Magazine Article | November 1, 1999

Virtual Real Estate

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

The real estate industry has lagged behind other industries in adopting integrated solutions and e-commerce. Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services recognized a business opportunity in this situation. Now, it uses technology to set standards for others in the industry.

Integrated Solutions, November-December 1999

The ultimate benchmark of friendship is asking a friend to help you move. "Ask, and you shall receive" - an untainted picture of who your "friends" really are. Perhaps, like many of us, someone at Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services experienced the same heartrending lesson; but like few of us, this individual saw business opportunity beckoning.

That's one logical premise for a real estate and relocation company that has taken almost all its offerings to the e-commerce arena. Another premise is that someone recognized how slow the real estate industry was in adopting integrated solutions, consequently creating an uncertain, but potentially lucrative opportunity to merge real estate and e-commerce.

Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services (PRERS) seized that opportunity, and is now the first fully integrated provider of real estate and relocation services. As such, the company provides a wide array of services: assistance in buying and selling homes, providing marketing advice, contracting movers, and outsourcing financing. PRERS works primarily with Fortune 500 companies such as BF Goodrich, Coca-Cola, Colgate Palmolive, IBM, Nabisco, and Nestle. "The company's response has been very positive," says Walt Clark, vice president, information technology, PRERS. "Many of our clients already use technological tools to communicate. They don't want to play phone tag; they don't want voice mail. They want e-mail. When customers find out an agent can communicate in their terms, they are very excited."

A New Approach To Real Estate
Essentially, PRERS comes into an organization and guides transferring employees through the entire relocation process. When corporations have a prospective employee or a new hire, PRERS can be a decisive factor. Facilitating the relocation process can be a strong incentive for someone to join a company. PRERS services can be customized, as well. Being an executive in the coming millennium bestows privileges that extend beyond the executive washroom. At certain levels of executive privilege, PRERS will even purchase an individual's home to expedite the often drawn out process of selling one's house. To understand how PRERS is able to do this, one must grasp the byzantine structure of the company.

PRERS is actually a subsidiary of The Prudential Insurance Company of America, the internationally recognized $27 billion insurance provider. Many companies fall to the wayside under the tutelage of a parent company. PRERS, however, is making a name for itself. With a $75.5 billion sales transaction volume in 1998, no one questions PRERS' ability to stand alone.

PRERS itself is actually two separate divisions: Prudential Real Estate Affiliates, Inc. (PREA), and Prudential Relocation. PREA is a group of privately owned and operated franchise real estate offices. Prudential Relocation is the branch of the company responsible for services that complement PREA offerings, such as outsourcing and coordinating mortgages and movers. Outsourcing allows specialists (professional bankers, movers, etc.) to offer expert service, yet work in unison with the other branches of PRERS to create a comprehensive package. "If someone else is already doing a job more efficiently, or has expert information, we want to capitalize on that," says Clark. "We don't want to be in the business of repurposing information that is already out there." As one can imagine, coordinating these efforts is no easy task. That's where the role of integrated technology comes in.

Moving With Technology
To get a better perspective on how this technology works, imagine you are Mr. John Smith, recently promoted at the Acme Company and soon to be moved from an East Coast to a West Coast branch. Forget sleepless nights, lost mail, and having to promise every acquaintance beer and pizza to help you move. PRERS will walk you through the entire relocation process. This begins by helping you sell your home and providing marketing assistance. PRERS will make recommendations about clean up and repairs to sell the house. Then, PRERS will arrange for a mover and put you, Mr. Smith, in contact with a Prudential real estate affiliate in the new area in order to locate your new home. If a Prudential agent doesn't exist there, PRERS will even find you another real estate agent. PRERS also works with mortgage companies to help you finance your new house, and allows you to use its international database to search for a home online - including some listings that feature a 360-degree virtual image. PRERS offers just about any service that you might associate with relocation.

The real question here, though, is how does technology enable this service? Well, if one peeled away the layers to reveal the skeleton that supported the services, one would find two Web-enabled applications that drive the operation: EquiClose and DocProd.

Both applications were co-developed with JetForm of Ottawa, Canada, developers of Web-based software for workflow and e-forms solutions. EquiClose is a proprietary extranet application that allows Prudential Relocation's counselors, suppliers, and title companies to complete e-forms, monitor workflow progress, and download information related to the title and closing aspects of relocation transactions. Specifically, EquiClose was developed to streamline the lengthy and time-consuming efforts of processing equity distributions and closing activities associated with home ownership changes. The application is workflow driven, enabling all activities initiated through the system to be managed with an enterprise activity database. EquiClose manages time-sensitive events, and triggers notifications and alerts to other businesses and employees who use the system.

DocProd is a Web-enabled document production application that creates personalized customer documents. DocProd allows the company to more accurately communicate with its provider organizations through integration of operational systems. It also minimizes the re-keying of data by extracting information that is already in the database and including it in questionnaire forms and other documents.

Rather than dealing with a lot of paperwork and time on the phone, DocProd creates a personalized package of documents for a transferring employee that provides information and instructions regarding relocation. The package collates all the different information, yet provides a consistent presentation. It is also generated in real time, allowing access by Prudential Relocation's employees in regional offices and client locations.

E-Commerce Warriors
Having the right weapons of war is great, but without warriors, useless. That's why PRERS has also taken great pains to specially train all of its real estate associates. The process, which entails making associates computer literate, is called e-certification, and the result is an e-agent. PRERS' final goal is 100% e-certification, with every agent under PREA bearing the distinction of e-agent.

In addition, these man/machine creations turn to the PREA Web site (PREA CENTER), which serves as an e-command post, providing agents with all the information they need to perform their jobs: news, updates, house listings, and more. The whole scenario is like a futuristic, militaristic stratagem. It's reminiscent of the droid armies from the most recent Star Wars movie - electronic models of efficiency coordinated by a remote station in outer space, or in this case, an Internet Web site. PRERS has even gone so far as to take e-certification on tour, in the form of a traveling show known as Cyber Café. Like a tent revival show, the Cyber Café travels from city to city, touting the benefits of technology, and finding many converts among its agents.

In the end, what it all boils down to is a mesh between flesh and technology. Even the best technology solutions don't work without people, and PRERS recognizes this. The emphasis on education, as well as integrated solutions, has provided PRERS with a staff that is well equipped to handle its new technology.

To The Victor, The Spoils
PRERS went live with the EquiClose and DocProd applications in May, 1999. Now, the company annually handles over 164,000 relocation transactions for more than 47,000 transferring employees. "The workflow systems have been very well received - and so much paper has been eliminated." says Clark. "Once employees see how much easier it makes work, they quickly embrace it."

But, PRERS doesn't plan on stopping there. Comments Clark, "Right now we are in the middle of developing a relocation Web site. A lot of the information that was only available via paper or e-mail will eventually be available through the Web site. If you can imagine, when people are relocating, they need to get to a new assignment quickly. Employers want them on the job as soon as possible. When does a transferring employee have time to move? That's the purpose of the Web site - 24/7 access to all the information they need: e-mail, mortgages, policy information - you name it."

PRERS gambled on taking its real estate operations to the Internet, but the move seems to be working. The company's transition, though, is small in comparison to the larger revolution that is the Internet. Few phenomena in recent history have been as dynamic and fast paced. That makes the rules in the emerging e-commerce arena precarious.

Despite getting in on the ground floor, PRERS still labors to maintain its position. In relation to this thought, Clark adds, "You know, I'm knocking on wood, but the system is just working flawlessly. We're very pleased with its overall performance and stability. We always want to stay ahead of the competition. I'd like to say that competitors will never catch up. But, that's just not the case. Sometimes you have to take risks to stay ahead. If we want to maintain the position we've built for ourselves, it's going to require a lot of hard work - a lot." If one questions whether this dichotomous position of industry leadership is enviable, just think about industry members who have not even taken the first step toward integrated solutions. For all those uninitiated in the wave of the future - a call to arms.