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PropTech Today: Agents - here’s why you need to differentiate more

I remember renting flats when I was a 25-year-old negotiator at Foxtons. Many of you will remember my love for the property market at this point in my life, though I had no idea it would end up taking me around the world. I must have got lucky somewhere.

I specifically remember letting flats in the St. George’s Wharf development in Vauxhall and Riverside West, in Wandsworth. I remember showing prospective tenants flat, after flat...after flat. 

Back then, they were all carbon copies of each other. In this development, as is it was with most, other than a different outlook they were essentially the same floorplan. The only differentiator was the furniture. 

There was no way to tell the apartments apart. I remember my client feedback sessions always being the same: “Yours was a great flat. It’s just we have eight others priced the same or cheaper; they went for one of those. The landlord needed someone in and they took a cheap offer.”

There you go, see, a lie. There was a differentiator; price. It was a race to the bottom. If I am being ruthless about it, I used to enjoy those negotiations. There was always another apartment there that someone could go to if the landlord didn’t take the cheeky offer. It meant a deal could be done.

While it was good for me, it was terrible for our client. Their yield always got whacked. Their returns would diminish year on year and no one could see the issue. 

There was no competitive advantage in being the same as everybody else. 

I was considering this on Monday. It was my wife’s (Mrs. D, as some of you know her from my regular Sunday PropTech review where she is often discussed) birthday and I had splashed out. 

Given I am currently flying away again for another conference in a far flung destination, I knew I had to make it special. I got her front row seats at the World ATP Tour tennis championships at the O2. 

This meant not only were we opposite Cristiano Ronaldo, who made a surprise appearance with his son and long-term partner, but also the photographers. This is when this point about differentiation struck me... 

I love photography, so I almost found their chattering and photography bursts as interesting as the tennis itself. Each one had a different camera (or two) with various lengths of super-long lenses. Some were black, others were that cream colour type which likely cost more than a small flat. 

Each time they wanted to take a shot of the tennis, they would all point their lenses the same way, their finger hitting the rapid fire button for a short period of time to ensure they didn’t miss the shot. They would then quickly reflect on their shots, deleting the ones that had Djokovic with his eyes closed, or Isner looking as deflated as he surely felt. 

They would then import into their computer and distribute the photos - most likely to editors or photo stores for people to bid on the photos for publication. Indeed, I saw a few photos online several minutes later; sites like TMZ writing about Ronaldo’s attendance and the ‘fail’ where he managed to drop the ball when he should have caught it. 

My point is this: each of those photographers, and there must have been at least 20 covering the event, had absolutely nothing separating them from each other. To the untrained eye, their images were pretty much identical. What a waste of time. I just couldn’t get my head away from the thought that I would rather stick pins in my eyes than just do what everyone else is doing. 

How would I get any competitive edge doing this? How would I appeal to my audience by just giving them the same image that everyone else was sending them too? It just doesn’t make any sense.

It’s as if we all have to copy each other. 

I remember when Foxtons released their cafe style offices. Everyone laughed. ‘They just look like cafes’, I would hear repeatedly. ‘What a waste of time when they can’t see any properties and it looks like you have no staff’, I would also hear. 

However, given a bit of time, everyone started copying Foxtons. The ceiling-to-floor windows were the first giveaway, those strange alien like chairs were another - all bright colours, if I remember correctly. 

They changed the office experience; made it inviting for people to come in, sit down and have a chat. This was in the early 2000s, and though some have finally caught up with this new style of office, I would argue it isn’t enough. It isn’t a sea change in how agents need to work today. Office rent is a huge overhead so why do we persist in doing it this way? 

This was especially pertinent due to another experience around Mrs. D’s birthday. We all wanted to go out for a restaurant meal; Mrs. D, the boys and I. We decided we wanted to to go Horsham, our local town. We equally decided we wanted to have a drink before we went for a meal. Two boys aged 10 and 8 aren’t really conclusive to a Saturday early evening pub adventure, so we opted for a wine bar-type feel. 

It occurred to me that, only the other week, I had heard of a new initiative in town. I wanted to explore a new option. 

Let me put this in context. During the week I am able to move around a bit. Sometimes I work in Horsham, perhaps, if I have dropped the kids off at school. No one is really open at 8am except one cafe; a new cafe. 

This cafe, however, used to be Mapp and Weston, an estate agent. Whilst the signage outside still has their brand name, it is clearly a coffee shop. Sophia’s, as it is called, after the owner, has evolved from being the estate agent. 

Sophia has a single desk out near the back - “If I have Rightmove, why do I need anything more?” she said to me on Saturday night - more about that in a minute. 

They have transformed an estate agent to a coffee shop, running both businesses simultaneously. Sales at the cafe have been growing month on month, apparently, and inbound enquiries for the estate agency have also been growing (they still have a few property details in the window and a TV screen with revolving property pictures in the cafe - Property Porn and Coffee; who wouldn’t want that?) - give people an informal, unthreatening environment, making money in the process, and deal flow will gradually come in. Maybe not as directly but perhaps more efficiently. 

I only mention this because the runaway success of the cafe has meant that they have now applied for an alcohol licence and it is a lovely bar on a Friday and Saturday night. More ways to use the physical asset of the ‘office’ while building a community around the one-off business wins of selling a property. 

Sophia herself was there on Saturday night, making sure it was all going well. She obviously realises the point that the property market is as much about people as it is about property.

If you give them the right service, if you make the right impression, people will trust you and want to work with you; especially when considering the most important investment of their lives - or at least getting rid of it. 

Back to her statement; “If I have Rightmove, why do I need anything more?”. there is obviously the understanding there that estate agency is evolving. 

The assets at the disposal of the business need to be worked differently. Cash is king and therefore it can’t just be about the property anymore. There needs to be something else. 

I know, I know, this isn’t really a piece about PropTech, but it is a piece about digital transformation, central to this whole movement. Changes to estate agency don’t have to be technologically enabled to prepare us for the future. You just need to do something to differentiate yourself from everybody else doing exactly the same thing. 

My thoughts go back and forth between those photographers at the tennis and estate agents up and down the high street. I hope they are all asking that simple question. How can we do things differently and really make a positive impact our core business?

Perhaps they just need to look outside of the box a little. I know how an estate agent can do this. Not so sure about the photographer, though.

*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator, and is co-founder of PropTech platform Unissu. You can follow James on Twitter here.

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    Mappin and Webb !!! I don't think so.....

  • James Dearsley

    Ha, you are right Robert - apologies - I was typing it all up on the Tube with no Wifi to double check and then had to jump on a flight before proofing. It will be corrected to "Mapp and Webston" or Sophia's Bar as it is also now known

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