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REITM Focus: Taking significant strides together

The real estate industry recently received a boost to better prepare it for the future with the launch of an Industry Transformation Map (ITM).

Co-developed by the industry, government, unions, and other stakeholders, the initiatives under the Real Estate ITM are guided by two key strategies:

  • Encourage and enable businesses and professionals to embrace innovation and leverage technology; and
  • Strengthen professionalism and upskill the workforce.

CEAnergy invited professionals from the real estate agency industry to share their thoughts on how the Real Estate ITM initiatives will steer the industry towards greater productivity, professionalism, and client-centricity.

Technological innovations are an impetus for the real estate industry to collectively disrupt and reinvent itself.

Embracing change boldly

Mrs Ong Choon Fah, CEO of Edmund Tie & Company, is a member of the Real Estate Industry Tripartite Committee. The Committee is working with the government, private sector, and labour unions to transform the real estate industry. Mrs Ong was also involved in various engagement sessions to fine tune the Real Estate ITM initiatives.

Reflecting on her involvement in the ITM’s development, Mrs Ong shared, “…we do this precisely because it is difficult. We do not shy away from what we think is difficult but take on the challenge because it is the right thing to do. Technology is constantly evolving and happens so fast that we need to prepare ourselves for disruption.”

She explained that real estate, being a traditional industry, has always had that human touch at every point of a transaction. But with industry reinventions, the real estate sector needs to collectively disrupt itself. “If we do not, others will come to do it for us,” she said.

Developing a new mindset

Mr Harry Yeo, President of the Institute of Estate Agents (IEA), said that there are merits in the Real Estate ITM’s recommendations on various fronts. Productivity and efficiency will be enhanced as processes are streamlined with technology, offering greater convenience to both agents and consumers. However, he anticipated that some of these initiatives could encourage more consumers to handle property transactions on their own as processes are simplified.

While this may be a “cause of concern” for some agents, Mr Yeo said that industry professionals must move ahead. “In the process, we must be prepared to accept some short-term pain in order to reap long-term gains,” he advised.

With a real estate marketplace that is changing very quickly and in light of rising consumer demands, Mr Yeo said that professions in the industry are also transforming.

“This is why property agents cannot afford to be complacent…To strengthen their professionalism and raise productivity and efficiency, property agents must unlearn, learn, and relearn new things, new skills and new methods of doing things…They must first change their mindset,” stressed Mr Yeo.

Creating more productive and personalised experiences

Greater access to government data will not only enhance productivity for agents, but also enable agents to provide more value-added advice to clients.

As part of the ITM’s first thrust to leverage technology, the Council for Estate Agencies (CEA) is chairing a workgroup to uplift the productivity and efficiency of the industry through digitalising property transaction processes.

An immediate priority is to enable property businesses and professionals easier access to government property-related data to facilitate automated due diligence and compliance checks without compromising data privacy.

Industry professionals welcomed this initiative.

Ms Avril Lee, KEO and Director of One Global Property Services (Singapore), said that easier access to data will allow agents to perform checks independently without having to rely on information provided by clients or other agents in a transaction. This better protects agents’ interests and offers cost and time savings as they will no longer need to access different portals.

In an industry where one’s success is sometimes determined exclusively by the number of deals closed, Ms Lee also hoped that the convenience offered by automated processes will lead to a shift in mindset and nudge agents to take extra steps to ensure that all necessary checks are carried out before proceeding with a transaction.

Mr Goh Kee Nguan, CEO of Huttons Asia, also agreed that greater access to government data will mean greater time savings for agents as important property-related and client-related information would be made more readily available.

“This will in turn allow agents to focus on customising the service experience for their clients by providing more value-added advice with a better understanding of their profiles and unique needs. Through this, agents will then be able to identify property options that best match their clients’ requirements,” said Mr Goh, who is also a member of the Real Estate Tripartite Committee.

Mrs Ong also looks forward to administrative and repetitive tasks being automated. When these processes translate into data, agents can develop more insights that can be targeted toward advising clients, she said.

“The automation of simple administrative tasks will empower (agents) to do more value-added work, such as acting as trusted advisors or knowledge touchpoints – to discern news and information that are easily accessible to the masses,” explained Mrs Ong.

Enhancing skills and attributes that underscore the relevance of agents

In the face of industry transformation, property agents should focus on developing both soft and hard skills to achieve the best outcomes for their clients.

The second thrust of the Real Estate ITM is to strengthen professionalism and upskill the workforce so that it can continue to attract and retain good people and good talent.

CEA is looking at reviewing the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) framework for property agents by the end of the year. We are also working with relevant training providers on courses for agents to gain deeper knowledge on working effectively in a digitalised environment.

IEA President Harry Yeo, who is also a CPD trainer, said that agents should focus on developing soft and hard skills in the face of industry transformation.

“Property agents must have good people skills because they deal with people all the time…These include good communication skills, service excellence, and emotional intelligence,” explained Mr Yeo.

However, this is just one-half of the formula to success, said Mr Yeo. Equally important are hard skills like knowledge on matters relating to property transactions such as market prices, market trends, changes in law and regulations. As such knowledge becomes outdated very quickly, property agents must learn new things, renew their knowledge, and keep themselves up-to-date all the time.

Mr Yeo also encouraged property agents to tap on the latest technology to give added-value to their customers, such as offering 3D virtual reality tours of properties from the comfort of their homes.

Huttons Asia is a committed advocate in strengthening the professionalism of its agents through training, said Mr Goh.

With consumer ratings, agents will be motivated to continue to place clients’ interest as a priority.

Mr Goh added that the agency’s training framework is complemented by its values framework, ’ELITE’ - which stands for excellence, learning, integrity, teamwork, and a ’everyone wins’ mindset. “Having the right competencies and possessing the right business values are key to any successful transaction. They work hand in hand to achieve good outcomes for our clients,” he said.

Profiling agents’ professionalism

Under the Real Estate ITM initiatives, the government will work with the industry to establish a transaction track record framework for agents from this year. There are also plans to collect and publish consumer ratings of agents.

These initiatives are aimed at helping property agents showcase verified records of their experience and professionalism. At the same time, this will increase transparency for consumers and give them greater confidence to continue engaging agents during this time of disruption.

Ms Lee said such initiatives that focus on and celebrate agents’ service performance are a fresh move away from the “traditional MLM model of glamorising top performers’ earnings”.

“Professionalism, a positive service attitude, reliable character, competency… These soft skills and attributes are what robots cannot take away [and they] make an agent remain relevant to a client,” she said.

With property agencies becoming more willing to seek reviews from clients on their agents and profile them appropriately at the agency level, Ms Lee believes the industry may see a new assessment approach in defining who the good performing agents are. This will have a positive spin-off in motivating these agents to continue placing clients’ interest as a priority.

Innovating to put customers first

As a response to the Real Estate ITM’s vision to improve the transaction process for consumers, ERA Realty Network recently announced the launch of its newly revamped (FPA) website.

Property agencies such as ERA Realty Network have tapped on technology to enable consumers to customise their search experiences for the right property agent.

This dedicated website allows consumers to customise their search experiences for the right property agent. Some of its key features include:

  • Smart algorithms that use multiple data points such as agents’ past transaction statistics as well as geolocation tags. This will enable consumers to find the most suitable property agents who can cater to their needs;
  • Property agents’ profile pages with past transactions, customer reviews, awards achieved, and training completed. This aims to increase transparency and build better trust with consumers;
  • A chart displaying each agent’s specialisation that is updated through real-time data - an industry-first.

In the near future, ERA says that it will use artificial intelligence to help agents serve consumers more efficiently by answering common queries and predicting preferences. This time-saving feature will also be another industry-first.

CEAnergy reached out to ERA Branch Division Director Mr Kenneth Lim on his thoughts about this new system. We asked if he had any initial concerns about adapting to a new way of working after being in the industry for about six-and-a-half years, two-and-a-half of which have been with ERA.

“I wasn't concerned as I knew before joining that this industry is very dynamic, and one of the most important qualities is for agents to be flexible enough to not just accept changes, but to embrace them… Every day is a new day and I look forward to continually improving my knowledge and competency to serve my clients better,” said Mr Lim.

In fact, Mr Lim said that he is “very glad” that ERA came up with as his clients can now understand his background and track record easily in an open and transparent manner. “This has often helped to break the ice during our first meeting and they are assured of the high quality of service I can provide them,” he added.

Assuring newcomers to the industry and those who might be concerned about possible agent ratings in future, Mr Lim said, “Once you place your client's interests as the topmost priority in your dealings, things would work out naturally. Even if you did not manage to close the deal, your client would appreciate what you have done for them and recommend you to their friends.”

Making industry transformation more relatable

Property agencies have taken steps to enable their agents to better appreciate and participate in the transformation process.

Agencies have adopted an inclusive approach, and have taken steps to enable their agents to better appreciate the importance of, and participate in, the transformation process.

At Huttons Asia, Mr Goh shared that the agency has already commenced a series of internal briefings to its agents to create greater awareness about the need for the industry to transform.

Mr Goh said that the briefings provide a comprehensive explanation of how its current frameworks and practices complement the ITM’s vision on three fronts:

  • Enhancing its agents’ professionalism and competencies for their personal and professional development;
  • Enabling the company to achieve greater effectiveness, productivity, and backend support with technology as a key driver;
  • Offering greater transparency and better service to its clients such as through established feedback channels, and a robust reward and disciplinary system for its agents.

The company aims to translate these simply to agents by illustrating how these all come together to benefit its agents and clients and are aligned with the ITM. “Through this approach, we hope to make the idea of industry transformation more relatable to our agents,” said Mr Goh.

Charting new journeys

Over at Edmund Tie & Company, Mrs Ong said that the agency has already embarked on its journey of industry transformation. “We have engaged several external consultants to help digitise our business with a client-centric digital roadmap that cuts across all departments. This is a huge step forward as we inculcate a culture of growth – to learn, unlearn, and relearn skills and processes regardless of age or position.”

Some other steps that the company is taking to help staff meet the needs of the changing work environment include staff upgrading programmes, reassuring staff that their jobs will remain despite the change of tasks, and instilling a “no one gets left behind” attitude.

Cultivating productive partnerships

Input and support from the industry will continue to play a critical role in realising the vision of the Real Estate ITM.

Hutton Asia’s Mr Goh said that deepening the partnership between the private sector and government will be a key driver in realising the objectives of the Real Estate ITM.

While the government plays a role as a facilitator, Mr Goh believes that the industry should step forward more proactively in the transformation process. “In order for the industry to grow, it must actively take control and be a mover of things…We must continue to take ownership and work together to discuss and implement strategies and initiatives by the industry, for the industry,” he said.

In fact, Huttons Asia, together with ERA Realty Network and PropNex Realty, have come together under a new umbrella, SoReal Prop, to launch an online platform to provide agents and consumers with the latest and accurate information for their real estate needs. The platform will offer two different apps – one for agents and another for consumers – as well as the SoReal Prop portal.

The idea for SoReal was conceived in early 2016 by Mr Goh and two other property agency leaders – Mr Jack Chua, CEO of ERA Realty, and Mr Ismail Gafoor, CEO of PropNex Realty. Riding on technological innovations and with a desire to add value to industry stakeholders, the three agency leaders decided to collaborate and develop an effective platform that would benefit not just agents, but consumers and even property developers.

Smaller players in the industry are also keen to offer innovative solutions in the face of industry transformation.

Ms Lee shared that smaller players have a complementary role to cater to niche markets not covered by larger players. As the KEO of a small property agency, she believes that having a mix of agencies of different sizes injects vibrancy into the industry and offers more choices to consumers. She also expressed hope that the government will continue to provide a conducive environment for smaller firms to thrive.

Indeed, industry transformation is something the government cannot realise on its own. Input and support from key stakeholders will continue to play a critical role as the ITM initiatives are progressively rolled out over the next few years.

Summing this up aptly, Mrs Ong said, “We are all stakeholders in this initiative. In order for Singapore to thrive, the industry and our people must thrive. To reach this shared goal, there must be trust among all the stakeholders involved. We need to create more open lines of communication, build trust in one another and act in concert to make our vision a reality.”

Mrs Ong also hopes that businesses can ride on the momentum for the real estate industry’s transformation to bring the initiatives to fruition by constantly reinventing themselves.

“Coming up with a plan was merely the first step. We need to have a lot of grit to make this work as an industry and as a country,” she said.