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This article was published on: 01/01/2007

Old vs. new
A Pencil and Paper or a PDA?

The latest tech tools can boost productivity, but are they always the best solution? Experts share tips for determining when it’s better to take the low-tech route.


When Tammie Fleming, GRI, started her job as managing broker of Prudential One Realty Centre in Granite City, Ill., she wanted all the practitioners to adopt her enthusiasm for using technology.

She had a tech solution for nearly every aspect of real estate, from scheduling appointments to keeping in touch with clients. “I made it my mission to train all my agents on the fine art of becoming high-tech,” she says.

But after meeting resistance from certain practitioners, she made a realization: For some people, the old-fashioned way of doing things is still the quickest and easiest way.

“My top agent comes in every day with Post-It notes all over her planner,” Fleming says. “And inside her planner is a rainbow of colors. She uses a color-coded, highlighted system that would drive me insane, but it works for her.”

Pinpoint Your Needs

From Apple’s iPhone to voice-command GPS systems, there’s no shortage of new tech tools screaming for your attention and dollars. Each gadget comes with a tempting promise — it will make you more productive, more informed, more connected.

But even the most sophisticated technology is a waste of money if you don’t really need it or know how to use it. So before investing a dime in the latest gadgets, you’ve got to analyze your business needs and habits, experts advise.

Start by listing your existing business tasks that you would like a tech tool to help you accomplish, says Saul Klein, co-founder of San Diego-based Internet Crusade, a real estate technology company.

For example, are you often frustrated that you don’t have the ability to e-mail when you’re away from your computer? Do you keep a basic spreadsheet of contacts, but you’d benefit from something more sophisticated?

“Don’t go out and look for technology that will help you do something you’re not already doing,” Klein says. That’s a sure way to waste money on a tool you’ll never use, he says.

Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity expert based in Atlanta, says you should ask yourself three questions: How am I spending my time? Is there a simpler, faster way to do the job? Can the technology make it easier? Your answers to these questions will tell you whether or not you need to buy a new product.

If You Won’t Learn, Don’t Buy

Another thing to consider before buying a new gadget is how much time — and patience — you can devote to learning how to use it properly.

“A laptop has more computing power than what we used to put a man on the moon, but most of us use only a fraction of its capabilities because we’ve never been fully trained,” Klein says, adding that “people still don’t know how to use e-mail effectively.”

Duncan says today’s software offers some of the best solutions for streamlining office operations. “But people don’t learn to use it,” she says. “If you touch it every day, you need to learn how to use it.”

If you’re on a tight budget, be sure you factor in the cost of training when you’re shopping around. Also, find out whether training is available in your area, on the Web, or perhaps at an industry conference you plan to attend.

The bottom line: Never expect to pick up a new gadget and start using immediately, without training.

Find a Balance of Old and New

You may never do away with your notebook or your fold-up map. And there’s no reason that you should — many people say that making a to-do list with a pencil and paper is the best way to plot out the day. And a simple glance at your map might be quicker than even the most advanced GPS system.

Even tech-savvy practitioners say there are some things they prefer to do the old-fashioned way. “I use pen and paper for notes and a planner to keep track of my day — I like to keep everything simple,” says Glenn Offutt, broker-associate with Russ Rhoads Team at RE/MAX Paramount Properties in Lakeland, Fla.

But for Offutt, keeping everything simple also means using GPS and a smartphone, which he uses to e-mail clients from the road. “I find a good mix between high-tech and low-tech is the best solution.”

Must-Haves for High Tech and Low Tech

What tech tools are worth using, and what low tech strategies will never lose their staying power? We posed that question to experts and practitioners, and here’s what they said:

High-tech tools you can’t live without:
  • Electronic calendar. A basic calendar from Microsoft Outlook or a similar software provider can do wonders for keeping you organized and on time, says Fleming. “You can add contacts to your calendar, create lists and reminders, and communicate with e-mail. It just makes it easier to find what you need, and everything syncs to your PDA. That’s important for me because I’m out and about all the time,” Duncan says.
  • PDA. “So much information can be entered, modified, and accessed so easily,” says Dawn Guidry, GRI, a practitioner with Coldwell Banker Pelican Real Estate in Lafayette, La. It can act as a calendar and an alarm, alerting you to important annual events, she says. Unlike most day-planners, it’s small enough to fit on a belt clip or in a purse.
  • Google Docs. Currently in Beta testing, Google Docs lets you create and share spreadsheets, presentations, and other documents on the Web. Best part — there’s no charge. “The free spreadsheets have been incredible for our office,” Offutt says. “All of our agents can log onto any computer to check our e-mail, see our showing log, and find out who’s on vacations, to name some of its features.”
  • GPS. These devices are your electronic road map to help you get to Point A and B without getting lost. “Once you have it, you don’t know how you lived without it,” Klein says. “But before you get it, you don’t know why you need it.” GPS service is especially helpful in large cities or in areas you don’t know well, he says. The service helps you avoid dead-ends and alerts you to one-way streets and other impediments. For people who are familiar with their territory, however, maps remain a low-cost alternative.
  • Online property-marketing tools. From software that creates stellar virtual tours, to wide-angle digital cameras that show a full view of a room — anything that can help you market a property better on the Web is a winner, Fleming says. “Agents do need to become more aware of how buyers find their homes and use technology to capitalize on that.”

Low-tech tools you can’t live without:
  • Face-to-face meetings. Never underestimate the power of the personal contact, says Annette Bukowski, GRI/ABR, broker-manager of Prudential Bay Front Realty in Brick, N.J. “No amount of technology will ever replace an in-person conversation,” says Bukowski. She says the best way to discover what clients are really thinking is to observe body language. “I couldn’t live without my fax machine, but it doesn’t substitute for sitting down at a person’s kitchen table,” Bukowski says.
  • Notepad and pen. To take notes while maintaining eye contact with clients, or to quickly jot down observations during a showing, the old-fashioned pen and paper can’t be beat.
  • Calendar. With a quick glance at your paper calendar, you can see the whole month — dates of the weekends, holidays, and scheduled events (if you keep it up to date, that is).
  • Cell phone. “Just a regular old cell phone is still very effective,” Klein says. It doesn’t have to have all the latest features. In fact, many people don’t enjoy using their phone to type and send e-mails; the tiny keyboards can be frustrating and slow.
  • Filing system. Until the real estate business really goes paperless, there’s a need to keep an organized filing system where you can store important transaction-related documents and communications from your clients.
  • Letters sent via snail mail. In an age of e-mail and instant messaging, “there’s still nothing can stand in for a nice, hand-written note,” Bukowski says. “I just think that makes such a difference. My mother drilled that into me.”

Needless to say, you won’t fall behind the times if you choose the low tech route in some areas of your business. In fact, you may just make yourself more memorable with your clients when they meet you face-to-face or read that hand-written letter that you send them in the mail. After all, high tech doesn’t always bring that high touch clients want in a real estate transaction.

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