Technology

Plugging Into Productivity

Brokers use technology to put time on their side.

In an increasingly wired world, commercial real estate practitioners are figuring out how to adapt. Today, deals happen at warp speed; the marketplace is local and global at the same time, and the amount of information available online seems practically limitless.

In response, brokers at the top of the game have learned how to do more work in less time, expand their marketplace while keeping a line on costs, and stay connected with their clients, their office, and their information - no matter where they roam.

How do they do it? They make technology work for them. Here are their tips for plugging into improved profits and productivity.

Get the Big Picture: Digital Aerials

Aerial photographs are nothing new, but downloading them right to your desktop is. "In the past,?"says Scott Shillings, CCIM, vice president of Staubach retail services in Houston, "we had to go to the service provider's office, find the right aerial, pick the best angle, sketch the area we needed duplicated, wait a day for it to be printed, then rub on the pertinent information."

Today, Shillings and others download digital aerials while they're on the phone with clients. "Say you call me to talk about a particular site that might work for you," says Stefan M. Cihylik, CCIM, GRI, a broker with the Frederick Group in Allentown, Pa. While on the phone, "I'm looking at [the site] in Keyhole, saving a couple aerials, dropping them into CorelDraw, marking them up, creating a PDF, and e-mailing it to you." [For more on specific products, see the Technology Buyers Guide on page 30.]

What's improved in the past five years is the quality and quantity of images available, the affordability of downloading images, and the ease with which users can manipulate and customize images.

Digital map companies have mapped about 3.5 million square miles of the world, including all major U.S. metropolitan areas as well as many international cities. In addition, desktop mapping programs have about a five-minute learning curve, so users can download clear, high-resolution color photos in minutes.

"Aerial photos are an integral part of all my business," says Dewey Struble, CCIM, a senior adviser with Sperry Van Ness in Reno, Nev., who does primarily leased investment sales, as well as site selection and land sales. "I even use them when discussing a property I [don't know] - to get an immediate feel for the property, the area where it is located, and nearby comps."

But the value of aerials is increased tenfold through customizing by calling up specific property views or adding data to photos. Through STDBOnline, Struble downloads basic vertical aerials for free and uses Keyhole Pro to get "customized, oblique views at any and every angle. I use these to highlight markets, transportation systems, and other properties in a visual way, which many like and hardly ever see."

"We can quickly customize a digital aerial to fit the client's specific needs - competition, radius rings, traffic counts, outline the proposed sites," Shilling says. "By showing new housing growth, major highways, competing sites, shopping centers, office and apartment developments, a broker can relay the full story quicker. Also, scanning an existing photo, elevation, renderings, or land plan, and e-mailing it as an attachment can speed up the process."

And then there's the "wow" factor, Struble says. By using video-game technologies, some mapping programs let users simulate helicopter tours. "It is very cool to set up a virtual tour on a computer - to 'fly' the client to the properties before heading out in the car to visit."

Talk Is Even Cheaper: VOIP

Looking to cut costs? How about international calls for free? Skype 1.0, a free software download, lets broadband-connected users call each other through their computers using voice over Internet protocol, or VOIP, technology, says Nancy Wiggins, CCIM, CIPS, president of Nancy Wiggins Commercial Real Estate in Charlotte, N.C.

Like many in the industry, Wiggins is finding expansion opportunities in the global marketplace. After she formed a new company with partners in the United Kingdom and Slovenia, "the need for conference calls multiplied and we were looking for a cost-effective way to communicate with each other." After her British partner read about Skype, all three downloaded the software and plugged in headsets to their computers.

"We found the conferencing aspect easier and clearer than through the traditional landline phones," Wiggins says. "We are able to have normal discussions and take time to come up with solutions as well as explore opportunities. In addition, we [have time] to jell as a group because we're not hurried in our conversation due to phone expenses."

Because Skype allows conference calls with five people, "we are also able to have our investor-clients talk with all of us as well," Wiggins says. She has also signed up for SkypeOut, a new service that requires a minimum $12 account but allows inexpensive computer-to-landline and -mobile phone calls.

While VOIP is hardly a household word, it is registering among commercial real estate professionals as a cost-saving technology. "We are saving over $5,300 a year on our long-distance service after changing over to [VOIP]," says Skip Duemeland, CCIM, GRI, owner of Duemelands Realty in Bismarck, N.D. His office is outfitted with eight Cisco phones that use both analog and VOIP technology.

Most technology watchers tag VOIP as the next big service, and traditional phone companies are rolling out VOIP plans to compete with upstart companies such as Vonage. Currently the lack of broadband connection is limiting the consumer market; only about 23 percent of U.S. computer users have a high-speed Internet connection at home.

However, businesses with high-speed Internet connections are prime converts to VOIP services, especially small and medium-size companies that are looking for ways to save them money without cutting service. "The cost is extra low at 500 minutes for $15 or about 3 cents a minute," says Duemeland.

VOIP service is less expensive because calls are routed over the Internet, which is more efficient, and the providers aren't charged the fees and taxes that most traditional landline phone companies pay. Many VOIP services offer unlimited North American long distance calling from $20 to $40 a month.

In addition, VOIP service can be accessed through any Internet connection, so users can be reached at home when clients dial their office numbers, and they can plug their phones into any Internet connection on the road and make and receive calls. Most service plans include numerous standard features such as call forwarding, integrated voice- and e-mail, and conferencing.

VOIP plans offer very competitive international rates, a boon for those, like Wiggins, expanding their business contacts overseas. While she and her partners use headsets to talk to one another, other services merely require users to plug their analog phones into adapters that connect to their broadband service.

Keeping in Touch

To meet the demands of higher client expectations and keep pace with today's market, brokers want - and need - to stay connected. "Ten years ago you could buy three to four days by telling someone 'it's in the mail,'" says Todd Clarke, CCIM, a partner of NM Apartments in Albuquerque, N.M. "Five to seven years ago you could buy yourself a half-day by saying "I'm waiting for the fax.' But with e-mail, clients want - and should get - a response in an hour."

"Clients are expected to produce more in their workplace, and this extends to their brokers," Cihylik says. "Brokers are expected to be accessible via fax, e-mail, Web site, cell phone, PDF, and are expected to move information around in similar ways."

Fortunately, many options exist for those seeking to stay connected. "For the last seven years we have been a paperless office, which allows us to do business in a virtual office," Clarke says. "I've worked on deals [while I've been] in China, Poland, Moscow, Albuquerque, and California - and clients never know I've left." His Treo 600 smartphone works anywhere in the world with the same number, "so clients don't really care where I am."

"We held a $4 million deal together because we were able to get our e-mail on our laptops and Treo 600 phones through our exchange server," says Duemeland who upgraded to a Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 this year. "This allows us access to all of our office computer programs and saved us $3,000 in licensing fees since client licenses are no longer required with Server 2003."

But beyond meeting client expectations, brokers want to stay in touch to stay in the game. "The tech strategy for my business is having all the power of the Internet in my briefcase just about anywhere," says Chuck Wise, CCIM, senior vice president of GVA IPC Commercial in Encinitas, Calif. He relies on a Sprint G3 PCS connection card to keep him tuned into the Internet on his laptop wherever he travels.

"I love saving hotel Internet connection charges," says Wise who uses a Toshiba Satellite notebook computer. "I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the download, even in a moving vehicle. I can research critical information on my way to a listing appointment, manage my bank accounts over lunch, and e-mail brochures, express packages, and data without having to sit in my office. I like having everything on one unit I can back up to a server and [looking at] a normal-size screen that is easy on my eyes."

Other commercial real estate pros use technology to prioritize, saving time and money for themselves - and their clients. "Technology can help one decide what efforts will precipitate cash flow." Cihylik says. "If I'm going into a small market for a client, I do a demographics [report] just to see if there's a deal to be had. If I can tell my client this particular market is thin he's real happy we're not wasting precious time."

While technology has made the competition for deals tighter, it also has opened up the marketplace. "In 1997, we guessed that technology would bring markets together," Clarke says. "[Then] we were working on deals with clients who were only an hour or two away [by plane]. How understated that seems some seven years later when we routinely communicate with people around the globe who are looking for services and product."

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