Here’s an unusual story, describing the work of one of Purplebricks’ Local Property Experts who was with the company for around 18 months before leaving last year.
Ian Foster, who now runs his own business in Cornwall unconnected with property, approached Estate Agent Today to give an inside story of life as an LPE; it’s a very fair well-rounded description of the job and the working atmosphere, with much that he likes as well as those aspects that eventually led him to quit the position.
Although this is his personal experience of Purplebricks, Ian has also worked with a High Street agency and as a US realtor so ‘knows his way around’ agency. We’ve interviewed him because few former LPEs go on record, and because of the industry’s enduring interest in how Purplebricks and other online agencies work.
Ian worked for the agency from February 2017 until July 2018 covering, at different times, parts of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset; he says the patch for which he had responsibility varied partly as numbers of instructions varied, and partly dependent on his and other LPEs’ conversion rate.
The company, he says, set a target of 40 per cent conversion of visits to instructions and he averaged around 50 per cent. “Because the training at Purplebricks was so good, it was not really difficult to hit 40 per cent” although he says conversion rates amongst other LPEs varied from around 35 per cent right up to 75 per cent.
One aspect of the company’s approach that he liked in principle was so-called “underpinning” - this was effectively a form of guarantee that an LPE would take home (in his case) £2,000 a month even if their actual conversion rate fell lower. “They really look after you in that regard” he says.
The training itself, as has been widely reported in the trade press, involves two weeks, usually at the company’s Midlands headquarters. Ian was one of around 32 being trained in one group at the time.
“They were very long days and the two weeks ended in a test. The first week is very intensive, all about ‘you’. It wasn’t unusual for people to break down a little, talk about their drinking or their drug taking or their affairs. The second week was in my opinion very high pressure, about the company and winning instructions mostly. It was relentless but extremely effective” he adds.
However, he says there was no training in how to manage accounts or run a business - which, as self-employed LPEs they had to do.
On the controversial topic of customer reviews, Ian describes extreme top-down pressure to secure good Trustpilot feedback from vendors - sometimes even from just those would-be vendors who had asked for a valuation from Purplebricks.
“At times around 80 per cent of the communication we got about customers was ‘get the Trustpilot, get the Trustpilot’. Most customers go three reminders by text or email and the LPEs were then asking them to review as well.”
If there was a problem - like the property not selling or a customer being unhappy about some aspect of the LPE’s progress-chasing - it was in Ian's experience “pretty common” for LPEs to refer upwards for agreement to refund the customer, or at least reduce their fee.
He estimates around 50 per cent of all Purplebricks instructions went on to actually complete their sales.
But despite suggestions to the contrary in some quarters, there was never any sign of any financial incentive being given to customers to provide positive reviews.
It was on the subject of the broader day-to-day work of the LPE that Ian explained why he ended his time with Purplebricks: it was in his experience, he says, “just relentless pressure.”
Partly this was down to LPEs needing to be working long hours to provide a good income. Ian himself says his annual salary was only around £26,000 at best, although he knew of “very very rare” examples of LPEs earning £40,000 or more.
His best month’s income was £2,700 before expenses - he had to pay for his own petrol and other running costs, and the west country patch he covered was partly rural so had substantial distances between customers, costing time and money.
“The problem was it became a 7am until 11pm job. It was relentless. You drive to the customers to win instructions, then you’re available all day long for customers to ask you questions - and they expected you to be a 24 hour service” he recalls.
“The company spoke about the importance of a work/life balance but in the end for me it was work, work, work. There was no balance if you wanted a decent income and to provide a good service to customers.”
The pressure was worsened, he says, because the company did not always have staff available for those customers who paid additionally for an accompanied viewings package, meaning the LPE was often called upon to step in.
However, Ian says it wasn’t always like that.
“When I started at PB the central support team was a joy, LPEs could call in and get answers and also help customers that way.” But then the system changed in late 2017. “LPEs were banned from calling in and had to email instead which slowed everything down hugely and hurt customer service a great deal. I wrote to Michael Bruce saying this was a bad move and that the LPE was an extension of the customer and all this did was hurt the customer but the decision stood.”
That total volume of pressure, increasing during his time with the firm, is why he estimates only four of the 32 people in his original training cohort are still with Purplebricks, and why his own accountant said to him: “Ian, I’ve never anyone with such high expenses for so little income.”
Ian left the firm in the summer of 2018 and gave 30 days notice but was instead asked to leave immediately after saying he would be moving on. He was paid his 30 days notice but did not have, he claims, any opportunity to say goodbye to his customers or to have a transition period passing business to a successor LPE.
Ian insists that Purplebricks is “an excellent concept” but suffers from too little support for customers and LPEs, and therefore risks over-promising to vendors.
He now works with his wife running a business unconnected with estate agency and property.