Beyond Basic Training
Educational opportunities boost office assistants
“Sara is the lifeblood. She makes the wheels go round,” says Brown Bethune, CCIM, senior sales associate at Prudential Burroughs & Chapin Realty, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., about Sara P. Jones, his office's administrative assistant. “She keeps us out in the field because she can put together packages, pull area maps, and pull demographics. Her knowledge of real estate helps her know if something is wrong and she alerts us to it.”
Administrative assistants like Jones are taking on increasingly complex professional roles in the modern workplace, reports the International Association of Administrative Professionals. Updating Web sites, designing and maintaining databases, and learning to use new software all can be integral parts of an administrative assistant's job.
A number of such skills make assistants critical to commercial real estate professionals' success. But sometimes even the most qualified and efficient assistants need specialized training. Mastering Microsoft FrontPage to build a Web site, learning the basics of STDBOnline, or obtaining a general understanding of real estate terminology are all skills that can add to an assistant's repertoire — and a company's productivity.
In today's technology-dependent office world, computer and Internet skills are essential for an administrative assistant. Computer expertise is the No. 1 skill employers look for in a potential assistant, IAAP reports. This skill set can include handling online research, word processing, spreadsheets, databases, graphics, and desktop publishing.
Skip Duemeland, CCIM, owner of Duemelands Commercial, in Bismarck, N.D., says that his assistant's technical training makes her an invaluable asset to his business. “She can easily take Keyhole aerial photos and make a fly-by showing. She can take Site to Do Business and make an impressive Express Package without me … She can add planEASe and digital photos, make brochures, do ProMotor, do CCIMNet, LoopNet, and MLS listings.” While his assistant takes care of the technical details, “I can just sell and sell,” Duemeland says.
Michele Givan, who works with several agents including four CCIMs, at CI Group in Des Moines, Iowa, finds that her STDB training often comes into play when she assists the brokers in her office. “When the brokers are doing traffic studies and looking for restaurants or need different revenues researched, STDB really helps with that,” she explains. She has taken two STDB courses to familiarize herself with the format.
QuickBooks accounting and financial software is another key component of Givan's training. “For me, the QuickBooks training was very important. I use it a lot and I don't have an accounting background, so that was important to learn,” she says.
Givan took courses through Bridge21, the world's largest QuickBooks training program. These seminars provide varying levels of training and are held nationwide.
Other software courses are available through national computer training centers. “I chose FrontPage training as I had never had any Web page design training before,” says Givan, who took courses through New Horizons Computer Learning Centers. “Our group has a Web page that we update frequently, so it helped me with setting up our news stories, editing, and creating Web pages.”
Other software classes New Horizons offers include Dreamweaver Web design, Microsoft Office, and Quicken financial software.
Choosing the Format
In addition to determining which skills are important for assistants to have, factors such as training costs and formats must be considered. Administrative training classes are available in a variety of formats including large and small classroom situations, teleconferences, online courses, and one-on-one tutoring.
Givan, who has taken training courses both in person and via streaming video online, finds the in-person sessions more effective. “I didn't really care for the video. I'd rather be in a classroom with more contact with the teacher,” she says.
Still, time, cost, or location constraints sometimes prevent assistants from attending in-person training sessions. In these cases online learning is a viable, affordable option. Web sites such as WorldWideLearn and My Career Education offer directories of various companies' online courses.
Whether learning takes place in person or online, Duemeland explains the educational process best: “We used online training, WebEx, one-on-one, teleconferencing, and on-site training as well, but practice is the best teacher.”
The Safety Net
If an assistant is well versed in computer skills but needs a more general knowledge of real estate, the National Association of Realtors' Real Estate Professional Assistant certification program may be helpful. The two-day course equips real estate assistants with a comprehensive overview of the industry. Students in the REPA program can take classes in real estate business, transaction management, marketing concepts, and other topics.
Although the program is more frequently attended by residential Realtors' assistants, there are advantages for commercial real estate assistants as well, according to Dan Schmitz, managing director of NAR's business specialties education.
“This program is like risk management for Realtor jail,” Schmitz says. The program educates assistants about the business processes he or she legally can manage. There are certain aspects of transactions that, according to law, can be completed only by licensed commercial real estate professionals. Untrained assistants who give out information illegally — even unknowingly — could break the law and get sued, Schmitz says.
These laws vary from state to state and, therefore, training does as well. The classes are tailored according to each state's real estate laws and regulations. Some junior colleges even adapt the course, Schmitz says. NAR offers the course online and in several states at different times throughout the year. Schedules are available at www.coursecalendar.com.
Additionally, REPA can be a stepping stone for those interested in eventually earning a real estate license. The program offers an opportunity to learn about the industry without pursuing a license right away.
For others, like Givan, being an assistant is a career-long endeavor. “I have been an administrative assistant for 27 years and I feel that any training I can receive is very beneficial, whether it be real estate-related, computer learning programs, or training to help me be a more-efficient and knowledgeable assistant,” Givan says.
Though computer skills and real estate knowledge can make an assistant extremely helpful, Laney Huff, assistant to Ronald L. Raitz, CCIM, CES, of Real Estate Exchange Services in Marietta, Ga., finds that people skills are some of the most important for a personal assistant to possess. An assistant is often a client's first line of communication with an office, and therefore, the assistant needs to have excellent interpersonal skills.
“There are a lot of times when the situation gets hairy,” Huff explains. “An assistant needs to be able to help out. People skills and being able to build relationships is very important.”
“I love customers and I love people. It just comes natural to me,” says Jones, who claims her ability to communicate with people is one of her biggest administrative strengths.
For those to whom these skills do not come naturally, interpersonal skills training programs can help. The PeopleSmart program offers books and tapes with methods for improving communication. The American Management Association also offers seminars and online people skills training.
For some commercial real estate professionals, an assistant's impact on the efficiency and ease with which an office is run should not be underestimated. “She has made a tremendous impact on our business. We would be completely lost without our assistant,” Duemeland says.