A candid conversation with Brad Eaton, VP Mortgage Products
This month The Niche Report brings you a company that’s been helping mortgage professionals effectively market themselves for years. If you were to visit a loan originator’s website, more than likely that website is an Xsite created by A la Mode. A la Mode has developed a successful formula for bringing together high quality site design and online marketing capabilities for many mortgage industry professionals. We sat down with Brad Eaton, VP Mortgage Products to
Tell us a little bit about a la mode.
We got our start in 1985 with our appraisal form-filling software TOTAL (now known as WinTOTAL). Since then, we’ve become a leader in three different real estate verticals by developing software, marketing tools, workflow management systems, and e-commerce technology for appraisers, mortgage brokers, home inspectors, and real estate agents and brokers.
WinTOTAL, the appraisal management software that gave us our start, is now used by more than half of all the real estate appraisers in theU.S..
And obviously, mortgage brokers, loan officers, home inspectors and REALTORS® are now equally important business partners with us. Five years ago we began our development of XSites for those markets because we saw so many hard-to-use, generic website products popping up everywhere. Our response was to build a website product that actually does something for our clients. Not just an online brochure or business card. An XSite fits into a real estate professional’s overall marketing plan, enabling them to do productive business via the World Wide Web, and generate solid customer/client leads at the same time.
Tell us about the company culture.
We believe in three things – working hard, having fun, and making money. And simply said, we hire the best, most talented individuals from all types of backgrounds that add to this overall philosophy. We don't just hire techie people, slap a headset on them and tell them to take as many calls as they can all day.
We understand that we’ve got to make incredible products first. But we also understand that we’re in the people business, too. So we staff our customer support call center with highly-trained, well paid professionals twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.
Many of our senior managers have risen through the ranks of our customer support department, so the whole process is very important to us for multiple reasons. It's hard to find a technology company with this level commitment in any industry, let alone in the real estate and mortgage industries. We've certainly not found one of our direct competitors with this level of access to help for their customers. We're privately held and our founder, David Biggers, has set this customer care example from day one. Our call center is located inOklahoma Citywhere you'll find some of the smartest and hardest working people anywhere, so we have a great labor pool to pull from.
So, what is a la mode doing to proactively stay ahead of the rapidly changing real estate market?
A lot of mortgage and real estate technology providers are finding themselves in a box right now. They either don't have multiple markets and revenue streams to rely on like we do, or, unlike us, their revenues rely strictly on transactions, which is a horrible place to be in a down market. Or, in some cases, their business model is relatively sound, but their company was perhaps venture backed during the market boom and now the financial backers are pulling out or their management team is freaking out since they've never navigated through rough times. One thing that seems consistent with all of them is the unwillingness to invest significantly, if at all, in new feature and product development. In a lot of industry press we've read, our competitors are cutting services, not releasing new ones.
We're different. We've seen about three of these downturns in the 23 years we've been in business, so this isn't our management team's first rodeo. More importantly, we've never taken on any debt or outside investment, so our financial position is strong enough to take us through any market downturn. These two facts enable us to invest in the development of new products and new features to existing products while, frankly, our competitors are focused on keeping their doors open. It's a huge difference in philosophy and approach and you can bet our customers and prospects notice it.
You released a free website product last summer. Was that a move to stay ahead of the change?
Not really. The Originator level websites were born from the confidence we have in our own products. We know that a certain percentage of people who try out our XSites see how easy they are to set up and how great the workflow tools are will become longtime customers. So we just wanted to make it easy for people to do this without the time constraints of a typical demo. Anyone can set up a fully functional Originator site and try out the full Office Level features for 20 days. Many will upgrade to the full Office version. Some will decide that the free version provides all the functionality they need for right now, and that’s fine. Those who choose the free website product may upgrade to our full-featured, paid products down the road when it is right for them. So the original intent was to increase our market share and make money – that’s still the intent, actually. We think making money is a good thing.
But with the downturn in the market, the free Originator level also became the perfect choice for LO’s who can’t commit hundreds or thousands of dollars per year to a website right now. And we’re perfectly fine with that as well. The Originator level gives those customers the basic set of tools they need to do business on the web – a simple website, e-mail address, lead capture, and loan app. Those tools cost hundreds previously, and we’re proud to be the company with enough resources to deliver those necessities at no cost. And we know that when the market returns to whatever level is sustainable, we’ll have the customers who’ve weathered the storm because of our tools.
And what products have you released more recently?
Most of our development lately has been put into our XSites product. The reality is that typical websites are passive. They often present information to consumers in an anonymous and impersonal way. The clear advantages of that passivness are that customers can get information they need any time, day or night from the comfort of their own home or office without being “hounded” by a salesperson. The disadvantage, however, is that typical websites don’t give customers personal interactive service that a home loan requires. And in today’s climate, personal service could be the key differentiator in someone’s choosing one LO over another.
To combat this, our XSites now include XSites Desktop – a simple program that constantly pushes information to the website’s owner. Now we’re working on different “Plug-ins” that will be released to the XSites Desktop over time.
We currently have three Plug-Ins for XSites Desktop for mortgage pro’s.
Loan Application Plug-in
The Loan App plug-in shows a live view of all your loan apps either in-progress or completed on a Mortgage XSite. It also interfaces with your LOS – including Calyx Point® - to export loan apps and push status information back to the XSite where borrowers, agents, or anyone else in the process are notified through either e-mail, status login or both.
This one is in a free “public beta” until March this year. Collaborator puts you in complete control of the experience of visitors on your XSite. It alerts you instantly when a visitor arrives at your site, shows you exactly what pages they’re looking at, and even shows you their physical location. It also enables a two way chat that can be initiated by either the XSite owner or the web visitor.
The customer reaction to this one has been just incredible! Our customers are now capitalizing instantly on their web traffic. It’s really cool.
Performance Index Plug-in
We built this plug-in because we understand that marketing (especially on the Web) is hard work. And it’s still uncharted territory for most LO’s. The Performance Index Plug-in measures the overall effectiveness of an LO’s website and gives it a score. We then proactively make suggestions on ways our customers can improve their customer’s website experience, search engine rankings, and lead generation. Now instead of having to research and interpret website visitor statistics and formulate a plan, our customers just have to check their Performance Index score and follow the action plan we lay out for them.
What can we expect to see from a la mode in the future?
Simply said – more of the same. We will continue to push the envelope, develop products that anticipate market changes and answer to market demands. We pride ourselves on being able to turn on a dime and will continue to change and grow with our customers.
To learn more about a la mode, and their products visit www.alamode.com.
Brad Eaton is the product manager in charge of a la mode’s Mortgage XSites, SureDocs and all other mortgage products. He’s been with a la mode for over 6 years during which time he’s been involved in all aspects of our appraisal, agent and mortgage products. Brad is a regular presence at NAMB, MBA, MBA Tech and FAMB where you many have met him at our trade show booth. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife and two children and enjoys fly fishing, 4 wheeling in his Jeep and of course computers and technology.