Not so long ago, the best estate agents were those who did the best work for their clients and therefore built a positive reputation which, through word of mouth, fed them with a constant stream of business.
I have said before that estate agents had soul. They were experts and lived and breathed their market.
This was the only way to survive in residential property - put happy people in homes and leave them satisfied that they have spent the right money on the right place and paid a fair commission to the agent for a job very well done.
Move forward to today and things have changed. The new breed of agent, ‘Onbrid’ (my term for the online and hybrid combo) agents, seem increasingly unfussed about client satisfaction and their systems and processes are top of their agenda (I have said this before - they are great systems but they lack the soul). They no longer seem to gain clients on reputation, instead by undercutting competition on price. They also seem to place less importance on customer reviews and word of mouth when it comes to business development
It seems that, in many ways, the rise of the internet has greatly devalued the customer review (both for Onbrids and traditional agents) because the response to them is usually, ‘Ah, we can ignore most of that because people only write online reviews when they’re angry, therefore they don’t really reflect how our customers actually feel.’
Or, even worse: ‘It doesn’t matter if our reviews are bad because we’re still putting up the required numbers to satisfy the stakeholders and continue scaling.’
The customer review, when published online, has lost a lot of its influence to inform the behaviour and practices of our industry. How can that be true?
Rightmove, Zoopla, OnTheMarket, Purplebricks, Emoov; all of these companies appear to judge their own success by how many properties they have shifted, listed, or flipped, their all-important market share, and the number of agency branches they can onboard.
To intensify this issue, many of our industry media outlets seem to play along, publishing stories which attribute success and failure based on stone cold stats and figures, not by how well they serve the customer.
‘Customer first’ a thing of the past?
All of this combines to beg the question - is the end user really benefiting from technology in residential property, or are we simply an industry so fixated on taking agency online that we failed to ensure that the people we are serving are actually any better off?
If you try and tell me that online hybrids offer ‘low fixed fees’ because they want their clients to make as much money as possible from their property sale, I’ll tell you that you’re not nearly cynical enough to see the true picture.
They are offering low fixed fees because that’s how they think they’re best going to tempt customers away from high street agents and so-called ‘commissery’.
Before we go on, yes, I am still a strong advocate of PropTech. However, certain corners of our industry are growing toxic and need addressing.
It was in the news yesterday morning, for example, that a hybrid agent, this one based in Manchester, has designs to spread across the UK.
If you can tell me how its business model is making life better for customers compared to other hybrids, please do. Its offering is essentially identical to numerous other outfits and yet it will tell you it’s better.
Nobody in the real world cares about market share or friction between tradition and technology, that is simply the fodder of industry press and shop talk.
All the people are looking for is good service and good value for money at one of the most financially significant moments of their life. They do not expect to become a pawn in the bitter back-and-forth between online and high street.
And they do not want to instruct their home to any particular company simply to add to the numbers which will then be taken to the stakeholders to receive a big thumbs-up.
All they want is good service and value for money - I’m repeating that because it seems to have been forgotten.
Why are we so often considering customers to be little more than the trappings of victory for our internal battle royale?
Creative energy being drained
My other concern around all of this is, why are we already rehashing existing ideas? Have we really run out of creative steam this early on in our industry’s life?
I have said this before in this article, too. Stop doing that thing of following the crowd with the same old thing. Imagine if music had stopped evolving in 1650 - we’d all be playing lutes and watching viral videos of waltz-fails.
With yet another online agent spreading its wings, one has to wonder if all original thought has been used up already.
If the PropTech industry is a vast field, then great ideas are wild flowers. When we first walked into the field, there were hundreds, thousands, of unique and beautiful wild flowers waiting to be picked. But, over time, the number of flowers in the field has decreased, the number of undiscovered, unique flowers even more so.
But, we’ve all found such great success and so enjoyed these years of pickling flowers that, despite there being very few remaining, we have little interest in stopping.
Inevitably, the result of this is people picking the same breed of flowers, but in the hope of prolonging time spent in the field, all attempts are made to justify the slight differences between this bluebell here in my hand, and the bluebells which were picked years ago.
We only have one field, so if we’re not going to stop picking we need to start planting too.
Rather than picking and repicking the same flowers, we need to be experimenting with cross-pollination in order to take the best, most beautiful aspects of one species, and blend them with those of another, create something new and altogether better.
If we don’t do this, before long, our field will be brown, dry, and lifeless.
I still believe that tech is the future of property
As a self-proclaimed PropTech evangelist, it’s no easy decision to write an article like this which, on the surface, could be read as an anti-tech piece, even though I would argue it’s not, but sometimes things need to be said.
My overall concern is for the sheer amount of investment and column inches that these copycat companies are receiving. Everything they are given is something not given to a truly helpful, truly original, truly forward thinking, and truly beneficial PropTech solution.
Every time one of these copycat companies promises their client one thing and delivers something totally different, the reputation of our entire industry takes another hit.
Every time the Advertising Standards Authority is forced to slap the wrist of a dishonest or misleading PropTech TV advert, I feel sad for all of those people around us who have worked so hard to build what we have.
And this misleading advertising comes from who? The online agents and hybrids who spend so much time describing how dishonest and seedy traditional real estate agents are.
Perhaps it is part of the human condition to want everything without having to earn it. And that would by why so many people try to set up businesses which have already existed for years.
Perhaps it is part of the human condition to be self-centred in success and bombastic against criticism. If so, can we retain the capacity to be magnanimous in order to best serve the customer.
I sincerely hope so because ours is a special industry, an industry which doesn’t just deal in products and services, it deals with security, happiness, warmth, aspiration, and inheritance.
If we lost sight of this, we are simply playing shop with people’s lives.
*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator. You can follow him on Twitter here.