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OFFICIAL MAGAZINE OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®



This article was published on: 08/01/2007

FEATURE: Customer satisfaction

Tech It at Your Own Speed

BY JOE DYSART

Technology today moves faster than ever. You hardly have time to learn how to use one device or leverage one form of Internet marketing before another comes along to replace it.

We drilled down with beginning and advanced users of two of today’s hottest technologies — PDAs and blogs — to find out how they’re using their tech tools. Whether you are still ramping up your technology know-how or are a technophile extraordinare, we’re here to show you how to get more functionality and value from your tech investment.

With technology — as with life — take it slow or take it fast, but take it, and for all it’s worth.

PDAs: Power in Your Pocket

Lynda Lipkin, a sales associate at Real Living Helios Realty in Chicago, is no technophobe. She regularly uses her laptop to check MLS listing updates and research zoning. Yet, she’s taken her time in embracing a handheld, in her case a Blackberry Pearl with T-Mobile connectivity.

Lipkin, who logged $3.5 million in gross sales last year, initially found her Blackberry intimidating. “There were so many icons on the opening screen when I first got it. I didn’t know where to begin,” she says. Luckily her brokerage office manager had learned from the Blackberry manual how to reconfigure the unit to make it easier to understand. Today all Lipkin sees when she turns on the Blackberry are icons for her messages, the calendar, and a call log.

Before making the switch to a handheld, Lipkin had answered e-mail twice a day using her laptop. But as prospects put on the pressure for speed, she was able, with the help of the Blackberry, to improve her e-mail response time to 15 minutes from receipt. “People these days want that instant gratification of a quick reply. I have to be able to respond when I’m on the road,” she says.

Now that she’s up and running, Lipkin still plans to keep it simple. “Right now, I’m really just using it for calling and e-mailing,” she says. She will stick to her laptop for Web searches because downloads are faster. Her advice for new handheld users: “Be patient. It takes a while to get up to speed, but it’s worth it.”

As for adding more Blackberry features to her repertoire in the months to come, she says, “I’m going to approach it on an as-needed basis.”

At the other end of the handheld-user spectrum is Catherine Myers, ABR®, CRS®, a sales associate who averages annual sales of $16 million at Alain Pinel, REALTORS®, in Walnut Creek, Calif. (www.diablovalley.net). “Anything I can do on a laptop, I can do on my Palm Treo 700,” says Myers, who adopted the handheld three years ago. “Instead of carrying around a PDA, a cell phone, and a notebook computer, I have it all in one multifunction device. It’s incredibly convenient.”

Like Lipkin, Myers says being able to send e-mail from the road is one of the primary reasons she brings her handheld wherever she goes. Many of her Silicon Valley tech industry clients assume she’s working with the latest technology. “They want — they demand — an instant response, and with the Treo I can give that to them. Otherwise, they move on to another salesperson,” she says.

Myers tries to respond to all e-mail within 30 minutes, but “if I’m not with a client, I respond immediately.”

She chose the Treo because it enables her to limit the amount of e-mail she has to wade through. She’s programmed only her business e-mail address into the Treo; all other e-mail addresses go to her desktop computer. Even with business e-mail, Myers is selective about what she does on the Treo. “I’d rather work on a computer with an e-mail that has a large attachment,” she says. And because her e-mail resides on her e-mail provider’s server, she can return later to a message she’s read on the Treo.

This power PDA user has also configured her handheld to receive e-mail messages sent directly from her Web site, which gives her an advantage when competing for clients, she believes. “People visit the site and want more information on a particular listing. I can give it to them right away — usually by responding with e-mail.”

She’s able to pull off this high-tech maneuver with Web template forms (from 1parkplace.com, a contact management service company), which her Web designer customizes and uploads to her Web site. Phone calls from the Web site are routed to her Treo via 1parkplace’s programming. Next, she’s thinking of adding a click-to-talk feature from a company such as Click Phone Agent or Webcall. “Again, it’s all about instant gratification,” she says.

Myers’ Treo also gets heavy use as a direct link to MLS listings on the Web. She downloads listings once a week and uses the database to search by street, price, and active sale versus pending sale. Web access enables Myers to forgo the wild goose chases that often result when a client riding in her car spies a home for sale that’s not on the to-see list.

“Instead of getting out of the car and showing the clients a home they would never be interested in, I can often call up the listing from the Web onto my Treo and show them some interior pictures right there from the car," she says. "It’s saved me time and effort more times than I can remember." If the clients still want to go inside and Myers can clear it with the listing agent, she can use her Treo as an infrared key to the home’s lockbox.

Of course, Myers is the first to admit that no device is perfect. She gets a lot of spam on her Treo. But overall, she wouldn’t leave home without it. “I really see this kind of technology as critical. There’s always something newer and cooler,” she says.

Building Community with a Blog

When Frances Flynn Thorsen, e-PRO®, of Realty World Benchmark Realty in Bethlehem, Pa., started her blog, TheRealtygram, in January 2005, she had no idea her online repository of personal musings would spike her sales by about a third. “I was writing about things that were on my mind, putting my personal attitude out there. I really didn’t see it as a marketing tool,” she says.

But these days, as a power blogger who contributes to nearly a dozen blogs, Thorsen knows that a well-written, informative blog can lead to top-of-mind recognition among prospective clients and a better bottom line.

“I found it surprising at first, really,” says Thorsen, who’s a sales associate and a marketing director for her company and averages about 45 transactions a year. “People reading your blog develop an intimate, personal relationship with you. People come up to me all the time on the street and say things like, ‘Oh, you’re that woman who does that blog, aren’t you?’ Having so many blogs has definitely given me more credibility in the industry, among other real estate practitioners, as well as buyers.”

Thorsen’s blogs include TheRealtygram and RealTown Report. “TheRealtygram is my personal blog about all things real estate,” she says. “After a while, each of my blogs tends to cross-promote the other in some way.”

Thorsen posts something new on her blogs three or four times a week, spending a total of about 90 minutes to keep them current. She gets ideas for her postings by reacting to current events in real estate and providing updates on helpful tools—tech and otherwise—for real estate professionals. All told, maintaining her blogs costs about $250 annually, she says.

“I’ve tried out a lot of different blogging software over the years, and I have to say, the software at RealTown, a real estate social networking site founded by Internet Crusade, is my favorite,” Thorsen says. “It’s very customizable.”

Thorsen boosts interest in her blogs with occasional e-mail messages to a 50,000-subscriber mailing list of mostly other real estate professionals, culled from the communities at RealTown. (She receives access to the list, which isn’t generally available to real estate practitioners, as an editor for RealTown.)

In addition, she regularly posts comments with links to her own blogs on other blog sites. “It’s important to get around and leave tracks on other blogs — it’s a way to become known,” she says. “Blogs are the future. With many home buyers in their twenties, a blog is already a must.”

Tricia Jumonville, author of the Texas Horse and Home blog, doesn’t consider herself an expert blogger just yet, but she’s getting there. Jumonville, who logged nearly $1 million in sales last year as a salesperson with ERA Colonial Real Estate in Georgetown, Texas, says her blog has generated a substantial amount of business from out-of-state readers looking for horse-friendly real estate. Customers also come from her Web site.

“I am comfortable communicating online and have been involved in online communities such as Texas Riders and a Morgan horse enthusiasts’ group, both at Yahoo Groups, for several years. Blogging seemed to be an intriguing extension of that and a good way to establish two-way communication with potential clients,” says Jumonville, who started her blog about 18 months ago. A good way to gain confidence as a newcomer is to read other blogs and comment on the blog entries, she says. One favorite business community blog is Active Rain, a blog that began as a networking site for real estate professionals and is now open to consumers. “It’s incredibly useful for getting a handle on blogging and how it can best work for you. Plus, there are so many helpful, friendly, and just flat-out great people there,” she says.

Jumonville describes the time she needed to set up her blog as minimal; the associated costs have been similarly slim. All told, her blog start-up costs were approximately $350, about half for design and the rest for a consultant to upload and install the blog online. Her monthly hosting fees are $10.

“I use DotNetNuke and its built-in blogging module for free software,” she says. “Not only does DotNetNuke work as my blog, but it will also allow me to extend the site and make it much more interactive in the future because of the interactive features like live chat and maps that I can download.” She also finds DotNetNuke very easy to customize.

Ideas for blog posts come from “issues I’ve been thinking about, events on the ranch, things that happen in my life as a real estate practitioner, things happening in the news, conversations I have with other people on- or offline, what the animals are up to today. Whatever I think about, I can blog about,” she says. Jumonville spends about seven hours a week blogging, posting at her own and other sites and staying on top of real estate news.

During the coming year, she wants to become more disciplined in her blogging. “My plan is to set a better schedule so that I have a new post on there at least a couple of times a week, if not daily. I also want to add more photos. I’ve just purchased a better camera of a size that’s easy to have with me everywhere,” she says.

As for advice for beginning bloggers, she says: “First, find your voice — your own voice. There are many, many people out there who want to tell you the ‘right’ way of blogging. But it has always seemed to me that its roots are in self-expression and a certain freedom. That needs to be preserved so that the blog remains a tool of honest communication. Don’t think that just because you’re a beginner, you don’t have anything to contribute. Everyone has a unique perspective on a topic. Jump right in!”

Dysart is an Internet speaker and a business consultant based in Bohemia, N.Y. He can be reached at 805/426-9579 or joe@joedysart.com.



TECH IT TO THE MAX

No matter where you fall on the basic-to-power-user continuum, there’s always a way to get more mileage from your technology. Try these tips.

PDA/Smart Phone
  • Figure out what you have — and what you’ll use. The breadth of a smart phone’s out-of-the-box capabilities may surprise you. Common features include a cell phone, e-mail access, text messaging, Internet access (including live MLS if it’s offered in your area), a calendar, an address book, a to-do list, memos, a camera, photo albums, an MP3 player, and calculators. To avoid being overwhelmed, make a list of features and then determine what you’ll use, why, and how often. That will help you prioritize learning new functions and get you up to speed faster.
  • Put a spreadsheet in your pocket. You can use popular programs such as Excel and Word on many PDAs and smart phones. “Documents to Go from DataViz is a favorite of mine,” says Dick Betts, a business technology speaker and consultant. “It lets you view, create, and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files — from contracts to CMAs to mileage records — on your handheld.” All your original formatting is retained on the handheld.
  • Educate yourself — or relax. Many smart phones and PDAs can double as audio book listening devices, allowing you to bone up on business literature or simply escape for a while. “At Audible.com, you can download audio books to your PC, your PDA, or your MP3 player,” says Michelle Sollicito, an e-business consultant. Before you start to use Audible.com, check that your PDA is compatible with Audible software.
  • Add apps that improve functionality. “There are more than 28,000 third-party programs that offer you a solution to whatever technology need you might have,” Betts says. You can even turn your smart phone into a fax machine by subscribing to companies like eFax or FaxBack. For applications available for PDAs, check out PocketGear, PDAStreet, PDARocket, and PDATopSoft.

Blogs
  • Become part of the conversation. “It’s not enough to talk. You must also listen,” says Jacki Danicki, an associate with the Big Blog Co., a service provider specializing in helping businesses create winning corporate blogs. Take time to find out what other real estate bloggers are saying; then prove you’re listening by citing other blogs in your own postings (a great way to find something to talk about) and by including links to other posts in your own blog.
  • Cooperate with search engines. Be sure the blog software you choose creates a separate page for every blog post you make, says Anthony Casalena, founder and CEO of New York–based SquareSpace, a blog and Web site service provider. Search engines give higher rankings to blogs that regularly create new, valuable content for the Web. A separate page for each of your blog posts makes it easier for search engines to detect the new content you’re adding.
  • Be believable and valuable. “Whether you’re a new blogger or an expert, it’s critical to create an authoritative voice for your blog and position yourself as a resource,” says Casalena. In addition to exposing your own real estate market knowledge, you can review sites of organizations such as NAR, the Mortgage Bankers Association, Freddie Mac, and the U.S. Commerce Department to get news you can use and comment on. Even easier is to sign up for RSS feeds and get news in your in-box.
  • Start nice and easy. Give yourself time to advance along the blog learning curve by launching your blog as a password-protected site, at least until you have all the kinks out, says Fredrik Wacka, author of the free and extremely helpful “Beginner’s Guide to Corporate Blogging. Check with your IT professional to create a password-protected blog; the password is easily removed when you want to go public.

— Joe Dysart


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