48 hours ago I sat down to turn on my computer and check my e-mail. I pressed the on button; it lit up, the fan started and then…nothing! I pressed the on button again, same thing. After 4 or 5 tries, it began to sink in that perhaps my computer was not going to start. Two years ago, this would have been cause for complete panic, but two days ago it was a mild annoyance. Since my last catastrophic failure (which was catastrophic and quite painful) I had done everything necessary to have a background backup of my hard drive in place and all the other little protection necessaries.
Here I am, two days later, typing my Blog after having spent a few hours acquiring a new computer and getting it up and running. I realized that as far as technology goes, I have a love-hate relationship. When it works, I love it! When it doesn’t …. All the same, my weekend experience got me to thinking back 22 years to my first computer. That computer did not have the power and grace of today’s machines, but all the same I learned some extremely important lessons in the use of technology to create Competitive Advantage in my market. Having better, more up to date information than my competitors and making client contact easier and far less expensive was key to greater success. Here is how it worked.
I first acquired a computer when I was working in Real Estate as a residential sales agent. I wasn’t actually looking for a computer, but my company gave some awards to top sales agents, and one of the options was a new computer. I was curious, so I took that award. The computer was an IBM PS2. It was a bit more advanced than some, as when you turned it on it had a welcome screen and some software to guide you, not just a black screen with a command prompt.
The computer also had Microsoft Works on it, with a rudimentary word processing program and a simple database and spreadsheet as well. All were forerunners of the more famous and ubiquitous applications of today. As I took the tutorial, I began to realize that these programs could really help me in my Real Estate career. As a matter of fact, although it would be years before I learned about the actual term, these programs helped me create competitive advantage over my Real Estate rivals.
A Real Estate career (or any other sales career) is based on access to the information that you need to be able to establish and maintain the relationship with your customers. As an agent, I dealt with a mountain of information about my market, almost all of it on paper. The simple act of creating a comparative evaluation for a potential client involved a call or visit to City Hall to gather certain information and searching through piles of MLS books (or struggling with the Real Estate Board’s rudimentary MLS system with the dumb terminal in the office).
It did not take me long to see that I could use the database function to begin to gather information about my market (that is the homes in my town) and have it readily available. I started with my own listings and sales, but gradually I entered in all of the information about listings and sales in my town. After several months, having this information meant that rather than spending hours looking for comparable sales and listing do create an evaluation, it took me only minutes. It also meant that, when I went to see a potential customer, I was already armed with a comparable evaluation with which to negotiate. My first competitive advantage at the time was that I arrived sooner with more information than any of my competitors. In particular, when going to see a “For Sale by Owner” this was powerful indeed.
My second competitive advantage seems so simple in retrospect: keeping in touch with my clients frequently. I soon discovered “mail merge” which allowed me to create a monthly letter to all of my current and former clients that was personalized. At the time, the only other way to do that was to type each letter individually, or use a word processor. That would have meant hiring someone at great cost. Instead, I sent out an inexpensive, personal letter to each individual containing all of the great market information that I derived from my database.
No matter what business you are in (or how large it is), the key to using technology is to figure out what information you really need to run your business and using technology to master and convey that information to the proper recipient. We can be dazzled by technology; but no matter how whiz bang the technology, we must always be thinking of how to use information to create competitive advantage and the simple solution is often the best.