The latest annual report from The Property Ombudsman, issued late last month and relating to the 2020 calendar year, says communication was top of the pile when it came to the complaints from customers.
It’s important to get this in context. There were just over 5,000 complaints about various subjects, and stretching across sales and lettings and all aspects of agency activity such as block management. When you consider how busy the second half of 2020 was for the market, and the challenge of coping with Coronavirus, that is a credit to agents overall.
So how can we ensure communication problems don’t overshadow our hard work?
Flexibility is key - know your client base
In my view, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Agents should modify their communication methods to their client base.
For example, an agency I know in south west England is run by experienced and relatively young staff, but still puts great importance on telephone calls. It makes sure every vendor gets a call every day, even if it’s just to say “nothing new yet, but tomorrow I’m going to try this…”
Its logic is that most of its vendors are older (55-plus, typically retired) and some, although not all, are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with text, WhatsApp or email as a primary means of contact. In this instance, telephone is the common denominator, with most vendors likely to be in their home or at least readily available on a mobile.
The same agency chases leads primarily by telephone too - again, they are likely to be older clients downsizing or moving into the area ahead of, or at the time of retirement.
Contrast that with another agency I deal with regularly, in London.
Again its staff would be considered young but so is their client base - many are renters looking for a first home, or professionals who (if they’re not working from home) doing lengthy commutes and spending plenty of time in meetings or on Zooms.
In this case the primary communication is digital instant messaging - WhatsApp, email, text and others. This agency’s approach endorses recent Zoopla research that 60 per cent of London buyers and sellers want ‘email first’ as a means of communication.
So it’s horses for courses and the best agencies know this and act accordingly.
The importance of people, especially post-pandemic
We’re becoming depressingly familiar with customer service across the board worsening as a result of the pandemic restrictions and, depending on the industry, staff shortages - but it’s key for agents to remember that buying and selling is still a people business.
Although visits to agency branches have been reducing anyway in recent years, try to keep a balance between sensible Covid security and making your office as welcoming as possible. In some areas, branch visits remain important not just for agents but for customers wanting ‘real contact’ with people after 18 months of restrictions.
I know some agencies which have kept staff upstairs over the past year or more, leaving the ground floor empty. This may have been wise at the peak of the pandemic but is perhaps less necessary now, and risks giving a ‘closed for lunch’ look to visitors.
If you’ve been unable to staff the telephone as much as usual, consider using an answering service - Moneypenny is the best known, although there are others - and perhaps buy in an online chat provider, of which there are many.
Both of these routes means you can communicate with your client base outside of office hours (yours or theirs)
Make sure the whole team knows the technology
So far I’ve emphasised the human touch a lot but we all know many clients will be happiest with digital contact at a time which suits them.
This needs to be embraced and agents have been amongst the leading advocates of technology, recognising that overall it’s made life easier and more efficient for all parties.
There’s one occasional shortfall though - not everyone in the office knows all the digital communication routes available, so often getting a vital message to a vendor, or chasing up a buyer in that person’s favoured way, has to wait until the ‘right person’ comes in.
It’s key that everyone in the branch - admin support as well as negotiators and managers - know the appropriate technology to use. So if a negotiator is running late for a meeting with a client, person can use the appropriate favoured technology to let everyone know.
A voicemail message on someone who wants a WhatsApp may reach them too late, leading to a hiccup in the relationship that an agent may have worked hard to build.
Communication is incoming, as well as outgoing
The best agents will already be acting on many of these ideas, but it’s easy for even the most effective operator to forget that communications is a two way process.
You might want to let clients know how to get the best out of the process, so we’ve produced this guide here that we know some agents find useful to share with customers.
Or perhaps you’ll have your own guide - issuing it early, at the start of a relationship with sellers or buyers, may instil the confidence that many people want that ‘their voice will be heard’ in the transaction they’re embarking on.
Who knows - it may ultimately also avoid adding to the communication statistics for The Property Ombudsman, too.
* Phil Spencer is a presenter, author, businessman and property investor. Phil’s consumer advice platform Move iQ, is a website, YouTube channel and podcast. Each preserve and reflect the same impartiality that consumers trust and base their property moving plans. Coming soon: Move iQ Pro, Phil’s resource to support the property community. Stay tuned ready for launch!