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Designing for delight

MRI software Senior Vice President Chuck McDowell has spent more than 20 years at the leading edge of enterprise software in the real estate industry. Samantha McLean caught up with him to find out how he’s settling into his new home in Sydney, Australia and what’s next for Rockend.

Chuck McDowell won’t be taking a long holiday this Christmas.

Yes, the MRI Software Senior Vice President, will make a quick trip across the Pacific Ocean to see family in Atlanta, Georgia, but then he’ll be straight back to work.

MRI Software acquired homegrown property management software solutions company Rockend in July, which means Chuck (officially named Charles) is more than happy to cut his holiday short to strengthen the company’s position in the Australian market.

WHAT CUSTOMERS WANT
A new interface for PropertyTree is on the horizon, strengthening the capabilities of REST is on the short-term to-do list and initiatives that will see strata management move to the cloud are also in the pipeline.

But in the shorter-term Chuck says there are a few gifts to be released from Santa’s present sack.

On the top of customers’ wishlists is closed communications, e-signatures and, for strata management, electronic invoice approval.

“Closed communications is something that we really see a need for; capturing responses from investors, tenants and trades all in one spot,” Chuck says.

“I didn’t expect e-signatures to be something people would get excited about, but that is clearly on our customers’ radar.

“It was their number one requested solution.

“I want to get those things out there as quickly as we can.

“There are a lot of opportunities to help customers run their businesses better.”

One of Chuck’s goals is to move Rockend customers from the confines of managing day-to-day operations so they can step back and consider long-term challenges.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS
One strong opportunity exists in yield management, which has not yet hit Australian real estate shores.

Common in the US, yield management in its simplest form is a rent price optimisation approach which makes use of historical and real-time information data to help property managers determine rent.

Airlines commonly use it to sell seats, with the goal being to maximise revenue from a fixed, time-limited resource.

Chuck says the technology works in the US and can work in the Australian rental market as well.

“I’m surprised we don’t have something here – when we’ve had it in the US for so long,” he says.

“Here in Australia, investors are trying to manage down the fees, while there appears to be downward pressure on rents.

“This puts more pressure on agencies to maintain competitiveness and manage profitability.”

Chuck sees the future as being able to set the rents and management fees based on historical and predictive data.

“For example, we want to look at Lane Cove, and see what the rental trends have been for two-bedroom, one-bathroom units and be able to set a price based on that,” he says.

“That’s really starting to leverage technology to think beyond the immediate and current issues.”

BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Chuck has more than 20 years’ experience in enterprise software and professional services from working in real estate markets across the globe.

But his real estate pedigree goes back even further as a management consultant with Capgemini (formerly Ernst & Young), where he focused on leveraging both software technology and process improvement – delivering diverse solutions in different geographies.

Chuck joined MRI Software 12 years ago as a member of the professional services team leadership and is now the Commercial and Financial Group’s Senior Vice President.

While he also holds the mantle of APAC Managing Director, Chuck’s the first to admit he isn’t one for flashy titles.

“What’s in a title?” he says, smiling. “If you have to say your title to describe your role you are likely missing something somewhere else.”

Chuck says he’s already noticing the nuances in the Australian market with a “fierce” level of competition between agencies setting Aussie apart.

“In the USA, in multi-family dwellings, tends to be more about what each one can offer the resident.

“There are lots of ways to differentiate.

“However, in Australia, it’s brand vs brand; and businesses here need to get very creative to grow or retain their businesses.”

OPENING UP THE CONNECTORS
While development plans within the company are exciting, Chuck is also relishing the opportunity to work with other companies within the industry.

“Customers should be able to pick and choose what they want,” he says.

“There are a lot of fascinating companies outside of the MRI/Rockend family – the companies that do inspections, the community portals, smoke alarms; many companies are out there orbiting property management.

“The sooner we can say instead of using these four or five companies, you can use an ecosystem with as many tools as you like, the better off we’re going to be, and the better off the clients are going to be.

“After all, a rising tide lifts all ships.”

ONE SOURCE OF TRUTH
With this in mind, solving the problem of property data portability through legacy systems is something investors will likely demand.

“Wouldn’t it be great someday if we could think of our data elements, not as individual data elements but as one thing?” Chuck muses.

“For example, if I buy and sell this property, do I need to recreate it the next time another agency begins to manage it?

“Or if we sell the rent roll, how can we make it easier to port it over to the other agency?

“How can we share the strata side of the management with the rental side and how can they be brought together?”

THE NEED FOR SPEED
Some of the biggest lessons Chuck has learnt come from early on in his career when he was at larger companies like McDonald’s and GE Appliances.

“At McDonald’s, I learned that you’ve got to be quick, consistent, responsive, and you can’t be indecisive.

“You can’t deliver a great restaurant or a great meal if it’s going to take you forever to deliver it.

“So you’ve got to manage speed and responsiveness.”

A stint in customer service at GE Appliances while studying at university means Chuck can also relate to property managers fielding often difficult inquiries from clients.

“I was constantly dealing with clients who were upset about an appliance having broken down,” he says.

“So I had to learn empathy – even with the ones who were being overly candid with me – I learned not to take it personally.

“I learned to listen.”

Chuck says such experiences have influenced how he leads the team today.

“You can’t come into a business like this presuming things; and I do enjoy the interaction with people,” he says.

“I truly believe that you’ve got to stay in touch with your customers to be effective in whatever role you have.”

DESIGNING FOR DELIGHT
It’s for that reason Chuck believes whatever technology is created, it should be simple for the customer to learn and use.

He says business owners shouldn’t have to worry about how to have an employee trained in the software to create a more productive and efficient business.

“Complexity does not need to be presented to the user,” Chuck says.

“I want our software to be designed for delight.

“I want to have our customers say they cannot wait to log in and get to work.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE
An event MRI Software hosts to aid usability and connection with consumers is the annual Ascend user conference, which offers a venue to learn, engage with staff, network with others, and explore both the solutions and technology enabled by the MRI ecosystem.

The conference will also come to Sydney in May 2020.

“We are really excited about MRI and Rockend coming together and marrying Rockend’s talents with the culture, the personality and the capabilities of MRI Software,” Chuck says.

“We’ve a great opportunity to show the market what MRI can do to make the existing Rockend tools even stronger, more effective and more engaging.”

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