With increased digitisation, the widespread deployment of artificial intelligence and massive disruption across traditional, age-old business models the world over, has the process of buying or leasing a residential or commercial space changed significantly enough to render real estate agents irrelevant?
It's a question that has, doubtless, crossed the minds of agents pondering the future of their careers, and a significant number of property buyers and potential tenants - especially ones that have had unsavoury experiences that make them evaluate just how much value agents actually add to the proposition.
A changing landscape, again
Services like Booking.com and Expedia are case-study worthy examples of how the travel industry's intermediaries, or middlemen, saw their key services turn redundant, disrupted by online businesses. "Innovate or perish" became the new mantra for travel agents and the ones who were savvy enough to take it to heart have found new ways of staying relevant. They did this by leveraging the experience, personal understanding of traveller profiles, and often unique alliances, to help travellers save time, money and the hassle of comparative analysis. Making sense of the various modes of transport, accommodation options and vacation packages have led consumers to book directly with destinations or use a new breed of travel agent called "travel designers". In fact, studies have found, rather unexpectedly, that leading the upswing on this trend are millennials - creating a new wave in young specialised travel agents.
Evolution, not elimination
So, can this relationship with intermediaries evolve, and does technology take on the role of eliminator or facilitator? While the thinking might be "We should be able to search, find, view, select, purchase and transfer a property without the need for human intervention", the fact of the matter as it stands today, is that humans are more reassured by the presence of and interaction with another human.
This is especially true when the purchase of a large-ticket item is in question. An intelligent, conscientious real estate agent engages with his or her prospects meaningfully, and can answer questions, address doubts and provide reassurance intuitively, based on a two-way dialogue.
How can technology catalyse or facilitate this? For the foreseeable future, until the time that people can be physically or virtually teleported to a property and assess it with all the senses of sight, smell, sound and touch, and truly recreate that wow moment when walking into a home for the first time, technology will primarily be used to provide a framework for agents to initiate, manage and foster relationships. Technology can automatically generate all the requisite contracts, streamline communication with prospects; catalogue past history of clients to optimise the interaction; rapidly and minutely filter properties by client preference; and market to a previously researched audience in more specific, valuable and granular ways.
Relationships will always be relevant
Good agents realise that relationships are key, and are generally playing the long game, which is why they are often more forthcoming with important information that can affect a decision and can potentially save clients a lot of heartache in the long run. Good agents earn their commission by eliciting the right detail at the right time, by noticing the baby seat in the car and thinking about schools, by helping to connect the football player buyer with local communities of similar interests, by thinking not just about today's sale, but whether the individual will feel comfortable in the years ahead.
Human reassurance goes a long way, especially when it's time to sign complex, long-winded agreements. While technology can help streamline through the intelligent generation of tenancy contracts, SPAs and the like, rarely will people accept terms that haven't at least been checked by a human.
The key takeaway? Technology is more a facilitator than disruptor in this scenario - where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, providing a greater value proposition when man and technology come together. Obsessively focusing on how to deliver a high-quality experience through the use of technology while driving efficiency from the required labour costs will yield the best results for agencies and consumers alike.
The writer is CEO of Masterkey. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.
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