Bonnie Williamson never intended to be a real estate agent. As a French major and Russian and political science minor at the University of Michigan, Williamson had initially entertained the idea of going into politics. Instead, she was recruited out of school as one of Pan Am’s first Russian speaking stewardesses. Williamson was on the airline’s inaugural flight to Moscow in 1968. She then went on to teach high school French, but after six years of dealing with “hormonal teenagers” Williamson was ready for a change, and on a friend’s suggestion interviewed at the local Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty affiliate.
“It was close to my home and on a whim I just went down and interviewed,” Williamson said. “I told my husband that I’d do it for a year or two and see how it goes. That was in 1980.”
Over her 42-year career, Williamson has watched an industry transform itself.
Gone are the days of weekly listing books and print advertisements with grainy black-and-white photos. In their place are slick videos, glossy Instagram marketing photos and digital business cards.
“I have always loved networking and building connections,” Williamson said. “You used to have to be physically out there, but now with social media you can have a much broader reach than back when everything was face-to-face. There are even more people getting the information you disseminate. Back in the day it was newspaper articles and if you were lucky you might be able to get a print ad about something you had done or a house that you had sold.”
As more and more people enter the real estate industry – membership at the National Association of Realtors has ballooned to a record 1.6 million – brokerages have become less focused on attracting new agents into the industry and instead more focused on increasing the productivity of the agents they have. But with rising mortgage rates, still-rising home prices, and record-low levels of inventory, this might be easier said than done.
For brokerages – and agents themselves – transaction sides and sales volume are easy ways to measure productivity. But not every day will end with a closed deal. The agents who spoke with RealTrends all viewed any time spent developing leads and cultivating relationships that will help them grow their client base as productive. In order to have time available to invest in these activities, agents and their brokerages have employed a wide variety of technology tools that simplify and streamline managing client relationships and marketing, as well as platforms that help agents manage documents and track transactions through the closing process.
Still, the technology tools and productivity strategies varies greatly, and while some agents take full advantage of the technology suites provided by their brokerages, others have found outside systems and platforms that suit their needs better.
From eSignature and document management platforms to CRMs and lead generation sources, it seems like every brokerage, proptech company and local Realtor association is boasting about their latest tool that will make agents’ lives easier and more productive.
“Things can work so much faster now than they did then and of course that has made us more productive as agents,” Florida-based Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices EWM Realty agent Ashley Cusack, who has been in real estate for nearly 30 years said. “Just how we do contracts now is so much faster. We did have faxes, it wasn’t the beginning of time, but everything is almost instantaneous now.”
Brokerages Invest in Tech
In late 2021, Keller Williams, the nation’s largest brokerage franchise, launched “Command,” an application that allows agents to access the brokerage’s CRM on their phone. Top brass at Keller Williams has long recognized the need to roll out new technology to its army of agents, with mixed success.
Roughly six months into its launch and agents have had mixed reactions to Command and its utility.
Anchorage, Alaska-based broker, Kristan Cole runs a team of agents across 47 locations with data stored in over 250,000 databases. Due to this, she has not transitioned to Command as a CRM as the system does not support a team as widespread as hers.
Tracy Keffer, who is based in Columbus, Ohio, uses Command, but acknowledges the system’s faults.
“I use Command. It’s trying to be better but not there yet. Speed is the biggest issue with me,” she said. “It isn’t always stable though. If I send an email to 300 people, I’ll look to see who actually got something and it may only be 280 people. So things get lost sometimes, but we store our data elsewhere as well, so I keep track of things. Then also if I am using Command to do something and my assistant gets on to build a marketing campaign, we can’t do things at the same time, it just won’t work.”
@properties, another rapidly expanding brokerage franchise, has always fancied itself as a brokerage with real tech bonafides. In 2020, it launched its own agent-focused product, dubbed “pl@tform.” According to the Thad Wong and Michael Golden-helmed brokerage, pl@tform includes a digital listing presentation tool, a digital comparative marketing analysis tool, the brokerage’s CRM, a deal management system, various marketing tools, an internal agent communication application, which allows agents to easily market a property to other @properties agents, and Closing Milestones, a buyer-facing digital portal that allows buyers to track their home purchase from contract to closing.
Joey Gault and Beth Wexler of @properties’ Chicago-based The Wexler Gault Group, have found pl@tform to be incredibly helpful. Gault and Wexler both came from real estate families and have been in the industry for over 20 years.
“The technology offered by @properties through pl@tform is really an investment in their agents,” Wexler said. “The back end systems, when we are listing something or putting something under contract, it is all just very seamless. And they really listen to our feedback and do everything that we ask for.”
Thebe Warren, a Houston-based Compass agent, feels the same way about the suite of digital tools Compass provides agents with.
“The Compass tools are just incredible,” Warren said. “The CRM is fantastic and there are all these marketing tools and templates. I have always sent postcards, but I can build my postcards from the templates and customize them how I want, and then I can send them through the platform.”
Compass’s suite of technology tools includes a CRM platform that has integrated marketing tools, such as a digital ad creator and a social media marketing campaign manager and a document management platform.
These brokerages are not alone in terms of their technology offerings. Other firms, such as Sotheby’s and Century 21, have their own platforms to help agents manage and organize everything from client relationships and documents to social media marketing campaigns.
Record Breaking Years
But while brokerages focus on finding ways to give their agents an edge in productivity, agents across the country are seeing some of their best years on record. In 2021, 6.12 million existing homes were sold and an estimated 761,000 new homes were sold. Although this was not the strongest showing for new home sales due to supply chain issues, and material and labor shortages, 2021 was the best year for existing home sales since 2006. In addition, according to the NAR 2021 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers report, 87% of buyers who recently purchased homes did so through a real estate agent or broker, up from 69% in 2001. Real estate agents are busier than ever. Although this success can be attributed to a variety of sources including the pandemic economy, record low mortgage rates and a larger share of millennials reaching their peak homebuying years, effective real estate agents also deserve some of the credit.
According to NAR the average age of a real estate agent is 54, so agents, like Williamson, who in other professions may be approaching retirement age, are having to embrace these new technologies in order to keep their edge in today’s market.
Like Williamson, Manhattan-based Sotheby’s International Realty East Side Brokerage agent Lisa Maysonet, who has been selling real estate since 1977, agrees that all the new technology has made things easier for her to conduct business. But there are some drawbacks. Her biggest source of frustration is the pressure she feels agents are subjected to, to build a social media presence and brand.
“Some of the tools are really handy, but I think a lot of them have created a huge distraction,” Maysonet said. “I see all the TikTokers and Instagramers really investing their time and energy into social media, and I mean good for them, but I am not sure they are getting out of it what they are putting in. Are they really generating a lot of leads that way?”
Although Maysonet may be skeptical of the power of social media, according to a report from NAR, over half of Realtors said that social media was their top lead-generating technology tool, with 90% of respondents reporting they regularly use Facebook and 52% reporting they use Instagram.
Andover, Massachusetts-based William Raveis agent Deborah Lucci, who has been in real estate since 1998, navigates this issue by working with a team of agents.
“Our team has really embraced technology,” Lucci said. “One gentleman on our team does all of our social media. I think one of the biggest changes in my career has been the team concept. It is hard to be a single agent walking in the door in this type of market and I think the new agents bring something to the team that the more experienced agents don’t have. I know I don’t use as much technology as they do, but I don’t feel like I have to because they are handling that for the team and then I can use my experience to help them improve their understanding of the business of real estate.”
Gault and Wexler have also leveraged their team in order to get the most out of their social media, as well as improve their overall productivity.
“Today I had a listing appointment and then I had to go see a home that we are about to list to make sure it is ready and then we had a photo shoot and we have showings later today and another photo shoot tonight,” Wexler said. “So, the good things about our team is that if we are running around, we have somebody at the office to handle the paperwork and somebody to handle the back end of our system and someone to run our social media, so that we are able to out and get the business and complete the tasks that need to get done each day. Everyone has a specialty, but we all chip in where needed.”
Regardless of an agent or team’s approach to dividing duties and tackling social media marketing, Williamson says presentation still matters.
“Professional photography is key,” she said. “It is the quality of your presentation that is so important. Early on in my career, I found out that the Wall Street Journal did a house of the week. I had a property that had been off and on the market several times within our agency. So, I had a professional photographer come in and shoot new photos and I sent it to the Wall Street Journal on Thursday to hopefully be published on Friday. It went out and later that day we had calls from people all over the country. There was one guy who called us from a ski slope in Colorado after seeing the home in the paper at the resort he was staying at.”
Making the Tech Work for You
Whether agents are part of a team or work individually they all agreed that digital document management systems and CRM platforms have made a huge difference in their business.
“I use Follow Up Boss as a CRM,” Santa Fe-based Sotheby’s International Realty agent with over 30 years of experience Darlene Streit said. “It probably isn’t the best thing out there, but it works for me and we use DocuSign a lot for eSignature and document management, but Dropbox has really been the game changer for me. Everything is so organized. We move documents from file to file as they go through the closing process and we can easily see what has been done, what is in process and what still needs to be dealt with. We used to file everything in a filing cabinet until one day I thought we were going to need another office just to store all the files and I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ So, we started using Dropbox and it is so much easier to find everything and no more giant filing cabinets.”
For Lucci, Google Sheets has been a game changer. Her team has sheets for everything for task management, to tracking a home through the closing process, to competitive market analysis.
“We used to have all of these whiteboards in the office, but with COVID everyone went remote and we had to find a solution,” Lucci explained. “Everything used to be everywhere and it was hard to keep track of tasks and if we got a new admin it was next to impossible to train them because we didn’t really have a system in place. Now everything is so much easier to follow and nothing slips through the cracks.”
Cusack of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices finds herself constantly in awe of the changes the industry has undergone since she started her career.
“There are so many positive things that have happened that have just taken our industry to a whole new level,” Cusack said. “I was at a convention last weekend, and I was sharing my e-card, not handing out business card, which I love because you just click a link on the e-card and you can go to my website or my social media or send me an email. It has definitely helped grow our industry.”
Of all the production tools available, the lo-tech telephone is still the go-to device for many agents.
“I am a good old-fashioned girl and I believe in the telephone and face-to-face connections,” Maysonet said. “I still think those are your best bet. I know the younger generations of buyers use more technology in their home search and maybe they first reach out to you via text, but at the end of the day you will end up talking on the phone with them, so I still think it is the most valuable tool.”
The real estate agents who spoke with RealTrends said they frequently measure their productivity by the number of transaction sides they record or the sales volume they generate, however they all said that a day with no transaction closing could be just as productive as a day with a closing.
“I am a list writer and a goal person,” Williamson said. “When I first started out I thought if I sold two houses that year I would be happy and I ended up rookie of the year. I love to network and that has been the secret to my success. So I might not be out there making deals everyday, but I am investing in connections that will eventually lead to future business.”
One thing that has not changed in Williamson’s productivity strategy over her 42 years is her yearly handwritten Christmas cards.
“At this point it’s 42 years of business so it is a lot of cards,” she said with a laugh. “Now I have to start in November to try and get ahead.”