Special Report: The new agent's technology playbook

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  • Technology stands to level the playing field between new and experienced agents.
  • The no. 1 tool agents should leverage in their first year is social media, followed by a well-suited CRM.
  • Technology complements, rather than replaces, an agent’s on-the-job training, continuing education and mentorship.

Launching a real estate career is not for the faint of heart, but in 2017 it could be a career match made in heaven for the tech smart, according to Inman’s latest survey results. Combined with a strategic approach, the ever-improving suite of tools at real estate agents’ disposal has the potential to level the playing field between tech-savvy rookies and seasoned veterans slow to change.

Launching a real estate career is not for the faint of heart, but in 2017 it could be a career match made in heaven for the tech smart, according to Inman’s latest survey results.

Combined with a strategic approach, the ever-improving suite of tools at real estate agents’ disposal has the potential to level the playing field between tech-savvy rookies and seasoned veterans slow to change.

In the words of one Houston broker, “technology killed the idea that you needed an agent with years of experience” by allowing new agents to hit the ground running.

Realistically, few rookies, except the extraordinary, are going to overtake top producers in their first year or two, but they can certainly benefit from a fast start by leveraging a nicely branded website, social media, CRM (contact relationship manager), transaction management system and a few key apps on their smartphone.

These tools serve several critical purposes, namely, helping agents organize and stay in touch with their contacts more consistently, reach a broader audience, begin developing name recognition from day one, create a professional image, respond quicker to leads than ever before, boost efficiencies and get in front of their target audience regularly through a variety of digital channels.

“Technology enables new agents to come out of the gate looking like they’re smooth, smart and polished. That gives the consumer the perception that the agent is ‘seasoned,’” said a San Francisco Bay Area agent.

Moreover, new agents who differentiate themselves as online marketing innovators might very well gain a reputation for understanding the modern buyer, which opens the door to real estate’s golden opportunity: listings.

“Within 24 hours, an agent could have a solid digital presence with all of the tools in place to actually transact,” said a New Hampshire broker.

Technology, of course, is only part of the equation. Understanding how to use it to “do what other agents do in less time,” as one respondent put it, is indeed a competitive advantage. But, as another pointed out: “Tech has changed the business, but tech is not the business.”

Breaking down the new agent tech budget

A good rule of thumb for most new agents is to spend no more than up to a quarter of your budget on technology, and allocate 25 to 50 percent at most.

According to survey respondents, the minimum amount of money full-time agents should expect to spend on tech in their first year is in the $501 to $2,000 range. A more niche sect may extend into the $2,000 to $5,000 range.

Once that money is set aside, where should it go? From lead generation to transaction management to brand awareness, these are the key tools that new agents should prioritize, according to the survey.

First things first: Get organized

In the beginning, strategic use of tech can corral new agents toward certain non-negotiable (and easily neglected) tasks and infuse productivity into what might otherwise be the “wheel-spinning” launch phase.

First and foremost, new agents should use technology to expedite responsibilities in the areas of:

  • Organization and scheduling (36 percent)
  • Lead generation (30 percent)

After filling a database with information from your sphere of influence, a good CRM system will shoot off email reminders for which leads to contact in the first week, for example.

Technology that assists in client communication (16 percent), transaction management (12 percent) and branding (6 percent) should be on the backburner for this stage. In general, new agents tend to spend too much time on marketing and too little time on lead gen.

Social media reigns

Moreover, social media ranked as the no. 1 tool agents should be using within their first year (85 percent), followed by:
CRM (76 percent)

  • A personal website (71 percent)
  • E-signature software (63 percent)

Setting up a profile page on listing portals (47 percent), tablets (33 percent) and single-property websites (21 percent) were ranked further down the list but took priority over portal advertising and automated dialers.

The social media platforms new agents should be active on are Facebook (97 percent), LinkedIn (70 percent), Instagram (70 percent) and to a lesser extent YouTube (63 percent) and Twitter (53 percent.)

“Facebook and social media makes it easier to stay connected and top of mind,” said a Chicago broker associate. “I have closed three deals from Facebook leads in the first year and these were people I really didn’t know before I engaged with them about real estate.”

Facebook Live is overwhelmingly the live streaming platform of choice for agents (57 percent), far outranking the next best contenders, YouTube (17 percent) and Snapchat (4 percent).

Approaching lead gen from hot to cold

Agents should be focusing their lead generation efforts on the “low-hanging fruit,” or those contacts who they already have some connection to, and work from hot to cold, with the top three lead generation sources coming in as:

  • Sphere of influence (91 percent)
  • Networking (77 percent)
  • Referral partners (53)

Developing organic relationships online, door knocking, hosting open houses, pursuing expired listings and contacting FSBOs were also named as worthy activities for new agents.

Of the online marketing channels at agents’ advertising disposal, Facebook (81 percent) came the most highly recommended, followed by realtor.com (42 percent), Zillow (33 percent), Google (29 percent) and Craigslist (20 percent).

These platforms ranked higher than Trulia and Homes.com, while respondents also mentioned Instagram, Snapchat and LinkedIn as good investments.

The transaction management tools that came the most recommended include:

  • DocuSign Transaction Rooms (41 percent)
  • Dotloop (41 percent)
  • ZipForms (39 percent)

App-titude test

Boosting your professionalism and responsiveness as a new agent can be as simple as making sure you have the right apps on your smartphone.

A good portion of respondents said they’d recommend downloading:

  • A mortgage calculator (72 percent)
  • A document scanner (59 percent)
  • Realtor.com (50 percent)
  • RPR (NAR’s Realtors Property Resource) (47 percent)
  • Zillow (45 percent)
  • A transaction management tool (44 percent)

Other apps mentioned were Trulia, CRM, the local MLS feed, DocuSign, MLS Touch, Facebook, LinkedIn, Lockbox Management, Dropbox and dotloop.

Where the brokerage comes in

Different brokerages offer different technology packages. The majority of respondents (61 percent) felt that new agents wanting a lot of tech support should join a real estate franchisor rather than an independent firm (13 percent).

Larry Kendall, the man behind Ninja Selling, made the case for indies, however: “As a small company … we are much more nimble,” he said. “We tried a tech tool that was supposed to be the greatest thing and after two months when it obviously wasn’t, we changed it out. If you were in a franchise, that kind of decision would take longer.”

What checkboxes should a new agent have on their list before signing with a brokerage?

Transaction management tech support should be top priority (65 percent), followed by a CRM (60 percent) and lead generation (56 percent), and ideally all three should be offered, said over a quarter of those surveyed.

Photography, 3-D tours, marketing materials, online training, a webpage and CMA (comparative market analysis) tools are also very useful. In addition, agents should consider the value add of brokerages that provide regular reviews of their software.

Beware of brokerages whose training programs are mostly a big tech sell, too, respondents advised, and look for firms with a well-rounded training program.

CRM as the king of agent tech

A CRM is one of the most important tech tools for a new agent’s launch — but how much should one invest into such a system? A good target is to stay within $50 or less, and if you have the budget, spending between $51 and $150 might be appropriate.

“I would have made my CRM my priority from day one and treated it like my baby and my best friend at the same time,” said a Charleston broker, reflecting on how new agents might learn from his mistakes.

When comparing CRMs, new agents should be looking for those that provide good contact organization (81 percent), an activity manager (60 percent), marketing automation (56 percent) and website lead capture functionality (45 percent).

The ideal CRM should also be cloud-based, have built-in marketing tools, integrate with existing systems such as lead management and be simple to use, respondents said.

As one agent pointed out, a CRM is only as good as your list of clients. In many cases, new agents should start small, and upgrade to a CRM with more bells and whistles at a later stage.

Lots of brokerages also provide their agents with a CRM (and ideally, they should, many respondents suggested). If a brokerage does offer a CRM, new agents should use it — rather than shelling out for their own — so long as the system allows an agent to integrate with the office’s processes and systems.

For those who end up shopping around, respondents weighed in on a number of well-known products, but were fairly split on their recommendations:

  • Top Producer (22 percent)
  • Contactually (14 percent)
  • RealtyJuggler (13 percent)
  • BoomTown (10 percent)
  • Wise Agent (9 percent)
  • LionDesk(7 percent)
  • Salesforce (6 percent)

A substantial number of survey takers are also fans of Brian Buffini’s Referral Maker, while Market Leader, Evernote, Kunversion and Realvolve merited mentions.

In the end, the best CRM is one that you’ll actually use and eventually know like the back of your hand.

“No. 1 is CRM,” an Oregon coach said. “Creating a plan for consistently staying in touch with your sphere is critical. Then making it a habit to stay on top of maintaining and growing this database. Consistent contact with these warmer leads has much better ROI than other prospecting methods.”
Not all that glitters is gold

Perhaps more than anyone, the new agent can be susceptible to “shiny object” syndrome as tech vendors put on a full court press to get their attention. But rookies especially should be disciplined about the tools they adopt and what they expect to get out of them.

Rather than going overboard on toys, new agents are better off investing in continuing education and their specific market until they know what will work best for their business and fit their skills. Set a budget and stick to it, consider the return on investment, heed the advice of experienced agents in your office to make wise decisions, and avoid classes where trainers are peddling products.

Agents should never lose sight of the value of good mentors, learning on the job, reaching out regularly to their sphere of influence, door knocking and running open houses to ramp up their business early on.

“Begin with the basics and focus on building your [sphere of influence] and generating leads organically,” said a Las Vegas agent. “When you have this established and are making a consistent income, then and only then do you purchase additional tech.”

“Limit the time spent with technology to five to seven hours per week,” advised another agent. “The majority of a new agent’s time needs to be face-to-face interaction with potential clients.”

Some of the hottest up-and-coming technologies also pose the greatest business risks, according to the survey.

The riskiest technologies for agents to invest in include bitcoin/cryptocurrencies (57 percent), artificial intelligence (53 percent), virtual reality (39 percent) and drones (26 percent).

“Technology is a tool,” said an Oregon broker. “Something new should only be brought on board to streamline an existing function or to fill a hole.”

When in doubt, observe how other successful agents are leveraging technology and think about how you might scale what they’re doing to fit your business.

“They know what works; they’ve tested it,” a Pennsylvania agent pointed out.

But if restraint isn’t the way you operate, you’ll likely learn soon enough. “Go broke by trying everything. It gave me great clarity,” quipped an Orange county agent.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda

Other respondents offered up these additional “shoulda, woulda, coulda,” moments of clarity:

Experienced agents offer up what they’ve learned.

Jury’s still out on internet leads

Respondents were split on the value of online leads for new agents, with a slim majority saying newbies should not pay for them.

“If they can afford to risk losing their money on digital marketing, yes. If money is tight or they don’t have enough, then face-to-face is king: go knock on doors, volunteer, meet people by starting genuine conversations and slowly sneak in what you do and see if interest is there and it’s all free,” suggested an Irvine, California agent.

One Washington, D.C., agent broke it down: “Thirty-six percent of leads come from referrals, 26 percent from SOI, 13 percent from repeat customers, 10 percent from online ads, 5 percent from open houses. That is 75 percent from your database. Why would you spend money on anything other than contacting your database?”

Others made the argument that buying leads online is fine and dandy for new agents, but they have to know what to do with the new contacts when they get them. If not, their ROI will be very low.

“Don’t pay for leads until you make money and have the systems in place to convert the leads at a high level,” advised a New York agent.

Agents who do pay for online leads run the risk of them coming from a random list and wasting time on prospects who aren’t qualified or interested, added a Hawaii broker. “Instead, find one actual client. Do a good job and ask for referrals.”

Highly targeted Facebook ads can bear quality leads for agents with a low budget starting out, as opposed to the rising costs of using sites like Zillow where mega agents dominate, some respondents noted.

And sometimes anonymity can be on your side.

“When new in the business, it’s easier to work with leads that don’t know exactly how new you are to the business,” said a New York rookie, who put forward a good argument for buying leads in some way, shape or form, rather than going to friends and family in the beginning.

“I’m finding almost two years in, my sphere of influence is just starting to come to me for their real estate needs now that they see I’ve been successful in the past 20 plus months.”

‘High tech, high touch’

Top producers today are a combination of “high tech and high touch,” said Kendall of Ninja Selling and Colorado-based brokerage, The Group Inc., which takes on a lot of new agents.

“For some agents, tech controls them,” Kendall said. “They think that tech makes them successful and provides leads for them, but I have not found that to be the case.”

Kendall likes to ask agents: “How many of you have closed internet leads this year?” and 20 percent of hands will go up. Then when he asks “how many closed more than one?” that number drops to 10 percent.

“Internet leads are the icing on the cake,” Kendall said. Some real estate companies have a call center to nurture those leads over a period of time, typically the nine to 21 months it can take a lead to become serious.

“Agents don’t have the attention span,” he added. “If you don’t have that infrastructure on your own, the percentage of your business from internet leads is not high.”

Like many in the survey, Kendall believes a CRM is the foundational technology base for all new agents and that brokers and managers need to be better at helping their agents set up this key piece of the puzzle.

A good CRM has three components, according to Kendall: mobile friendliness (because real estate agents are on the move), a calendar and ease of use.

If a CRM gets you organized, social media can get you recognized. And those wanting in on some quick branding should start with Facebook, advised Lindsay Listanski, director of media engagement at Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

Listanksi points new agents toward local community Facebook groups, which she believes fly under the radar in real estate.

“Whether it’s a moms’ group, town groups, groups for foodies, for wine enthusiasts, you can do all of that from home,” she said. “You can be in 20 places at once and still have helpful conversations with deep connections.”

Inman conducted the survey between Sept. 17-18, 2017 . There were 646 respondents, with 376 (58.20 percent) identifying themselves as agents; 165 (25.54 percent) as brokers; 26 (4.02 percent) as coach/trainer; and 79 (12.23 percent) as “Other.”

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