today’s brokerage.

Adam Conrad Jr., MBA, is the founder and broker/owner of Perry Wellington Realty, licensed in Pennsylvania, Florida, Maryland and West Virginia.

Email Adam Conrad.

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