FOR property agency OrangeTee & Tie, "going digital" is not just some recent initiative. Instead, that has been its modus operandi since day one.
When the firm was established in 2000 as OrangeTee, it was an online property and valuation portal first, with a few property agents. Only later that year did it become a full-fledged agency.
As such, the firm had a technology department - and a focus on technology - right from the start, says managing director Steven Tan.
"Even after the dotcom bubble burst, we wanted to continue with the internet," he said.
One early move was the introduction of an online Work@Home portal for agents, shortly after the turn of the millennium.
Still in use today, the portal includes information about projects and searchable property market data.
One important feature is "My OT Account", launched in 2004, which gives agents an overview of their performance and transactions.
Related story: Agents of change at OrangeTee & Tie
The portal is particularly helpful for team leaders who oversee other agents, says Mr Tan. "In the past, leaders had to keep track of agents' transactions (manually)" - in an Excel file, for instance. With the portal, a team leader has easy access to team members' transactions without the need to manually keep records.
After its early digital start, the firm has continued to evolve and grow. In 2013 and 2014, it was among the winners of the Enterprise 50 awards.
Organised by The Business Times and KPMG, the annual awards honour Singapore's 50 most enterprising privately-held local companies.
OrangeTee & Tie - formed in 2017 as a joint venture between OrangeTee's agency division and Edmund Tie & Co Property Network - is now Singapore's third largest property agency.
New players, new challengers
"In early 2015, we actually saw a change in the world," says Mr Tan. Previously, the industry's focus was on productivity, he notes. "But that's not enough with disruption."
"The challenge is no longer just to improve your product to compete with competitors."
OrangeTee & Tie's traditional competitors are other property agencies. But recent years have seen new players entering the scene: from property technology or "proptech" firms, to portals that offer the do-it-yourself approach, or flat transaction fees for individual buyers and sellers.
"That's when we started to think: how can we transform our business?" says Mr Tan.
Aware that this would not be a one-off effort, OrangeTee & Tie formed a transformation taskforce that remains active today, comprising staff from different departments and age groups.
The taskforce has since introduced new initiatives and refreshed old ones.
One overhaul was to OrangeTee & Tie's mobile app for agents, introduced in 2010 and now into its second version.
In August, the firm plans to launch the third version of the app. Some features will be radically upgraded. These include the "project information" feature, which has details of properties that are being marketed.
The new version offers greater interactivity. For example, selecting a specific floor plan calls up a list of all the blocks and floors in that project with such units.
If a specific unit is selected, its location is instantly indicated on a map of the entire project.
The app also makes it easy to share such information with clients via platforms such as WhatsApp.
In addition, the app will boast an upgraded financial calculator, used by agents to help clients work out their financial options.
The current version was developed in-house, whereas the new version was created in partnership with a bank.
Agents will also find it more convenient to post listings.
The current app only allows them to post to OrangeTee & Tie's own portal, but soon they will be able to post on a range of listing portals from within the app, thanks to tie-ups with these third-party websites.
Brand new features include an online valuation service - also developed in partnership with a bank - and a library of electronic direct mailers, giving instant access to these notices which agents can post on social media or send out to clients.
This follows the launch of a personalised electronic direct mailer tool earlier this year, which makes it easy to create such marketing materials. Agents no longer need to use graphics editing software to insert their own photograph and contact details into a template.
After its launch in August, the revamped app will continue to be updated, with plans to add new features such as research resources and data analytics later this year.
The next big thing
OrangeTee & Tie aims to stay sensitive to the latest trends. In 2016, for instance, it introduced a rating platform that lets clients rate and comment on agents' service quality.
This was inspired by the growing importance of customer reviews on hotel and accommodation portals, says Mr Tan. "People rely on reviews to make decisions."
The idea was thus to build trust with customers via technology: "They must trust the agent before they can engage (him or her)," says Mr Tan.
"We want to make sure that customers can make informed decisions."
The ratings system also motivates agents to provide better service, he adds.
Not all innovations have to be developed in-house. Earlier this year, OrangeTee & Tie piloted the use of a chatbot in marketing a new condominium called The Tapestry, making use of Facebook Messenger's chatbot option.
Traditionally, interested buyers would go to a project's website to search for information.
In the case of The Tapestry, they could instead ask the chatbot questions - from "May I have the floor plan please?" to "Can I make an appointment to view the showroom?" - and receive immediate answers.
Once contacted, the chatbot would provide an agent's contact details, and maintain engagement with the customer over time by giving updates about the project.
Partnerships and collaborations are other ways in which OrangeTee & Tie moves forward.
In March this year, the agency worked with a bank to introduce e-invoices and e-payments. Take-up was swift, with about 80 per cent of payments - including agents' commissions - now made online.
That same month, OrangeTee & Tie also announced a collaboration with online marketplace Carousell.
Since May, verified reviews of agents from OrangeTee & Tie's site have been integrated into Carousell's existing user feedback system. Users who browse Carousell's property listings can thus see how the agents behind the listings are rated.
In some ways, OrangeTee & Tie is moving faster than the industry can handle. Next year, it will introduce a paperless "document management system" for transactions.
This will allow all paperwork to be handled digitally, with no need for hard copies.
But there is one major stumbling block: Singapore's regulations do not yet recognise e-signatures.
At the final stage, the customer will still have to sign a physical document, which the agent will then scan and upload into the digital system.
Changing from within
The real estate industry's biggest challenge is in keeping up with customers themselves, says Mr Tan. "The expectations of customers are getting higher," he observes.
With customers now having access to a wealth of information, it is tougher for agents to add value, he says.
That is why OrangeTee & Tie is embarking on a data analytics push, building a "data warehouse" and gaining in-house capabilities.
The hope is that by using data analytics, agents will be able to provide better insights for customers, going beyond existing transaction data to look at patterns in en bloc sales or trends in how the property market is related to the stock market.
Data analytics can also be used to help OrangeTee & Tie's developer clients make decisions about future launches, by looking for patterns in aspects such as demographics and take-up rates for different unit types.
Internally, the firm could even analyse financial or human resources data to aid decision-making and assess the effectiveness of initiatives.
Earlier this year, the firm began a six-month tie-up with Ngee Ann Polytechnic to learn about data visualisation.
And instead of hiring data scientists, it is training selected staff who have an existing background in real estate or business.
"They know the industry better. That's very important," says Mr Tan.
Developing data capabilities in-house, instead of simply hiring from outside the real estate industry, is part of OrangeTee & Tie's overall approach to transformation: led from the top, but involving those on the frontlines as well.
After all, property agents are free to choose their agencies.
There are practical benefits to joining an agency that has initiatives such as its own app.
"Agents are happy because they don't have to pay (for third-party apps)," notes Mr Tan.
But on another level, this self-selection means that OrangeTee & Tie's transformation efforts are complemented by agents who are keen to keep up, and who may even have chosen the agency for its forward-looking nature.
Or as Mr Tan puts it: "Those people who come to OrangeTee, they are ready to learn new things."
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