Today’s post was written by Jeffrey Hummel, chief technology officer at Douglas Elliman.
When I began work at Douglas Elliman, I was attracted to the company’s heritage—more than 100 years of premier real estate sales experience delivers a cachet that’s a big part of our brand. I was also intrigued by the opportunities I saw to use IT to transform this historic company with new tools and services. We wanted to empower agents to be even more successful in an internet-based market where closing a deal often depends on how quickly an agent can respond to a customer’s IM. Although Douglas Elliman agents are independent contractors, they face the same challenges as any distributed sales force: how to stay productive while working away from the office. They need easy, highly secure access to their data and their colleagues. So, I made it a priority to empower our agents with Microsoft Office 365.
We view our more than 7,000 agents as our best asset and our competitive advantage. They are some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry—we operate in approximately 113 offices across New York City, Long Island, The Hamptons, Westchester, Connecticut, New Jersey, Florida, California, Colorado, and Massachusetts. And we are one of New York City’s top real estate firms ranked by agents with $10 million-plus listings. Yet, when I arrived two and a half years ago, many agents were worried about technology somehow replacing them. I reassured everyone in our sales offices that Douglas Elliman had a new mission: to improve, enhance, and elevate the agent experience. Today, we use Office 365 to show that we care for our agents more than anything else. And agents have gone from saying that IT kept them from working to their best ability to IT being the reason they now are.
We looked at other cloud platforms, but they did not reflect our core values. The tools we chose had to be easy to use, elegant, and efficient—and Office 365 meets all those requirements. Our agents range in age from 21 to 91. I love it when agents with decades of experience tell me, “Jeff, I just did my marketing report, and it took half the time! I was fully connected to all the data I needed online, and I had no trouble finding it.”
I’m most excited about how agents use these productivity tools to help more customers buy and sell more property. We are launching a new intranet, built on Microsoft SharePoint Online, which offers an agent app store where Office 365 will be front and center. Everyone will go there to access the tools they need to run their business and collaborate with their teams. Like many independent sales reps, each of our agents has unique work styles and demands. It’s a big benefit that we can offer customizable tools flexible enough for individual agents to choose how to run their business.
Some agents have already replaced Slack with Microsoft Teams. I consider Teams the greatest thing since the invention of the telephone. With so many options for collaboration all in one place, there’s something for everyone within a given group to improve virtual teamwork. Our top agents can have up to 10 people working for them in different offices. One agent has three members who create marketing materials and two others who do nothing but research commercial properties. They share everything using OneDrive cloud storage. Now we’re showing that agent the value of augmenting this process with Teams as a hub for teamwork where she can quickly access not only relevant materials but also all related communications among her team members. So, when they are talking to the next big client, they’ll have all the information they need in one place to help find a new storefront.
Personal productivity is way up, too. Another top agent who works with new development clients regularly juggles dozens of units at a time. He has to access enormous amounts of data, some of which is not in the public record. He used to store all the information accumulated from his work experience in 36 filing cabinets at the office. So, when a developer asked about zoning for a building site, for example, the agent had to call someone in the office to go and dig through the files. Not anymore. We scanned, categorized, and uploaded all his documents to OneDrive. Now he can get that information himself in less than a second from his mobile device. Using leading-edge tools, this highly successful agent has more time to build relationships with more developers, and his business is expanding.
Along with the launch of our new intranet, aptly named Douglas, we are going to introduce our AI chatbot, AskDouglas. This will start with some basic questions and answers and then evolve to be the go-to source for our agents to get questions answered about historical and relevant information within Douglas Elliman.
While we move our agents’ data to the cloud and introduce cloud-based business tools, we’re also improving our security posture and complying better with data privacy regulations. By using Microsoft security solutions that notify us when an agent’s account may be compromised, we can take proactive steps to thwart an attack, without the agent even knowing.
In two years, the company has changed the impact of IT through our mission to enhance and support our sales force. Today, we have agents raving to the executive team about the transformation they’ve seen in their technology tools and work styles. With the advantages of online collaboration and productivity services, plus real-time access to information, we recruit and retain top talent. Working with Office 365, we are strengthening our core advantage—the knowledge and experience of our agents—and putting it toward the next 100 years at Douglas Elliman.