A recent article by Ernie Smith in Association Now describes a rather unusual benefit that Florida Realtors®, the state’s primary association for realtors, is providing for realtors: on-demand tech support for all their devices, created “by realtors for realtors” and designed to eliminate the technology problems that ultimately cut into the agents’ bottom line.
Somewhere along the line, Florida Realtors® must have decided to dig deeply into members’ real problems—not from the distance of second-hand information such as surveys and market analysis or through the skewed and generic answers to questionnaires or focus groups—but through direct observation and immersion in these members’ daily lives.
Sure, these members appreciate conventional association benefits, such as "education," “networking” and advocacy, and do not hesitate to say so when asked in surveys. But unless “benefits” connect directly to what “keeps them up at night” and contribute to their ability to close a sale, they remain nice-to have abstractions rather than indispensable tools. So what obstacles slowed these realtors down and complicated their lives on a daily basis?
Realtors today have to broker multiple and increasingly complex relationships simultaneously, mostly in real time, within pressing timelines and while on the go. They depend on technology to do things like track multiple listings; instantaneously access market or client data, banking, legal, regulatory and other types of information; consult with colleagues, lenders and other specialists and communicate with numerous parties –all or any of which could close or doom a sale. And this is why, on the day-to-day level, technology glitches or lack of expertise can jeopardize their ability to succeed.
Mind you, this is where many associations miss the boat—underestimating or failing to detect what their members perceive and experience as pain and, instead, trying to persuade them of the value of their own, mostly standard, off-the-shelf benefits. Florida Realtors®, instead, provided incomparably superior value by solving its members’ problems—lack of technology support for the kind of small businesses they were operating—by providing them with technology support as a membership benefit.
And that’s not all. Florida Realtors® developed this solution into a unique, comprehensive service that was designed specifically for realtors, Tech Helpline, and became known as "the Genius Bar for real estate."
And that’s not all either. Florida Realtors® broke out of still another restrictive convention--the narrow “association benefits” mold in which the association’s clients and beneficiaries are only its own members. Realizing that the solutions provided by TechHelpline had applicability beyond the association’s members, Florida Realtors® “rapidly grew it by offering its service to other Realtor® Associations, Multiple Listing Services (MLSs) and real estate brokerage firms. Tech Helpline is the real estate industry's #1 tech support service, available to one in three Realtors in North America - more than 500,000 in the U.S. and Canada.”
This was 15 years ago and the rate of growth seems to continue undeterred. Last month, Florida’s Director of Technology Products, Tricia Stamper, announced that they had added “more than 15,000 real estate professionals” in “9 local and state “Realtor® Associations in just 50 days,” including:
Maine Association of Realtors®
Suburban West Realtors® Association (PA)
Bucks County Association of Realtors® (PA)
Montgomery County Association of Realtors® (PA)
And this is how a small, state association innovated through a new model of service for professionals in its sector, and broke out of its own geographic boundaries to become “the real estate industry's #1 tech support service” and, according to Ed Gardner, President of the Maine Association of Realtors,® provide "a member benefit that has become a must-have as technology empowers the day-to-day business of real estate agents and brokers."
Forget the term “benefit.” Sometimes, words become loaded with past assumptions and usages so that they prevent reinvention or serious re-examination. Think, instead, of problems your members/customers perceive as obstacles to their success and of the type of solutions that these members, and not you, perceive as valuable.
It is not the number, variety, scale or prestige of “benefits” that converts them into member value but the outcomes they deliver and whether these outcomes make a difference. Clearly Tech Helpline is making a concrete and measurable difference to realtors’ ability to close sales and become successful. Once you have identified the sweet spot of how to make a real difference to what most matters to your members, retention and growth are natural consequences. As Tricia Stamper, Florida Realtors' Director of Technology Products, says: “Tech Helpline has been remarkably successful in helping with member retention, because there are so few options for IT support to small businesses.”
Learn directly from your members by digging beneath statements to understand what is meant and implied; by observing members in their daily contexts and understanding the way these members see the world and experience problems, successes and value.
Today’s market leading companies have based their competitive advantage on something seemingly small that would have been overlooked in the past such as speed, unique customer service, a virtual marketplace as the context for transactions, etc. Looking at the world through your customer’s eyes, will uncover new sources of value in often small, hidden, unheralded spaces.
Look beyond the boundaries of your own members and organization for a bold, new path for growth.
In his book, Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business, Ranjay Gulati’s groups companies into four levels of resilience and competitiveness on the basis of their market orientation, with level 1, representing the least resilience – an organization centered on products rather than customers; and level 4, representing the highest degree of resilience and competitiveness. At this level an organization sees itself as an integral component of larger economic ecosystem, and goes beyond its own boundaries to deliver value to a larger value network often by co-venturing, accessing, and leveraging others’ products, assets, and markets.
This the new face of competition and the way value is created, shared and leveraged. And "benefits" have to be recast and reinvented in this context and on the basis of how value is created within it.