01What is Cloud Computing and How It Can Improve Real Estate Brokerage
Here's what Wikipedia has for a definition of "cloud computing:" computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources are provided as a service over the Internet. To simplify, we use online solutions instead of onboard software to run our business. We log in to servers on the Internet to do what we are used to doing on our own computer or our in-house network.
So, how are we going to use cloud computing to manage and market our real estate brokerage? Why should we even care? Here's a partial list of things we can do in this new virtual environment:
- Maintain a lot less office floor space with agents operating remotely
- Cut operating costs with online document and communication services
- Reduce reliance on office staff in pure overhead support functions
- Better serve our clients by using the latest available technology
- Enhance our marketing, get more leads, and increase brokerage income and profit
In this series of detailed steps, I'll share resources with you to help you to adopt a cloud brokerage approach to your business. You'll get links to resources that provide online services, as well as basic instructions on how and why to use them. Keep reading, and I believe you'll be amazed at what you can now do without more staff, less office space, and generally lower overhead. Meet with your decision makers and those who will be impacted and get their buy-in.
02Developing Your Cloud Brokerage Plan and Expectations
If you view the process of moving your brokerage operations to a virtual online presence as a major process that requires a complete and immediate transition, then you'll probably not want to take it on. You can certainly do it quickly and completely, but it's not necessary. You can move through the process in an orderly way, with very little business disruption along the way. I believe that the ultimate result should be an almost "office independent" structure, but you can also stop at any point that you believe is right for your company.
Here's my view of the complete and effective Cloud Brokerage:
- Your main office is much smaller, with only possibly one or more conference rooms and no agent cubicles or offices, or only one or two set up for temporary sharing
- You have a lower office-to-agent personnel ratio
- Nobody in your company needs to access a physical file cabinet to keep up with documents
- All transaction documents are securely filed online, with permitted access by only those who have a need
- Your intra-office communications, meeting announcements, bulletin board, and other communications with employees and agents are all online
- Tasks and calendars are shared, yet also private when required
- Communications and file sharing with vendors are secure and online, with ad copy and other marketing materials accessible by those who need them, and collaboration is also possible
- Clients can access their documents online securely as well
- All faxing is done online via email and PDF files. Email is set up to provide copies to office and agent, with office filing the physical copy
- Digital signatures are used when appropriate
Your first step is to determine just how far you want to go, and how many of these facets you want to put into place. Timing isn't important right now, other than when you'll begin. As you progress, you can adjust each phase to your own requirements. Meet with those who will be impacted, get their input, and reassure them that it can be done slowly without office disruption.
Your agents will likely require the most explanation and reassurance. If you show them that they will have more capabilities to better serve their clients in the field, and those who need a temporary office space can access one, you'll find that they'll like this new idea. This is especially true if you show them the new tech toys, like the netbooks and anytime/anywhere online access they'll be getting to the office systems, the MLS, and the Internet. Those already using notebook or netbook computers in the field are already set up to implement these office and marketing tools.
03The Email Decision - Just Email or a Suite of Applications?
We're starting with email because your online email solution may just take you right into cloud brokerage via other services offered by these online email providers. I'm going to talk here about Gmail and Zoho, two online integrated application providers that offer a number of tools to operate your business totally online, and very inexpensively.
Of course, there are the Microsoft solutions, Outlook, then going into the Microsoft Exchange 404 services for business management. I'll admit that I've never looked into Microsoft Exchange, as my business was too small to even consider the cost or complexity. I also confess to a bias for solutions from any other source not dependent on Microsoft's dominance. So, give it a look if you want. Here's a Google cost comparison.
Google Apps - Google's applications, all available to individuals for free, include Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Documents. The Documents App includes spreadsheet, word processing, and presentation tools similar to PowerPoint. They tie together in various ways, and you can post events directly to the calendar from Gmail, allowing you to link a Gmail to a calendar event.
The business side is actually called Google Apps for Business 200, and you'll find that you can set up an intranet of sorts, with collaboration among your agents and employees, as well as sharing of documents, and corporate email. Though I haven't done a full business setup in Google Apps, their instructions and explanation materials seem to point to the ability to do cloud brokerage with just their set of apps.
Zoho Apps - Zoho is also free for most basic applications to individuals and email a lot like Gmail. I also have not used all of the capacity or apps at Zoho but do really like their Zoho Creator app. It's a database creation application that allows for a great deal of customization. This offers a great deal more flexibility than Google Apps in the database arena. The ability to create custom databases to keep up with lockboxes, listing and closing data and more is going to make Zoho a better choice in my opinion. There is a learning curve, and you'll probably need help with the database design if you want a lot of custom stuff.
Since Zoho and Google can check your other email accounts, setting up a cloud brokerage is possible with either. Give them a careful look, as it's a big job to have to do over again.
04Real Estate Intranets for Cloud Brokerage
The Google and Zoho approaches allow you to create an Intranet of sorts. As I said, Zoho gives you more ability to customize databases for things you do in your real estate business. There is another approach, an actual online Intranet solution, of which there are several. Here's what all of them will do:
- Share company-wide and personal calendars for meetings, appointments, and events
- Share and assign tasks within the company, with privacy levels to target the right people
- Keep virtual file cabinets online, with permissions to view and edit, thus all of your company documents and transactions available 24/7 securely online
- Manage contacts and prospects, either as a group or individually
- Manage forms and other data entry, content management
The links to Intranet services below will take you to their features, and you'll find them all very similar in their basic functions. Some allow more space, some more users, at a lower cost.
- Intranet Dashboard/
- Adenin Intranets
- Realty Broker Office - a more customized intranet type solution for our business
- Webex Web Office - An Intranet that allows you to build custom databases for your business
Check all of these out, and consider your customization needs in making a decision. Don't select simplicity if it will restrict your customization ability. You'll save more money in the long run with an Intranet or online system that lets you do what you want, and manage it in the way you want.
05Brokerage Blogging And Your Intranet for Cloud Brokerage
I won't go into detail about how to set up a brokerage blog that leverages the input of your agents, as I've written about brokerage blogging here. Suffice it to say that I really believe that using this approach will yield a search engine magnet site, and help you to acquire and retain good agents in the future.
What I want to talk about here is how to use your Intranet and online office to support your agents, helping them with content suggestions and backup materials. The ability to send out messages to your agents, like an online bulletin board is one way. You suggest topics for short blog posts, even giving them a link to background material in the message. You can also provide folders of relevant images in the Intranet documents section, and the agents can use links to them to place approved and legal images into their blog posts.
Making announcements via the Intranet calendar congratulating good bloggers will encourage more of it. You can create blogging instruction and rules, place them in common document folders on the Intranet, and get confirmation from your agents that they've read and understood them. You must have a liability strategy for web content. Using a box on the Intranet home page, you can give them links to instruction and blogging tips. There's so much you can do with an Intranet, so I know you'll come up with a lot more.
That's it for the Cloud Brokerage tutorial. Go check out the resources and see if you're ready to take your brokerage into the clouds. You'll save money, serve clients better, and do more business easily.