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.
While the company already alerts clients about new listings and price changes through push technology, Sylvester is now working on geo-location version that will alert mobile buyers about homes for sale in neighborhoods as they drive through.
Now the World
So, Keller Williams is all set for the global expansion, right? Wrong. Sylvester said the existing network served the company well up to about 80,000 agents, but problems started to surface when they hit 100,000. The company has a tech initiative called "untangle the Slinky" to work out the kinks.
And there are parts of the current system that won't translate to offshore needs. For example, electronic signatures now are commonly used in the US, but most other countries don't accept them in real estate deals. There are also different regulatory requirements, issues with co-locating servers and the need for translation services.
So for now, the company will keep its North American residential agents on the current system, but is building a new system with the REthink, a realty CRM module that sits atop the Force.com platform. It will also use REthink for its 2,000 commercial agents in North America.
Governance and Compliance
While Keller Williams has always prided itself on having a strong business model, the technology has allowed it to scale in a way that not only assures for easy monitoring from headquarters but also sorts out myriad regulatory requirements across the US, Canada and, now, six other countries.
"It actually helps lower our E&O [errors and omissions] insurance for our brokers because we have to enforce compliance. A system is much better at enforcing compliance than a person is," she said. "There is no one cookie cutter to say this is how a transaction happens in the US."
Keller Williams monitors every detail of every transaction -- even mistakes -- and keeps everything on file for seven years. If regulators ask for a set of data, it's easy for Keller Williams to provide it.
Once the international effort gets off the ground, Sylvester said the company will continue to export its business model to other countries.
Exactly where she isn't saying. But China, she admitted, was "interesting."