That means many professionals are not equipped to handle fundamental changes already sweeping the industry. Even the smallest firm now has a computer on every desk, yet it is often the same computer bought when the MD or senior partner was nagged by secretaries and younger staff to dump the typewriters and card indexes.
These are linked to the internet – another new-fangled device that took forever to overcome fears about viruses and hacking. But the links are too often a bog-standard dial-up modem.
The software, so bemusing when first installed, is now as comfortable as an old pair of slippers - except to clients and new staff. They shake their heads in disbelief at the mish-mash of old, cobbled together programs that no-one else can understand, let alone integrate with their own systems.
So what should be running at the heart of every firm? There can be no ideal when the industry ranges from two people and a dog to massive international conglomerates. But there are some fundamental benchmarks. This week we look at the hardware.
Prepare for a shock. ‘Throw away any computers more than two or three years old,’ says agent-turned-IT adviser Keith Noble of BoE Systems. ‘These machines are just not powerful enough to handle the kind of work you should be doing, such as sending and receiving graphics over networks and the internet.’
Many fail to realise that intensive web-based browsing relies not just on the speed of internet connection but the processing power and amount of memory in any desktop or notebook computer. And anything more than a few years old will struggle.
Those systems will invariably be running the operating systems installed when they arrived, adds Andrew Waller, managing director of Remit Consulting, who agrees that a mass clear-out can be the best policy. ‘Support for Windows 95 and 98 has already been dropped or is being phased out,’ he says. Failure to find instant advice to a crash could be business-threatening. New machines are likely to have Windows XP or the slightly older Windows 2000 ready installed, which far more stable. They are also more atuned to networks and the internet.
Neither of these technology could be accused of seeking juicy commissions, as they don’t sell or install hardware. But every day they see clients struggling to run the kind of programs they recommend. Yet tumbling prices mean the average office could be re-kitted at a small fraction of the cost just a few years ago. And anything bought today would be more than powerful enough to handle the heftiest database or graphics package.
It is also pointless keeping other peripherals just because they still trundle along. On price alone it can be more cost effective to buy a new printer than change the empty cartridges, says Waller. The new one will also produce far better brochures – which could more than pay for itself in helping to turn around just one deal.
In fact, it is worth doing an annual audit to list not just the age of your hardware but to consider new gizmos that may have appeared fanciful a couple of years ago but are becoming essential. So what should every office have?
Computers: almost any model is normally adequate for today’s demands but check for extras like on-site warranties. USB ports are becoming essential, as many peripherals such as printers now can only be connected this way. Flat screens cost little more than conventional monitors but save energy, take less space and look cool.
Networks: if there are more than a handful of staff, they should be networked, particularly when spread across several rooms, so information can be transferred easily. This may require a special machine called a server and a lacework of specialist wiring. But keep an eye out for wireless systems now coming onto the market.
Online: a 56k dial-up modem is already becoming obsolete. ISDN offers much faster connections but ADSL, or broadband, is becoming commonplace. You get the speed you pay for, with USB links at the bottom of the range and the fastest services via a router/hub plugged via a card into the main computer and distributed around the network. This can raise huge security problems, however. While ‘firewall’ programs are available to keep out intruders, even the smallest firm should invest in a hardware version, which a separate machine that acts as a barrier to the whole network. Sometimes these integrated into an ADSL router.
Printers: colour lasers should be standard for an industry which relies so much on pictures and graphics.
Scanner, copier, fax: these can be combined in one machine to save space and expense. They can also be integrated with inkjet printers, but if the machine breaks down, all the functions are lost. Two such combos are probably best.
Digital camera: still remarkably rare, yet these enormously increase efficiency. Premises can be snapped, fed into a PC, manipulated and printed [or emailed] for a brochure or web page within hours.
CD Writer: floppy disks can no longer handle the volume of information being switched between clients and intermediaries. Increasing use of video clips for walkabouts and site visits could justify going one step higher with a DVD writer, which have recently much cheaper.
Document shredder: another rarity, but perhaps soon to be an essential. Police are sending warnings across the country about international gangs scouring waste bins for information such as account numbers and headed notepaper. They then contact banks and order transfer of funds to offshore accounts before anyone notices.
Back-up: losing data can be critical. Systems should be backed up to the web, a separate computer or to tape/CD – another reason for investing in a CD writer.
Power: few can afford generators but a universal power supply [UPS] provides enough battery power to ensure computers can be shut down without corrupting information or backed up if a New York-style cut hits the office. They also block power surges which can corrupt data.
Mobiles: notebook or palm top computers and even mobile phones with cameras and e-mail capability keep staff in touch with the office. USB ‘keys’ are an easy way to carry around information, as these can be plugged into clients’ computers and act as hard disks.
Who looks after all this technology? Small firms cannot afford an IT manager so Noble recommends finding a friend to ring when glitches arise. But that could prove a short friendship. There are plenty of independent trouble shooters desperate for work since the dotcom crash. Like any other craftsman, choose one by personal recommendation.
Agents like September. A thousand chairmen bounce back into the office sparking with ideas about moving the business along. House buyers feel the same urge for change, looking for a new home by Christmas. But this year the great return could bring despair, as repercussions spread from a sickness that raged through the world’s computers while half their owners were away.
Viruses that crippled online systems and hogged headlines will disappear like summer colds through some clever electronic medication. But confidence in the internet as a means of conducting business will slump and bonds of trust could also suffer. One insidious affect of the disease can make it appear that a respectable advisor is, at best, trying to infect clients’ systems or, at worst, forging addresses to make their clients appear to be the villain.
‘It took years to convince people they could go online without fear of viruses and hacking,’ says one IT specialist. ‘Now we are back to square one.’Yet none of this should happen to even the smallest, least technical user. Electronic barriers to infection are there: they just need to be locked.
Every building has them. So should every computer. Each time a computer connects to the internet it is visible to every other computer in the world unless precautions are taken. The problem has escalated with the advent of broadband, which leaves systems permanently online, increasing the odds that they will be noticed.
Software versions like Norton Internet Security provide some protection to intrusion but businesses should aim for a hardware firewall. This is a separate box through which all computers in the office should be linked. No desktop should be allowed independent access to the internet.
This blocks intrusive programs with weird names like worms and trojans. The former can steal or damage information on hard disks and worm their way outwards to infect other computers whose located from the user’s address book or web bookmarks. To show how virulent they are, the Slammer worm hit almost all vulnerable machines on the internet within 15 minutes of its first appearance.
Trojans insert an almost invisible file which, like the legendary horse, opens up to unlock any system from the inside. An outsider can at any time access confidential information or anonymously use the system as a ‘post office’ for spam or pornography.
Get in a specialist to build this wall, as it will need careful construction and make sure it will be automatically updated. Many of the problems hitting the internet during the summer came from failure to keep these barriers up to date with the constant stream of new programs.
A good firewall will also contain software which blocks viruses. But not all, and some allow through infected email. Every desktop should be running programs such as those from Symantec [Norton], Sophos or McAfee. But again it pays to network every computer and channel all mail and file transfers through a dedicated machine called a server, which runs these programs centrally. The added advantage comes when notebooks and other mobiles are plugged into the system as these, too, will be filtered through the server.
It is critical to ensure these barriers are updated. Symantec says its customers get attacked, on average, 35 times per week and 10 to 15 new viruses are discovered every day. The programs must be set to auto-update over the internet or gaps will quickly appear.
It is worth budgeting for periodic inspections by an expert rather than relying on the office geek. You don’t service your company cars, so why try DIY on even more vital business equipment? Many firms are now delegating the task completely by routing all their email through specialists such as Message Labs or Star Systems. Some internet service providers have also stepped in. Within a day of the infamous Sobig virus appearing, AOL said it had stopped 11.5 million copies.
It is not worth providing electronic barriers if they are constantly breached by insiders. The biggest threat to businesses does not come from geeks and hackers beavering away in some attic but from what computer experts refer to snottily as ‘wetware’ – the people sitting in front of every screen.
The most devastating exposure by the latest attacks is the sheer laziness of even the experts. Two of the main viruses would have been repulsed if users had merely installed ‘patches’ to the Microsoft programs running on their machines. ‘You're fighting human nature. People are lazy about locking the door. Any burglar will tell you that,’ says Greg Lawton, who runs his own consultancy, Penacasata IT & Communications Resources.
. Small firms should not feel inadequate, as some of the biggest names in the business failed to do this. One way of keeping security holes blocked is to have a policy that always enables critical update warnings in programs like Windows 98, XP and 2000. Anti-virus programs can be scheduled to update behind the scenes and scans performed automatically overnight.
But users must also be forced on pain of dismissal to employ sheer common sense. Personal email is dangerous. It can export security breaches when a user mistakenly presses the wrong button and sends to every client in the firm’s mailing list, destroying a reputation built over years.
It can import big problems. Virus writers play on the weakness of people to click on attachments with titles like ‘I Love You’ and ‘Great Screensaver’. Opening any attachment from an unknown address is potentially dangerous and one leading surveyor admits to deleting unread anything from a strange address.
But no-one can do business that way any more. In any case, viruses now forge addresses that will often be trusted. So the rule must be to scan every email but also be suspicious of certain danger files. Anything with an EXE, PIF or SCR tag is high on the list. But some graphics and video files – and even web pages - now have embedded viruses. Even DOC files can infected, so try checking with a text editor like Notepad or track down the Wordview program that was distributed with earlier versions such as Windows 98. Or get a Mac. They are not immune, but hardly any viruses are aimed at Apple users.
This is more a nuisance than a security problem but takes up valuable online space and working time. Look around for spam blocking programs on the internet. These teach themselves to differentiate between legitimate mail and spam, which can then be rejected or filtered into a safe area for daily checking before it is wiped.
Property software is a bit like a company car. You start off using your own wheels but quickly find the family runabout or bachelor speedster is not best suited for work, particularly if you have to share with colleagues and clients. Nor can you rely on DIY servicing when breakdowns could be a dealbreaker.
So you head for a dealer. Some look enticingly flashy. Some seem to do everything but make the tea and clean the office. Others are unashamedly cheap. Your head spins. Many fall back on the family runabout. ‘You wouldn’t believe how many firms still rely on cobbled together Excel spreadsheets and Outlook databases,’ says one IT consultant. ‘Then there are others I visit which have three or four specialist property programs sitting on the shelves they have tried and discarded.’
It’s not entirely their fault. Big firms have IT departments to road-test programs or even write their own. The rest struggle by, as the property industry is too small to merit a large pool of independent consultants. So what is the safest path through this minefield? ‘The first thing is to step back and decide what sort of business you are running,’ says Andrew Waller of REMIT Consulting. ‘Match the software to your work rather than vice versa. ’
In company car terms, don’t buy a tractor when you really need a little runabout. And don’t be tempted by a Ferrari which will sit outside the office all day depreciating away the profits. It seems simple enough but, again, a surprising number don’t even choose the right family of software.
There are four broad skill areas: development appraisal, investment appraisal, property management and data management. ‘Each one has its well known names,’ says Keith Noble of BoE Systems. ‘You just have to look at what each offers and see if it is best for you.’
Some will patently unsuitable because they are aimed at large groups, and the cost outweighs the benefits. Others are specified for particular types of user. ‘You have to decide what you want and ask the salesman to show how it meets your needs,’ says Jason Allaway, marketing director for Raindrop, one of the top names in the business.
‘For instance, if you are an investor, you will want to create valuation reports but as a corporate occupier you have different priorities such as use of space. But be open minded and ready to learn. Most people now have some kind of software, even if they are only using something like Access as a database. The danger is thinking that is the only way to do something.’
And be sure of backup, he adds. ‘Some will say training is not required. Don’t believe them. Training is the one thing you should never skimp. See if it is included in the price.’
Concentrating on specific areas is not the end of the story, however. Waller points out that the future lies in sharing knowledge between different families of software. These go outside the dominant property management field into integration of areas like procurement, client relationship management and accounting.
Bob Thompson, the former King Sturge research director who now runs IT consultancy RETRI, offers a basic guide through this maze:
- Investing in technology generally is expensive. Not necessarily in terms of the hardware or software, but in terms of time. If you are a valuer, spend your time valuing things rather than messing about with systems and software.
- It is unlikely that you will be best qualified to decide which system or software is best for your company. Nor is your 19 year old nephew, despite the fact that he is ‘great with computers’. Get specialist advice.
- This advice should be independent. Many software providers will offer ‘consultancy’ to help you with the decision. Bear in mind that there is a potential conflict between their objectivity and their bonus for making a sale.
- Investing in technology has to be cost effective. Before you pick up the phone make sure that you are clear what your objectives are in purchasing a package, which areas of your business that you expect it to address and what you expect it to do at a detailed level. Set this out as a list - you will need it later. Make sure you have volume and expected growth figures available for all the key aspects of your business - how many properties you manage, how many tenants, how many transactions etc.
- Set your objectives, list of expectations and volumes in a document that you can give to each potential supplier.
- Pick your potential suppliers – a maximum of three. Talk to your peers, staff and competitors about their experiences of the various potential suppliers and revise accordingly.
- Involve the staff that will actually be using the package in the selection process. If they are committed the implementation process will go much more smoothly. Make sure they see the demonstration and get them to score each package against your list.
- Make sure that the package demonstrated to you is the current version, implemented in your industry in your size of firm. Don't buy the ‘this will be fixed in the next version’ line. If you can't see it working either don't buy it or wait until that new version is demonstrable.
- Take reference sites from each supplier and follow them up. These should be businesses like yours. Listen to what the referees say, they have had experience of implementing this software and experience of the suppliers support in action.
- Make sure that the price includes everything: data, support, training, maintenance et al. Generally salesmen are far better able to negotiate on these ‘soft’ areas than they are on price. Push them to get as much aftercare as you can - you will need it.
- Make sure that your document setting out the objectives etc. is included as part of the agreement and referred to in the contract.
- Plan the implementation rigorously. Do not choose the busiest time of year to make the change. Run the existing system in parallel with the new one for at least a complete cycle. Once it is operating smoothly, switch over completely and don't look back.
- After the system has been running for a decent period. Go back to your list of objectives and compare how the system is working compared to your expectations.
Overloaded? Confused? Out of touch? That’s a common ailment as the tide of technology rises around people who often have difficulty finding the on switch of a computer, let alone navigate a maze of programs for just about every task.. But as granny used to say, it’s nothing a kiss and cuddle can’t cure.
Don’t anticipate any sexy shenanigans when the IT guru calls, however. KISS is the acronym for ‘keep it simple stupid’, a key element in good management according to business experts and the secret behind successful adoption of technology.
Most agents are happy to get by with a pencil and paper, according to Stuart David, who sold property around Peterborough for more than a decade. The breakthrough comes when IT offers something extra without demanding too much technical knowledge. Take the simple task of producing property descriptions and floor layouts. You visit the site, take copious notes, take them back to the office, struggle with a CAD system to produce accurate plans, get a secretary familiar with your scrawl to type up a description, make corrections and it’s finally off to the printer.
Then David came across a gizmo which enabled agents to tap symbols onto a pocket PC screen to produce plans or reports. He liked it so much he gave up selling property and joined Prototec, to spread the word about Mobile Agent. This simplicity, requiring no technology skills, is the reason why more than 1500 copies have been sold in two years, he says.
Technology will not succeed just because it is simple to operate, however. Software is now being judged on how well it cuddles up to other systems – and to clients. Mobile Agent is designed so information can be seamlessly imported into a program like word or a database system. A wireless palmtop means information on one property can be emailed back to the office for creation of a brochure while the surveyor/valuer continues inspecting other sites.
This can save enormous amounts of time and money. One user has not adopted the software which creates floor plans but relies on creating text reports for property descriptions. But this alone has enable the firm to cut two-thirds of its secretarial staff by eliminating extra typing.
Many of the big operators realised long ago that this kind of integration is the next critical step in the development of property technology. For instance, Jones Lang LaSalle slashed costs by half when it adopted a system called CMX which captures sales information and automatically generate brochures, feeds into mailing lists and generates web pages.
Multi-tasking is the true value of technology, says Chris Powell, chief executive of surveyors Churston Heard. ‘We all face information overload and there are too many programs jostling for attention,’ he says. The solution is to integrate. His firm has developed a platform based on BoE’s database system which combines information so that calling up a property produces contact names, its history and even local market background.
‘Agents can no longer rely on just having information. The future depends on how they combine data and use it,’ he says.
The system also auto-updates Churston’s web page. Again, simplicity and integration prove critical, as this tackles a widespread weakness among smaller firms that lack the skills to manage online information.
They can also fall behind in the interaction taking place between different firms. Powell is a driving force behind Propex, the online information exchange, which survived a difficult birth and has just been relaunched as Propex Pro to include extras such as news and share prices. He sees it becoming ‘the Reuters of the property world’ and a necessity for anyone aiming to compete in this market.
Technology is no longer a case of buying individual programs for specialist areas, says Andrew Waller of Remit Consulting. It is important to find out which parts of the business use similar data, as sharing information between these specialities will bring the biggest rewards. He points to Threadneedle Property Investments, which has integrated its document management software with the property management system, cutting out some of the most time-consuming processes. Data is collected much faster and the firm estimates it will save as much as £200,000 a year in photocopying alone.
Gleeds saved £58,000 in a typical £5m retail construction project by cutting out printing, copying and postage. But the intangible savings levered up to £300,000 by saving on delays, mistakes, meetings and duplication of effort.
These are big names making big investments in new techniques. Powell admits it can be expensive: ‘It took us a long time to key in all our information,’ he says. But Waller points out that smaller firms can learn from the experience of leading operators.
Cushman & Wakefield Healey & Baker is rolling out the Yardi property management system , enabling clients to check portfolios via web pages right across the world. Simplicity was again important, as it requires no special skills from users. Implementation cost £500,000 in the UK alone, which might frighten smaller firms but this was mainly inputting costs. It also set a benchmark other clients will come to expect.
Yardi - and other publishers – produce cheaper, cut-down versions aimed lower down the market. Other kinds of much simpler integration is also available at minimal costs. Every property listed on a web page or brochure, for instance, should be attached to a location. Multimap provides a free basic online service but leading agents are finding extra value in add-on facilities. Hamptons has implemented a click-through from Multimap which also provides information on transport links and schools while FPDSavills had added a zoom-in function..
Potential buyers will soon consider these services as essential. Multimap business development director James Bamford says search engines will also help draw in business, although these should be carefully chosen to match buyers’ behaviour, going beyond post code selection to offering features such as local market reports and walkarounds of properties.
They all add to one critical factor which is often lost among the technicalities. The great advantage of the internet is not just ease of sharing information between firms and with clients. Size loses significance in cyberspace. A small firm can outshine even the giants and develop a big reputation by offering a comprehensive, easy-to-use service which draws on information already sitting in filing cabinets or on other systems.
Stuart David points out that it was not just the efficiency of Mobile Agent that convinced him to give up pencil and paper. ‘Clients were really impressed when I stood there tapping information into a pocket computer,’ he says.