Real estate brokerages have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy the latest technology for their operation throughout their respective businesses. Most tools are real estate-specific: websites, mobile apps, customer relationship managers (CRMs), etc.

All of a brokerage’s main platforms today are usually run off listing data — with the exception of the phone system — and that’s changing.

Unlike funeral homes, body shops and beauty parlors, who also buy their phone systems locally, real estate brokerages have different telecom needs.

Brokerages also have something other businesses don’t have: proprietary MLS data that can be leveraged to automate phone answering, routing and lead generation. This technology could replace a lot of overhead that brokerages, as well as teams, absorb just to get the phones answered.

Even if a brokerage doesn’t factor in the personnel required to answer inbound phone calls, both during office hours and after hours — the brokerage is overpaying. Or if a brokerage ignores the fact that agents use their cellphones as their primary communication tool, they are still overpaying or even duplicating, the cost of phone service within its organization.

Here’s why.

Today, the typical agent leaves their office phone on permanent forward to their cellphone or worse, to voice mail. And that’s the problem because 42 percent of buyer calls end up in the agent’s cell phone voice mail box.

In addition to the reputational cost of sending potential buyers to voice mail, phone systems are expensive. There’s the cost of the machine — which probably resides in a closet somewhere that runs the phone system. Then, there’s the T-1 or dedicated data pipe that the machine requires. How about those office phones for each agent’s desk that often run $200 a pop?

Whenever anything breaks or the system becomes outdated, the brokerage pays for repairs and upgrades.

Most brokerages are also paying separate costs for voice mail and fax services.

The final insult: Brokerages are probably outsourcing a vital business system to a local telecom vendor who knows nothing about the real estate business.

More than hardware costs

If you are a broker-owner, you’re painfully aware that there are more expenses to answering phone calls than the equipment.

Someone has to answer all those incoming calls, and the most common solution is to hire a receptionist or two. Brokerages end up paying a lot more than the $3,000 a month for that privilege, especially when you factor in the loaded costs including benefits, vacation, sick leave and the facility costs to keep that person employed.

At most, your office phones are being adequately covered only eight to 10 hours a day. But your agents will tell you their money calls, from buyers and sellers, come when your office is closed.

Large brokerages have attempted to solve this by contracting call centers, and even creating their own call center. They have also attempted forwarding their calls to an answering or showing service — all increasing the brokerages’ costs of handling inbound phone calls. Unfortunately, most brokerages opt for the worst choice: simply letting office calls go to voice mail after hours.

You might believe that all real estate agents have cellphones, and the buyer or seller can get them directly, right?  Don’t kid yourself. It’s still your company, your reputation and your agents that need help being responsive to potential buyers and sellers. It’s a heck of a lot more important than updating your company Facebook or Twitter pages.

Voice mail at the curb

There might be no higher-quality lead than from a buyer at the curb next to the yard sign in front of the property in which they are interested.

We’ve tracked over 6 million calls that originated at the curb over the past four years. The technology we developed tells us who is making the inquiry (name and phone number) as well as the listing location from which inquiries are originating. Most importantly, we can tell when a call goes to voice mail.

Let me be clear: It is not the agent’s fault that 42 percent of their buyer calls end up in voice mail.

No agent is available 100 percent of the time. No one can be.

But technology is available to solve the 42 percent problem, and it’s cheaper to solve than one might think. Brokerages and teams don’t need to replace their entire phone system. They simply need a minor enhancement to an existing phone system to gain the benefits that listing data brings to call management.

Think about a brokerage firm’s most visible phone numbers: the front desk phone number and the phone number on yard signage. These phone numbers represent the largest opportunities for automation with listing data.

What today’s brokerage needs from a phone system

Look for the following features:

  • Simultaneous ring: This is an essential critical feature that makes sure inbound property inquiries are answered by ringing multiple phones simultaneously. This feature is widely available from various vendors.
  • Listing data integration: Listing data can help you route inbound calls, deliver property information by phone and provide tracking links to mobile tools. This feature turns an ordinary phone into a lead-generating machine. Plus, it requires less overhead expense to operate than a receptionist or admin.
  • Voice mail-to-email: Even the most responsive agent can’t answer every call, but they can return calls faster with this feature.
  • Automated responder: When a customer calls or inquires via text, this feature guarantees an immediate response via text, which has a 90 percent open rate.
  • Text-enabled phone numbers: Yes, the phone numbers you had for decades can now support a full IDX search by text. Also, unique text keywords for agents, new developments or special programs can be added in a snap.
  • After-hours automation: “Money calls” come after hours. Cloud-based IDX phone systems can route calls to agents and partners, as well as provide immediate property information. It’s better than voice mail, and it’s a whole lot cheaper than a call center.
  • Curbside lead generation: IVR (automated voice) and text for info for point-of-sale marketing: at the curb. Sends broker and/or agent the identity of who is inquiring.

Remember: Not everyone uses apps, and this technology still generates millions of inquiries a year.

Connecting with the millennials

Pretend for a moment you are 30 years old and looking to buy your first home. You drive by a property that catches your eye and, 90 percent of the time, you have two choices: You can call the broker’s phone number or the agent’s phone number on the sign. But the chances are good that the agent won’t pick up at either phone number. By the time an agent has followed up — the opportunity is gone.

What brokerages strive to do is to give consumers what they want: immediate property information with (trackable) access to IDX tools (photos and tours). But what they really want is someone to answer their calls.

Solving this opportunity with receptionists and an additional administrative staff is not the answer in 2015. It’s too expensive. It’s time for every brokerage and team to consider the benefits that automation from a cloud-based IDX phone system brings.

Randall Standard is CEO of VoicePad and a 20+ year veteran of the mobile phone industry.

Email Randall Standard.

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