How Technology Redefined Us
Technology has revolutionized the residential real estate business. I was an agent in the day of file cards, when each listing was represented by a hand-typed 3 X 5 card, sorted by address and lodged in trays which we flipped through when doing a search. The early computers, which came in during the mid-1980s, were actually MORE laborious to use than the cards, but we knew it was the wave of the future so we persevered, each of us with a giant monitor on our desk and a manual as thick as a phone book instructing us on how to use the system we had acquired. Gradually the programs improved, the system speed accelerated, the Internet entered the picture, and thirty years later we find ourselves micro-processed, frustrated if seconds pass before all the information we are seeking appears on the screen.
During the early days of the Internet we talked often about the fear that real estate agents would be rendered obsolete by technology. The travel industry was held up to us frequently as the paradigm for what no doubt awaited us: the erosion of our business in favor of on-line services which do what we do, only faster and cheaper. So even as we adapted, recognizing that the Internet was rendering our role as information providers obsolete and that we needed to market ourselves differently, we were an anxious industry. We feared a bus was hurtling towards us; we just didn’t know from exactly which direction.
I am no longer worried about the bus. In fact, I feel that in the Information Age we brokers provide more value than ever. While it is true that consumers don’t need us to search listings, the very fact of all that available information is overwhelming. Without experience in the marketplace, that torrent of information is almost impossible to parse. To narrow their alternatives, to understand the pros and cons of the multiplicity of choices, THAT is where we add value. And I like this new role of “expert advisor” far better than the old one of “information gatekeeper.”
Nonetheless techies are still trying to disrupt our industry, certain that if they can only find the right formula our way of doing business will fall before them as so many other businesses have. I don’t think so, for a couple of reasons. First, even today when people look more at their screens than they do at each other, really big purchases like the ones we manage proceed more smoothly with an actual person acting as a facilitator. Clients feel better with an expert to guide and support their purchase. It’s not like booking a vacation. It’s a multi-decimal place, multi-year choice. Most of us want to be able to talk to someone about it. Second, even the fuzziest of logic cannot replace experience. Where the hidden gems are, which buildings are friendly and which not so much, how to stage and then negotiate for maximum effectiveness – we expert advisors have learned all the moves in the chess game of home ownership.
As I see it, the real role for technology in our industry is to support us, not replace us. We don’t need new websites trying to attract our customers so they can sell them back to us for a referral fee. We don’t particularly need new models of salaried brokerage which turn us into glorified order takers. Most of these models fail. Technology is our support, not our successor. Great brokers are NOT replaceable.