Coldwell Banker Real Estate wanted to expand the ways in which customers start down the home-buying path. Building on its belief in using technological innovations to their fullest, the company decided to pursue a solution using the Microsoft® Surface® touch-computing platform. Early in the solution’s research-and-development stage, the company’s digital media partner, FD Kinesis, attended an Architecture Design Session at a Microsoft Technology Center. There, FD Kinesis validated its ideas and gained access to resources that would help the firm complete the project in time for Coldwell Banker to unveil it at its annual conference. Although not yet available for purchase by the company’s franchisees, the solution has attracted considerable attention from agents and homebuyers alike, revitalizing the home-buying process and providing a competitive edge for Coldwell Banker and its agents.
In business since 1906, Coldwell Banker Real Estate is the oldest residential real estate organization in the United States and has approximately 3,300 independently owned and operated real estate offices throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Singapore, and Europe. The company was founded on a commitment to professionalism and customer service that continues to serve as the core of its business philosophy.
Delivering superior customer service involves finding new, more convenient ways for customers to buy and sell real estate. “Coldwell Banker has a proud history of innovation,” says Helen Galasso, Vice President, Interactive, for Coldwell Banker Real Estate. “We were the first to have a Web site with property listings, first to make our listings available on mobile phones, and first to offer video of online listings, among other industry milestones.”
And Coldwell Banker isn’t done innovating. It continues to take advantage of new technologies to enhance customers’ experiences with the company. According to Galasso, that tradition of improvement is especially important in a faltering economy. “In uncertain economic times like these, successful companies are those that don’t let circumstances stop them from doing what they do best and adding to the value associated with their brand,” says Galasso. “For Coldwell Banker, that means continuing our pursuit of innovations that are useful to homebuyers and franchisees, and making them natural extensions of our existing offerings.”
So, Coldwell Banker set out to bring comprehensive data—including information about each real estate listing’s nearby schools, hospitals, parks, and other neighborhood amenities—to users in a new and different way. “We wanted to go beyond the office and the Web site and bring more life and user interaction to the home-buying process,” says Galasso.
The company and its digital agency of record, FD Kinesis, developed the foundation for a self-service solution that generates an itinerary for customers based on the homes they want to see and signs them up to receive alerts about homes with certain attributes. “We created application programming interfaces [APIs] for views into a lot of Coldwell Banker data and had several applications using them,” says Thomas Gamble, Managing Director of Technology for FD Kinesis. These applications could be used on everything from a mobile phone to an interactive billboard in Times Square in New York City. “We wanted to use a single set of Web services to extend the APIs to many media types so that Coldwell Banker could add value in a number of ways for its customers.”
||Our Microsoft Surface–based solution is a powerful addition to what makes Coldwell Banker different … and the MTC experience helped make it all possible within a very short period of time.
Director of Products and Innovation, Coldwell Banker
Inspiration struck when Coldwell Banker attended a conference during which the Microsoft® Surface® touch-computing platform was demonstrated. “As soon as we saw Microsoft Surface, we immediately said, ‘This is perfect for real estate! It has the capability to fundamentally change the way people embark on the search for a new home,’” says David Marine, Director of Products and Innovation for Coldwell Banker Real Estate.
When multiple people gather to use a Microsoft Surface computer, their multi-finger touches, hand gestures, and objects placed on the screen’s surface all trigger digital responses and create a fun and different way for them to collaboratively and simultaneously interact with data and each other.
Coldwell Banker wanted to put Microsoft Surface computers to use in unusual locations—such as malls, resorts, and hotel lobbies—to attract interest in its real estate offerings. “We considered Microsoft Surface as revolutionary technology meeting practical reality, and we wanted to capitalize on the appeal of such an engaging device,” says Marine.
The company first investigated Microsoft Surface to ensure that there was plenty of functionality supporting the device’s initial attraction. “It was clear to us that we wouldn’t be using technology for technology’s sake with Microsoft Surface,” says Marine. “The device’s usability alone cannot be beaten.”
Having decided to pursue a Microsoft Surface–based solution, Coldwell Banker was determined to showcase it at the company’s annual conference for agents and brokers, which was just a few months away. That timeline put extra pressure on FD Kinesis to build a solution using technology with which the firm had little experience. “Time was definitely a factor,” says Gamble. “We needed assurance that we could achieve what we wanted to with the technology because we couldn’t afford to go down the wrong path.”
Expert Technical Assistance
Help came in the form of the Microsoft Technology Center (MTC). FD Kinesis accepted an invitation to attend an Architecture Design Session at the New York MTC in September 2008. “I didn’t know what to expect,” recalls Gamble. “I was impressed with the MTC facilities and expert resources that we were given access to.”
Coldwell Banker fully supported the choice by FD Kinesis to seek assistance from Microsoft. “We set a tough deadline and thought it was a great idea for FD Kinesis to gather input from Microsoft experts as to how to develop the right solution most quickly,” says Marine.
At the MTC, FD Kinesis discussed its goals for the solution, seeking expert guidance. An MTC architect led an in-depth session about Microsoft Surface computing, including the specifics of design and coding for Microsoft Surface, information about using Microsoft Expression® Studio software, and planning and guidelines for the project. The FD Kinesis team learned that it would be possible to use powerful animation to bring real-estate data to life and present it in an attractive way to users, all by building on existing Coldwell Banker APIs and using the Microsoft Surface Software Development Kit (SDK). “We had no formal plans going in,” says Gamble. “We talked about what we wanted to achieve, such as giving people the ability to use a finger on a map to remove listings out of contention. We didn’t know how much animation we could add or to what extent we could use it.” The MTC architect helped clarify goals and establish a strategy as to how to proceed to deliver the best solution for the proposed timeline.
FD Kinesis also attended a full demonstration of the product’s capabilities at the MTC Envisioning Center. Afterward, MTC architects and FD Kinesis graphic designers brainstormed different ways to use Microsoft Surface to generate the kind of excitement that Coldwell Banker sought. “We learned that, essentially, the sky’s the limit,” says Gamble. “Our MTC experience validated that we could produce the effects that we wanted to produce.”
One of the specific challenges that FD Kinesis brought to the MTC had to do with scalability. For the upcoming conference, Coldwell Banker wanted each agent and broker to have a special identification tag. The goal was that, when agents and brokers placed their tags on the Microsoft Surface computer, it would immediately produce a custom set of that person’s work profile, including his or her complete contact details and up-to-date property listings. “Up until then, the largest number of unique IDs that any company had used with Microsoft Surface was only a few hundred,” says Gamble. “We needed to be able to accommodate thousands of ID tags, and the MTC architects helped us figure out the best way to do so.”
FD Kinesis gained so much insight from its MTC experience that it invited Coldwell Banker to come for a Strategy Briefing at the MTC, where attendees learned what other companies had been doing with Microsoft Surface. “Our MTC engagement gave us the chance to talk with two expert Microsoft Surface developers, who confirmed our vision and made valuable suggestions as to actions we should take to achieve it,” says Marine. “Everyone from Coldwell Banker walked out of the MTC even more excited and confident than before—it was definitely an energizing experience.”
MTC architects also aided overall efforts by introducing FD Kinesis to Vectorform, a Microsoft partner with considerable experience in developing solutions for Microsoft Surface. After FD Kinesis designed the interactive real estate solution, Vectorform took the design and the existing APIs and applied them to Microsoft Surface, which is built on familiar developer technologies, making for straightforward development. “The introduction to Vectorform was key in our ability to meet the aggressive project completion goal,” says Gamble.
|Figure 1. Property seekers can use Coldwell Banker Real Estate Search to see a detailed view of properties.|
A Successful Debut
In February 2009, Coldwell Banker debuted its Microsoft Surface–based solution—known as Coldwell Banker Real Estate Search—at its annual conference, as scheduled. In terms of functionality, the solution provides detailed listing information about properties that are available in any neighborhood in the United States and Canada (see Figure 1). Users can search for properties, view amenity information, send e-mail messages to themselves about properties of interest, create itineraries that compile relevant properties, and schedule an appointment with an agent to see specific properties. Coldwell Banker plans to gradually add other countries to its solution.
Conference participants were immediately drawn to the device. “One after another, our agents experienced quite a ‘wow’ moment when they spotted the Microsoft Surface computer, followed my instruction to place their ID tags on it, and saw their personalized data pop up instantly,” recalls Marine. “And after conducting some searches and other interactions with it, at least 20 of our Coldwell Banker franchise owners told me that they’re anxious to buy a device and use the solution that we’ve developed.”
Coldwell Banker plans to make Coldwell Banker Real Estate Search available for franchisees in 2010, after it adds some functionality and makes a few usability adjustments based on user feedback. Planned additions include a mobile component and enhanced visual search capabilities.
The MTC experience helped FD Kinesis define and validate its solution, trim weeks off the project timeline, and find the resources that it needed to meet its customer’s expectations. “Because we were dealing with unfamiliar technology, we definitely would have stumbled on our own,” says Gamble. “The MTC helped us build a more accurate solution and undertake the project with a clearer idea of what could be done.”
Coldwell Banker now has a creative way to introduce potential customers to all that the company and its agents have to offer. Says Marine, “We at Coldwell Banker really feel that the Microsoft Surface computer and the solution we developed for it gives us the opportunity to make looking for real estate a more social experience, encourages people to literally touch real estate in a whole new way, and serves as a strong competitive differentiator for Coldwell Banker. Ultimately, because it will have a positive impact on the customer experience, it will also have a positive effect on our return on investment.”
Access to Resources
Coldwell Banker and FD Kinesis benefitted not only from the ideas and expertise of MTC architects but also from an introduction to partners who could accelerate the project’s timeline. “Part of our job is to keep Coldwell Banker on the cutting edge of interactive technology, and the MTC engagement made that effort a whole lot easier,” says Gamble. “Plus, through it, we found a development partner that aided us in that process.”
Additionally, FD Kinesis used its time at the MTC to discover whether its goals were achievable. “Going to the MTC was wonderful because it provided us with a no-cost way to thoroughly explore the possibilities,” says Gamble. “There was absolutely no barrier to entry—we basically went through our discovery process for free, with true experts to point the way.”
Both Coldwell Banker and FD Kinesis credit their experience at the MTC with shortening the overall project timeline, which was important because of the looming conference date. “Interacting with the technology firsthand at the MTC alongside FD Kinesis saved both time and effort,” says Marine. “Seeing applications for Microsoft Surface that a variety of other high-profile companies had developed gave us a better understanding of the best practices to incorporate into our solution.”
Adds Gamble, “We would have needed to add another 30 to 60 days to our timeline without the MTC experience to guide us. We also had more clarity around which elements we could design first, as well as those that were more complicated and should be saved for a later phase of the project.”
Because of the head start that FD Kinesis got at the MTC, Coldwell Banker achieved its goal of being first to market with an engaging, interactive solution. “Being first to market is an important claim for our franchisees to make, especially when it comes to attracting and retaining top agents as well as buyers,” says Marine. “Our Microsoft Surface–based solution is a powerful addition to what makes Coldwell Banker different from the other real estate organizations out there, and the MTC experience helped make it all possible within a very short period of time.”
Intuitive, Innovative Solution
Perhaps most important, Coldwell Banker is continuing its tradition of innovation, using advanced technology solutions to increase customer excitement and differentiate the company from the competition. “This solution is one of the most talked-about things we’ve done in awhile,” says Marine. “Whenever our corporate office plans a visit to a franchise, the agents ask if we can bring the Surface computer with us.”
To date, the company’s hypothesis that using Microsoft Surface would encourage impromptu interactions has been confirmed. Using the device has attracted a lot of attention for Coldwell Banker, especially in places where people don’t expect to see real estate sales occurring. “The social aspects of the Microsoft Surface computer make it perfect for public places,” says Marine. “For example, if I had a regular portable computer open at a mall kiosk and tried to attract the attention of passersby, I wouldn’t have much luck. But this device creates a totally different dynamic—people come right up to ask what it is, and stay to locate their homes and browse through properties for sale.”
Coldwell Banker has been pleased with the intuitive nature of Microsoft Surface. “We were surprised, because we thought that there’d be some sort of learning curve with Microsoft Surface,” says Marine. “But it’s so intuitive that, after about five seconds, people feel perfectly comfortable and are fully immersed in the experience, which is just the way we want it.”
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