| 1. An article from the November/December 2001 issue of Communique magazine.
Upheaval expected to cause major changes in real estate
In the next couple of years, the real estate industry likely will see tremendous upheaval and change. If the experts are right, however, this upheaval will give birth to a much healthier and more vibrant industry.
Two trends in particular will create the upheaval. The first is basic changes in the industry itself, in the way that real estate professionals conduct their business. The second is the change brought by technology.
No More Business As Usual
The residential real estate industry has existed for many years in a sort of warm and fuzzy insular environment, where everybody knew everybody else and the fees were divvied up in a manner that more or less kept everyone happy.
The business-process re-engineering craze that swept across most industries in the 1980s mostly bypassed the real estate industry. The real estate industry didn’t really need to be re-engineered because the conditions that caused other industries to undertake it – to cut out inefficiencies and to become leaner and more globally competitive – just didn’t exist in real estate.
In the 1990s, the lines between industries began to blur. Many large companies saw profit opportunities in other industries. Banks wanted to get into the stock brokerage business. Stockbrokers wanted to get into the insurance business. Insurance companies wanted to get into the banking business. Congress complied and passed laws knocking down barriers that previously existed between industries. Cross-pollination was in full swing.
As everyone began to get into everyone else’s industry, companies that had not previously been involved in real estate began to lick their chops at what they saw as profit opportunities in real estate. Lenders; affinity groups, such as Costco; and data miners, who use software to troll through information looking for leads, all jumped into real estate. In some cases, the large companies had subsidiaries to which real estate referrals were channeled. To get into the industry, the new players often took smaller commissions than were industry standard.
REALTORS® lost business and began to feel squeezed. Their response was understandable – they often discounted their commissions to get the business back. The discounts, however, cut into and often exceeded their profit margins.
The result has been that today parts of the industry are not in good health. Despite record sales, an estimated 40 percent of brokers are losing money, according to recent statistics. That’s an astounding statistic given the increase in real estate prices in the past few years.
The economic pressures being placed on REALTORS® were the same pressures that had been placed on other industries in earlier decades. The real world finally had invaded the real estate industry’s insular world. The culmination of these economic pressures that have been bubbling under the surface will be felt in the industry in the next couple of years. Several changes are likely.
First, look for more consolidation in the industry. With so many traditional brokerages losing money, many will have to slash costs to stay in business. One solution is to join forces to share some of those costs. The days of the mom-and-pop shop are drawing to a close.
Second, look for brokerages to push some of the costs and expenses down to agents. The broker-agent relationship will become more of a business partnership than exists today, where the agent concentrates on the listings and the broker provides everything else. Brokerages will look to agents to bear more of the costs of doing business.
Third, look for many independent contractor relationships to convert to employee relationships as brokers try to gain more control over costs. The change will require a different set of management skills from brokerages than they’ve needed to this point.
Fourth, look for more pressure to be exerted on mediocre performers. Those who cannot produce will be let go. Brokerages will no longer be able to afford to keep agents who cannot perform at a certain level.
Fifth, look for more brokers to move more toward niche markets to distinguish themselves and to survive. As the market becomes more cut-throat, brokers will try to specialize, for example, in luxury homes or vacation homes.
The changes coming to the industry are really no more than what already has happened in other industries. “We just can’t continue to do it like we’ve always done it,” says Sue Flaig, a broker at Arvida Realty Services, Inc., and the WCR’s 2001 national recording secretary. “We just can’t ignore the changes much longer.”
Technology Changes Looming
The changes in technology in the next few years will transform the industry into something barely recognizable by long-time practitioners. The good news for those who adapt is that the technology may offer some relief from the cost pressures that have been building.
One of the biggest transformations on the horizon is the growing use of virtual outsourcing, according to Michael Russer, an Internet consultant who is more commonly known as Mr. Internet. Virtual outsourcing usually consists of either virtual consultants or virtual assistants.
Virtual consultants are hired to perform a single task, such as to manage a marketing or advertising program. Virtual assistants, on the other hand, are clerks, secretaries or executive assistants, and they have an ongoing relationship with the business hiring them. The benefit in using virtual consultants and virtual assistants is that they are less expensive than full-time employees.
Mr. Internet, who uses a virtual assistant in his business, swears by them. He says, though, that their widespread use is still a couple of years away.
The Pentagon is currently sponsoring a pilot training program using military spouses, who are attracted to the program by the fact that relocation won’t cost them their job. Real estate is one of the industries targeted by the program.
Once programs like the one sponsored by the Pentagon get going, there will be a “much larger pool of talent available” than is typically available to a company hiring a consultant or assistant, Mr. Internet says, because the virtual equivalent could be located anywhere. He foresees a time when the talent pool will expand to include women with work experience who later decided to stay home to raise children.
The use of virtual assistants won’t decrease the number of people working in the industry – Mr. Internet predicts that the total number of jobs will increase – but it will shift work from those who currently are doing it to those who work for the virtual outsourcers.
An Internet World
A second technology trend is the movement of all real estate transactions to the online world. In 18 to 24 months, Mr. Internet predicts, “you won’t be able to open or close a transaction, or communicate with anyone without being online.” If you don’t embrace the online changes, you’ll have about as much success selling real estate as you would today if you called your business High Prices/Bad Service Realty.
“REALTORS® who don’t move online will be left behind and will not be able to compete,” says Virginia Rose, a REALTOR® with C. Porter Vaughan REALTORS®, Inc., in Midlothian, VA. According to WCR’s 1999 survey, 16 percent of its members do not use personal computers in regular real estate activities. By the time the 2002 survey comes out, that figure will be virtually zero.
Homebuyers will continue to pressure the industry to move online. The average first-time homebuyer is less than 30 years old today, according to Matthew Ferrara, president of Matthew Ferrara Seminars, which means that homebuyers will be increasingly comfortable with online transactions, and the industry will have to adapt if it wants to meet its customers’ needs.
Just as younger homebuyers increase the pressure on long-time REALTORS® to move online, so will younger people who begin working in the industry. “The question of the day for those of us ‘moved to online,’” says Marti Pattinson, a REALTOR® with RE/MAX Fine Properties in Sugar Land, TX, “is – will we be able to compete with the newbies to the industry, those who grew up with technology as part of their studies?”
The answer for those who’ve come later to technology may be more training. On a positive note, interest in technology training appears to be on the rise. Look for the trend to continue in the coming years. “I’ve been teaching technology to REALTORS® since 1990,” says Ferrara, who also teaches WCR’s highly popular LTG VIII technology course, “and I can tell you that in the last three years, we’ve tripled our business nationwide. It means that REALTORS® are now over the ‘convince me I need it’ attitude and into the ‘gimme all I can get’ attitude.”
Probably the biggest remaining hurdle to getting all real estate transactions online is the issue of digital signatures. Digital signatures are accepted in many other industries, but not yet in real estate. Standards will need to be developed, and, even if REALTORS® and homebuyers become comfortable with digital signatures, the other interested parties, such as lawyers, lenders and municipalities, will need to be on board. Ferrara predicts that digital signatures will be accepted in real estate transactions “probably within the next generation.” Mr. Internet thinks it will happen before that, but not before “three years or more.”
A second hurdle will be consumer security concerns about sending sensitive personal information across the Internet. Gaining consumer confidence in data security will be critical to moving transactions online. “When most real estate agent Web sites look like abandoned crayon drawings, do you think this instills confidence in the mind of the consumer?” Ferrara asks. “We have a lot of cleaning up to do and a lot of confidence building to undertake before the consumer becomes more comfortable with online real estate.”
Another broader technology trend will be huge improvements in the tools that REALTORS® are using. One change will be computers that are far easier to use and more intuitive than they are today.
For example, in three to five years, Mr. Internet says, voice recognition software will be robust enough to be in common use. At this point, of course, we really don’t know what the computer of five years from now will look like, except that it probably won’t look like what it looks like today. It could be small enough to carry around with you in your wallet or purse.
Wireless technologies will be another change. The costs are high right now and the coverage is often poor, Ferrara says, but “this will all clear up in the next few years, and wireless everything (Web, e-mail, phone, data, video, commerce) will be everywhere.” Agents who are using wireless tools now, he says, “are already reducing costs and getting familiar with an entire genre of technologies.”
Another change will be better bandwidth, which will allow homebuyers to take 360-degree video tours of homes. The tours will include the ability to click, for example, on an appliance and get its purchase date, the make and model, its warranty and service history. The software tools already exist, but it’s expensive now and streaming video won’t be in widespread use until homebuyers get better bandwidth and begin demanding the tours. At some point in the not-too-distant future, Mr. Internet says, aroma monitors will even allow the homebuyers to smell baking cookies through their monitor as they take the tour.
One of the more popular types of better bandwidth is broadband, which is high-speed access such as cable and xDSL. “Agents are going to need to be savvy with the terminology, costs and availability of broadband in their marketplaces,” Ferrara says, because consumers already are using its availability as a criterion for selecting a home.
Inside the REALTOR®’s office, agents who don’t have broadband will not be able to participate in video conferencing, he says, “which will dominate closings and quick client communications in the future.” Brokers with broadband will be able to offer office-wide Internet access and reduce their long-distance phone bills.
Another change will be the growing use of better Internet-based tools that can be adapted to the real estate industry. Video conferencing already has been mentioned. Another example is Web sites with tools that gather feedback from homebuyers, which might be used to help sellers and REALTORS® collect better information about a property. The information can then be used to market the property more effectively. Mr. Internet says that he has seen a four- or five-time increase in feedback when such tools are in place.
As the dependence on computers grows, so will the concern about the security of the information living on them. The threat of computer viruses, in particular, is likely to play a much larger role in the coming years. “The threat to personal, office and consumer technologies posed by viruses tomorrow will make today’s worst threats seem like child’s play – and they are already pretty nasty,” Ferrara says.
“Brokers should be paranoid about viruses – all it takes is one click from an agent who’s not paying attention and literally tens of thousands of dollars will be wiped out: client records gone, accounting records lost, days of down time and repair costs mounting up.”
REALTORS® will need to make network security a higher priority. The need for better security may help trigger another coming trend, the greater use of application service providers (ASPs). ASPs are third-party entities that manage software-based services from a central data center. Smaller companies in other industries, for example, use ASPs as their offsite technology department, so that they can concentrate on the business at hand.
The next few years will see changes that are a response to the growing bottom-line pressures being put on the industry from various sources. The resulting industry will be more efficient and cost-conscious, though less warm and folksy.
For the past several years and continuing for the next several, REALTORS® who got into the business because it was a people profession but have been dismayed by the demands made on them by technology will have to continue to struggle.
But once these new tools are in place, using the technology will be no more daunting than driving a car is today. The real estate industry will once again primarily be a people profession. The new tools, in one sense, will simply be a better, cheaper and faster way to do the same set of tasks REALTORS® have always done.
For all of the changes afoot, good people skills remain a fundamental part of the industry. “Yes, technology will be a way of life for the up-and-coming REALTORS®,” says Audrey Tennant, of David Lyng Real Estate in Capitola, CA, but “there still needs to be that special personal communication between all parties. Service is still very important to a customer in buying and selling a home.” Flaig agrees, adding that “the personal side will always remain important.”
| 2. An article from the Winter 2001 issue of Mouth magazine.
By Robert B. Barnett Jr.
With technology advancements and increasing popularity of the Internet, dentists are left wondering what’s next for their operatories. One thing’s for sure—online dentistry isn’t likely to involve having a patient stick her teeth up to a computer screen for a digital brushing—at least not any time soon. In the next three to five years, the vast majority of dentists will see a continuation and an acceleration of online dental trends already underway, but they probably won’t see any seismic shifts in the industry.
Whatever technology changes may lie ahead for the culture at large, dentistry for most dentists will remain largely a hands-on profession practiced primarily by sole practitioners who will still rely most often on local referrals from satisfied customers. Online developments, however, in peer-to-peer collaboration, continuing education, equipment and supply purchasing, Web-based marketing and back-office management will play a growing role in how dentistry is practiced.
Significant change will probably come to select parts of the industry, most commonly to those few dentists in high-end specialties, whose practices are more national or international than the average dentist. They’re better positioned to take advantage of emerging technologies in digital photography, video conferencing and virtual surgery.
One noteworthy development in the industry in the next several years will be the opportunity for younger dentists to play leadership roles in online technologies because they are generally much more comfortable with it than their elders. “Younger dentists are going to be the driving force in dentistry’s acceptance of online changes,” predicts Dr. Michael Rainwater, a practicing dentist in Riverdale, Ga., and chairman of the American Dental Association’s Council on Dental Practice. “They have a fantastic contribution to make to how well involved we’ll be in online dentistry.”
“Unlike some older dentists, they’re comfortable online and are more likely to make use of online tools in their practice,” says Clay Mickel, associate executive director of communications at the American Dental Association. “So they’ll really be the leaders as dentistry makes more and more use of the Web.”
Shared diagnosis between dentists is likely to significantly grow in the next three to five years. “I think we’ll see more collaborative efforts and a lot more consulting with each other,” Rainwater says. He points to the difficulty in keeping up with the latest knowledge, which is piling up faster all the time, and the growing ease with which experts can now be accessed through e-mail as motivations for greater collaboration.
With the growing popularity of digital X-rays and with the ability to send them as e-mail attachments, the pieces are already in place to enable greater collaboration. As bandwidth improves and as video conferencing tools get better, collaboration should move from exclusively text to more voice-based communication.
At the margins of the profession, in the high-end specialties, the changes in collaboration are likely to be even more pronounced. Dr. Bob Rifkin, a Beverly Hills restorative dentist who specializes in aesthetics, has begun using video conferencing as a communication tool with other dentists in his specialty. “Hundreds of times,” he says, he paid travel expenses to learn techniques of dentists from around the world. Today, he can witness the procedures from the comfort of his office, and virtual surgeries should get much easier to send remotely in the future.
Continuing education is another area with expected growth. In three to five years, an increasing number of professional conferences will be held online, with attendees able to participate from the comforts of their own offices and without losing time from their practices.
As video conferencing tools improve, so will the frequency of online conferences. Although the trend was occurring anyway, the events of Sept. 11 have accelerated the demand. Online teaching tools will also continue to gain popularity. Rifkin is now able to give a lecture at a conference in Spain, which can be sent live to participating dental schools around the United States.
Professional conferences, however, in which dentists travel to exotic locales aren’t going to disappear any time soon. Dr. Earl Roden, a solo dentist in Deerfield, Ill., doesn’t think online conferencing will have any effect on the popularity of personally attended professional conferences. “The solo practitioner is isolated in his fortress, and he or she wants to get out on occasion,” he said. “He wants the collegial fellowship that you get at a conference. And, anyway, half of what you learn at a conference is from talking with the guy sitting next to you about what works and what doesn’t work.”
Equipment and supply purchases
Online equipment and supply purchasing, which is currently available at sites like dentistry.com and dentalxchange.com, will become far more common in the coming years. In fact, in five years, virtually all supply and equipment purchasing will be handled online.
Web sites that will search through equipment and supply catalogues and deliver the lowest cost choices will be popular tools in the next few years. Dentists spend a significant amount of time researching their options, even those who do it exclusively online. Any site that can save them time will be successful in attracting dentists. One current entrant in that market is ddspricesource.com, a subscription-based site that searches through 50 dealer and manufacturer catalogues for the lowest price.
Growing sophistication in the use of Web sites as marketing tools is another recent development for dentists. Just as every dentist began to believe 30 years ago that he or she needed an ad in the Yellow Pages®, in the next few years every dentist may come to believe that he or she needs an online presence.
The belief in the power of a Web presence, however, is not universally held. Some dentists who otherwise completely embrace technology don’t see any value in building a Web site. “Dental patients don’t get their dentists that way,” says Roden, who has been an early adapter of a great deal of dental technology in his office in addition to being a beta tester for dentalxchange.com.
Dr. Jim Hall, a Macon, Ga.-based pediatric dentist, whose hobby is programming and Web site development, agrees. “If I built a Web site for myself, it would be just for the fun of it,” he says. “The general public won’t go looking for a dentist on a Web site.”
Some Web site companies are betting that even if consumers won’t go to an individual dentist’s Web site, they will go to a dental portal that offers a collection of dentist listings. One entrant into that market is dentistry.com, a California-based, advertiser-funded site that claims to offer the most comprehensive Web portal in the dental industry.
“Dentistry.com has been yielding more patient referrals for some dentists than the Yellow Pages®,” says Michael Wissot, dentistry.com’s president and CEO. “And there’s a reason why that’s the case—discriminating consumers are spending the time to research dental procedures, concerns and solutions via the Internet. So, every dentist must unequivocally learn to communicate with patients and colleagues online.”
Whether that will happen remains to be seen. The feeling that an online presence is a requirement of doing business is not going to happen until dentists believe that they are at a competitive disadvantage not to have one.
In the near term, individual Web sites will probably be used less as marketing tools and more as digital business cards or communication devices. As Chicago dentist Dr. Bruce Gronner says, echoing a common refrain, “I thought I was going to use [my Web site] for marketing, but I’ve ended up using it to keep patients informed.”
Which is not to say, of course, that dentists aren’t interested in marketing. Hall, the Macon pediatric dentist, sends e-mail notes to parents after their children’s first visit along with a digital image of the child.
Online, back-office management tools will be more accepted in the next few years. Some software solutions are available for sale and are in use, but few if any dentists have their business records and patient information online. Online record keeping might be useful for solo practitioners who want to outsource their back-office management.
Security concerns are currently a serious roadblock. As Gronner, the Chicago dentist, who has embraced technology but who has not put his records online, says, “I was afraid of patient security—whether the information could be hacked.” Until those concerns are alleviated, online record keeping won’t catch on in significant numbers.
Practice management software may be a more realistic solution for now and is becoming more popular among dentists. Practice Works, Inc. and SoftDent LLC offer products that can help dentists organize patient records, communicate with staff and track billing and insurance data.
Insurance claims processing will probably be entirely online in five years, which isn’t really so much a change as a continuation of what has already begun. As for how much processing is currently handled online, experiences vary. Rainwater, the Riverdale dentist, estimates that about 75 percent of his insurance processing is currently online. Roden, the Deerfield dentist, on the other hand, says that more of the dentists he knows submit claims by paper than electronically.
The insurers, for the most part, are the ones who have slowed the pace of change. In fact, Roden, who like most dentists prefers to submit claims electronically, went back to paper because certain insurers were not set up yet to handle electronic submissions.
Dental consumers will see more dental health-related information online in the next five years. They’ll have better access to experts and specialists, and they’ll probably get an electronic newsletter from their dentists. And, of course, they will be able to pay their bills and process any insurance information online.
The ability of the consumer to make online dental appointments will be more common, but a lot of dentists don’t see that process moving completely online within five years because of the difficulty in determining how much time to block out for certain procedures. Standard teeth cleanings are predictable, but the time needed for other procedures would depend upon what is involved, which often can only be determined by a conversation between dentist and patient. Hall notes also that giving patients access to appointment records might be a recipe for trouble. Cancellations, in any event, will probably be fully online in five years.
In keeping with the growing trend in the health care field to enlarge the consumer’s role in choosing medical providers, sites that rate dentists and enable comparison-shopping will probably be common in five years. Consumers will have more information not just about dental health but also about their dentists.
When the question is asked as to which skills today’s dental students should concentrate on in order to succeed in tomorrow’s online world, the answer usually isn’t programming skills, Web knowledge or anything to do with the actual online technology. The answer is the same as it probably has always been: business acumen. Online technology is a business tool like any other, with success coming to those who use it best.
Again and again, practicing dentists say that the two most important factors in adopting any new technology are time savings and cost savings. If it can save them time or money, they’re interested.
Today, as Hall says, “most of us are gadget-oriented people,” yet “very, very few dentists are using online dentistry to its fullest extent.” In the next three to five years, the industry will close that gap. The pace at which it does, as well as the technologies that it adopts, will depend to a large extent on how successful younger dentists are at showing older dentists the ways in which embracing the online world can save them time and money.