To say that the real estate industry has exploded over the past two years is an understatement. With so many people moving and working from home, and interest rates remaining low, demand has surged. More buyers are shopping for properties online and even buying houses sight unseen from across the country.
At the same time, inventory remains low. In this environment, Realtor.com continues to grow its audience among both consumers and real estate professionals who are looking for tools and resources to make the home buying, selling and renting journey easier.
Our call center volumes have increased 36% since 2019, while headcount grew by only 5%. In March 2020, we had to adjust to hiring and working remotely virtually overnight. Our staffing levels have been fairly consistent — that is, until the recent Omicron spike, when double the number of service agents were calling out sick. While our service team has not experienced the high turnover that plagues much of the industry, we’re aware that around 70% of all service agents are thinking of leaving their jobs in the next six months, and a similar share are considering quitting the industry altogether.
The Great Re-engagement
Rather than sit back and let current trends affect customer experience, we’re choosing to see this moment as an opportunity we’re calling The Great Re-engagement. We aren’t the first to use the term, but it captures our philosophy that prioritizing the employee experience is key to attracting and retaining agents and delivering on customer expectations.
Here’s how we’re putting our customer care agents front and center:
(1) Embracing flexibility
Employee expectations around how work gets done have clearly changed in the past two years. Workers are looking for freedom of choice about where they live, how often they come to the office and when they clock in. We know that there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, and are trying to allow for more flexibility by testing and considering various approaches. For example, customer care agents who want to cut commute time or pick up their kids from school may be able to work from home full-time. Those who can’t wait to be around people are welcome back in the office, and others might be able to choose a mix of both. We are beginning to experiment with more flexible shift work, including a standard 9-to-5 schedule, split shifts that allow for early morning and later evening work, four-day workweeks of ten hours a day, and part-time schedules.
Enabling flexible work requires having the right technology in place. Until recently, we were using Excel for forecasting and capacity planning. Everything was a manual process: agents shared their preferences in meetings, scheduling happened over email and forecasting took place in spreadsheets. With the added complexity of flexible work, we knew we needed a more agile and scalable solution. We’re now implementing Service Cloud Workforce Engagement, which will enable us to intelligently forecast and plan for any scenario and balance staffing needs across channels.
Offering flexibility and choice shows employees that we understand they have a life outside of work and care about them as people, not just resources.
(2) Paving pathways to growth
Employees today are looking for career security, not just job security, but remote work has made it harder to onboard and train agents. Realtor.com has always had a philosophy of up-skilling employees, with 75% to 80% of our customer care agents cross-trained in other skills. Over the past two years, we’ve doubled down on career development efforts because we recognize how important they are to employee experience.
First, we conducted a company-wide evaluation of roles, levels and compensation. This made career path options more transparent for employees wanting to move up or across departments within the organization. Next, we built out an internal directory with detailed job descriptions and responsibilities for every position. Employees can identify a role that seems interesting, then shadow a colleague for a day to learn more about what it entails. We have several mentoring programs that allow employees to learn about new skills or opportunities from someone in the company. And lastly, we’re planning to pilot myTrailhead, which would allow supervisors to deliver personalized training modules, pushed directly to the agent console, so that agents can skill-up in real-time.
(3) Tapping the power of automation
With many people juggling more responsibilities, agents care about work-life balance more than ever. We’re using technology, including artificial intelligence and automation, to make agents’ lives easier in several ways. We started by connecting all channels on Salesforce Service Cloud to give agents a single view of the customer to limit the need to toggle between programs. Next, we introduced AI-powered chatbots and self-service options, reducing the time agents spend on simple queries and allowing them to focus on complex issues and connecting with customers. We’re also rolling out AI-driven articles and next-best action recommendations to support our employees in the moment.
Robotic process automation (RPA) technology has also been a game-changer. We’re identifying high-volume, repetitive tasks and handing them over to intelligent bots, freeing up agents for more rewarding work. For example, we previously had two full-time employees dedicated to removing more than 8,000 photos of homes from the website each month, based on requests from owners. Now, a bot can handle 85% of use cases, and our staff can focus on higher-level requests.
Engaged employees lead to happier customers
Realtor.com was a pioneer in digital real estate 25 years ago, and I’ve been with the company for almost as long. We’ve learned that continuing to thrive means constantly evolving and staying agile. Many organizations talk about The Great Resignation with a pessimistic tone, but we’re choosing to frame this moment as a much-needed reset. Using technology to offer agents flexibility, career growth opportunities and a more balanced workload is key to attracting new hires and keeping our tenured team happy in the new world of hybrid work. Even more importantly, engaged agents are better able to support real estate professionals and the home buyers, sellers and renters they help to make life-changing decisions in today’s dynamic marketplace.