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Savvy real estate services firms use Web to create efficiencies
Not long ago, economists and entrepreneurs touted the Web as a revolutionary force that would change how people communicate, manage time and conduct business. For facility executives, that meant changing the way real estate was bought and sold, how products were purchased and maintenance calls answered.
It also meant learning how to use the medium and its associated technology in ways that could add value to organizations and improve operations. Using the Web to purchase light bulbs, renew leases and take care of other operational and administrative tasks is freeing facility executives’ time so they can focus on other important tasks. With the bottom-line focus of today’s business world — particularly among real estate services and property management firms — the Web is helping squeeze every bit of efficiency out of managing and operating properties.
“It’s all about reducing the amount of time we need to spend doing administrative tasks, so we could spend more time on the value-added services,” says Gary Brandeis, senior vice president with Lincoln Properties, a real estate service firm that owns buildings in North America and Europe.
In addition to purchasing products, real estate firms are using the Web to manage documents, lease properties administer contracts and track preventive maintenance and work-order management.
Real estate firms can work with outside providers to set up and manage e-procurement platforms and virtually any aspect of a Web strategy, saving time in developing in-house expertise.
Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services company with 450 million square feet nationwide, maintains affiliations with business partners to improve its Web efficiencies and those of the real estate industry as a whole, says Mark Rose, chief financial officer for the Americas.
For Rose, the efficiencies and savings opportunities the Web offers go beyond simply making product purchases easier. Without the Web, property managers have to issue purchase orders for products being bought, place orders for the products, receive the products and then input invoices into computer systems at the property level and oftentimes at the home office.
With a Web system tied into backend equipment, Rose says, only one invoice is received and it has to be inputted into a backend system only once — if at all.
“You’re eliminating time, expense and the chance of clerical error,” he says.
One of the lessons that real estate companies say they learned as they took to the Web is the importance of a support structure. Lincoln, for example, started an internal business unit to oversee Web development.
Attempting to avoid becoming a casualty from the dot-com boom, Lincoln asked Brandeis to develop Web strategies that would better the company’s properties while minimizing the risk inherent in undertaking new ventures.
What resulted is a Web service that focuses on individual properties and gives managers and owners of those properties ways to communicate, purchase products, view important documents and track building system maintenance and work orders.
Following a pilot project last year, Lincoln started to roll out the Web platform to 15 million square feet of property at the start of this year. By year’s end, it plans on adding another five million square feet.
A key feature to the service, Brandeis says, is a help desk that Lincoln operates five days a week. Property managers can call the desk if they have questions about how to use the Web site or how to search for information regarding their properties.
“We knew that we needed not only good technology, but we needed to be able to support it,” he says.
Jones Lang LaSalle’s Web offering includes e-procurement, lease administration, a leasing and transaction component and a feature that allows the company’s intranet to communicate with extranets set up at key client properties and the Internet — a so-called triple-net strategy.
Rose says each time a new component of the Web service is developed, a change-management team is put in place to drive its implementation. Through training, education and financial compensation, employees are taught to use and access the repository of information that the strategy creates.
“It’s one thing to have the Cadillac of Web services. But if nobody wants to get in the car, then you really haven’t achieved anything,” he says.
As Web technology evolves, real estate companies become more comfortable with incorporating Web sites into their service offerings and management processes.
Joe Hegger, senior vice president and director of operations for the real estate services division of Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, says lack of off-the-shelf software that would meet the specific needs of its properties prompted Colliers to develop a Web presence.
Colliers, Hegger says, used its existing database and incorporated it into a Web site. Doing so not only made communication between property managers more efficient, but allowed everybody who needed access to such information to get it immediately.
“We wanted something that’s at our fingertips all the time,” he says.
Colliers eventually developed a system to handle lease and contract administration. It also incorporated a feature that allows property managers to track vendor performance. Those features were combined with a facility maintenance feature to give property managers immediate access to information about a specific facility.
“That’s been phenomenal,” Hegger says. “It was expensive and time consuming to get up and running, but it has paid off in a big way.”
While real estate companies spent time creating a Web presence to improve internal efficiencies, they were working on ways to push the technology to the properties to keep building occupants better informed.
Lincoln, for example, makes information about system maintenance, lease documents and general property news available to occupants. It also posts safety and security manuals and other materials, such as move-in and move-out procedure manuals.
Hines, a real estate services and development company, also is pushing its Web service to the property level. The service allows users at individual buildings to design their own Web sites using templates. Information can be uploaded into one of three key areas — marketing, leasing and tenant orientation.
Matt Danilchick, director of Web strategy for Hines, says much of the site is directed toward allowing tenants easier ways to communicate with property managers. One feature allows tenants to alert a facility’s security staff about visitors and to make reservations for special events, such as lobby receptions.
Developing an effective Web presence takes more than just computer networks and programming. Proper planning involves seeking input from those that will use the system, allocating time and money to set up the system, and making users aware of how the system will improve their work processes.
Brandeis says getting buy-in from users was tougher than figuring out the technology.
“We’re changing the way our folks are communicating a bit,” he says. “We’re asking them to do things differently.”