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Guild chief says "aggressive" online agency marketing "lacks integrity"

The new chief executive of the Guild of Property Professionals has accused some online agents of carrying out “aggressive” marketing campaigns that have been “lacking in integrity.”

Iain McKenzie, speaking at a London seminar discussing online reviews and customer service in the agency industry, told the audience that traditional estate agents had behaved in “a very British way”, suggesting they had been reluctant to speak out against some online competitors.

Without naming any company he said that it was curious that some online agencies appeared to have more positive online reviews that they had ever had properties listed.

He specifically excluded eMoov from his comments; the same event, organised by online review company Feefo, also heard from Julie Morrissey, customer service manager at eMoov, who explained the process her agency used to vet online reviews.

The debate - which also included James Wyatt, partner at the Surrey agency Barton Wyatt, and business coach and author Paul Wearmouth - centred around new research conducted by Feefo suggesting an increasing number of home buyers and renters rely on reviews to inform their decision making when selecting an agent. 

This was particularly the case for 25 to 34-year-olds, where 70 per cent say they rely chiefly on reviews when selecting. 

However, trust in reviews remains a major issue, with only one in 10 respondents stating that they completely trust the reviews they read.

“As the younger generations enter the property market, estate agents will be increasingly judged through online reviews” says Matt West, chief marketing officer of Feefo. “Yet trust in the reviews themselves is evidently very important to these savvy consumers. Estate agents should therefore consider ways to guarantee that legitimate and transparent reviews are readily available to potential customers.”

The survey also revealed that trust in estate agents was seen as important for 28 per cent of consumers when choosing, with knowledge of the local market seen as the dominant factor by 42 per cent of consumers when they had properties valued. 

The research also reveals that consumers have more positive attitudes towards estate agents than commonly supposed, with 88 per cent of consumers saying they were satisfied with the service they received from the last agent they used. 

However, paperwork was identified as a grievance that the largest proportion of customers (46 per cent) would love to see technology sort out for them. Next on the list was reference-checking (36 per cent), followed by booking appointments (34 per cent).

“These results clearly show the positive work estate agents are doing to make sure customers are satisfied in the levels of service provided,” says the Guild’s Iain Mckenzie. “It’s refreshing to see that whilst there are problems, customers are confident that technology can help resolve these issues in the near future.”

Emerging technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence are anticipated by 32 per cent of consumers to improve levels of service when engaging with estate agents. More than a quarter (26 per cent) of the 16-to-24 age group had the greatest level of belief that technology will transform estate agency.

Low fees are considered the most important deciding factor by 35 per cent of consumers choosing between online-only and traditional estate agents and quality of service is almost as decisive a factor for 34 per cent of consumers.

The research, commissioned by Feefo and conducted by polling organisation Censuswide, involved 1,152 individuals who had used estate and letting agents.

The debate was moderated by Estate Agent Today editor Graham Norwood and a comprehensive summary of what was said follows below, written by Conor Shilling from Angels Media - it was a very well-informed debate, and the report below makes fascinating reading.

Feefo property panel debate - Lifting the lid on customer service 

Hosted by Feefo at the DMA House, Central London

Industry panel debate moderated by property journalist Graham Norwood

Panel: Julie Morrissey, customer service manager at eMoov; Iain McKenzie, chief executive of the Guild of Property Professionals; Paul Wearmouth, speaker, business coach and author; and James Wyatt, partner at Barton Wyatt.

Customer satisfaction and communication

The debate used Feefo's latest research report titled: Exploring Consumer Attitudes Towards Estate Agents as a springboard for the debate. Graham Norwood kicked off proceedings by quoting Feefo's finding that 52% of consumers say the last estate agent they used was efficient and effective. 

Iain McKenzie said he was 'frustrated' to see the figure at 52% as this means there are 48% of consumers who weren't satisfied. He said that in his experience customer satisfaction levels should be around 75%. McKenzie believes dissatisfaction may be borne from the stress caused by ‘transferring control of the selling of a prize asset’.

He said, therefore, that it is the best estate agents who give back control through being 'expert communicators' and 'great storytellers'. Before becoming chief executive of the Guild, McKenzie worked as a retail director at Countrywide. He said that he often dealt with the complaints process at the UK's largest estate agency and that the biggest frustration was not the case notes and care taken by the agent, which he said was often 'exceptional', but rather the failure to articulate to the client exactly where something had gone wrong. He concluded by saying that better communication from agents will result in a better public perception of the industry.

James Wyatt explained that he believed the 48% of unsatisfied consumers could largely be put down to staff training. He said his firm spends a lot of time training each other and that they 'strive all the time to provide an absolutely perfect service'. He noted that in terms of public perception, estate agents are no longer 'bottom of the pile', overtaking MPs and journalists.

eMoov representative Julie Morrissey said that at the online firm 'customer service is an obsession' from chief executive Russell Quirk, all the way down the business. She said an example of this is giving clients updates even when there is not necessarily something to update on. 

Morrissey said that training at eMoov is a constant and on-going process. She said they use reviews - positive and negative - to train staff as well as private interactions with customers. 

Paul Wearmouth then said that the customer experience is 'powerful' and that agents need to be aware of how important this interaction is. He explained that agents may only have up to three seconds for a prospective client to 'buy-in' or 'buy-out' of their brand. He stressed that something as simple as a smile or handshake could make all the difference.

The moderator then asked the panel if there is one thing they would change to improve customers' experience with agents. 

Iain McKenzie said agents need to do more to improve the language they use in communications with clients. The Guild chief used the example of referring to certain purchasers as 'cash buyers'. He added that he is an 'advocate' of 'interim courtesy calls'. McKenzie then said that agents need to stop assuming consumer knowledge.

Paul Wearmouth argued that agents need to find out what the process is like from the customer's point of view. He said it is key to find out 'what is most important' to each particular customer and ‘what motivates them'.

James Wyatt added that 'keeping in touch' remains of utmost importance, even though most agents are under 'enormous time pressure'. He described email communication as a 'modern scourge' and said he feels people still want to ‘pick up the phone’. He said this is particularly important for his firm as it sells £10-20 million properties in Surrey's Virginia Water which could be on the market for long periods of time and therefore keeping in contact is a minimum requirement.

At this point, a member of the audience contributed to the debate. Rowena Wild, a former managing director of Chestertons and now working as a business coach and consultant, argued that sometimes contact can be 'destructive'. She explained that agents need to think about what the client wants to hear before contacting them and prepare for their conversation accordingly.

Also from the floor, Simon Brown, managing director of the ETAS, raised the issue of working out a client's preferred method of contact. He said it could work well for agents to ask their clients to say up front whether they'd prefer to be contacted by phone or email. 

Rolf Groenewold, managing director of industry supplier KeyAGENT, then spoke about 'delivering the unexpected' and how a firm he admires challenged its staff not to have the fastest calls, but the longest calls. Groenewold went on to say that word of mouth is the 'greatest form of marketing'.

Technology in agency

The debate then moved on to technology and specifically Feefo's finding that 46% of consumers want technology to sort out paperwork.

Iain McKenzie went on to say that younger generations 'want tech', but that the most prolific movers are actually 45 to 65-year-olds. He said that it must be recognised that 'revolution' in the agency sector has been 'sector-led, not consumer-led'.

Julie Morrissey said that she believes in a 'blend' of technology and 'human support’. She said eMoov is always keen to use technology, but that they have to bear in mind that not every consumer is tech-savvy.

Graham Norwood then carried out a straw poll of the room, asking which method of contact the audience would prefer from an agent: phone or email. Around two thirds of the room voted for email, with the moderator pointing out that a cross-section of ages voted for both options so it's not necessarily an age-specific issue.

The next subject of the debate concerned routine technology and more specialist technology and how they can impact customer service. 

Julie Morrissey explained that eMoov offers its customers the opportunity to book viewing appointments online and over the phone. She said that a high percentage of eMoov customers like to book online. 

Iain McKenzie added that he would encourage routine activity such as booking viewings to be carried out online but that the ability to vet applicants could therefore be lost and should be considered.

James Wyatt said that his firm has recently started to take appointment bookings via an app receiving a strong take-up so far. 

From the floor, Rowena Wild said that in essence the idea of booking appointments online is 'wonderful' but that she recently booked eight appointments with different agents - none of whom responded to confirm the meeting. Wild said this is an opportunity to find out more about applicants and shouldn't be neglected.

Julie Morrissey explained that eMoov takes online bookings 24/7, with a particular spike during weekday lunchtimes.

James Wyatt disputed this and said that his firm only experiences a small rise during the lunch period and that the busiest weekday time for online bookings is 7.30pm to 10.00pm. He said that overall the most online activity occurs on a Sunday, but that it is largely dependent on what is on TV and particularly high profile sporting events. He said he is expecting a spike in online activity this coming Bank Holiday Monday.

The debate then moved from routine technology such as online bookings to more advanced technology like virtual reality.

James Wyatt talked about how his firm adopted video brochures in 2014. He said they purchased 1,000 at £30 each but ended up having to throw the majority away as they were 'clunky' and people 'just didn't like them'.

Wyatt then spoke about how his firm has adopted virtual reality technology through supplier Matterport. He said that some 60% of Barton Wyatt's tenants are American and that 80% of these use VR to view rental properties.

Iain McKenzie said that advanced technology provides a great opportunity for the new build industry and particularly off plan homes. He added that it is also good for lettings due to the short-term nature of many rentals, but urged caution on the sales side.

From the audience, James Lockett, eMoov’s PR manager, then explained how for his firm technology adds value ‘within the office’ and not just directly to consumers. He said that a ‘slicker’ and more ‘efficient’ back-end system frees up agents to chase and contact clients.

Graham Norwood then asked Lockett if eMoov has called a halt to its consumer-facing tech. Lockett used the example of VR and said that for customers of eMoov the main considerations are price and customer service and so add-ons like VR are not always necessary.

From the floor, Peter Burnham, managing director of full service marketing agency Niche Communications, said that VR has been an instruction-winner for his firm's clients. He added that he has seen a trend of overseas landlords using VR technology to carry out mid-term property inspections and that, for him, the advent of VR is the biggest industry flashpoint since the introduction of Energy Performance Certificates.

Online vs. traditional

The debate then moved to online vs. traditional agency and the impact of reviews.

Julie Morrissey said that between 75%-78% of consumers that eMoov speak to come from word of mouth recommendations or online reviews. She said that ‘price isn’t why people come to us. Reviews drive our sign-ups’.

On the subject of fees, Morrissey said that for consumers in the North of England, eMoov’s up-front fee my not seem quite so cost-effective due to lower house prices and average agency fees.

Iain McKenzie then referenced the quote ‘cost is an issue in the absence of value’. He said that there is an issue with agents associating the fee with only one side of the property transaction. He said that agents need to focus on selling someone’s home and then organising their next purchase. 

McKenzie then said that online agency offers a ‘fantastic’ opportunity for customers so long as it’s provided with ‘integrity’. He argued that some consumers are not equipped to deal with the hands-on approach of the online model and that in this scenario online agents should tell them they need to use a hybrid or traditional agent, rather than taking the instruction. 

Audience member Donald Collins, director of Go View London, then said that traditional agents have a problem in that they haven’t been able to successfully ‘define’ online agents to consumers. ‘They’ve been able to define us earlier than we’ve defined them,’ he said.

Iain Mckenzie agreed, saying that traditional agents have been ‘very British’ about the online debate. He said that online agents have carried out an ‘aggressive’ and ‘overt’ marketing campaign that has at times displayed a ‘lack of integrity’.

Paul Wearmouth then urged all agents to put their prices up. He said the ‘human element’ of agency will ‘never be taken away’ and asked why, therefore, people shouldn’t be charged accordingly for it.

Online reviews

The final section of the debate focused on reviews and their impact on an agency. The discussion was kickstarted by referencing Feefo’s finding that 56% of consumers use reviews to choose an estate agent. 

Paul Wearmouth said that online reviews are ‘massively powerful’ and that their use in all industries will continue to grow. He explained that reviews have the ability to ‘change emotions’ and ‘impact decisions’.

The panel were then asked whether they look at and respond to their own reviews. Iain McKenzie stressed that ‘we need to be careful with reviews’ because agency works within a ‘conflict industry’ where agents are continually working with consumers who have opposing objectives. 

He talked about how agents can receive a ‘bad review for the right reasons’. He used the example of an agent being ‘pushy’ and ‘facilitating’ a move for a client. He said this could be considered ‘great agency’ but that it may unsettle one side of the transaction. 

Julie Morrissey said that eMoov contacts customers who leave both good and bad reviews and they are shared amongst staff. She said that chief executive Russell Quirk personally replies to reviews and that they actively influence eMoov’s service offering. 

Her colleague James Lockett then added that around 20% of the online agent’s monthly revenue is generated by its refer a friend scheme. He said that the initiative, which is based on word of mouth recommendations, provides around a quarter of eMoov’s monthly listings and is therefore ‘extremely cost-effective’.

One of the concluding viewpoints then came from Peter Burnham of Niche Communications. He said his firm was an early adopter of Feefo and that ‘reviews are incredibly valuable to understanding your own business’. He said that estate agents’ approach towards online reviews has evolved massively in the past five years.

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    Whatever the arguments about Online v Traditional, it's the increasing obsession with reviews that is most interesting to me. We seem to be heading toward a world where we lose all ability to make a judgement call on our own needs and by trawling reviews online we are actually relying on someone else making decisions for us.

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