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Property Natter – it’s all about the software

Software. You might not give it much thought a lot of the time, but it’s an absolutely crucial part of how your agency operates on a day-to-day basis.

I’m not professing to be a fountain of knowledge when it comes to this field, but I know a few people who are. So I’ve caught up with some experts of the industry to show just how much software and estate/letting agency mix.

This Natter is going to be split into two parts (you spoilt people, you!). The first part will focus on the innovations and problems with software, while the second part will focus on the future of software.

I spoke to Peter Grant, Managing Director at VTUK, Freya Davies, Head of Product at Dezrez, Shawn Brown, Director at PayProp UK, Gary Whittaker, Director at Rentman Software and Mark Goddard, Director at The Property Software Group for some insider information. I also spoke to Rajeev Nayaar at Fixflo, an innovative tenant repair software company that Lee Dahill, my Head of Advertising Sales, and I helped to launch in the UK. (More on them at a later date).

Anyway, to business…

What is the biggest innovation you’ve seen in estate agency software technology?

Freya Davies: The move from older technology to cloud based software is definitely gathering momentum. On one level it frees up cash flow and floor space because you don’t need a physical server. But more importantly, it allows estate agents to be more mobile and accessible outside of working hours.

Shawn Brown: There have been many great software packages created for agents in recent years, all of which have their own merits. That said, the biggest impact on the market in terms of digital innovation is still in harnessing the power of the Internet itself. Whilst not software in the traditional sense of the word, the likes of Rightmove, Zoopla and latterly, OnTheMarket, have changed the property market beyond recognition. In matching sellers to buyers on an international level they’ve taken residential property transactions from a cottage industry to a global one almost overnight.

Gary Whittaker: The emergence of cloud technology enabling professionals to be mobile and connected.

Mark Goddard: The development of cloud-based software was an overwhelming signal to the importance of adaptable technology within the property industry.

Rajeev Nayaar: The biggest change has been one of approach with the leading agency software providers now viewing themselves as a platform rather than a product.

What do you think is the biggest problem with estate agents’ software at the moment?

Peter Grant: Typically software is just a tool that helps an agent to do a job. Too often when we complete an analysis, that tool at best facilitates mediocrity and at worst stifles the agency’s natural entrepreneurial vision.

Technology in an agency should of course manage operations in a compliant and process driven manner, but shouldn’t it also encourage expression, enable individuality and ultimately deliver instructions and a happy working environment?

Freya Davies: Estate agency is transitioning and customers want to drive business, speed up processes, better connect with their customers and have access to secure critical information 24/7. The difficulty is choosing software that facilitates this. There isn’t a lot of transparency from many software providers. We think the biggest problem with estate agency software is education and choice.

Shawn Brown: The market has a number of players today, all of whom are on a technology journey to keep up with market demands. In doing so, suppliers have to make a number of choices on an ongoing basis, for example: should we bolt on a requested function or capability? Should we change our platform for a minority? Should we move away from our core product and potentially dilute our offering?

The safe choice is not necessarily the right one. For example, agents would love to have all their data and business processes in one system, which has led to product suites that do some things very well and others less so. Software providers need to decide whether they want to be a Jack of all trades or a master of one.

Gary Whittaker: A lack of competitiveness driven by corporate consolidation of ownership resulting in excessive costs for the end user.

If you could develop your software product again, what would you change or add?

Peter Grant: It’s not so much a case of “add”. It’s more a case of how can we improve the user experience. As Ernst Schumacher once said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction.”

Freya Davies: We made a decision to use a universal API so our customers can swiftly act on their risk management strategies whilst the housing market remains volatile. It took us three years and millions of man hours to develop the type of architecture that can deliver quickly on change. Given the huge amount of time and cash investment, would we do it again? Yes.

Shawn Brown: There is not a single software company that would not do something different if they could start all over again, but after 11 years we believe PayProp has a battle-hardened, tried-and-tested system that delivers an invaluable service to agents. The main changes we make now tend to be refinements of existing functionality or cosmetic enhancements.

Gary Whittaker: Having been solely in the letting software market for 20 years we should have entered the estate agency market much earlier. When we did finally move into estate agency, the skills and knowledge we had accumulated enabled us to relatively easily design and create a cost effective feature rich alternative to the bigger established offerings.

Mark Goddard: We have constantly made changes and additions to our products. Over the past 20 years, the team at The Property Software Group, including experts behind Vebra and CFP Software monitored and worked with over 8,000 agencies to discover what they needed from their software.

Rajeev Nayaar: Letting agents are increasingly weighed down by regulatory and legislative burdens and I want to help them to focus their time on growing their bottom line. Keep your eyes peeled as this summer we’ll be launching a new product to help them to do just that!

So there we have it – now we’re all fountains of knowledge when it comes to software!

The Natter in a fortnight's time will look at the future of software, with our experts giving their thoughts on where agents’ software will be 5, 10 and 20 years down the line.

Until then…

*Nat Daniels is the Chief Executive Officer of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today

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