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PropTech Today: The negotiator role will disappear - what replaces it?

I don’t want this to be a long piece. I want this to be short and sharp. I want it to set an agenda that people should realise they're not in control of yet, but is already moving rapidly along.

Last week, I talked about planning for the decade ahead for estate agency owners and directors. Not much response on the article itself but a plethora of private comments from people in complete agreement and thanking me for putting a different perspective on it all.

This week, it is the humble estate agent I want to focus on. I might also take a shot at you property managers too...


I think it's probably fair to guess that many didn’t originally set out to be estate agents - I know I certainly didn’t but I fell in love with the profession. It is a career that is often fallen into by chance rather than design.

I have often heard worse things said about property management personnel; they didn’t make the grade for being an estate agent so property management was the fall back.

Sharp, I know, but often somewhat true. These roles are fundamentally changing beyond recognition, partly because of simplicity. The simplicity and repetitive, cyclical nature of most of the tasks that are undertaken each day means that most will soon be done by alternative means.

It is this term ‘task’ that is important. Don’t ever think about your job in any other way than a collection of tasks you are charged with on a daily basis. Most will be replaced by more automation or other technological means.

I urge you to disagree with me, by the way. Tell me I am wrong. Even though I’m not.

The legal industry has also been panicking for sometime now as it realises the same thing. Many of the lawyer's tasks are being automated, slowly but surely replaced.

Some say this is a wonderful thing. Some say they are wanting this to happen ASAP so they can focus on more important jobs that lawyers do. No more of the donkey work.

I could quote endlessly from this article in the New York Times but, in the interests of being short and snappy, I will just link to it and state that experts predict artificial intelligence alone will take care of between 13-25% of a lawyer’s job moving forward.

I have lost count the number of ‘client’ events I have been to on behalf of lawyers in the last 12 months. These ‘client’ events generally turn into events that their own lawyers turn up to, desperate to try and understand their future.

Lawyers are looking to understand two key things: First, as their roles evolve from transactional business (billable hours and the positives and negatives there of, being a huge topic of discussion) to service business, how do they cope?

Second, and perhaps most laughably, are the quiet corner chats with senior partners asking me what other law firms are doing and developing. It is almost embarrassing.

The entire real estate industry is going to be in the same boat as the legal sector. The huge disparity of roles will be impacted differently and over a fluid time period but the quicker you realise it, the better it will be for you personally.

Indeed, I have also had a number of universities calling me, realising that their current undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications are completely irrelevant now.

A notable mention has to go to one professor who looked at me and said, “I have been teaching a valuation module for as long as I have been lecturing. No-one wants to do it anymore as they realise it is a skill they no longer need.”

So, what should you do?

1. Consider if you really really want to be an estate agent.

Tech will get rid of a lot of the donkey work. People will still need estate agents in the short and mid-term and they will need to be seriously good ones - those who understand empathy, those who know what to say at the right moment in order to give reassurance. Those who know the art of negotiating both sides of the deal.

Eventually, we will see the role of ‘negotiator’ disappear, so it's important to understand what will replace it.

2. Consider getting experience in the PropTech sector sooner rather than later, so you can become a more rounded, tech-enabled industry employee.

I was contacted just this morning by a past colleague of mine and the following message demonstrates this sort of attitude:

“After 20 years as a ‘traditional’ agent (most recently as a partner at ‘agency X’ for a near decade), I have embraced the non traditional and joined a firm called ‘firm X. My co-sales director is ‘director X’, another familiar name to you, perhaps? Whereas we think of ourselves as a lettings agent doing things differently, we would be labelled as ‘PropTech’”.

3. Reflect on your current employer and take a view on their strategy.

Does it involve technology at all? Have they got anybody in the team that understands how technology will impact the business?

Is senior management engaged in the technology debate or have they put the blinkers on? Have they factored in any ‘Plan B’ for this technological revolution?

If the answer to any of this is no, I would seriously consider my position at the company and look elsewhere for other firms that do consider these matters important.

4. Upskill now.

OK, the option to leave and join a startup might be a bit extreme for some. Therefore, the alternative is to upskill. Read, read and read some more.

Go and speak to startups, go and attend some meet-up groups. Network with the people who will teach you about the future market you are in. Watch some TED talks, listen to some podcasts. Anything that will help you understand more of the future.

Therefore, my conclusion is pretty simple. While your bosses should be thinking about their succession and exit plans, you, the humble estate agent, need to skill up or get out into something that will do that by other means.

There will not be a moment wasted for your own personal career if you do just that.

Your managers won’t understand it, they won’t like it and they will try to convince you to stay. It is part of their strategy to have the best agents, but the best agents need to seriously consider where they will be in 2030.

Opening doors won’t be one of those roles I can assure you.

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

  • Michael Riley

    Good article James.

  • Where Is The  Monii Money

    Interesting read.

    My view has always been that the role of technology is to automate the boring and/or routine allowing us to focus on the more interesting and ideally more rewarding work.

  • Simon Shinerock

    Here’s a challenge James, give me 100 leads and I will male five times more good appointments than any AI you put me up against. The real skill of being a salesperson and I use the word deliberately rather than Negotiator, is a long way from being replaced by AI. Yes, mediocrity is threatened but Hunan excellence will win through for the foreseeable future

    James Dearsley

    And of that I have no doubt Simon.

    However, let me push back a little. In the first place how do you know if they are 100 good leads and those bookings you book out are relevant and at the right stage.

    There are efficiency gains I would suggest that could be built into the process before the ‘salesperson’ can become involved that will make you far more effective to ensure you are selling to the right person in the first place rather than wasting time with tyre kickers.

    EAs should be utilised for key, client facing stuff and will always be better but we need to become far more refined.

  • Sam Hunter

    Agreed the role of a 'negotiator' will disappear. Higher fees and all in service from 'proper' estate agents who do everything from prospecting, listing, negotiating and before/after service. Clients for life on first name baseis

  • Velgram Quaid

    "Clients for life on first name basis "

    In your dreams.

    James Dearsley

    Such a shame you think that way Velgram as this is absolutely the way we should view our customers.......

  • Kristjan Byfield

    A lot of valid points here. Any repetitive, cyclical, regulatory, etc will, over time, become automated. I have the use of AI as I feel this is a misnomer and a recent report into the AI sector has in fact stated that evolution in this sector is stalling. It is more about ML and the accurate & knowledgeable process mapping. Totally agree that the human element will remain but this will become more of a 'concierge' or 'service' delivery to ensure that clients feel valued and personally cared for.
    However. lets also not forget that 80% of the market is 1-3 branch operations. Until this changes dramatically, whilst you will see operations be able to handle more volume, better the general roles and overlying structure will (I believe) remain for a long time to come. This is because you need staff knowledgeable in specific areas in order to deliver oversight to existing operations but also to look to the future.
    Whilst there are agents who bemoan 'proptech' most despise the hype and insane raises they achieve- but most fully understand the value in their business and how critical this is in their ongoing evolution. As CRMs continue to open up their platforms to 3rd party offerings the ability to test & adopt new offerings will become easier and with the benefit of integrations will make this a lot more seamless and the benefits optimised. Either way, exciting times for agents who are gradually (or rapidly) embedding the right tech into their organisation.

  • Andrew Stanton PROPTECH-PR A Consultancy for Proptech Founders

    Simon Bad Boy Shinerock - you are correct. Handcuff you to a lamppost and let you have nothing but a charged mobile (tech) you will do deals because you are extra-ordinary, you will out list outsell and make more profit than anyone locally. This is true of many star rated agents, it's just in their blood. But, proptech the silent helping hand will aid the people in the industry who are not as gifted as you are.
    An example, a medium sized town I know well now has a very skewed property market place, some of the dominant old brands are doing ok, but the new agents some just two years old, are head and shoulders above them. Why - the way the new businesses are structured and the amount of tech within. A further eye opener for me was recently going to the annual Negotiator awards dinner at the Grovesnor.
    Time after time images of 'internal office shots showing the teams' was flashed up on the big screen, and time after time the winners were - well people who did not even look like the agents I used to remember, their dress code was different, their work environment was different, and there were fewer and fewer old school agents picking up those awards.
    Everyone knows Simon that you run a very successful agency, amongst other things, but, I think if you were not handcuffed to a lamppost and you were starting over again today - your blueprint for the business and the role of tech to run it would be significantly different, because your brilliance can not be replicated, not even with a digital twin.

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    • 16 January 2020 10:14 AM

    Interesting and honest article James. I am a case in point, left front line estate agency 18 months ago to learn more about what prop tech actually is. Now I enjoy talking to agents about their business plans and their futures but it is saddening that there are still many agents who seem to have their head in the sand. I hear this daily. "We do it like this here and we are quite happy thank you", "We prefer to talk to our customers rather than use tech" I do hope they take your advice and become more curious about what is available. After all most start ups have free trials so what's to loose, try a few out.

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    • 17 January 2020 10:52 AM

    Another great article James, and some great comments above.
    PropTech is and should be the super power of agency teams: an enabler of talent, rather than a disabler. Well-implemented technology improves standards and makes life easier for everyone to shine.
    But while you are right about 'tasks' being automated, the changing landscape is not just about how technology and automation will make changes in property roles - there is another important driver: the customer experience.
    Focus on completing a 'task', automatically or otherwise, risks the mistake of missing just how important that work is for your customers, and diluting, rather than enhancing, the quality of your service.
    We are all tech-enabled people these days, and the changing landscape of 'work' across the next decade demands both employers and employees accept that great professional services will be delivered by tech-enabled businesses and employees who are able to meet with us, and serve us, on our own terms.

  • Christian Woodhouse

    I'm not in agency so you could argue that I shouldn't comment but we (Search Acumen) service the conveyancing sector of the real estate industry, so I find the following quote truly fascinating 'experts predict artificial intelligence alone will take care of between 13-25% of a lawyer’s job moving forward'. Personally I think this percentage is far too low especially if you take conveyancing, as so much more than 25% could be automated/tech driven if the data was made available.

    James, you are absolutely spot on with your comment around using tech/data to conduct the menial tasks to leave the humans to concentrate on the personal touches, the face to face interaction that will not be replaced by machines...in the short to medium term at the very least. As generations pass and new one grow ever used to engaging with tech, there will be proportion of buyer/sellers that will only want to engage with tech, all the way through the process. Admittedly, that is small now but in my opinion that's only going to increase.

    Get involved now, learn what's out there and what's possible because the tech is only going to get more sophisticated. Employing people is expensive and we all make mistakes. Deploy a tech solution correctly, however big or small, doesn't make mistakes or take holidays or leave you for a competitor...! Empower your workforce, upskill and train people to do more meaningful tasks that make the business more profitable...and then you can pay them more...! It's a win win all round.


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