A year ago, Keller Williams found themselves in a predicament: their IT systems had become an impediment to growth. A staff of 30 supporting 12,000 real estate agents had grown to 200-plus employees supporting 91,000 agents in North America. Meanwhile, a changing real estate market placed new demands on agents needing 24/7 'frictionless' access to email and documents.
I recently talked with Cary Sylvester, Executive Director of Technology, about how Keller Williams faced those challenges with a move to the Google Cloud Platform- and an eye towards international expansion.
Jon: I was just reading up on your bio. You're an Oracle person.
Cary: Yes, I used to be. In my former life, I was a DBA. I'm always fascinated with how we can pull the data we have and get it in a place where we can use it to our advantage.
Jon: So that fascination with data has carried over from your DBA years.
Cary: Absolutely. It's what drives us.
Changes in the real estate market
Jon: What kinds of changes have you seen in the real estate business since you started at Keller Williams 11 years ago?
Cary: We've seen massive change, especially related to technology. In the old days, if you wanted to have access to information, you had to find a realtor who had a book to thumb through and try and find information about a property. The most dramatic shift is just that openness of information. Listing information isn't proprietary to the real estate agent anymore. Even before you contact a realtor, you start searching online, and then you work with a realtor to help make your actual selection and close the process. That change is a massive shift in how our industry operates. That's shift number one.
Shift number two is: on the legal and the transaction side. Our agents have to be available anytime, anywhere, to close a deal. That's where the growth of cloud-based systems comes in too, with the need of realtors to service their clients from anywhere, anytime.
Jon: I can remember in the '90s going to so many properties with realtors. It was a lot more difficult to evaluate them ahead of time. You were driving all over the place.
Cary: Before this shift, it would take about seven weeks of being in the car with an agent to search and find the house you're going to buy. Now, it can take about two weeks, and you look at a quarter of the homes you looked at before. Hopefully, it's made the whole process better on both sides.
Jon: Do you think it's created a more sophisticated buyer, in terms of how to assess a home? Or do people pick up bad information also?
Cary: Two things on that – Yes, It makes the consumer feel more empowered. They have more information. They think, ‘OK, I've been able to validate some of what you're saying, so I don't feel like someone is just controlling this whole process.’ I think that has been a huge benefit. The con is exactly what you talked about, of bad information being out there. That's probably the biggest struggle our agents have today: there's a lot of inaccurate listing information. Someone will send a house and say, ‘I just found this. I love it.’
Then we look it up and say, ‘That hasn't been on the market for six weeks, so I'm sorry we just broke your heart. We'll help you find something else.’ Another problem is that automated valuations of your home are great as a starting point, but they're not real accurate. That definitely makes it difficult for the realtors, when someone comes to them and says, ‘But this website says the value of my home is $500,000.’
Jon: Tech is valuable for information gathering, but you still need that trusted expert.
Cary: Yes. Technology makes the process simpler, but doesn't take the adviser role away from what realtors do. The two values that any realtor brings is local expertise and negotiating advice. Those things will never be replaced by technology, thank goodness. With more information that's available, we've actually seen less people try to sell their own home. Technology can help you see all the dots. The realtor helps you connect the dots.
Why move to the Google Cloud?
Jon: On the motivation for this Google Cloud project - did you take a look one day and decide, ‘Our technology infrastructure isn't keeping pace with what our agents need?’
Cary: It definitely wasn't keeping pace. There were two ways that we could solve the problem. One was to upgrade all of our internal systems. That would mean a massive hardware and staffing investment. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we decided, 'Why don't we partner with someone who's the leader in doing this?’ We looked at both Microsoft and Google's cloud options.
Jon: Now, prior to this project, you were using a combination of Microsoft Exchange at headquarters, and an open source platform for your realtors, right?
Cary: That's correct. Our decision was, ‘Do we upgrade and increase the staff, or do we outsource?" There was no question outsourcing would be in the cloud. That's why we looked at Office 365 and Google.
Jon: In terms of the realtors, whatever you did would mean changes to their work lives. How did you pull them into the loop?
Cary: Some days it's like herding cats with this many users. We actually started with two early adopter groups. The first one was a very small subset of about 1,000. They were pretty much hand picked - they were folks who got technology, got Keller Williams, and would be willing to provide feedback. We converted those folks over to the new system first. Then, we did an early adopter group two, which increased up to about 2,500 more users. That allowed us to get ahead of a lot of the questions, so that we're not flooded once we do the massive conversion. The rest of the users, we are converting all at once.
Jon: So You ended up in a decision between Google and Microsoft 365. What led you toward Google?
Cary: A few different things. Google came in very aggressively and worked with us very well, going through deep dives of how we would make this work. They brought in Cloud Sherpas, and Cloud Sherpas has been fantastic helping us with the actual transition.
Then when we compared the two platforms, Google was on the leading edge of where things are going with the full apps marketplace, all the other apps that come. While our top objective was to transition our email, by transitioning email now we open up the entire enterprise app structure to all of our agents, which is a huge value to us, especially Drive and Google Talk, as you can imagine, given what realtors need to do.
Jon: The mobile piece is important in all this. Do people bring their own devices access Google off their preferred device?
Cary: Yes, it is all BYOD. We helped train the local tech support, so they can bring in their phone and they can help them get it connected. We have instructions on how to connect gmail with Outlook, too. I think that will actually be the last transition, more and more people are actually getting off of that, but we still have a huge user base with Outlook.
Jon: So If you want to stay in Outlook, you can stay in Outlook.
Cary: Yes, absolutely.
Jon: To the bitter end.
Outcomes and results
Cary: We're switching here at the corporate office. I've switched everything for myself and for all of our docs using Google Drive. On my hardware, I'm an Apple girl, so I have my iPad, but it syncs my notes and everything right up to my Drive account. I can also delegate access. Now, our realtors can have their new Keller Williams email powered by Google, and all of the related tools.
Now, they can have a true collaborative team environment where they're able to really stay connected with their team, and they can really work together cohesively, whether they're ever sitting in the same building or not - it doesn't matter. They can delegate document access to team members. That was extremely important for us.
Jon: What kind of feedback have you gotten from your early adopter group so far?
Cary: Especially in our first early adopter group, there were a lot of people who were already using Google anyway, so they were very happy to have it tied in with their Keller Williams system, and to their Keller Williams email address. That worked out extremely well, and it was a very easy transition. Even on the second group, we've seen an incredible adoption of Google Drive. We see that they're accessing it from multiple different devices.
Jon: The main thing people have to do is change their passwords. They can upscale their own needs from there.
Cary: Exactly, and that's the beauty of it. Now, their life goes on as normal. All they have to do is update the settings on the mobile device, and that's it. We cannot stop their business from running during a migration.
Jon: What kind of consulting support did you need to make this happen?
Cary: Cloud Sherpas definitely helped our team with the planning, the design, and the architecture of how we did the migration. That paid off - we haven't lost a single contact or a single email in any of the migrations.
Jon: So you didn’t really need technical consulting or support, but you needed guidance on anticipating the transitions.
Cary: Yes - they came with a formula that has worked for other traditional companies. They listened to us, adapted that formula, and helped us build out a project plan for our needs.
About to pull the big switch
Jon: Are you nervous about the big switch, or do you think you're ready?
Cary: Am I nervous? No. Are we going to run into some challenges? Of course. From the test runs we've done, I have a very high level of confidence. We've got a lot of agents, so making sure our support team is prepared for the first couple weeks is key - then the support level will stabilize.
Jon: For your team, the cloud and mobile advantages are really linked.
Cary: Right – the cloud will be key to our global expansion. The existing architecture we had really worked for the US and Canada, other than Quebec. But our new cloud approach will make us accessible around the globe without issues. This is the first step of doing that, where we can have one central core system that can serve the entire globe. We already have translations built in, already have help pretty much built in, so we solve a lot of that problem without having to do anything. We just tap into what Google has already done.
Jon: So you basically removed a technological barrier to any of your expansion plans.
Cary: That was a huge barrier and a number one criteria of what we needed to be able to handle. Whatever we put in, it's got to be global.
Jon: How will you ultimately measure the success of this?
Cary: We'll look back at a few things. One is that we're going to look back at the support numbers to make sure our change management was correct and in place, and make sure that, while we're going to see a support spike, we didn't overload. That will be one measure of success. From our agents' level of success, the existing system has a significant number of users of our email simply forwarding it to another system. What I'm looking for, and we've actually already started to see that trend now, is that they're stopping that and saying, ‘I actually want to use what you have now.’
Jon: That's a pretty nice endorsement, right?
Cary: Yes it is. We have folks who honestly never used the actual email system we have here now calling to say, ‘I want to be the one to convert.’ So we tell them: ‘Well, you actually haven't even been using it, so there's nothing to convert. When we set up your new one, you'll be ready to go.'
Jon: Ready to rock and roll.
Cary: For the 2,500 that we did in the second group, we actually had about 3,500 people raise their hand and say, ‘I want to be in the second group,’ but 1,000 of those people were forwarding and actually not using the current system.
There was nothing to migrate, but they were so excited about using the new system they were ready to go. That's a very good sign for us.
Image credits: images provided by Keller Williams.
Disclosure: Cloud Sherpas PR helped to arrange this interview. Cloud Sherpas is not a diginomica client, nor is Keller Williams.