Commercial Real Estate Professionals Share Their Secrets for Using Technology to Increase Productivity.
Decades before servers were known as anything more than the folks who delivered your order in a restaurant, John M. Peckham III, CCIM, was cooking up ideas about the role technology might play in the commercial real estate industry someday.
In 1968, Peckham described a future breed of commercial brokers who would use all-in-one “video phones” for communicating with clients, sending documents, and viewing three-dimensional presentations in his article “The Computer -- A Powerful Aid for Selling Income Property,” published in the CID Letter. But he also cautioned that the industry wouldn't change overnight. “Technology is ready for [commercial brokers],” he wrote. “But are we ready for it? The resounding answer is no.”
If Peckham, executive director of the Real Estate CyberSpace Society in Boston, asked that question today, it's likely he'd receive a different answer. In the past 35 years, commercial real estate has evolved into an industry that thrives on the capabilities technology has to offer. Today, commercial real estate professionals are using technology to lower expenses, trim hours from their workdays, and spend more time with clients.
“Technology gives you the power to eliminate significant overhead, reach out to a much broader market, and provide exceptional client service,” says Peckham, who netted $41 million in Internet-based transactions last year alone.
“My predictions weren't magic,” he notes. “The implications of technology today are simply the precursor of what's to come.”
Boon to the Bottom Line
It's no secret that e-mail has revolutionized the commercial real estate industry. “It is an evolving way of doing business,” says William Hugron, CCIM, CPM, managing director of the Charles Dunn Co. in Irvine, Calif. During the past several years, marketing properties through e-mail has become a valuable strategy for real estate brokers.
By utilizing free listservs from various organizations, including the CCIM Institute and Certified International Property Specialists network, “I use e-mail to market many properties,” Hugron says. “I can send out 10,000 e-mails in a matter of seconds.”
He receives about 100 responses per query, the majority of which arrive within 24 hours of sending the message. E-mail marketing gives him the chance to “test the market and obtain the highest price possible in the least amount of time.”
However, Hugron can't quantify the cost savings since he hasn't completely switched to e-mail marketing. And, not all clients and colleagues are comfortable with technology. “I still use snail-mail and more-traditional marketing methods for brokers who aren't automated,” he says.
Peckham estimates that he saves thousands of dollars each year by e-mailing marketing materials. “Suppose the average cost to design, print, and mail a brochure is $1 per piece. For a list of 10,000 prospects, that's $10,000 per mailing I'm saving,” he says. “To send the information by e-mail, you may have to invest 15 minutes to compose the message and a couple more minutes to send it out. However, it costs you nothing.”
In response to the average 10,000-person e-mail marketing query, Peckham usually receives 40 to 50 responses from interested prospects within four or five hours of sending the message.
Is electronic marketing really an effective way to grab prospective clients' attention given the vast amount of unsolicited junk e-mail inundating most users? “It's aggressive, in-your-face marketing, and it works,” Peckham says.
And, timing is everything. “Being in the right place at the right time can mean the difference in a deal,” Hugron adds. “People can check e-mail from anywhere, as opposed to receiving a [mailed] package at their office.”
Technology allows some commercial real estate professionals to spend less time in the office and more time closing deals. Robert L. Behrens, CCIM, owner of Behrens & Associates in Castle Rock, Colo., estimates that he can do one-third more business with technology than he could without it. “I manage a flurry of e-mails before leaving home in the morning and research site packages at night. Without e-mail and online tools that are up 24-7, I couldn't be with clients from nine to five,” he says.
Though he deliberately chooses not to hire administrative help, Behrens says e-mail, Microsoft Word, and the Internet make paperwork easy enough to do himself. “Before the Internet, that kind of work had to be done during business hours.”
Peckham scaled back his once 30-member staff to just one person, and he's equipped for action with a setup even the most novice tech user could manage. His information technology tools consist of a laptop, a high-speed Internet connection, and software that includes ACT!, Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, and eFax.
“When I'm on the road, I use my laptop and eFax and it's like I'm in my own office,” Peckham says. “I don't consider myself a high-tech guy. Technology just makes it easier and quicker to manage all aspects of a transaction by yourself.”
Timesaving Internet Resources
Technology's timesaving benefit streamlines many commercial real estate transactions. Internet-based tools have helped make deals move faster, says Greg Vollman, CCIM, senior sales vice president of Apartment Investment Realty in Cincinnati. “Cincinnati has a geographic information Web site that has a tremendous amount of data pertaining to properties and comparable sales,” he says. “This is an enormous timesaver.”
Internet-based resources also are “helping to level the playing field for everyone in the industry,” Behrens says. Online tools help him stay on par with larger brokerages. “With the site analysis packages on the Site to Do Business, I'm able to compete with many regional and national companies,” he says.
The STDB (http://www.stdbonline.com) is a benefit for CCIM members that provides one-stop access to customized site analysis “express” packages. The packages can be constructed with Keyhole EarthViewer aerial imagery, Flood Insights flood zone determination, D&B company profiles, and much more.
Also, the STDB is a significant source of data and trends, says Joe W. Milkes, CCIM, MAI, owner of Milkes Realty Valuation in Dallas. And, like Behrens, using such online resources helps Milkes connect better with his clients. “I'm able to instantly provide more thorough and thoughtful information, demonstrate our ability to use technology to maximize [a client's] benefit from our services, and very quickly deliver reports,” he says.
A Winning Web Site
An informative, well-designed Web site is another must-have for time-conscious brokers. Because the Internet is so accessible, many prospective clients choose to do their homework upfront. “Customers who are interested in your services can research your abilities on your company's Web site before they contact you,” says Scott Shillings, CCIM, vice president of Staubach Retail Services in Houston.
Specific information helps prospective clients determine if you are the broker that best meets their needs. Explain your commercial real estate expertise, such as tenant representation or project leasing, and provide a list of current and past clients, Shillings advises. Include photographs and short biographies of all agents in your office to help establish name and face recognition along with full contact information. Also provide a list of professional affiliations and designations with hyperlinks to those organizations so that prospective clients can learn more about your qualifications. In the end, “Prospective clients want to know that you have the experience and resources to get the job done,” says Terry G. Bickel, CCIM, ALC, owner and president of Pro-Land Group in Brooksville, Fla.
Web site listings also help sell or lease properties. “Having a Web site saves a tremendous amount of time,” Bickel says. “When an interested party inquires about a property, I can send them to my Web site so they can immediately see the details of the listing.”
For land or property listings, Bickel recommends providing as much information as possible, such as maps, aerial images, and plat information. For development sites, include demographic statistics as well.
The Power of PDF
Much heralded in the publishing industry, Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format is gaining popularity among commercial real estate professionals. Defined by Adobe as “a universal file format that preserves fonts, formatting, graphics, and color of any source document, regardless of the application and platform used to create it,” files can be opened and viewed by anyone on any computer platform utilizing Adobe's free Acrobat Reader software. The latest version of Acrobat Reader can be downloaded from Adobe's Web site at http://www.adobe.com.
PDFs are fast becoming a significant part of day-to-day business for David C. Mayo, CCIM, president of Vector Realty Advisors in Louisville, Ky. Acrobat's unique features offer unlimited possibilities, he says. “I can combine a multipage Word document, an equally large Excel document, detailed mapping, a site plan, demographic reports, digital images, and a financial summary into one PDF, and then transmit the document to multiple clients online,” he says.
Users can add document-protection features to safeguard their files when creating PDFs. Password, read-only, or view-only restrictions guard documents such as contracts that require a high degree of security.
PDFs make transactions smoother for clients, Shillings says. He uses PDF files for letters of intent so clients simply can print out the file and fill in the blanks. Architects and developers also use PDF files as a quick way to show clients revised site plans. “It's a great advantage to be able to send a detailed computer-aided design file converted to PDF that my client can view on his computer screen or print with no loss of detail,” Mayo says.
PDFs also save valuable time when negotiating a sale. “A contract can be sent to the buyer and back to me within minutes for presentation to the seller,” Bickel says.
Using Technology to Get Ahead
Without a doubt, keeping up with technology helps brokers stay ahead of the curve. “No competitive advantage lasts forever,” Behrens points out. “Those who don't want to learn and use technology as it advances will soon find themselves out of business.”
Continual learning also is part of Hugron's strategy for successfully integrating technology into his business. “I am constantly taking [technology] classes to increase my productivity,” he says.
Yet commercial real estate always will be a people-oriented business; technology simply offers brokers additional tools for building strong client relationships.
“Some of my clients have seen the [online] tools I use,” Behrens says. “Knowing that I use these resources gives them complete confidence in my role as their adviser.”