Appears in January/February Commonwealth Magazine (by Matthew Ferrara)

Working a boom real estate market is not so hard; with a heartbeat and a license, many inexperienced agents beat the odds. But sticking around through tough markets requires serious players. The competition will be well-trained, well-financed and most likely, well-versed in the technology that keeps them competitive.

That’s why technology matters more than ever. When markets tighten, competitive advantages are critical. Enhanced technology skills provide competitive advantages across every segment of your business. Every one of these areas can benefit from technology that saves time, cuts costs and expands opportunity to maximize the market. And with agent and broker incomes dropping with the market, technology mastery becomes more critical than ever.

If you’re planning on sticking around, it’s time for your technology to start making a difference. Here are four areas you can focus on right away:

1. Customer acquisition. One of the greatest expenses for real estate professionals is the cost to find new sellers and buyers. Let’s face it: you’re never going to cold call prospects. Your postcard marketing is a passive-aggressive waste of time. And your print ads aren’t going to entice buyers. It’s time to unleash the web. All those for sale by owners online are your best prospects. Start looking them up on their websites and emailing them. They have already made the mental leap to sell and have an 88 percent likelihood of ultimately working with a real estate agent. Talk to them the way they are telling you they want to hear from you: by email. And since these people will also be buyers, the same technique applies if you’re hunting for customers. Use the web (and forget about them coming to your website – which they can’t find.)

2. Communications. The Baby Boomers have already told us their technology preferences: don’t call them; email them (hint: the Do-Not-Call list). Surveys of Generation Y tell us that, if offered the choice, they’d give up email in favor of text and instant-messaging. Good news because you can drop your cell phone bill and cut costs, while using mobile email and text messaging to reach more contacts. Text message your open house times and locations to buyers on Saturday. Use an email blast to alert customers of a price reduction on your listing. Tap an instant message to your assistant. In fact, as competition heats up, what you really save with messaging technologies is time.

3. Marketing. Text on the web is old school. Today’s most competitive web sites – in every industry – are alive! Video, sound, interactive tools, instant chat with real people – each of these technologies creates comparative advantages to the read-me-only websites. Most real estate websites today are glorified Sears catalogs. If marketing technology is going to make a difference this year, it’s time to make your websites grow up – and that means multimedia. First, cut the costs of creating virtual tours by downloading free software like Microsoft’s Photo Story 3 which turns any sequence of photos into animated, voice narrated video clips. Add them to websites, listing presentations and even email marketing. If you’ve already taken 10 photos of the property yourself, the cost to create a virtual tour should be zero by using some software like Photo Story.

Next, start selling your listings using your voice by creating a daily podcast and letting prospects subscribe to your updates. Today’s first time home buyers go everywhere with their iPods. Develop a “daily show” style of podcast that consumers can add to their iTunes for regular updates. Think of it like a talk show for your company – discussing listings, interviewing past clients, educating consumers on finance issues – you name it. It’s like marketing on the radio without having to pay the expensive broadcast fees. Adding a podcast to the web is about as hard as going to Yahoo Podcasting.

4. Client Relationship Management. Sending canned stuff to clients every week is not client relationship management. Contacting them regularly to maintain relationships is. Understanding this will help you use your campaign-manager technology far more advantageously than simply email-blasting some dull templates every week. Using technology is not selling; it merely enhances the sales process. Use a regular reminder on your calendar to reach out to your past clients and current network and refresh your relationship. If past clients really trust you, they’ll come back to you for your insights when they need it. But only if they remember you, which is where technology should focus. Using something as simple as a recurring task reminder in Microsoft Outlook, you can pick two times a month to scroll through your client list and reach out to them personally. And yes, you can still send an email (or even use the phone) as long as it’s personal.

So just to be clear: the market is still sagging, the industry is largely bloated and the average agent doesn’t make enough money to waste it on old-school sales habits. History shows us that these are the times where simply trying harder won’t protect you. You’re going to have to try smarter – and use technology to make up the difference.

Matthew Ferrara is CEO of Matthew Ferrara & Company, a technology organization that delivers training, consulting and technical support to real estate companies worldwide, including their new “Support on Demand” REALTOR® help desk service available at (866) 316-4210 or www.matthewferrara.com.