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By James Dearsley

Co-Founder, Unissu


PropTech Today: A lesson about agents, technology and human contact

Everyone thought John Bercow was short. It probably didn’t help that I was on stage just before him. 5ft 6 versus 6ft 5 isn’t really fair.

And so the story started of the two pre-lunch keynote speeches at The Negotiator Conference last week.

There was me talking about change in our sector and there was Bercow talking about the huge political change going on around us.


It may have been no surprise, therefore, that ‘free of the shackles of office’, he was able to make his opinions clear about Brexit. The general gist of it being that this is the biggest mistake the nation could make and that we will be debating the issue for the next five, 10 and even 15 years.

Mistakes were also a theme in my speech. The concluding slide states that the biggest mistake our sector can make is to do nothing.

This was preceded by various slides looking at how to deal with digital transformation and how PropTech adoption needs four key ingredients: education, engagement, enablement, and encouragement.

Therefore, perhaps the biggest surprise this week came via the contradictory remarks by the NAEA Propertymark chief executive, Mark Hayward. However, I am very aware that I am quoting him third-hand through a Telegraph article that was filled with inaccuracies.

We have reached ‘peak PropTech’, apparently, and he said “there are so many products being punted at [agents] on a daily basis to solve problems that [agents] didn’t actually know they had.”

This is a regular criticism laid at the door of PropTech and I can’t disagree entirely with the latter point, but perhaps this is itself part of the issue.

Excuse the direct Unissu-related point here, but this is exactly why we released our own PropTech procurement tool - we feel that there is a trend of reactivity to solution provision.

Agents should be on the front foot and be proactive, not just reactive, as to the solutions they require, otherwise they may end up making the wrong decision or waste a lot of time doing exactly as Mark said; finding a solution to a problem they didn’t know they had.

Looking at it more generally, and perhaps naively, technological solution provision is, to paraphrase ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, about skating to where the puck is going, not where it has been.

A lot of innovators and entrepreneurs will live and die by the point of predicting the future. Therefore, this Gretsky quote is part of their innovation lexicon - they live and die by it.

Let me be clear. I am not sure that this is the right thing to do. We can only ever really guess as to where the puck is going. But our odds of getting right are much better if our guesses are qualified through customer research.

As I said to the audience of estate agents at the conference, know your audience. Know what their pain points and most importantly, understand what you mean to them. This is how you can best predict what your next move should be. 

What is your value proposition to your customer?

This is the key question for everyone, regardless of whether you’re an estate agent or a PropTech founder. Understand your customer and you will soon understand your business’ future, however uncomfortable that may be.

Take, for example, the deliberately-timed and deliberately contentious article in The Scotsman from David Alexander, of DJ Alexander, who was on one of the panels later on in the day at the conference.

Whilst it was obviously self-promotional given DJ Alexander’s Apropos online tenant and landlord management system, there has obviously been some thought gone into it.

The same can be said for the huge push being undertaken for more broker-led models in the UK. Whilst I understand the risks involved, I understand, in uncertain times, why there is an attraction there both for the business as well as for the broker.

What we are talking about are two valuable assets for the customer (and also the estate agent). The security of using a brand but the importance of knowledge, empathy and support of a fantastic individual whose rewards are directly aligned with success.

Asked afterwards, during a video interview, if smartphones would replace estate agents for the buying and letting of a house, I answered with an emphatic no. They will not replace, they will augment.

The job of an estate agent, the job of an estate agency firm, is changing completely. The sooner we realise that the better.

However, one thing I don’t think we can ever replace is the trust that one human being will have in another at critical points.

I remember the point when someone walked into a property I could see instantly that this was the place for them. You noticed their body language change. Their demeanour shifts. Their language gives off those tell-tale signs. You can sense their heartbeat quicken and a rush of adrenalin being released. The anticipation and excitement are palpable.

It is that point that can’t, and shouldn’t, be replaced by technology. It is at this point where your role becomes one of even greater importance. Nurture, empathy, and reassurance are all necessary qualities for this moment when your customer needs you most.

Yes, letting will be almost entirely tech-enabled. Yes, investment properties will be almost entirely driven by technology and data.

However, the movement of a family, a couple, a bachelor and any number of human beings from one stage of life to the next is a critical role you need to grasp.

Everything else is replaceable and you need to get comfortable with that.

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

  • Andrew Stanton PROPTECH-PR A Consultancy for Proptech Founders

    If you believe Proptech is the future within the property industry or not, what is inescapable is the need to know what your client wants and how they want to transact business with you. And now at last with the real cost of tech reducing, these answers can be found

    Proptech has been seen by some as a smorgasbord of solutions, pick the right one and your are in the winners enclosure, for me proptech is the synthesis that has come about because the property client of today wants an omni-channel, seamless, service driven model, not the model of agency that I came into back in the mid 1980's, which still proliferates.

    I agree, the whole model within the property sector has changed, there needs to be a collaborative and engaged and enlightened approach, where the property industry and the proptech industry become an equal marriage, as envisioned by James Dearsley and Eddie Holmes of Unissu and others.

    It is no coincidence that some corporates are in very serious danger, the reason, they had no insight or strategy to move their business model on. Clearly, everyone is doing business from the instrument I am tapping away on, and if I can understand it, then all property professionals need to, as it is no longer business as usual.

    I deal with a lot of extremely good property professionals, hugely experienced, well respected and running extremely profitable businesses, but, at a recent annual awards ceremony I was struck by the number of 'younger' and 'different looking' businesses with quirky dress codes and 'non-agency looking working places' and these were a sizeable section of the of the prize winners. So, if the old guard does not embrace change - sadly I think - they may well be outflanked by the data savvy new kids on the block.


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