Ben Smith has been in executive roles in the new home development business for almost 20 years and now as president of Avesdo he’s helping the real estate industry evolve from its paper-based origins to its digital future. Livabl caught up with him to about what the future holds for an industry that has been traditionally slow to change but is on the verge of a massive technological shift.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you.
I have been in executive roles in the new home development business for the last 17 years. I started on the creative services side, moved client side working for a large developer, then went to the project marketing side before starting my own consulting firm 5 years ago, which I recently sold to Avesdo and took over as their president in April of this year.
Please tell us something that a lot of people may not know about you.
I’m actually really into designing and living in small spaces which likely started from my passion for VW Vans.
Tell us about your journey into the home builder industry. What’s been your path?
I started in consumer packaged goods and retail in Ontario, Canada – worked with big brands like Wal-Mart, P&G etc and then moved to Vancouver in 2001. Vancouver’s economy is pretty much driven by tourism, natural resources and real estate – so very quickly I found myself working in the space, at first as a creative supplier working for an ad agency and then went developer side which is where I really got my MBA in real estate development.
I was VP marketing for a developer for seven years and that’s when I started digging into digital marketing – this was in the mid 2000s when social was taking off and marketers were trying to understand it… Real estate has always been slow to adopt these things so I was able to build a career and my name around being the guy who knew how this new digital world worked and how to apply it in a meaningful way to real estate.
It’s so common place now, but crazy to think that in 2006 we were still spending tens of thousands on print ads to drive people to a PC to fill out a piece of paper we called a registration card, which would get stapled to a cue card that the sales team would use to manage their leads. We’ve come a long way in 15 years.
Please tell us about Avesdo and the services that you provide.
Avesdo is a real estate services company powered by technology. Our core product is our Transaction Management Software that manages the new home sales process from lead capture to closing and is built around our core contracting system which is where we started. We also now offer advisory services from a team of advisors who collectively have over 100 years of experience in the new home sales and marketing space, and a new product we have called Realtor Connect which leverages the realtor data from the tens of thousands of transactions in our system, to connect developers and project sales teams with the right realtor for the inventory they have available.
How are you seeing the home buyer customer experience evolve especially from a digital standpoint?
As mentioned, the industry is slow to adopt change in process and technology, but COVID forced 5 years of change overnight.
I like to split it into two ideas – digital marketing and digital sales. Digital marketing has been an ongoing shift for the last 15 years and we’ve seen huge adoption and change with many suppliers in the space offering everything from advanced SEM tactics to VR tools.
We’ve seen rampant adoption of these tools in COVID but the big shift has been in the shift towards digital sales and the digitizing of the transaction. The start of this was the adoption of things like docusign and digital signing tools and we have moved into fully dynamic contracting and inventory management systems that are able to share actual pieces of inventory, take payment, manage dynamic contracts, and capture all of this data for use in other features.
It’s the shift towards e-commerce which every other industry has already adopted.
What type of feedback do you see from buyers on using online transaction tools? Do the buyers want this type of process?
We have done tens of thousands of contracts digitally and now hundreds of fully virtual credit card driven transactions and I can tell you the sticking point is not the buyer. The buyer is so conditioned by everything else they do – from zoom doctors’ appointments to buying cars and groceries – that they expect a process that is the fastest, easiest and creates the least amount of friction, so they have not been the hold up – the hold up is everyone else in the chain. It’s the developers to adopt it, sales teams to use it, marketing teams to leverage it, realtors to support it, lawyers to sign off on it.
It’s change management from a professional level mostly. Years and years of doing something one way and it working creates enormous amount of fear around trying something different.
Emailing a buyer a home by entering their email and clicking send and having that buyer enter their name and credit card details and hitting submit is 1,000 times easier and faster than making an appointment for a buyer to come in, having them go to the bank to get a bank draft, having them complete a paper or digital contract, then having them come back to confirm everything, then having an admin file it, copy it, and send everything to the lawyers, and then creating the necessary reports.
All of that is a complicated system and requires many people and attention to details so you can’t imagine that you could replace that with a couple clicks. So your brain doesn’t comprehend it until you’ve done it, and because it seems “too easy” it creates fear and doubt. Multiply that by each professional in the chain and you can see why things take time to change. But once they do and they experience it, they will never go back, because why would you?
How do new home sales professionals need to evolve with the move to more digital interactions with buyers?
Great question – the reason we started an advisory business is because we realized that we couldn’t just sell developers and their sales partners software, we needed to teach them how to use it in their sales process. We need to understand their goals and then help them design a strategy that could be supported by the technology and the data. This is the gap. We need to adapt our strategies first, which leads to adaptation of budgets and tactics, which is then fulfilled or driven by technology and data.
What are some tips for sales team leaders to help motivate their teams to embrace new technologies and processes?
Number one: do not be afraid. I promise you it will be easier, create more certainty and fewer mistakes for you and allow you to be more effective spending time on generating more leads and building more relationships.
What would you say to a new home sales professional who is worried that technology might replace them?
If your value is locked up in a process that a computer can duplicate, then it’s just a matter of time. A computer cannot replace nuance and can not replace relationships. There is a reason realtors plaster their faces on buses and signs – because they know they get paid to do what they do because of the relationships they have and because they can combine that with context for decision making.
This is true of all areas within new home sales and marketing. If you are in a support role then you better get good at supporting using technology – know how to manage it, leverage it, set it up to create value and you’re safe.
If you are in a strategic role – know how to use the technology and data to create more effective strategies that create results that have a multiple to those that try to compete without it. Don’t try to fight it – the closest example for us is digital marketing which I talked about. Marketing managers didn’t get replaced when print was replaced with digital, but that marketing manager needs to have a different skill set today.
Those that can book print ads, know about CPM’s and creating mail walks, and sketching up ad layouts are not that valuable vs. the person who can manage a google analytics account, manage a social community and know how to produce great content.
How do you envision the future of home buying evolving online?
I believe we will fully buy homes online just like we do everything else. It’s just starting and it will grow. Some may continue to do so through a physical office or presentation centre and some fully virtually but the inventory will all be driven from an inventory management system or POS. As more transactions are done digitally, the data pool will grow and we’ll see more AI driven solutions – on demand pricing recommendations as an example.
If we look at every other e-commerce ecosystem, we will see new marketplaces develop soon too. Longer term I expect we’ll see digital currency enter the picture and digital compliance and mandatory synchronization with government systems to track source of funds, assignments etc.
For the buyer, I imagine a day when they can view a 3D model of the home online, buy it with a digital payment source and make all deposits online, be notified of their closing online, click a few buttons to secure the mortgage, click a few more buttons to facilitate the closing process, be sent an email with a move-in date and a code to their new smart lock to move in, and follow a link to do a complete walk through of their home registering any deficiencies with a few clicks of their camera (and almost all of these technologies are available today).
When you look ahead to the next couple of years, what key trends are you watching and anticipating that you feel builders should be preparing for now?
The nice thing about being behind is that you just have to watch every other industry to know what’s coming. Specific to new homes, the big drivers of change will be costs, price escalation, labour shortage, and government compliance. Technology that contributes to tightened margin control, that reduces labour requirements (likely lots related to admin) and that manages rigorous compliance will be essential.
What are some sources that you recommend builders look to for new ideas to learn and help keep current with new opportunities?
Start with the youth in your companies and empower them, the latest technologies and ideas are ingrained in them. Look at retail trends. Selling homes is a retail business so I’m always interested in how stores are marketing their products and selling their goods. And for inspiration look to China. They have massive, massive scale to test new ideas and are technologically very advanced.
What is one piece of advice that you’d like to leave with us today?
Don’t be afraid, be prepared. Technology is inevitable. In the span of my short career so far I’ve seen the complete change over from an analog to digital world. The end of newspapers, cassettes and CDs to name some obvious ones. By the time I’m done many more things will be developed making many more things obsolete. It’s going to happen. So think about where things are headed and put yourself in the path of progress.
If someone wants to connect with you, what is the best way for them to contact you?
You can find me on LinkedIn. Send me a message with your invite so I know you’re not just trying to spam me.