By 1985, two years after Gary Keller and Joe Williams set up their first realty office, it was already the largest brokerage in Texas. Today, Keller Williams is going global, raising significant technology challenges in marketing, business process management and governance.
At the center of that tornado is Cary Sylvester, the company's Austin-based vice president of technology, communication and innovation — a long, but accurate title considering everything on her plate as the company expands to six far-flung locales: Vietnam, Turkey, UK, Indonesia, South Africa and Germany.
"You can tell there's no specific region we've targeted," she explained. "Once we find the right people, and if their culture is one that will really embrace and adapt to our models, and they want our models, that's the country we'll go into."
Sylvester already has a lot of experience in upgrading the company's technology. Its network supports 103,000 agents in 49 of 50 state in the US (sorry, South Dakota) plus Canada.
"Part of why we're going overseas is we have great models and systems of how to run a real estate office, real estate team, real estate business," she said. "They're proven models that we know work to be profitable."
She and her team have stitched together an array of technologies in the US that ensure the company's cornerstone business models are applied the same way, including a a revenue-sharing strategy that currently benefits about half its agents.
"We created a system that means its apples to apples across the board," she said. "We can see the health of an office. We can see those early warning indicators. We actually know when offices are in trouble before they know they're in trouble."
Even during the real estate downturn, 60 percent of Keller Williams offices remained profitable. Today, 97 percent make a profit.
The network is based on MarketLeader, a CRM system now owned by Trulia that was designed specifically for the realty industry. It includes components for website creation, data storage and leads. About four years ago, Keller Williams built eEdge with the twin goals of creating a best-of-breed marketing tools and making the entire real estate transaction process paperless.
Over the past three decades, the company has learned a lot about marketing and has collected a lot of data on its market. For example, about 85 percent of home buyers approve of the agent they used, but only about one in five use the same agent when they go to sell their home, which happens seven years later on average. It also found 67 percent of the leads from industry websites go unanswered, in part because real estate agents use an average of eight separate databases. Sometimes they even forget which databases they have.
"Real estate agents tend not to return phone calls," said Sylvester. "You make an inquiry online and it goes into a black hole."
Keller Williams automated what it calls an 8-by-8 touch system that assures an agent communicates with active shoppers at least eight times in eight weeks. Even with inactive buyers, the company uses an annual 33-touch system to assure a customer knows the local agent is there to provide assistance as needed. This strategy has helped increase commissions by 67 percent for agents who use it compared with agents who don't.
The company uses Dotloop to handle all the paperwork needed by buyers, sellers, agents and regulators from the first contact right through closing. It relies on Wolfnet for digital asset management, such as photos, virtual video tours and property descriptions, including those from the Multiple Listing Service. And it built what it calls "the Hub," which is a group of APIs that transfer data between all partners. Finally, the company moved its email to Google.
To be sure, no system is perfect. As an experiment, I searched for homes in two zip codes on the Keller Williams site. For my zip code, it said "Sorry, there are currently no matches for your search." But Realtor.com came up with a dozen, including the four homes on my block that have For Sale signs out front. In the second zip code, Keller Williams again found none, but Realtor.com offered 56. I suspected the limitation was that there are no Keller Williams agents listed in either zip code.
Like many marketers today, Sylvester needed a mobile strategy, too. "The worst consumer experience possible would be if you sit in front of a house with a For Sale sign and it doesn't come up in our app. They would never use our app again," she said. "We built a mobile app that rolled out last year that ties back to the desktop. You can save your favorites, you can save listings, you can save searches and you can go back and forth between mobile and the desktop version."
You can also take notes, so that the 10 houses you looked at don't blur together in your mind by the time you get home. The new app is native to iOS and Android, and there is an iPad version. Keller Williams relies on responsive design for other platforms.
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