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2009-12-08 22:57:18

Riddle Me This: When is a Agent Not an Agent?


Riddle me this: How is it that the industries that charge the least for their products and services seem to have more more advanced technology than those that charge the most?
Some time ago, we wrote that REALTORS might want to take a look at how gas stations were using technology to market ancillary products to their customers. Now a year later, my local real estate brokerages still don’t offer any interactive technology to their visitors in the waiting area, but my local veterinarian and shoe store does.
I get it. Times are tough. It’s a recession, and most businesses are watching every penny. Business spending on marketing and customer service tools has dropped along with the overall economy. Yet the last time I went to my local shoe store or vet’s office, I don’t remember these fancy gadgets – that not only drew my attention, but taught me something useful about their products, and enticed me with up-sell offers.
In the same day, I got a glimpse of two industries that are headed into the future with
every intention of remaining competitive. Take, for example, my vet: We actually don’t visit the vet often – maybe a couple of times a year – so certainly not often enough for us to browse their shelves of specialty cat-food, play-toys and pet wellness items.
Today, however, one of my cats needed some blood work, so while the vet took her into the other room, we were left waiting in the examination room. Usually, in the past, these were sit-and-stare-at-the-wall moments, waiting for the doctor to return. Not this time, however: There shining bright and inviting on the wall was an LCD screen inviting us to “touch anywhere” to learn more about our pets.
Instantly, we were engaged in the system. The system called Pet HealthNetwork was full of learning content.  Touch here to learn about the breed. Touch there to learn about common health issues. Touch here to learn about products and procedures that can help your pet lead a healthy and long life. And – of course – such ideas could lead to questions about which products and goodies we could pick up on our way out the door, too.
What a clever idea – to put a pet-like-WebMD right on the wall, make it easy to navigate by touch, and get your “customers” involved in your business. In the few minutes it took for the test to occur, we had look at two short articles, a video and a checklist. We even emailed ourselves a copy and a link to the video so we could play it again back home. When the vet walked back in the room with our cat, my Blackberry had just beeped indicating our email had arrived with our requested information.
Later in the day, I was running some errands before heading on the road for another three-city tour of seminars and leads-management workshops this week. After such a busy fall schedule, I really needed a new pair of shoes, so I decided to try the local Main Street shoe-shop, rather than brave the mall on a pre-holiday weekend. I didn’t really expect much for selection or price, but not only was I pleasantly surprised on both, I was again amazed at another small-time-shop using technology to work with customers.
This time, it was a computer kiosk brimming with information about shoes. Not usually exciting stuff, you’d think, but the technology was full ofsurprised. Rather than focus on the inventory of shoes – like sizes, styles, colors, heels and straps – it focused on the experiences of wearing and enjoying life with shoes. You could look at activities and hobbies – and get a perspective on which shoes would support that activity. Or you could look up any feet troubles you may have – aches and pains or walking disorders – and learn how different aspects of shoes could improve or support proper foot function.
Again, a combination of text, diagrams, pictures and videos explained the issues and options that customers might be experiencing. Powered by a system called iStep, the overall experience focused on helping the customer reach hist goals as a foot-wearer, not just advertising the particular shoes the store had on sale. In fact,  I could actually step on a pad and the system would analyze my feet to tell me about my particular foot-features, and options for maximum footwear results!
In both cases, technology made it possible for customers to learn more about their options while the service personnel was busy. It let the consumer tailor their experience and find information they were interested in – and learn about related issues they might not have known. It used friendly touch-screen simplicity and sent home copies of requested information without a single printout or flyers.
In-store kiosks aren’t new technology. Bookstores have been using them for years, to make finding books faster – and self-serve. Even ATM machines are a kind of kiosk, displaying searchable information like balances and offering information on ancillary products like mortgages based upon the banking profile of the person using the machine.
You have to admit it’s new to see such things at veterinarian offices and shoe stores. Not to mention touch-screen, multi-media approaches. We’re talking about service locations where it was typically necessary for someone else to be involved in providing customers with information and recommendations.
Where the doctor or shoes salesman were in control.
In the  traditional model of vendor-to-consumer  information transfer and knowledge-to-decision consumption, the customer experience depended totally upon the particular person they encountered. If you got the good vet, you got great information and service. If you got the unhappy shoe-salesman, you got basic shoe-box delivery and a blank stare as you figured out if the shoe was on the right foot.
The process could be awesome or awful, and totally out of the control of the consumer.
This approach left consumers very much out of control – for either information or decision-helping knowledge. And for Gen X and Gen Y real consumers, it’s just not an option to be uninvolved in the process. Ironically, all it took was the introduction of a little technology – at the point of purchase – to make such a significant change. And engage the modern consumer.
Of course, there’s a parallel to the real estate industry here, and it’s fairly obvious. Look in the typical brokerage office’s reception area: Are consumers asked to wait – are they asked to get engaged? Can they browse your inventory, company information and ancillary services while they wait? Do they view your office as somewhere to go to learn about the market or access trustworthy educational content during their “exploratory” phase in real estate?
If an agent leaves consumers in the conference room, are they consumers left to stare at the wall, or a dusty pamphlet, because your network geek is paranoid about offering unsecured internet access to visitors to your office? What if a consumer strolls by your window: Must they decipher printouts or are they stunned by a LED electronic experience  in the window?
Go one step further – to the hundreds of other real estate sales locations your company has. Oh, yes, you actually have hundreds of offices throughout your marketplace, didn’t you know? Every car of every agent, and every home they show is a place where a portable kiosk could make a difference. They’re called laptops – but just how many of your agents actually take them along for the ride?
And let’s not forget our favorite sales-failure location: open houses. Strategically placing two or three laptops throughout the house, with additional photos, videos, maps, and reports would make it possible for browsing buyers to get involved, and get excited about the home – even if the agent is still cowering with the cookies in the kitchen.
As it turns out, the vet called later to say the cat’s tests were fine. I watched the kiosk video again, and bookmarked their site in case I have other questions later. My new shoes fit nicely, and after filling out the customer service survey online, I received an instant coupon by email for a discount on shoe polish or water-proofing. What an efficient way to up-sell a recent customer; and it all started with the kiosk.
Yet I wonder what I’m going to see when I visit my neighbor’s open house tomorrow.
The house down the street just went on the market, with a local Main Street real estate shop. What do you think I’m going to see when I enter the $1.2 million dollar property’s sales event? Will there be a laptop glowing on the counter? Or do you think I’m going to be asked to sign in on a photocopied sheet and encouraged to take a copy with me of the – ugh – pathetically-printed listing sheet
(Matthew Ferrara is CEO of Matthew Ferrara & Company, a technology organization that delivers training, consulting and technical support to real estate companies worldwide, including their new "Support on Demand" REALTOR help desk service available at 866-316-4209.)  

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