Planning for the Unplannable: Lessons from the COVID-19 crisis on how to build resilience into your business

Since it first emerged in China last December, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has spread to nearly every country in the world. In the scramble to contain the pandemic, the global economy—including the real estate market—has been severely disrupted. With businesses and borders closing and isolation measures put in place, it’s become increasingly difficult for REALTORS® to carry on operations as usual. While the real estate market is expected to recover, no one can say how long the downturn will last.

A question many real estate professionals are asking is, “What can we do to get through this—and how can we protect our businesses against similar crises in the future?” While there are many answers, ultimately it comes down to having a sound business continuity plan.

Going virtual in the face of COVID-19

Canadian REALTORS® weren’t immediately affected by the outbreak of COVID-19. Housing investments are traditionally very stable, and the Canadian market in particular is seen as secure, even in times of crisis. Tina Mak of Coldwell Banker Westburn in Vancouver says she had clients who saw early 2020 as an ideal time to buy due to the weakened Canadian dollar and low interest rates.

Yet as more cases of COVID-19 were confirmed and states of emergency were declared, the situation changed. International clients could no longer travel to view Canadian properties, and investment priorities shifted. Buyers who sell stocks to raise capital for cash purchases were forced to put plans on hold until the markets rebound and stabilize. Some REALTORS® said they saw inquiries fall off by 90%.

This hasn’t been exclusive to Canada. Real estate professionals everywhere are closing their physical offices and moving meetings to phone or online platforms. Many are offering virtual property showings.

Plan your way through disruption

So, what can real estate professionals take away from the COVID-19 experience so far? And what can they do to mitigate the risk of similar crises in the future? Creating a clear and well-thought-out business continuity plan is a key step.

Three essential elements of a good business continuity plan are:

  • A “financial cushion” plan

While the current situation may be unprecedented, business is always variable and occasional slowdowns are inevitable. Make sure your plan accounts for setting aside money to get through tight periods.

  • A relationship management plan

Many REALTORS® focus on individual transactions rather than on building long-term relationships with clients, which can create challenges in times like these.

“Having a follow-up strategy is so important,” Mak says. “Know your client, know multiple markets where they might do business, and maintain that relationship so when they need something, you’re always the one they call.”

Mak says it’s especially important to nurture those relationships with property investors, as they can be very strong repeat clients.

  • An action plan

A business continuity plan should include steps to take during periods of disruption. These will include policies and practices about office closures, off-site work, remote data access, alternative arrangements for meeting with clients and carrying out transaction steps, and other contingencies. The specifics will vary depending on the brokerage or individual practice but working it out in advance helps avoid having to make tough logistical decisions on the fly in the middle of a crisis.

Beyond those three “must-haves”, REALTORS® also suggest the following as ways to manage—and in some cases, make the most of—periods of disruption:

  • Keep communicating: “Stay in touch with your clients to make sure they know you’re still working for them,” says Stefan Sieber, of Keller William Select Realty. Azizali Kanjee, of International Property Brokers Corporation, recommends using times of slowdown to reach out to clients you may have not been in regular touch with to re-establish contact and maintain those relationships.
  • Engage in professional development: Online courses, webinars, professional association resources and books all provide valuable opportunities for real estate professionals to expand their knowledge, even when regular business can’t proceed.

“We’re also advising our agents to use this period to look at and improve their business systems,” says Don Kottick, of Sotheby’s International Realty Canada. “It’s a great opportunity to learn more about marketing tools and support systems they may not have been using yet.”

  • Expand your social media presence: For real estate professionals who haven’t developed a robust social media presence and network, now may be good opportunity to do so. That can mean creating of updating online profiles, or spending time sharing content and engaging with others’ posts. Developing the habit now will make it easier to keep it up when things start going back to normal.

Be ready for the recovery

Many REALTORS® remain confident the current disruption will not last forever, and the real estate market will recover. The Real Estate Investment Network predicts a downturn that could last a few years but, ultimately, a long-term lift.

In the meantime, REALTORS® say the No. 1 priority during this period should be keeping yourself and others safe and well. Reduce physical contact as much as possible, make use of technology to maintain communications and don’t take unnecessary risks.

“Despite this crisis, the facts of the market haven’t changed,” notes Mak. “Supply and demand is still not balanced in major Canadian markets. We’re still anticipating significant immigration, the interest rate is low and expected to remain low for a while, and the Canadian dollar will probably remain weak for the foreseeable future.”

“I truly believe that after we work our way through this crisis, Canada’s reputation as a global destination will be even stronger than before,” says Kottick. “Our market will take flight as people move to capitalize on opportunities and pent-up demand.”

How has your business adapted to these challenging circumstances?

We at CREA understand that things are tough right now, but we’re here to support you—and we’re confident our industry will come through this stronger than ever.

Join the Global Affiliates Facebook group to share your business continuity best practices and learn from your colleagues.

Sharon von Schoenberg, our Product Manager – Global Services contributes to and implements CREA’s international strategy to increase global opportunities for REALTOR® members. Her initiatives include the Global Affiliate Program, building relationships with international associations and trade-related organizations, developing educational opportunities for members and increasing the relevancy of for global visitors. Prior to joining CREA Sharon was a Canadian residential appraiser and held marketing and client management positions in the private and non-profit sector. Sharon holds a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Ottawa, is a certified association executive and a CIPS designee. As a mother of two teenagers, Sharon stays rooted by practicing yoga.

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