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PropTech Today: What’s the true value of an estate agent in the world of tech?

Is there really any true value to an estate agent in our current climate?

Will there be a role for traditional agents in the future as technology and automation take over?

I can’t say for sure, but I have a hunch there will be fewer agents around.


However, those that are part of the ecosystem will be vital; they will be the binding agent that brings it all together.

Tech can and will only go so far. Empathy, understanding and trust will be overriding factors, guiding people through complex processes. 

That is, of course, on the assumption that people will still view homes as they are today; our castle.

This doesn’t take into account theories around future, more transient populations, around whether we ever need to move as virtual worlds and real worlds collide giving us flexibility as to how we live our lives and in what surroundings. But that is an entirely different article and not for now. 

The journey

What is clear is that the past two months of my journey into trying to sell and then letting my flat has been of interest to a lot of you. Never have I had the engagement before (comments, e-mails, tweets) interested in what I was doing. 

I have been asked by a few people to pull together all my articles into one post, so here are the weeks that have gone by: 

Part One - putting my money where my mouth is - nearly 4,500 reads
Part Two - comparing valuations - 4,300 reads (I still can’t believe only one got there on time)
Part Three - putting the onus on the individual - 4,000 reads - such a clever pyschological change
Part Four - systems over community - 3,500 reads - still my most important takeaway
Part Five - technology solutions; is this even legal? - 4,600 reads
Part Six - even tech can’t help a quiet market - 3,900 reads - my most tweeted and commented
Part Seven - the switch to lettings. Who won?

There were two very clear takeaways that I want to discuss here: 

Tech enabled process are a risk to the profession

As you will see in part four, I was most impressed with the systems from Emoov. This was repeated in part seven with Upad. Their systems just worked. I suggest this would also be the same for the others as well; it just so happened I went with those guys on this occassion. 

The point was that they did most of the donkey work that an agent has to do. All the vendor feedback, booking of viewings, advert approval; almost all the support services that we have all done. 

This is the key to our future profession. We need a greater understanding and flexibility around what are jobs actually are and mean to an organisation.

What we are doing today will not be what we are doing in five years. Automation of 'tasks' will mean our job requirements will change and we have to be prepared for that. 

Indeed, a report by Mckinsey states that up to 60% of jobs will have at least 30% of the tasks or activities automated in due course. This is the key bit. The tasks but not the jobs. Jobs will evolve and shift. You just need to be prepared to shift with them. Be prepared to do things you weren’t initially prepared for. 

To quote Mckinsey here “...it is important to note, however, that even when some tasks are automated, employment in those occupations may not decline, but rather workers may perform new tasks”. 

However, this is where I disagree, there will, at least in the short-term, be job losses. Do yourself a favour. Don’t stick your head in the sand. Understand these new systems and work with them, not against them. 

Let me suggest that all the systems employed by the likes of Emoov, need to find a home in the traditional agent. You need systems like Hystreet (full disclosure on being an investor in Hysteet) to give you solutions that will compete.

You then need to look at viewing solutions like Viewber to help you manage remote viewings or just provide a damn good service that will compliment your existing arrangement. Prior to physical viewings, investigate, 360 imagery with companies like Eyespy360 and Giraffe.

All of these will fundamentally impact your bottom line. They will make you more efficient and help you scale the business and question where you are taking it all.

As for negotiators, what do they have that no system has? Empathy, compassion, trust. Set them free with all of that. Get rid of the stuff they are either not good at, have no time to deal with (we all know the neg or manager with a desk that looks like a bomb has just gone off) and give them the stuff that they excel at. 

What will this mean? Will the same number of managers/valuers/negotiators be needed? Probably not, and this is a tough position to be in but a realistic one. Don’t risk delaying what is possibly an inevitable situation. However, those employees should be doing what they are amazing at. Let them deal with people. 

The systems can’t compete. People buy from people. People trust people, but people aren’t always available. Give clients access to systems for binary, process-driven work and your best and most skilled personnel for the really important bits; helping them in the transaction and making their dreams come true. 

Lettings lettings lettings

It's quite obvious from above that I spent six parts of the series - which equated to about eight weeks in the end - talking about sales. Then I spent just one part talking about lettings. Within about four days of the switch, I received a two year, full asking price deal and a move-in that weekend. 

Lettings is crazy fast as many of you will know (and what I used to love so much about it) and I think this is one of the largest challenges for the 'onbrids'. 

Lettings is quite often a forced transaction. Tenant hands in notice and it is like a stopwatch that  is ticking. The opportunity for research rather than just sticking with what you know is slim. Tick tock, tick tock. You don’t have time as you are panicking that your tenant is about to leave and please let's not talk about void periods. Not void periods. Please no. 

Upad were great. They balanced systems with human feedback and nurture. Openrent surprised me given what I had heard. Their onboarding was solid - though they didn’t pick up on my deliberate mistake as you will read if you look through part seven again - and I had about five solid viewing requests within 48 hours - suggesting that these were not Rightmove/Zoopla leads, but existing ones from their database (maybe systems can work after all?). 

If I was a new lettings PropTech looking at competing with Upad or the like, I just wouldn’t get involved. I genuinely believe you have to see the 'customer acquisition' as a two step process. 

Step one: get them registering with you and understanding your model. Possibly having a ‘first instruction free’ incentive to get details knowing you may not have time to rent it this first time.

Step two: get the retention instruction i.e. 6 months down the line you know of the break clause so they may come back on. This time it will be more of a level playing field. 

This isn’t good for a new company with no traction. Uninvestable, I would say. Upad have that market. They have the numbers. 

Having said all of that, lettings is wide open for tech enablement. The point of sale is all about speed but lettings processes are all about doing the right thing at the right time.

There is no wonder I hear so much about tech investment in this area. The challenge is the complexity and legislation attached. It will really take people who understand this area to drive the efficiency. 

Let me just mention one other thing here. I have been dealing with other high street rental agencies these past few weeks. It is amazing how bad some can be. It is all down to the individual. Lettings needs be considered as an equal to sales. It needs people with different, but no less important, skills.

As with everything in all businesses, if you put bad people into an area of the business, it will damage the whole business.

Evolving job roles

Going through this experience has really shown me the importance of people on the process. However, I do feel that there will be changes in coming years. People will be displaced from jobs that no long require their skill sets. Those left will have their roles changed hugely to more people centric positions.

Tech will remove some of the day to day cr@p we have to deal with, but we still need to consider customer experience as central to our businesses. 

Realise that and you will do well in coming years. Bury your head in the sand and you may as well keep digging. 

*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator. You can follow him on Twitter here.


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