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PropTech Today: Trust - the fundamental flaw at the heart of tech-driven business

Even if you didn’t watch it, you’ve almost certainly heard about it by now. 

The recent BBC Watchdog exposé of Purplebricks has been headline news, and that’s mainly because, rather than the industry complaining, it’s the general public who have had their say.

How has it come to this? The residential property market is an industry built on a foundation of trust and most of the best PropTech that has been introduced over the years has either actively worked to promote transparency, or has come from startups that have grown in a consciously transparent manner - often this is part of the appeal for the consumers using the tech and the driving force for some of the adoption.  

Just as people have always needed to trust their agent, they need to trust technology. For the general public Purplebricks are representative of the whole online agency business model; in many ways, they are representing PropTech itself. 

We have to assume, at the very least, that an exposé such as this one makes the public rethink whether or not they’re willing to place faith in an online estate agent. And the most frustrating part is, the business model of online agency is wonderful. I’m all for it; it’s simple evolution. 

Other online companies, eMoov being one example, are championing the online model while also promoting the traditional values of property and it was interesting to note that Watchdog had nothing bad to say about the model at all. But, online reviews (which have also been brought into question too with the transparency of the Trust Pilot Reviews) and programmes like this latest one on Purplebricks will badly burn what is a natural evolution of the traditional estate agency system.

I have spoken endlessly about the digital transformation of property, and I fully support attempts to replicate our industry's practices online, perpetually evolving as technology advances. But the only way we succeed, or fail, is by having, or not having, the trust of the general public.It is they who drive our profits, sustain our lifestyles, put petrol in our cars and send our kids to university.  

I think what I’m trying to say here is, I sincerely hope we all learn from the mistakes of others and ensure that never again do we pull the wool over our customers’ eyes. Technology is an enabler of transparency so we should ensure we don’t forget that.

PropTech is an industry that is trying so hard to win favour on all fronts, facing wave after wave of questioning and suspicion (more so from the industry itself). It will only be when we have proven to our customers, beyond doubt, that we can be trusted to represent them and fight for their best interests that we can be confident of our industry’s future. 

You can’t buy trust, not even with a the bank balance of a unicorn; trust must be earnt, and most of us are working incredibly hard to do so. 

One of the things I am proud of most is that the industry I’m evangelical about, PropTech, has struggled and fought to get where it is now and has still managed to ensure that the interests of the customer always come first. We have proven that if you work with this philosophy, the rewards will soon come, and when they do, they’ll be bountiful.

The worst case scenario for PropTech is entirely losing the trust of the market. If that happens, it’s game over for all of us. We’ll have to retrain, or get a bar job; maybe wait tables in the West End, false smiles, living off tips. 

Purplebricks, last week, brought us a step closer to the worst case scenario and it’s up to all of us to pull the reputation back up to where we worked so hard to get it in the first place. Online, or a hybridisation of, agency is the future, I just hope, when we get there, we can be proud of the services we provide and can stand by the statements we are making.

*James Dearsley is founder of the Digital Marketing Bureau and a PropTech communicator. To sign up to James’ Sunday PropTech Review, click here.

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