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You Say You Want an Evolution

By Christopher M. Leporini, REALTOR® Magazine

The Internet’s development is at a crossroads. The initial hype surrounding the dot.com revolution has burned itself out, as seemingly overnight the dot.com boom turned to dust. The Internet is obviously still going to play an important role in the future of real estate sales, but now we can examine it from a more sober perspective. Evolve! by Rosabeth Moss Kanter ($27.50, Harvard Business School Press, 2001) explores the lessons that all businesses can learn from the mass extinction of dot.com companies. This book could prove valuable to real estate practitioners who want to enhance their own online and offline customer relationships by studying how other businesses have succeeded or failed at adapting to the Internet Age.

The book weds a sense of history with an eye to the future. The author studied over 24 companies from three continents to learn what strategies succeeded tells their stories in a vivid, colorful way. Among the lessons she shares is the common fallacy among e-enthusiasts that anonymous Internet communication would replace face-to-face business interaction. Although the real estate field was somewhat insulated from this trend because of its dependence on high-touch service, the growth of Internet-savvy consumers has reshaped the business without negating the need for face-to-face assistance from a real estate practitioner. Similarly, new media has not supplanted traditional practices, but rather has enhanced them in many industries.

Part One: “Searching, Searching, The Challenge of Change” should prove especially interesting to real estate professionals due to its focus on building online communities. In the physical world, real estate is intrinsically linked to community building; with the correct business strategies, this relationship can extend to the Internet as well, says Kanter. The book uses eBay as an example of a company based on the idea of online community. Visitors don’t just log onto the site when they want to buy something; rather they make eBay a regular part of their online browsing. Features such as bulletin boards, monthly newsletters, and chat rooms make it a destination site. eBay users contact each other directly to exchange goods, and buyers and sellers rate each other for reliability and service. Real estate practitioners can also use their websites to foster a sense of community and keep visitors coming back again and again. They can concentrate on adding features to their sites such as local news updates and community calendars and encourage users to share ideas for home improvement projects or relate local success stories.

The Internet can also help you to communicate one-on-one with customers. Your site can serve as an area where your customers can let you know what you’re doing wrong or doing right. Evolve cites PlanetFeedback.com, which permits users to e-mail questions, compliments, or complaints to companies and share tips and ratings for products and services, as an example of a company harnessing customer communication to improve service. Kantor explains ways that businesses such as real estate sales can use this fast, flexible medium for gathering information that will help them do their jobs better.

Real estate practitioners can also learn from the negative experiences of Barnes & Noble, a business giant that experienced early trouble trying to compete online against upstart Amazon.com. A major part of the problem was Barnes & Nobles’ failure to give customers what they wanted. Although less than 5 percent of users were interested in reading reviews by Barnes and Noble editors or in author chats, the company invested 50 percent of its time on these areas. For your site’s core content, ask your customers what want and how you can give it to them instead of just assuming that you know best. For instance, if you serve out-of-town buyers, you might think they would be interested in information on local schools. But if a large component of your customers are retirees, they’re probably much more interested in cultural or recreational options since they no longer have children at home.

The recent history of Internet businesses offers many lessons to businesses that want to survive into Phase II of the Digital Age. Real estate professionals who ignore the medium’s potential for reaching customers do so at their own peril. But Kantor’s book provides a reminder that technology by itself will not ensure positive business improvement. By exploring which methods have led to their successes, Kantor offers practitioners the chance to avoid being another dead branch on e-business’s evolutionary tree.

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This post was contributed exclusively for REALTOR® Magazine.

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