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Jonathan Rolande: What agents can learn from the Post Office Horizon scandal

Like millions of others, I watched in open-mouthed astonishment as details emerged about the Post Office scandal.

I knew a little bit about it. But it was the ITV drama which brought into sharp focus the scale of the injustice.

It’s fair to say lots of people, including some in politics, will be hanging their heads in shame. Rightly so.


But if there is one legacy that might emerge from the terrible plight those sub-postmasters went through, it’s a reminder that technology should never be trusted over human beings.

Having worked in the property sector now for more than three decades, I’ve seen my fair share of changes. And technology has been at the heart of many of them. It has transformed the way we all work, and provided massive advantages.

During Covid it is no exaggeration to say that the new tools IT offered - especially with virtual viewings - propped up the entire market.  

Without them, we’d have had almost no way of doing business. The entire market could have collapsed.

Covid put rocket fuel under what was already a turbo-charged transformation to digital which has seen so many high street estate agents and indeed other businesses close.

Thanks to smartphones, ninety eight per cent of people now start a home search online.  Platforms like Rightmove and Zoopla generate millions of viewers a day.

But as great as these tech advancements are, I’m firmly of the view tht they can only take you so far.

Property portals for instance provide a brilliant general view of the local market, and an indication of asking prices.  But give me a good estate agent who knows what properties actually sell for any day. By the time that data is available on Land Reg, the market has moved on.

Another thing I believe agents can do better than machines is to  detect timewasters. Yes, portals generate phenomenal web traffic. But there’s a difference between someone having a quick nose at your home online and a buyer putting in a genuine offer. A good agent can spot a tyre-kicker a mile off.

Tech directs buyers to homes that meet their chosen criteria. That’s the purpose of the algorithms. But a good agent will encourage a buyer to think laterally and look at properties which, with a little bit of imagination, could suit their needs.

 The best agents are those who utilise property portals, but who don’t make them the sole focus of their marketing strategy.

The Horizon computer system also painfully laid bare the impact when machines and robots go wrong.

In the property market we need to be on red alert for this. Many of our systems are at risk from criminals who continue to target the property sector on a daily basis.

ID fraud and hacking will continue to be a massive issue for the industry throughout this year. Just before Christmas we saw the damage that can be done after dozens of conveyancing firms were paralysed by a single-hack.

One of the biggest failures many companies make in rolling out tech is not ensuring they’ve also invested in training those people tasked to use it.

That training needs to be updated and reviewed if you are to have any chance of keeping up with the blistering pace of new tech.

But I hope another legacy of the Post Office scandal will see us remember the pivotal role people still play in our fast-changing world.

Like the Post-Office counter, the local estate agent can often be a cornerstone of a town or village.

We may top those polls when people are asked who they least trust, but when we do get things right, customers very often tell their friends.

And when that new customer walks through the door remember one thing.

They turned up because they wanted to be greeted by a cheery face.

Not a sign - which directs them to the nearest computer screen.


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    This is why it is such a puzzle that National Trading Standards, the Home Buying & Selling Group and The Conveyancing Association persist with their deeply flawed 'Material Information' and 'Upfront Information' campaigns predicated on the myth of computer infallibility.

    It gets worse with these bodies trying to participate in wholesale digitisation leading to a ridiculous 'single source of digital truth'


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