Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
May 18th, 2006

Disintermediation #3 Watching Video, Selling a Home, Buying Insurance – part 2

Yesterday we looked at how Media has been disintermediated and transformed during the past 30 years. Today we look at two industries that are on the threshold of some degree of disintermediation. Using the four part definition of the term , it is clear that real estate and insurance are going to be reorganized from historically developed structures, transactions, fees and processes.

Real Estate

Real Estate is very interesting. We are going to concentrate on residential real estate for this post, because close to 70% of American families own their own homes. A much lower percentage of Americans have experience in commercial real estate. Since all real estate is local, there will be exceptions to the following generalizations, but speaking generally:

-Real estate agents have been very resistant to changing their commission structure.

-Historically these agents have tried to keep listing data to themselves.

-There is now an incredible amount of real estate price information on the Internet and it is very easy to use the Internet to market a property to a global potential customer base.

-In the last few years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of “For Sale by Owner” or FSBO listings, due in part to a heated real estate market where the perception is that if one puts a good property on the market it will sell whether an agent is involved or not. The Internet supports this FSBO effort.

-Agent compensation doesn’t seem to be tied to performance as much as tied to the past. This is always deadly in a service business, as people will increasingly look for the best value in a service relationship. This is a point that Dubner and Levitt put forth in their wonderful book “Freakonomics” (readers know that these two have had kind words for this blog, and that I think highly of the book, a must read if you haven’t already enjoyed it.)

Now, if you are a real estate agent, please don’t think I am criticizing you; I am not. Instead, please take this as a friendly warning that if you are not open to finding new ways of charging for your services, the market will soon start to dictate how you will be allowed to charge. Information empowers people and all of the above statements point to a situation begging for disintermediation. Adapt now and stay ahead of the curve or hold on to ‘the way we’ve always done it’ at your true peril. Here are some things to consider:

-Always remember you are providing a service to your client, bringing value such as the saving of time, which saves money. People will pay to have the ‘heavy lifting’ done for them. People pay for that and for good financial results; provide both.

-Be willing to come up with innovative commission deals so that if you do a good job you will make more than if you just did an acceptable job. An example would be to accept a lower commission on the listing, say 4%, but take a 20% share of the price over the listing price. Another example is if a seller needs to sell quickly, build in a bonus if the property is sold within a short amount of time. Now all of this can be manupulated around the listing price, but the buyer will think more kindly and supportively about your efforts as your self interest and theirs are aligned. Create a mutually agreed to fee arrangement with the seller. Good brokers will make more money, bad brokers will make less money. If you are good, don’t be scared, show how good you are and you will have your choice of clients.

-Remember that disintermediation removes ‘excess’ compensation for intermediaries. That means that either fees will come down for the same job or will stay the same for a superior job, where value has been added. Become a discount real estate broker or add a new higher level of service and customized fee structure. As an agent you will soon have a choice to make.

Insurance

If you watch TV you will have inevitably seen a commercial from an insurance company asking you to call or go on-line for a quote that will save you money. This is direct marketing from the company to the consumer, cutting out the cost of paying the agent commission. This is a clear example of disintermediation. Why do you think that the other type of insurance commercial is all about the agent being helpful to the customer? Because that is the only value left. Twenty years ago, the only way to learn about insurance was to meet with an agent, now all the information you need is on-line.

In the last century, each community had an insurance agent that provided a service and information, and everyone went to him as it was the only place to go. Today, if that agent is not providing some truly added service value, he will wonder where their commissions went as everyone can buy insurance direct. The days of simply sending out renewal notices, without providing any added value, will soon be over. Canned newsletters and refrigerator magnets are not added value.

In a fear based industry where ‘life insurance’ is about death, ‘auto insurance’ is about accidents, and ‘homeowners insurance’ is about fire, theft and flood, it is time to be real and help the customer get the lowest price or they will get it themselves. When the insurance companies believe they can create a direct relationship with the customer without an agent, either the agent goes away, accepts a lower commission, or provides a personal service beyond information about products.

In summary, the real estate and insurance industries are two of the obvious areas that are ripe for disintermediation. There are a number of other areas that will be disintemediated to some greater or lesser degree. Just look to the four definitions and meanings stated in previous posts to remind you where disintermediation will occur.

At a higher level there are major historical institutions that are about to undergo radical restructuring because of the era we are in and the power of the Internet to bring about change. More on that subject in the not too distant future.

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In times of global uncertainty and disruption it takes a futurist to provide context and understanding.

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