The Third Dimension: Cushla Symons & Justin Miller

Cushla Symons leads the cutting-edge property management team at RE/MAX Regency on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Sarah Bell caught up with Cushla and Agency Principal Justin Miller to discuss their deliberate and strategic use of technology to create trust with clients and protect against ‘would-be disruptors’.

For Cushla Symons and her team, technology has enabled greater levels of operational efficiency, enhanced customer service and given a competitive edge over those who have not yet embraced it. The implementation of technology has been a deliberate course of action geared towards achieving these outcomes, combined with a healthy dose of restraint against implementing technology for technology’s sake.

The technology agenda at RE/MAX Regency has been spearheaded by principal Justin, whose aviation background provided direct experience of an industry disrupted by automation and technology.

“When I started in aviation I flew a small aircraft with no automation, no autopilot and no GPS; when I left the industry a short seven years later I was flying a jet airliner that was fully automated, had three autopilots with the capability of landing autonomously and a GPS that made the need for chart navigation obsolete.”

When Justin entered the property management industry in 2013 he realised that, much like aviation, procedures and processes were vital to running a successful property management business, and that included using technology well.

“Technology is always moving, and we always need to be looking at what is the next best thing and asking ourselves strategic questions about whether that fits our business direction,” says Cushla. “You really need to test and make sure it is going to be of benefit rather than a hindrance in the long run.”

What is impressive about the implementation of technology in Cushla’s office is how one implementation can have a variety of applications, and how each of those applications is firmly directed at the end-user experience. For example, Cushla and Justin were early movers on the introduction of Matterport 3D scanning technology. A Matterport 3D scan creates a three-dimensional, high-definition interactive tour of a property.

“Acquiring the technology is the easy part; driving the change and making it part of the process is not so easy. You have to have someone like Cushla, whose experience around processes meant she was able to drive the implementation of this technology, making it an integral part of the processes in our property management department,” says Justin.

In an obvious application, the scan is used for property marketing, enabling rapid leasing and orientation of tenants to a property. “Prospective tenants are able to complete a virtual tour online [via the real estate portals] which means that tenants who are overseas or interstate can view a property remotely,” says Cushla. “We will approve an application based on the Matterport viewing, because we are that confident that the scan represents an accurate picture of the property.”

Technology creates transparency. Transparency is the new trust.

The Matterport scanning technology is also applied to the entry condition report as a reliable and certain reference for the condition of the property. Justin and Cushla both agree that the biggest headache in property management revolves around property condition at tenancy changes. “Prior to the implementation of our specific technologies, the entry condition report was the most questioned document – often leading to disputes and time wasted at tribunals at the conclusion of the tenancy,” says Cushla.

As a business owner, Justin identified that finding a solution to this problem would not only save his team time that could be better spent elsewhere but would also allow for full transparency and accountability for all parties, including his property managers.

“There are a few limitations, such as inside of cupboards and behind doors, but the human error is minimised; I would say it cuts out about 90 per cent of the commentary on an entry condition report. There is an obvious benefit to the tenant because of the increased certainty,” says Cushla.

“By doing a scan at every tenancy changeover, the owner can get an accurate representation of the condition of the property over time. The technology keeps the agent transparent and accountable, and it also adds a degree of quality control from the perspective of the principal.”

In the Gold Coast marketplace there is a significant number of overseas and interstate investors. While the 3D scan allows the owner to be more engaged with the property, it is also a tool of leverage which property managers can use to engage remote owners who may find it difficult to see the utility of performing repairs and maintenance. “It can remove an emotional disconnect and gives those owners a degree of perspective where they can see changes over time.

“It is far easier to communicate with someone face to face than it is over phone and email,” says Cushla. “These types of visual technologies are the next best thing [to face to face communication] when there are language barriers or geographical distance, because of the transparency.”

The power of the implementation designed to lift the accuracy of the record of the property’s condition is always going to be tested at the outgoing inspection. The result of a vacate inspection is the test for a robust entry condition report. “We have seen our percentage of full bond refunds lift from 55 per cent to 87 per cent. The scanning has been very effective in reducing the number of disputes at the end of a tenancy. It also helps the parties to stick to the issues, so we are having more focused conversations with tenants around the specifics of a vacate.”

We have seen our percentage of full bond refunds lift from 55 per cent to 87 per cent.

During a tenancy, Cushla and her team use a Ricoh 360-degree camera with a fish-eyed lens to capture the condition of the home and create an unprecedented level of access between landlord and property. “We complete the written report and then do a walk-through capturing the video, and we can commentate and zoom in on any issues,” says Cushla. “The video is then uploaded to a private YouTube account, and the owner can view it via an unlisted [private] link.”

Quality of communication has been a big focus for Cushla and Justin, who have executed a strategy for communicating with landlords and tenants that favours the value of information over frequency. “We use a live link which holds information that is relevant to landlords and tenants, and we use this as an educational tool. Everyone’s time is valuable, and so that our communication is effective we need to make sure that it is always relevant,” says Cushla.

“We don’t just send e-newsletters for the sake of sending something, especially if it is going to be a waste of my time and theirs. I don’t want to be reaching for things to say if we don’t need to communicate anything at that time, and if the owner doesn’t find one thing relevant we may lose them. It is important that they are listening when we do need them to take notice of something or some information.

“Instead, if there is something that we feel is relevant and useful that either our tenants or our owners need to know about, we will put that information on a live link and send out an SMS with the link, letting them know that there is something we would like them to be aware of.”

“We have VR [Virtual Reality] Goggles in the office so that people could walk in and view properties. They look great and have a great wow factor, but realistically, the number of actual tenants or owners who take this up is still slow, so they are probably a bit of a gimmick. The wow factor is enough of a benefit as a listing tool; but as for the utility of the actual virtual tours, I think that it will have to build over time as consumers catch on to those types of offerings,” says Cushla.

It has been a deliberate choice at RE/MAX Regency to select and deploy technology cautiously, weighing the benefit to the business, which can be direct or indirect.

“Cushla and I have trialled many new technologies over the past three years,” adds Justin. “Some have stuck, some haven’t; but one thing we have refined over that time are the questions we ask before implementing any technology. Answering these key questions can save a lot of time:

  • Is it productive?
  • Is it simple to implement?
  • Is it sustainable?
  • What is the support network?
  • What are the training requirements?
  • What is the cost vs return?

“Yes doesn’t have to be the answer to every question, but it goes a long way to making the implementation successful,” he says.

“Success breeds failure and all of a sudden you can become complacent and fall behind if you aren’t always moving with the technology that provides the best experience for clients,” says Cushla. Being future-ready, seeing around corners and staying ahead of the curve on technology sends an important brand message about RE/MAX Regency, attracting business in a climate where trust is critical currency.

“Technology creates transparency. Transparency is the new trust,” concludes Cushla.

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Sarah Bell

With a background in research and investigations, Sarah Bell married into the real estate industry in 2009 and has found a passion for both the business and its people.