Prior to 2004, real estate chain Harcourts had lots of salespeople roaming the countryside with sheafs of listings they had to print each week.
They were so big, around 100 pages, that many agencies had them commercially printed — at considerable cost.
Harcourts chief technical officer Jason Wills says the company realised this was madness and went in search of a better way. The company wanted a mobile application built to run on a high-quality and affordable personal digital assistant.
With the help of services partner Gen-i and Christchurch-based mobile solutions developer Barker Systems it has managed to automate and mobilise its listings and move nearly half of its agents onto the technology to both improve service and sales.
Gen-i and Telecom paid for half of the development costs for what would become the Mobile Agent application as a result of Harcourts’ exclusive arrangements with those companies in IT services and telecommunications. However, the project still required a considerable investment from Harcourts, to the tune of $50,000.
A key challenge at the start was to find the right PDA/phone handsets, which are paid for by the agents themselves. The first users were equipped with Falcons and Harriers but more recently users are tooled out with Palm Treos. Once again these were procured through a customer-exclusive deal to bring the price down from approximately $1000 a unit to around $500.
Then the company had to get agents thinking about how they could use the technology, which Wills describes as “getting over the paper diary paradigm”. However, when the company’s top sales people were seen to be adopting the system readily, others began to follow suit.
The device holds all the listed properties plus one photograph of each as well as sales and personal contacts for each agent. It also has a listing of contact information for each Harcourts salesperson.
Just as useful is a 12-month sales history for each property sold in any given area. In the past, sales staff would have had to return to the office to conduct this kind of research.
“It’s invaluable to the guys on the road,” says Wills. “They couldn’t do a competitive market analysis on the road.”
The system has also been rolled out into Harcourts’ Australian business in partnership with Gen-i again as well as Optus and AAPT. Since its launch there in May, 200 out of 1500 agents have opted onto the technology. However, Wills expects the Australian team, which is generally younger than the New Zealand crew, to adopt Mobile Agent relatively quickly.
Wills was unable to give comprehensive return on investment figures for the project but says they are substantial on printing alone if you multiply 1800 agents by $15 printing cost each week.
“There’s time and resources savings on top of that,” he adds.
One other intangible benefit is that the technology helps in recruiting quality salespeople. When they see how they can be equipped to do their jobs better, they are far more likely to come on board, he says.
The development of Mobile Agent is not complete either. Wills would love to see the standard real estate listing form converted to digital and completed on the handsets. Chattels could be ticked off and the data uploaded directly to the listings database. In the future, the PDAs could even include a camera to provide pictures of the property instantly.
However, legal barriers remain to achieving that vision.