At the beginning of 2020, hardly anyone suspected that a health pandemic would impact nearly every industry in the country. Georgia’s shelter-in-place orders combined with the desire of clients and prospects to practice social distancing have changed the real estate business as we know it.
Growth and Comfort Can’t Coexist
Companies should always disrupt their own business because it’s inevitable that it will be brought upon them from the outside. From the inside, this is called innovation. From the outside, it is called disruption. The muscle memory developed by preparing for disruption empowers corporations to thrive in times of crisis. However, no matter how prepared a company or agents are, an unforeseen obstacle still demands some adaptation.
One of the first things Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Metro Brokers did was reinforce the message that as a brokerage we are here for our more than 2,500 agents. We launched a 45-day companywide broadcast video program called the Metro Challenge. This outlet allows us to articulate how we’ve prepared for this situation and give agents comfort. We cover market trends, leveraging new tools to meet customers where they are, and hear from special guests such as John Peyton, President and CEO of Realogy Franchise Group. I highlight the success agents are having in the current market, and we discuss quintessential books on winning in business. The goal is to motivate and, most importantly, build community. It’s been incredible for our company culture.
At the center of our communications strategy is a white-labeled version of the technology platform Konverse, which we use as our intranet, training center, central hub of knowledge and the go-to source of information, tools and engagement.
Though the daily meetings are an effective way to make announcements, connecting with staff and agents via email as soon as government orders are unveiled has been critical. Agents and staff are looking to their leaders for an honest and reliable flow of communication regarding how they should operate in this ever-changing environment.
As everyone receives endless information from outside sources, keeping your messaging at the forefront offsets confusion and frustration. We built out a COVID-19 Resources section in our intranet to house local, national and industry materials that are linked and regularly updated. This section also includes guidance from our President and CEO, Kevin Levent, on government program rollouts such as the CARES Act and lets our agents know how they can directly benefit from these initiatives.
It’s also been important to address the modifications being made by sectors agents rely on. We’ve worked with Judy Jones, Vice President of Metro Brokers Financial, to make sure we are at the leading edge of the impact on mortgages. As a company, we’ve made adjustments to our business systems and tools to meet customers where they are. As a large mortgage broker, Metro Brokers Financial has various investor partners and can move quickly in the market to meet buyer and client needs. In other cases, MBF has options for clients that may have been turned down by other lenders.
For revisions to closing procedures, we have leveraged Ken Raymer, Managing Attorney for our legal entity, Metro Title Trust, LLC/Raymer Law Group, LLC. Adjustments have been made to our approach to meet customer needs and keep closings moving forward.
Jumping Through Hoops
Governor Brian Kemp and the Georgia Supreme Court decided that video conferences would be allowed, though not without a few hoops to jump through. Buyers and sellers still need to print all of the closing documents and physically sign them. Also, all parties must be in Georgia when the closing video conference occurs. On top of that, it can take days for the process to be officially complete and keys to be handed over.
A traditional closing is still an option. Loved ones and agents are asked to stay home or in their cars during the process. Clients have the ability to close in separate rooms and can bring their own blue pen, mask, gloves or other items for comfort. They can also elect to have a third-party power of attorney sign on their behalf at closing with lender permission.
Embrace the Journey
As mentioned earlier, every agent and company has had to make swift adaptations right now. New methods for conducting open houses had to be found and a platform to use had to be chosen. Each option has pros and cons, not to mention what can be a steep learning curve for agents and clients.
For many agents, video calls and video tours simply haven’t been part of how they do business. COVID-19 has forced them to push past the discomfort of something unfamiliar. We’ve helped agents embrace the change by encouraging them to start by sending videos to each other to be critiqued or to simply video chat with someone just to check in with them. Webinar training on virtual open house best practices was also quickly developed by our Marketing Director, Tyler Brenner, along with guides, and graphics for social media promotion.
Before COVID-19, technology was weaving its way into all aspects of real estate, and now it’s front and center. Setting our company apart by equipping agents with cutting-edge tech was an ongoing mission before the pandemic. Programs such as Dotloop, which allows documents to be created, edited and signed digitally and has built-in communication, have been integral for our business.
For over a year, we’d been working heavily with the team at Earnnest, an app that enables funds to be digitally transferred for real estate transactions. A select group of agents were even beta testing the app as we refined its platform for our needs.
An official launch to our entire company took place at the beginning of April. Had this project not been in the works far ahead of time, it would have been difficult to find a way to offer a similar solution to clients and agents.
As I talk to fellow industry leaders, a common theme emerges. Once we are beyond this, the industry won’t be the same. Consumers will see the advantages of virtual tools and will be more open to using them. If you can’t learn to leverage technology, you won’t thrive now or when the market returns.
Own the Upside
While the demand to buy and sell may have momentarily declined, it is still there. The need to buy and sell homes remains. There are multiple ways to work around the obstacles presented by COVID-19. It’s our responsibility to make sure buyers and sellers are aware of that. Utilizing our website has been one of the most efficient ways to do this, beyond having our agents continually connect with their sphere of influence.
In line with many brokerages and real estate companies, we added whole new sections to our website that explain how we are working safely and smartly. Step-by-step explanations of the virtual buying and selling process have been laid out. An FAQ portion addresses the most basic concerns such as, “Can I still buy a house right now?”
On social media, we promote the tools at our disposal to keep business moving. Images that reiterate the notion that clients can buy or sell a home without leaving their own or coming into close contact with other people are pushed out on our platforms and distributed by agents. An in-house Digital Marketing Center is packed with tools to help agents market their business virtually. There, they have the ability to create relevant email campaigns, e-newsletters and more.
Supplying agents with knowledge to successfully address questions and comments about the current situation from clients and prospects has been a priority as well. Communication strategies and a stream of intranet articles with marketing tips have been distributed to help agents steer the conversation. An abundance of webinars and on-demand training from our company and Better Homes and Gardens® Real Estate have always been available to agents but are even more important now.
While the reality that COVID-19 is a major disrupter to the real estate industry is a fact that can’t be ignored. It’s important to remember that this interruption to our business is only temporary. No one can pinpoint how long it will last but at most, it could be a few months—nowhere near the length of the 2008 to 2012 housing crisis, and nowhere near as impactful. In the middle of the uncertainty, maintaining that perspective is important.
Preparing for the pent-up demand of buyers and sellers is also a reality. Consumers are waiting to see what will happen to the economy, their jobs, their savings, and the housing market as the pandemic plays out. For some, changes to those areas will be the ultimate deciding factor in whether they move forward with their pre-pandemic plan to buy or sell. For others, they won’t have been as impacted by the factors mentioned above and will be ready to jump out of the gate once the market returns. If brokerages and agents aren’t ready to meet this demand, they will lose out.
Craig McClelland is Vice President and COO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Metro Brokers.