Ahead of CMLS, “The MLS RoundTable” published the MLS 2020 Agenda. It is a paper that provides a series of one-page perspectives from industry executives about the Future of the MLS (hat tip to Saul Klein, who I give credit for coining the term). It is not clear how the people were chosen to opine on the agenda for MLS. Although there are a solid number of enlightened MLS thinkers in the report, there are many other great MLS executives that are conspicuous by their absence. The report is a good primer for the conference.
The Association Problem (and Governance)
There is some conversation about the relationship between the Associations of REALTORS® that own MLSs and the operations of the MLS itself. Much of this has to do with Governance. Bad governance kills great companies every time. There is an assertion that the association-based decision-making model is disastrous for the MLS – but there is no description about how the decision-making fails. Plenty of Associations have excellent decision-making models. I look forward to hearing more about what bad association decision-making models are.
I agree with the premise that Associations can be troublesome for MLSs, but on different grounds. Associations profit from the MLS – and that is the biggest retardant of all if they are not providing any value to the MLS. Associations should not be able to mark up MLS services 100% for doing billing. If they are providing training and support, they need to be held accountable for their deliverables, required to have the right equipment for managing support, etc.
I am just completing a project for a large firm who was being denied sales data in 12 markets – all Association managed MLSs with fewer than 500 subscribers. For most of them, a phone call or two cleared up the misunderstanding. The last 4 have been an issue. Two of them do not have a full time staff running the MLS or the Association. I had to chase down the agent who was the president, educate them on the MLS policy that they have in place (yes, their rules clearly allow for sold data), and help them connect with their MLS vendor to add sold data to the feed (he did not know who to contact or their phone number). As it turns out, our broker client will be the first in those markets to have a sold data feed. This is an inexcusable environment for brokerage companies, their agents, and the consumers they serve.
MLSs are Data Companies First, not Application Service Providers
I really like CoreLogic’s Chris Bennett’s sentiment about “keeping the data as accurate, complete, and current as possible.” Luke Glass nails the same idea when he indicates that MLS’s were not intended to be innovators. They are intended to provide advanced data frameworks. Rebecca Jensen piles on with her comments about data cooperatives, data standards, and new sources of value in data. On the same page is NAR CEO, Bob Goldberg, when he comments that MLSs are ‘stewards of the brokers’ intellectual property. Dale Ross says the focus should be on the “core value proposition of providing the best services for the aggregation of listing data.”
Training and Support
I am not sure how consolidation sparks innovation, as Tom Phillips suggests, but it certainly brings better service and training in a much more efficient operating model. I know that larger MLS can get their vendors to do much more, much faster. But I really do not understand the context for innovation that is applicable for MLSs. There are certainly opportunities for innovation with data systems, aggregation, distribution, support, training, compliance, data standards, tiered services, etc. BrightMLS is in an unusual place to drive innovation given their size. It will be fascinating to watch them innovate – especially given their Keystone and Cornerstone products – the industry’s best at listing input and data management.
Although none of the MLSs in this piece have this issue, staff is a big issue for MLSs. A number of respondents in this document articulate the dearth of youth in MLS executive leadership, and yes – our industry’s greatest are retiring. But I am not totally concerned about that as much as I am concerned about MLSs who have no staff at all.
Look at MLSs with fewer than 500 subscribers (hundreds of them). This is the biggest problem. Most MLSs today have one or two people who do everything in the company. That is not sustainable. At BrightMLS, they have a bench of seasoned rock stars in every department. They maintain high excellence in everything they do because they are resourced correctly. They are a great model for operating an MLS. I cannot think of an MLS with more than 5,000 subscribers that is not really good or excellent. But I also can think of very few MLSs with less than 500 subscribers that have anything associative with an unmatched center of excellence in anything they do. They can’t even win on price. They are just trying their best to not drown.
The hundreds of small MLSs that are out of the loop are responsible for many of the MLS ills. Brokers are not going to rally against the bad MLSs. That would be suicide for the relationship with the Association, the MLS, and probably their own agents. Core standards are the solution. I look forward to the day when NAR puts an Association or MLS on notice – publicly.
Don’t be a SaaS Provider
Grabowski is wrong when he says that MLSs should focus on tools (software as a service), but is right when he talks about training and support. MLS tools are what got us to this trench in the first place. Dale Ross mentions this in his remarks; “the MLS levels the playing field.” The MLS does not create innovation; rather it retards it by making it difficult for brokers to deliver functionality at an affordable price. Brokers have an uphill battle when it comes to getting their agents to use the tools they provide and supervise when the MLS is providing the same tools. This is a problem. How does a broker supervise the activities of their agent in the MLS – building CMAs that the broker cannot see or access; having conversations with consumers though the MLS client portal that the broker cannot see or access – heck – the broker cannot even get a data feed of the customer record, saved searches, favorites, or the conversation. When an MLS offers a forms solution or a transaction management solution, the broker cannot view or supervise the transaction until the agent turns over the contract for review. These are fundamental invasions into the broker’s areas of responsibility that the MLS delimits.
Here is the biggest opportunity for MLSs
Become a systems integrator and a data aggregator. Consult with agents and brokers about their tech stack. Help them get their website to talk to their CRM, their CRM to talk to their digital marketing suite, integrate forms and transaction management, and provide access to data and training.
Do not provide products! You don’t need to. Provide access to products for agents and brokers to buy from the vendor. Make sure they work in your MLS.
MLS Listings has a very refined vision of the future. Agents and brokers will have their Apps. Like Apple, the MLS does not build Apps beyond the core. In the MLS case – that is the MLS system, Tax system, and consumer website. Agent and broker websites, crm, cma, marketing, transaction management, online advertising (listing syndication), etc are Apps. The broker and agent pick them and pay for them. They are not core services or “member benefits.” Its folly to think that MLSs can deliver Apps that are suitable to every subscriber and participants need. Stop offering non-basic SaaS services and focus on delivering data services and support. Offer the App Store. Make sure that the tools agents want to use will work with your MLS data. You win!
Here are the cornerstones of excellence in MLS.
- Data Aggregator
- Systems Integration
- Tiered services
- Data Security and Homeowner data protection
Extra Credit Problem
My neighbor asked me this shortly after purchasing his home. “How can I get the Realtor® to get the photos of the inside of my home, and my daughter’s bedroom, off the Internet?
The research was commissioned by a group of MLSs.