Clicking with Clients

Balancing tech and people skills is the secret to successful business relationships.

Nathan F. Anderson, CCIM, SIOR, couldn't tell you what some of his clients look like. It's not necessarily because the industrial sales and leasing specialist with Kessinger/ Hunter & Co. in Kansas City, Mo., has too many clients to keep track of, it's just that he's never seen many of them in the flesh.

Compared to five years ago, it's a different world, Anderson says of the way technology is transforming his business. I'm working on multiple listings where I've never met the seller in person.

Although Anderson may be the exception rather than the norm among his colleagues, technology is gaining a foothold in the commercial real estate industry because it affords the speed, convenience, and cost efficiencies today's companies and clients want.

While e-mail has been firmly entrenched in the brokerage community for several years, other technologies, such as Web conferencing and instant messaging, slowly are making inroads into the industry. Yet some brokers worry these tools may erode the foundation on which many commercial real estate companies built their businesses a human, personal touch.

You can be a good salesperson without technology skills, says Robin S. Eschliman, CCIM, an associate broker with NAI FMA Realty, in Lincoln, Neb. But you can't be a good salesperson without people skills.

Finding the Balance

During the last decade, business communication technology has shifted noticeably from the spoken word ? phone calls and in-person meetings to the written word in the form of e-mails, intranets, and online chat, according to Matthew Ferrara, a veteran real estate technology educator. As a result, many of today's business relationships are built through a steady stream of e-mail and other text-based technologies.

Yet brokers continue to search for the perfect balance between technology and interpersonal communication. The key is to recognize that certain technologies appear more human to clients than others and to understand which situations demand a particular type of response. The balance between written and spoken [communication] is not a magic formula, Ferrara says.

As commercial real estate professionals embrace these new electronic technologies, they will master the understanding of how and when to use technology without losing the warmth of personal contact.

Web Conferencing:Almost Like Being There

For commercial real estate professionals who rely heavily on face-to-face meetings, the inconvenience of geographic distance coupled with the time-devouring practice of jetting across the country to meet clients, makes Web conferencing an attractive and economical alternative. Since Web conferences allow for both audio and visual communication, they are an ideal substitute for face-to-face meetings.

[Web conferencing] is very simple and very effective, says Joe W. Milkes, CCIM, MAI, owner of Milkes Realty Valuation in Dallas. Earlier this year, he met online with his management association peers. As for using it in commercial real estate, I can imagine that it would be very useful for a group to discuss a document or site plan and save a lot of time by doing it simultaneously. I would think it would be useful in dealing with complex issues where time and coordination are important, he says.

The industry's professionalism naturally lends itself to the process, Ferrara says. The commercial agent is the most buttoned-down person in real estate. There's a level of professional appearance and demeanor demanded of commercial brokers not seen in many other professions, he says. This is something commercial agents can leverage in their online meetings with clients.

However, successful Web conference users understand how human this technology is. It is very hard to remember that every facial expression is being seen. Rolling your eyes at the guy next to you will be seen at the other end, Ferrara says. But the benefits are tremendous. To look directly into the camera and tell a client that you're going to make something happen or you're going to fix a problem conveys the same trust onscreen as it does in person.

Instant Messaging for Business

In the late 1990s, when instant messaging went mainstream, it first captured the attention of college students and teenagers. Unlike e-mail, instant messaging allows two users to carry on an interactive, text-based conversation in real time via the Internet. The advantages are apparent: Instant messaging demands less time and attention than phone calls and allows users to maximize mobility.

But the idea that chat technology could make the jump from a student's PC to a commercial real estate broker's desktop has been considered only recently, although real estate giant Re/Max International started using a primitive form of it more than a decade ago.

In 1992, through technology provided by Internet service provider Compuserve, roughly 3,000 commercial and residential Re/Max agents started using instant messaging to speak with each other for the first time, creating a high-tech, highly effective referral service.

The referral business [the 3,000 agent test group] generated was high, and they only had great things to say about it, says Kristi Graning, vice president of information technology for Re/Max International. In 1998 we transitioned to the Web and started using true IM technology. Since then, we have upgraded the technology a couple of times to try to use the latest and greatest.

The latest and greatest chat technology for Re/Max is now the company's extranet, Mainstreet, a virtual community created to foster mutually beneficial relationships between agents, regardless of their geographic location. Due to imbedded IM technology, more than 52,000 commercial and residential agents (as well as suppliers and affiliates) can log onto the Mainstreet and chat with their colleagues across the network.

The experience has been overall positive, Graning says. It's difficult to find the best technology that utilizes all varieties of operating systems that our agent population uses, but we've been able to manage that. I cannot tell you that it has increased speed with the overall transaction nor has it simplified the transaction, but it has built relationships that last a lifetime.

But commercial agents need not wait until their employer purchases an instant messaging platform to experiment with the technology. They can benefit greatly by equipping their wireless personal digital assistants or laptops with an instant messaging program, Ferrara says. The reward: increased efficiency without sacrificing mobility.

Wireless instant messaging works best when holding short, efficient chats with clients rather than lengthy, personal conversations. I manage five major corporate clients, and all day long we're constantly asking and answering questions of each other. If they call and get my voice mail, they are not getting the service they need. But if they instant message me, I'm there, Ferrara says.

Despite the advantages, there are some reasons that many business professionals are far more comfortable with phone calls and e-mail. One major drawback to Internet-based instant messaging is that no unified platform for public users exists. A uniform Microsoft-based platform for Yahoo!, America Online, and Microsoft corporate instant messenger users is expected later this year, but currently they cannot communicate with each other.

Online instant messaging also brings its own set of security concerns. Because the technology enables users not only to speak in text format, but also to transfer files back and forth, instant messengers are particularly vulnerable to hackers. Instant messaging conversations usually are not encrypted when they travel across the Internet, giving hackers an easy way to ?look in? on conversations and data.

Another pressing concern for Internet-based instant messaging is that the ability to share music, photos, applications, and other files makes IM conversations convenient carriers for more nefarious concoctions: viruses and worms. A single message can carry a nasty virus that covertly infiltrates the other party's system.

To bypass these security issues, some real estate agents are eyeing internal instant messaging platforms from companies such as Microsoft, FaceTime Communications, IBM's Lotus, and Novell. Some of their common safeguards: File sharing can be disabled; messages are encrypted; and each conversation automatically is logged into the company's archives.

Tying It All Together

While some progressive commercial real estate companies have taken technologies such as Web conferencing and instant messaging for test drives, most have adopted a wait-and-see approach. Since many brokers already cut their technology teeth on e-mail, Web-based marketing tools, and wireless systems, they'd like for someone else to brave the next wave of products and tools.

I always make a decision to jump on new technology when it gets a national following and signs point to [it] being a leader in its field, Eschliman says.

Intertwining tech and people skills requires adapting technologies to the core strengths of the industry. Behind the latest technology tool is the understanding that whatever the means, communication is the key to success. My experience is that agents who cannot build rapport easily and create a sense of trust with clients in person won't be around [very long], Anderson says.

Jennifer Anne Perez

Jennifer Anne Perez is a La Mirada, Calif.-based freelance writer.


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