by Erica Christoffer and Melissa Dittmann Tracey, REALTOR Magazine Contributing Editors
There are four main strategies offices have been quick to embrace to keep business running smoothly during the coronavirus pandemic.
While it’s hardly business as usual in the midst of a global pandemic, real estate brokerages have been quick to respond to the changing times to keep business moving forward. In areas of the country where shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders have been instituted to curb the COVID-19 outbreak, real estate, title, and mortgage companies have been deemed “essential” to keep home sales going. But real estate professionals must still follow social distancing guidelines set forth by their cities and states, so transactions must happen in an adapted way.
Ryan Raveis, co-president of William Raveis Real Estate, which has 120 offices in the Northeast and Florida, moved all of his employees to remote work early on in the pandemic. “Our first step was making sure we’re taking care of our agents and employees, and fortunately, we have the technology in place to do that,” says Raveis, whose father started the company in a one-room office above a grocery store in Fairfield, Conn., 45 years ago.
While promoting physical and mental health as brokerage priorities, Raveis’s staff has been hard at work disseminating guidance to the company’s 4,000 agents from governors and local REALTOR® associations in each state. Raveis has put together a COVID-19 task force at his company to help agents understand what business practices they can and can’t continue and how to best serve their clients. Home sales are continuing to close without open houses and, sometimes, without private showings, he says, and most deals are happening almost exclusively digitally now.
“Resilience” is a key word for brokerages at this time, Wendy Crane, Coldwell Banker’s vice president of learning, said at a virtual training session to sales associates last week. “That’s the word that is key to brokerages in this adaptive environment. That means knowing how to cope with setbacks, barriers, and how to use your resources. It’s a measure of how much you want something and how to overcome the obstacles to get it. Resilience has to do with emotional strength.”
And that’s exactly what many brokerages are harnessing in these evolving times. They’re quickly learning new tools, performing closings in different ways, and reaching out to clients through virtual mediums to keep their connections close in a world practicing physical distance. Here are four ways that offices are adapting their businesses in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Ramping up training offerings.
Many brokerages are refocusing efforts on agent training during this time, rolling out online programs focusing on topics such as learning new technology, managing personal finances, and embracing a positive mindset. On March 23, Keller Williams Realty kicked off its “Pivot: Facing Reality” initiative that focuses on agent training. “We are doubling down on the heart, training, technology, and leadership needed to protect and power our agents’ business through the unexpected,” says Darryl Frost, spokesperson for Keller Williams.
Each day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Central time, the company offers a series of live sessions every half-hour, covering topics like lead generation, remote working, expense, management leverage, and mindset. “Each morning, there will be an on-demand power session video to kick off our agents’ day. Agents will watch whenever their day starts,” Frost says. “In those sessions, we share the strategies, scripts, and tools agents need to set a positive mindset and power their lead generation each day.”
Raveis’s company already had a suite of tools in place that enables digital closings through Skyslope, a transaction management software. They also offer agents digital advertising assets, such as virtual tours and floor plans, that can be posted on social media and the web. Now the company is focusing on helping its agents adopt such technology. The company has a crew of career development staff who host three live trainings a week, as well as on-demand trainings, to helping agents learn to use those tools. Their three objectives are teaching agents what approach they should take in this market, how to use tools that will help agents thrive in the virtual environment, and information on financing and closing deals during the era of sheltering at home. These efforts helped the company achieve its best March on record, despite the COVID-19 crisis.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on our innovation and investment in our technology to help our agents succeed,” Raveis says. “Our investments over the last several years have helped us thrive in this environment.”
Many brokerages have opted to open their training sessions to the entire industry as well. For example, Compass offers self-paced online courses on real estate topics through its Compass Academy, and Coldwell Banker launched a Virtual Education Expo series that is focused on overcoming business challenges. The Virtual Education Expo includes video speaker sessions and Q&As on topics like how to market in a virtual world, navigate properties currently in escrow, and reassure buyers and sellers. Sessions take place on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and can be accessed online afterwards. “We want to arm you with the skills you need to persevere during this time,” Crane said in the first virtual training session last Thursday.
2. Taking showings virtual.
As of March 25, 20 states have told residents to stay home, and another 14 have partial state orders. While home showings are continuing in some states, others have put them on hold. Still others allow a scaled-back private showing in which only one person may be allowed in the home at a time.
Erica Cuneen, owner and managing broker of Beyond Properties Realty Group in the Chicago area, says her brokerage continues to field calls from interested buyers who want to view properties. “Some sellers are not allowing them in the house at all, so that is a challenge,” Cuneen says. But the buyers looking now are very serious about moving forward and are eager to take advantage of near-record-low mortgage rates.
Cuneen’s company, like many others, is adapting to using video platforms for showings. A broker will walk through the home via video, using FaceTime or whatever video format the buyer prefers. Prior to the showing, the seller is instructed to turn on all lights and open all doors so that the agent does not need to touch anything in the home when they enter. “We’re trying to adapt and keep everyone calm,” Cuneen says. Her brokerage has been emailing clients to let them know what extra precautions to take to allow buyers to keep previewing homes and how they can still complete a home sale.
Raveis says his agents are becoming increasingly creative in showing listings virtually via FaceTime, Zoom, or social media channels such as Instagram stories, Facebook Live, and even TikTok music videos. One of his agents recently closed a sale after using a virtual tour. The buyer never saw the house in person until the inspection, which occurred after his 14-day quarantine upon returning from Germany.
Customers appear to be undeterred by having to use virtual options to tour homes. The brokerage Redfin reported a nearly 500% increase in requests for agent-led video home tours the week of March 16 as states began to adopt shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders. That had followed an 80% increase the week prior. The majority of the requests were made for video-chat tours.
“During video tours, I become the eye of the buyer,” Jill Thompson, a real estate pro with Redfin in Indianapolis, noted in a blog post at Redfin.com. “I’m talking more than I would on a traditional tour, pointing out things that would be obvious in person but that aren’t as clear through a camera lens, like the quality of workmanship on any repairs or whether a room would fit a king-size bed.”
3. Using creativity to keep closings on track.
Twenty-three states have remote online notarization policies, which permit a notary and signer in different physical locations to execute electronic documents. That has allowed closings to continue on with little disruption. But borrowers in more than half of states remain unable to close a real estate transaction without an in-person notary.
That’s prompted the industry to get creative, such as with drive-thru closings. Raveis says his agents have utilized services like this for their clients in states that don’t accept digital signatures. In some scenarios, home buyers are driving to the title agency and being handed the closing documents through the car window. Buyers can sign their documents from the car as a notary watches them through the car window.
In Illinois, where buyers must use an attorney to complete a closing, the power of attorney is being used. Buyers will sign over the power of attorney to their lawyer, who then is the only person who attends the closing in person to sign the documents on the buyer’s behalf. “We’re having to be creative, but we’re still getting closings done,” Cuneen says. Her brokerage has completed six closings over the last two weeks, even though the state of Illinois has been under a stay-at-home order.
4. Fostering connections even in a physically distant world.
Every morning, J. Lennox Scott, CEO of John L. Scott Real Estate in Seattle, starts his day with daily affirmations to keep him focused and positive. “I look at situations and figure out solutions,” Scott says. “This is a time for engagement.”
It’s also an opportunity, he says, to build closer connections with your sales associates. As the social distancing movement spreads, brokerages are concerned about their sales agents, who may be fearful about their finances and future sales.
Mindset and mental health has been woven into a lot of the agent training sessions and outreach that brokerages have done. They’re also placing a priority on holding office meetings via video—like over Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, and other services—to try to maintain closer face-to-face contacts, albeit virtual, rather than just exchanging emails. At the corporate level, John L. Scott employees are using Microsoft Teams to stay connected and reaching out to broker-associates using Zoom and Skype. They’re still holding weekly meetings and sending a video every day to salespeople, encouraging them to focus on business-building activities.
Over a period of three days, Raveis spoke to 200 of his agents one-on-one over the phone. He, along with his father and brother, Chris, are connecting with every one of their 4,000 agents, communicating what they know and touching base. “Even though we’re a large company, we’re a family business. We have our office door open at all times,” Raveis says. “We’re making sure our agents are safe and mentally strong through this.”
Scott also has emphasized to associates the importance of communicating with their clients via video, such as through BombBomb video emails, Facebook Live, or FaceTime calls. “If you don’t have a database, then get one going,” Scott says. “Start communicating with five names, and check in with your friends and family. Just say hello; make caring calls because everyone is sheltering in place. It’s important.”
The news headlines may be dire at the moment, but brokers want to keep their agents hopeful that better days are ahead. Scott sees the next few weeks as an opportunity to get buyers pre-approved and sellers ready to list their homes. Historically low mortgage rates could still create a mini buying surge once the COVID-19 outbreak subsides, he says. “We have extreme pent-up demand in the Northwest, and that’s not going to change,” he says. Inventory shortages abound across the country, too, and many markets saw a lively winter in sales.
As the pandemic lessens its grip over the months ahead, brokerages are preparing for more robust business. Until then, real estate brokerages are reevaluating their businesses and seeking to prove to clients and their sales associates that they will be there to help them navigate this new environment and whatever challenges may await. “Being innovative and flexible is key, and we’re committed to making sure our agents are going to get on the other side of this and hit the ground running,” Raveis says.
Reprinted from REALTOR® Magazine Online, April 2020, with permission of the National Association of REALTORS®. Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.