Speaking on stage at Inman Connect New York 2019 on Thursday, two industry leaders advocated a “global” approach to the operation of multiple listing services, warning against MLS “protectionism” that could leave agents vulnerable to technological change and new business models.

Some MLSs seek to preserve the status quo and keep in place the local customs specific to their markets. But Sam DeBord, vice president of strategic growth at Coldwell Banker Danforth, a Seattle-area brokerage, says that approach is short-sighted.

Sam DeBord

“No one is going to escape the technology that’s coming into the industry,” he said. “Sometimes we need to do things at a local level that are following the national trends,” such as providing new data and tools to brokers and collaborating with other MLSs. Facilitating inter-operability of tech tools should be another goal, he said.

If MLSs adopt this forward-looking mindset, brokers and agents will have a better shot at building or adopting technology to match tech-powered upstarts.

Some MLSs have seen the writing on the wall and are innovating, but then “you have other folks that have a real inward focus,” DeBord said.

Those MLSs “have a responsibility to open up.”

Making use of terms such as “global” and “protectionist,” the speakers at times sounded like jet-setters praising the virtues of free trade at the annual World Economic Forum hosted in Davos, Switzerland.

“The protectionist mindset will not get us anywhere further than where we are now,” DeBord said, in reference to the need for MLSs to adjust to an industry in flux and under threat from new business models.

Denee Evans, CEO of the Council of Multiple Listing Services, an MLS trade group, agreed that the industry doesn’t have the “luxury” not to “consider the national or global picture.”

Denee Evans.

Part of how MLSs can fulfill their obligations to members is by merging or teaming up with other MLSs when they don’t have the resources to maintain data standards or provide agents and brokers with the tools and technology they deserve, the speakers said.

A survey by CMLS found that respondents overwhelmingly supported (72 percent) MLS consolidation or data-sharing, according to Evans. So isn’t consolidation moving at a faster pace?

“Everybody is for consolidation unless it’s their market,” DeBord said.

One of the big reasons agents and brokers sometimes oppose mergers or cooperation between MLSs is because they fear that this could allow agents from out of the area to compete with them.

But DeBord said he’s studied post-merger MLS data to see if consolidation spurs agents to do significantly more business outside their home market. The data shows it “usually” doesn’t, he said.

While consolidation may be a welcome development, the concept of a single, national MLS — called for at Connect by Compass CEO Robert Reffkin — is misguided, DeBord said.

It would remove the competition between MLSs that stimulates innovation, not to mention raise legal issues, he said.

What would be helpful, though, is a single data-sharing network between all MLSs, DeBord said.

The speakers also sought to debunk the notion that agents are often displeased with their MLS.

The CMLS survey found that 91 percent of respondents said they found their MLS to be valuable or very valuable at creating an efficient marketplace, Evans said. Meanwhile, 70 percent reported being pleased or extremely pleased with their MLS.

“Loud storylines usually get a lot of headlines and a lot of traffic,” DeBord said, when asked about the perception that agents generally resent their MLS.

Evans said she gets frustrated when MLSs are referred to as “they,” as if they are an interloper, rather than a cooperative of industry professionals.

If MLS members are dissatisfied, she added, an agent’s first step should be to connect with MLS decision makers, learn about the policy-making process and then engage in advocacy.

Email Teke Wiggin

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