7 hallmarks of effective remote working

Remote working is often cited as a panacea for everything from work-life balance and staff retention to urban planning and the global environment, but it’s still very much in the minority.

Most remote workers are self-employed, perform roles which occur offsite or only do so infrequently, so why is it that remote working has not taken off in the way that its promoters would expect and what can be done to improve the situation.

For employees, the benefits of homeworking are obvious, more time with the family, less time commuting and the ability to plan out your own working day give you more control and let you match your own daily energy cycles, maximising productivity.

For companies, increase productivity compared with desk-based teams,  staff stickiness and a reduction in required seat space are obvious benefits.

Keller Williams Ireland, who offer shared services and an office-based hub for independent estate agents, was originally set up around a centralised office hub, where agents would operate when not out at viewings.

However, the company quickly found that its remote agents were more effective and happier so is now promoting the benefits of remote working, especially as Keller Williams agents cover a wide geographical area.

So what’s stopping more companies adopting the practice and giving more employees the chance to work from home? And why has Keller Williams found the practice so beneficial?

Overcoming the barriers to remote working

Research in the US, where more than 16% of with workforce work remotely, identified 7 key barriers to successful remote working at an organisational level.

Task specific

Firstly, remote working doesn’t suit every role. Where social interaction and collaboration are key, especially where coaching and development of staff are involved, being centrally located is more beneficial.

Obviously, onsite and travelling roles are very suited to remote working, as do repetitive and simple IT tasks, where cloud-based communications make location irrelevant. 

In Keller Williams case, Agents tend to work from home, whereas management and administration and more effective when centrally located as problems can be solved easier when everyone is in the same place.

Trust and accountability

One of the major barriers to remote working is the legacy command and control culture and ( oddly) emphasising personal accountability, especially within hierarchies. Managers are expected to know what’s going on in their departments and how people are performing, and that’s just easier when you can physically see your team and what they are up to. 

Even extensive use of performance monitoring such as keystroke loggers and decentralised call centre software has its limits, and we’ve all been guilty of believing others are “gaming the system”, which leads to a nagging sense of doubt.

Culture plays a major role in resolving this issue (more on this below), but combining realties trust in your team coupled with effective performance management and accountability are essential. 

Building trust is not easy and it’s a very personal thing, meaning we need to know our team personally and have experienced their integrity before we can fully trust them.

In this case, a progressive move towards remote working, whether following a period of office-based work or splitting time between work and home can demonstrate integrity and honesty allowing trust to be developed and a level of comfort attained. 

The other side is accountability, which again, suits some businesses more than others. Task-based roles work well with high levels of automated metrics which are visible on a hierarchical level.

Call centres are obvious examples of this, where call volumes, duration, outcomes etc. can be seen on a personal, team or organisation-wide level, simplifying accountability and performance management.

The other option is outcome-based pay scales, such as piecework or self-employment, but whilst these are effective in terms of focussing effort and minimising risk, they bring their own problems, and, are as valid for office-based staff. 

Culture

A lot has been written about Culture, with one researcher calculating that there were over 6,000 different definitions of what culture really is!

In simple terms, however, it’s a set of shared beliefs and rules we all follow. We don’t need to be told stealing is wrong, it’s embedded in our moral code from birth. 

This is why culture is so important to trust and management. You don’t need to closely supervise someone who thinks and acts the way you do.

Having a culture of customer satisfaction across the organisation leads to peer acceptance of certain behaviours and rejection of others, minimising the need for explicit rules and regulations and allowing greater autonomy for their teams. 

Keller Williams is built on its culture and strives to reinforce its culture across those who operate under its umbrella. Most of these are fundamental, seeking a win-win solution and putting the customer first being obvious examples, but recognising that others have a valid voice and that we succeed through others show a deeper commitment to collective success, which is essential in building trust. 

What’s important, however, is demonstrating culture throughout the organisation.

Culture is not driven by slogans and posters on the wall, but by the behaviours and stories we experience every day. Everyone has to be mindful of how their actions reflect the culture that you’re trying to build.

And everyone needs to be accountable for actions which breach the cultural norms, no matter where they sit in the organisation.

Effective cloud systems

Cloud based systems have long been touted as the future of modern working, but still, the vast majority of users prefer the simplicity and convenience of desk-based utilities.

Modern high-speed broadband has definitely improved the stability of the systems, but was has really brought cloud-based systems is the ability to perform complex workflows across diverse browser-based systems.

CRM’s like Salesforce and Zoho allow a unified approach to communications, integrating email, social media and VoIP into a single portal improving both visibility of consumer interaction with performance management metrics, simplifying tasks, record keeping and management.

And this is becoming the norm with a host of specialist applications being created to meet the needs of verticals, from healthcare to finance to marketing. 

Keller Williams’ Command infrastructure offers a cloud-based environment capable of performing, automating and simplifying most of the back-office functions needed for estate agency from managing listings and contact databases through to creating and automating emails and social media campaigns and the commercial and financial management of a complex business.

More importantly, these tools can be accessed by staff wherever they are, with both desktop, tablet and mobile versions.

Integrations sit at the heart of the capabilities and functionalities allowing listings to be automatically updated on third party property marketplaces and external accounting packages to be linked and social media campaigns scheduled and posted over linked social media accounts. 

This level of integration also boosts the richness of the recorded data, giving, for example, clear indications not only of how many people opened an email campaign but also who.

Role Specific

There are certain roles than lend themselves to being remote, and some that don’t. Everyone wants to be able to avoid the morning commute, but that doesn’t mean their role can be done remotely.

For estate agents, a remote location makes total sense, most of the interaction is either remote, via phone, online or email, or face to face in the property being sold, so having an office is both expensive and unnecessary.

Wide range of technical knowledge

Unless a role is very specific and narrow, it’s likely that an independent worker will need to fulfil additional tasks which are more generalised, as external support is not available.

Agents with Keller Williams manage their own marketing, listings and financial management for example, as specialist support is centralised. 

The agent needs to both understand what’s required, but also why, as this will aid in motivation and help the agent to operate outside of the ordinary.  

This requires three things

  1. A clear understanding of the importance of the task. What’s the value of the task to the agent and the company
  2. Effective training in the use of any systems involved and the fundamentals underpinning them.
  3. Reinforcement from others that the tasks are effective and worth spending time on.

Loneliness and social isolation.

People are naturally gregarious, so people can become isolated and feel lonely. They can also feel out of the loop, especially if they feel office-based staff are treated better than remote workers. Obviously, regular meeting in the office or social events are a key to any team-building process, particularly for a dispersed organisation, but there are other ways.

Creating virtual teams or giving remote workers an office-based sponsor/mentor, can help to alleviate the sense of isolation, but, as remote staff are often more senior, why not do as Keller Williams does and have remote staff mentor junior staff. 

Not only does this ensure that knowledge is retained within the organisation and ensure that remote staff feel involved in the long term future of the business, but it also reinforces that remote working is a benefit to be earned.

Remote working effectively.

Working from home can be a great way to motivate and improve the performance of staff, but it takes a lot of thought and effort to get right. 

Having the right culture across the company goes a long way to building the trust and work practices needed to work effectively away from your peers.

A sense of community and inclusion is also needed to ensure staff don’t feel isolated. 

Finally, careful job design, effective and connected tools are needed to make sure that team members can work autonomously away from centralised support resources.

Relationship and content marketing are the real game-changers for real estate.

content written

With the rising cost of leads and reduced conversions rates, lead generation is becoming more expensive and less sustainable than ever. But with long sales cycles and limited opportunity for repeat business, is content marketing the alternative?

Real estate is, by its very nature, transactional.

We buy homes so rarely, that we don’t get to know our agents and have little need to remain in contact with them from sale-to-sale.

From the agent’s perspective, therefore, the focus is two-fold. Firstly, getting leads and winning listings and secondly getting as many people into view a property to guarantee that sufficient numbers are willing to bid to get the house. 

The rate-determining steps are therefore lead generation and conversion rates. Mosts leads are still sourced from lead lists either purchased or created through outbound email or coldcalling.

Some agencies such as Castles in Dublin have been very successful with personalised leaflet drops and flyers, leveraging their strength in their target markets and brand awareness in discrete territories.

However, both of these routes are time-consuming and expensive.

Are search and social the answer?

Search and social media advertising is less common, accounting for about 22% of all lead creation, However, targeting at a local level is difficult and produces variable results. General keywords are competitive and expensive. CPC rates around €5 and conversion rates below 2% mean each lead’s costing over €100. 

Either way, each of your leads is going to cost between €50 and €100, and if you factor it conversion rates of less than 5%, that’s giving a cost per sale between €1-2000, which, in the face of declining prices and commissions is not sustainable, especially in Ireland for example, where commissions are down to 1.5%. 

No wonder then that many agents are looking in different directions for their business, but what are the options?

Relationship marketing for estate agents

relationships

Many successful agents are taking a leaf out of the corporate sales book, realising that the two key advantages of the referral are trust and expertise.

The fact that someone we know to be independent has had a positive experience pushes up the trust learning curve with a referral allowing us to reach the point at which we are willing to work with a company much faster than if we approached them cold. 

It also means that we know that the referred contact has expertise which is relevant to us through the discussions with our trusted third party.

Content marketing

Agencies are starting to recognise that content marketing and marketing automation allows them to get over the hurdles caused by long gaps between sales by creating relationship opportunities which will ultimately lead into listings or sales in a more cost-effective manner. 

This means the creation of online communities of individuals who opt in to receiving your communications and are prepared to engage with the content you create.

This is important because recognising that the content needs to be what the audience wants to hear, not what the writer wants to say is a key concept for effective content marketing. No-one wants to be bombarded just with new listing messages!

The platform is important too.

Social media offers a great opportunity to broaden the audience base, but it’s very low engagement, whereas email subscriber bases will be smaller and more difficult to build but will be substantially more engaged.

Stepping into content

Depending on how committed you are to content management and your ROI timeline, you can create deeper and deeper levels of relationships.

That’s the key to success, realising that you’re not selling houses in your marketing, you’re selling relationships. Your audience needs to buy into you before they will buy what you are selling.

The Marketing Funnel

For the company shifting from a transactional to a relational selling model this is the simplest step, as it allows you to start to build a content marketing funnel without losing sight of the importance of a call to action leading to a specific endpoint. 

This approach centres on providing content which is relevant and interesting to the audience, but retains some focus on the sales process. The rule of thumb is that 80% of the content should be pure content and 20% sales focussed. 

This can mean retaining a call to action on all mails or focussing some mails or posts on the process or competitive advantages of the product. The key is the mix. More obvious calls to action or a sales approach will push some people down the funnel faster but are likely to disengage a lot of people. 

Content marketing

Companies coming from a softer, marketing-led background or who have found their funnel approach plateauing, tone down the overt sales pitch in favour of a greater focus on content which builds authority and trust with the potential for messages to be shared. 

This is the more traditional social media approach and leads to greater engagement and lower dropouts, forming a strong and growing audience.

video Content marketing

Sales messages are downplayed considerably so it takes a bit of a leap of faith coupled with strong marketing skills to create what is essentially going to become a strong source of high-quality leads, akin to those generated from referrals. 

One example of this is the 33 touch campaign run by Keller Williams companies.

In Ireland, this involves a 2 strand approach, developing the agent’s reputation for both professional and local knowledge, tapping into the audience need for estate agents that they can trust both to know the area intimately and be both professionally competent and successful.

Audiences are split by region of interest and receive two communications per month, one focussing on the area ( best restaurants, relevant news stories etc) and the other a market report detailing new listings, price movements and general commentary. 

Selling and listing call to actions are conspicuously absent.

The upshot of this is open rates in the late 20’s and virtually no unsubscribers, leading to a growing audience. Listing enquiries naturally fall out of the process, but there is no push.

From an agent’s perspective, Keller Williams automated marketing tools are linked to the CRM, making lists and campaign management simple minimising the need for marketing support and letting the agent’s personality shine through. Social media posts can also be scheduled automatically from within the platform. 

Monetising your base

Like Google and Facebook before it, Keller Williams has realised that once it has a loyal audience, it has the potential to offer them a range of products and services outside of the core offering.

The products and services it offers need to be relevant and aligned and obviously provided either internally or via aligned, well-vetted but non-competitive providers.

Keller Williams is able to leverage its global reach and size to negotiate good deals on traditional real estate products like mortgages, home improvement loans and insurance, but also recognises that the transition from one home to the next is only relevant for a small portion of its audience, whereas the others are settled homeowners.

growth business analytics

Plumbing, gardening, home warranty and cheaper utilities are much more relevant to the majority of its base and providing compelling offerings is a great way to both provide stickiness and an ongoing revenue stream. 

This isn’t without its pitfalls, however, as the affinity benefit means that whilst a good experience will act as a halo around the brand, any bad experiences with third parties will also negatively impact, so picking the right partners is essential.

It’s also important to limit the offering and ensure offerings are aligned with the core proposition otherwise you risk diluting the brand.

The revenues from cross-sells are rarely high compared with the core proposition, so it doesn’t make sense to lose sight of your core business.

Servicing your base through data mining.

As it transitions to a technology company, Keller Williams is already planning the next-generation technology utilising AI and hyperlocal content to provide an invaluable real estate tool for consumers and agents alike.

On the consumer side, content is localised to a specific address, giving access to a range of services specific to your home, acting as your home’s personal assistant effectively. 

Want to know what your house is worth now or projected into the future? How about what it would be worth rented on Airbnb or Long term rental? The app gives consumers to create their own landing page, with details on their home, its current value, services in the local area and anything else that the homeowner might need.

content

Partnerships with companies like Nextdoor allow additional features like combining the best features of a Facebook, WhatsApp or Justeat in a local, curated group or provide highly localised and differentiated services.

From the corporate side, datamining and AI allow agents to predict when a consumer is likely to be considering a change, prompting a reach out, for example. 

Content remains at the heart of the offering, as effective adopting requires access to service and content which continues to be relevant and useful to consumers.

The benefits, however, are game-changing.

As the go-to app for all of your homeownership and needs, Keller Williams stands to own the consumer’s interaction with their home, and who do you think will be the first person they think of when it comes to selling their home?

The future is relational, not transactional.

Building strong, long-lasting relationships with potential consumers is the future for real estate and this takes courage, patience and a long term approach.

You need to focus on what you can offer your consumer not what they can deliver for you, it really is a buyers market! However, the rewards are potentially huge.

Not only can first movers capture a large share of voice which can be translated into a cost-effective lead flow, but they have the potential to broaden the revenue base for the company and potentially lead to diversification and derisked revenues long into the future.

Picking the right business model for Estate Agency

Hybrid Estate Agent

Like most businesses, the death knell for Estate Agency was rung by the emergence of online portals which promised to allow the seller to cut out the middle man, with transparency of the transaction through sophisticated online portals, essentially facilitating a DIY approach to real estate sales. 

But did it ring too soon?

Online builds for the future

The online market was touted as the future, and major brokers like emoov and Purplebricks captured market share, especially at the lower end of the scale, being able to offer consistency and low costs through economies of scale.

However, building a new business model, especially one based on huge upfront investment in technology and marketing, is not without its issues as seen by profit warnings from large player like Purplebricks, and the high profile administration of eMoov, who cited cashflow issues even though listings were paid upfront, demonstrate online agencies are struggling to find traction in a largely people-based business.

Purplebricks Accounts for 2018 show marketing spend of £382 per listing on marketing, up 25% on prior year, showing how expensive it can be to build brand awareness and engagement in a business traditionally dominated by high levels of service and personal reputation.

Ultimately, your house is the most expensive transaction you will ever embark on, so trust is essential, and as yet, a large proportion of the public is still not comfortable trusting an online agency with the such a large transaction

Purplebricks is undoubtedly playing the long game, it knows that combining a strong brand awareness with a growing customer business will translate into higher lead flow in the future, so it’s prepared to invest in the short term to reap rewards for the future, but many businesses are not in the same boat, especially the traditional High street agents.

The future for the high street retailer?

With falling prices and lower commissions, high street estate agents are finding revenues declining at a time when costs, especially retail lease prices are climbing at up to 5% per annum, the pinch coming for the high street agents.

The decline of estate agents has been forecast for years, as online businesses with low operating costs drove down the commissions much to the benefit of homeowners, but there was still a strong market on the high street with footfall driving walk-in enquiries and acting as a strong shop window for local listings.

But the economics are changing.

High street footfall is declining, which is leading to lower occupancy rates, as the High street becomes a less attractive retail destination for consumers. At the same time, retail leases are becoming more expensive, with a growth of 5% per annum in lease costs alone.

As the housing market begins to slow, average house prices are dropping at 2.5% per annum, and commissions are dropping closer to 1%, further squeezing the margins for independent estate agents around the country.

The rise of the Hybrid

In the US, hybrid estate agency models, where self-employed agents are supported by third-party shared service providers are the norm, with centralised offices hosting 100+ independent agents offering significantly diluted costs for the selling agent.

Businesses like Keller Williams have recognised that in order for agents to be successful they need to deliver across 4 fronts.

Help agents create a strong personal brand

Keller Williams is not a real estate company, it’s closer to the traditional model of a shared services/BPO provider. This means, that, unlike other franchise or national brands, it’s agents operate as separate entities and brands with Keller Williams providing the support and infrastructure to develop those companies.

This means that the agent’s personal brand is at the forefront. The company encourages each agent to develop and promote this brand to the marketplace, rather than a dry, generic corporate brand. The agent is the focus.

Operate in a low-cost environment

Hybrid estate agency models tend to be based on a centralised facilities model, meaning that fixed costs such as rent, utilities and IT management, key holding etc. are diluted substantially across a much larger agent base, with 30-50 agents bearing a fraction of the total cost of a location. 

Such central locations also offer marketing, IT, Business and Admin support at low costs, as the services can be provided more efficiently and effectively.

Clear focus on relational vs transactional selling

Purplebricks and hybrid estate agent facilitator Keller Williams are obviously focussing on the long term, knowing that the value of businesses is more closely linked to the size of its contact base than it’s immediate transactions.

Focussing on minimising the cost structure takes away the cashflow risk and allows Estate agents to focus as much on building a pipeline for the future, leading to referral and listing business, as marketing existing listings.

A strong scalable technology platform

Technology will become the backbone of the offering going forward, with expert systems and simplified UI delivering efficient management from the initial listing through to sales processing and billing which lets the agent spend more time actually selling and providing service. 

Increased adopting of AI has created new offerings and services, with companies like Nextdoor seeking to own the consumer by providing predictive hyperlocal service offerings tailored to the individual needs of the consumer, based on their user history and location.