Choosing a new phone system is an important decision for real estate agencies. In addition to saving money, the right choice can have a dramatic effect on the overall success of the agency.
In this article we will highlight our top 5 phone system features that realtors should be looking for when researching a new phone service.
Phone System Options
Before we dive in to the top features, first a quick note on your options for phone service.
- Traditional Landlines : These are analog phone lines wired to your business and wired internally to multiple phones. The advantage is that they are powered by your local phone provider and therefore work even during a power outage. However, they are very expensive and features tend to be minimal, typically limited to caller ID only.
- On-premise PBX : A Private Branch eXchange (PBX) can be analog or digital in nature and is located inside your office. The analog ones tend to be large pieces of equipment and very old. An IP PBX is essentially a PC these days but requires a significant amount of knowledge to install and maintain.
- Hosted PBX : Hosted PBX service is basically a computer server that resides at a data center in the cloud and it has software running on it that handles all of your extensions and routes your phone calls. A service provider maintains this equipment for you. All that is needed at your office are IP Phones and an Internet connection, which communicates with the PBX. To make changes, simply log into your secure portal on the Internet and change settings accordingly. This is our recommendation if you are looking for a powerful system that is low cost, feature rich and simple to update.
Top 5 Features
Here are the top five features that realtors should look for in a new phone service, along with examples on how they can help the overall success of your agency. It should also be noted that only on-premise and hosted PBX services will support the features described below. Before choosing a new service, ask the provider if these features are supported.
1. Informational Extensions
Informational extensions provide a way for your customers to learn more about properties listed at your agency. This works best if you state the extension for a property on its respective literature and signs (e.g. Call 425-111-2222, Property Listing 12). For this to work effectively you will also need an auto attendant. This is usually a standard feature for phone systems these days. When a customer calls your main number, which is usually a local phone number, the auto attendant will play a recorded message to them, such as press 1 to speak to an agent, press 2 for directions to our office, press 3 for property listing extensions etc.
When the number 3 is pressed, the auto attendant will jump to the next tier and ask you to enter the informational extension for the property of interest. This is the one that is displayed on all literature for the property in question. Once this number is entered, a recording will be played to the caller, providing details about the property. At the end of the message it could say to stay on the line to leave a voicemail for the agent. To take this one step further, when a voicemail is left, it could be sent as an audio attachment via email to the real estate agent responsible for that listing. Some hosted services can even be configured to send an SMS text message to the agent.
In terms of setting this system up, it really is not as difficult as it sounds. You can use your phone to record all of the messages, assign numbers to them and route to voicemail extensions for each agent. Simply turn on voicemail to email and enter the email address for each agent.
2. Virtual Numbers and Toll Free
Typically, realtors will use phone numbers that are local to their service areas and when called, will go through an auto attendant or direct to the agent if it is a small office.
However, it can be very helpful to order additional virtual phone numbers. These are numbers that are used for incoming calls and are tied to your existing phone service. They typically cost less than $5 per month and can be a great feature for tracking marketing campaigns. For example, let's say you have five different sources for advertising, which could be online and print. If you list different virtual phone numbers for each advertising source you can monitor success over time for each campaign. Nearly all modern phone systems have Call Detail Records (CDRs) where you can see the source and destination phone numbers so tracking these to sales and marketing campaigns can be great for determining Return on Investment (ROI).
For large nationwide real estate agencies, there may be interest in obtaining a toll free number (e.g. 1-800, 1-888 etc) so customers can call your main line for free. These are typically sold as part of a package deal where you can choose your toll-free number and a certain number of minutes per month. Overages are charged per minute beyond this.
Realtors spend a lot of time in the car, holding open houses, showing clients multiple homes that meet their needs and catching up on work at home or in the office. For this reason, a mobile based phone service is essential. You don't want to lose that sale just because a buyer is having difficulty contacting you.
One option is just to use a cell phone for all communication. The problem here is that you are missing out on all of the other good features described in this article.
There is a solution to this. Choose a phone service that also offers an app for your cell phone. This is effectively an extension to your business phone service and offers a seamless phone service between the road and the office. You can receive calls at your office on your desk phone or on the road using your cell phone app. The other advantage is that you can make outbound calls from the app and the Caller ID will be your business number, not your personal cell phone number. This keeps your personal and business life separate.
Most apps are free of charge when you sign up for a hosted phone service.
It is also worth pointing out here that smaller agencies may have an interest in a find me follow me type service. This is a very simple and inexpensive system that gives callers the perception of a larger business but allows you to use any phone to answer the call. Basically this system has a toll free number or a local number, an auto attendant and a forwarding function to any phone number of your choosing (e.g. a cell phone). An example call flow is highlighted below.
4. Ring Groups
For larger offices that have multiple agents, it may be useful to share the work load when it comes to incoming calls. A ring group enables you to set up multiple extensions such that they share calls that come in on the main line. They can be set to ring simultaneously, sequentially, randomly or as a rollover. The call volume can be distributed evenly or in a priority order and can skip extensions that have current active calls.
Going back to the auto attendant described earlier. If option 1 is to speak to an agent, this could actually go to a ring group and the ring group will handle the distribution of that call. Taking this one step further, an extension within this group could also be configured to "follow me" so that it rings an agent's desk phone and also their cell phone at the same time and whichever picks up first, gets the call.
Most phone systems have ring group functionality and usually it is free with a phone plan. Setting it up is simple and just a matter of choosing the type of ring group (e.g. sequential, rollover etc) and entering the extension numbers that are part of the group.
5. Internet Fax
Let's be honest, fax is a pain. It is slow, it always needs topped up with toner or ink, and requires service and maintenance. Online fax is what a lot of companies are moving to these days, which uses the Internet to send and receive your faxes. If you go down this path, you can throw away your fax machine.
Here's how it works. For fax reception all you need is an email address. An incoming fax to your fax number is routed to your PBX which will convert the fax to PDF and email it to you. For fax transmission, simply upload the file to your PBX portal, enter the fax number and it will be sent over the Internet. Your service provider will convert it to the correct format and route it to the fax number requested. If you need to sign documents before faxing, you will need to print it, sign it, scan to PDF and then upload and fax using the portal. Some providers also offer the ability to send faxes direct from your email.
Many phone providers will include Internet fax for free. Alternatively you can pay for a dedicated service starting at around $10 per month. There are many providers to choose from.
Hopefully you now have an appreciation of the types of phone systems that are available and some of the features that can help grow your real estate business. It may sound daunting to set up these features but it is actually very simple and most phone companies will help you with the initial setup. If you give it a try, you will most likely wish you had moved to this years ago. You will save a fortune on your phone bills, deliver a better experience to your customers and become more efficient with your time.
If you have any comments or questions, use the form below and we will get back to you promptly.