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Independence may be the undoing of the Independents

The story of the week has been the first steps of a trade body to represent independent estate agents - as those agents account for around 70 per cent of the industry, even in these corporate times, such an organisation could in theory be highly influential.

Having met Charlie Wright, the software entrepreneur behind the idea, it’s impossible to doubt his enthusiasm for independent agents in general and this group in particular. 

Whether or not such a group is necessary, and whether or not it really takes off, he has a passion for his subject which is strong - even by the standards of the agency industry, where dedication and enthusiasm for and against innovations often reach fever-pitch.

Wright is realistic enough to admit that unless he gets a (so far unspecified) critical mass of estate agents behind the idea, it won’t fly. But recent history isn’t on his side. 

An obvious example is OnTheMarket. 

If three years editing Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today have taught me anything, it is that agents - with very few exceptions - hate Zoopla and Rightmove. Yet a common enemy isn’t enough. 

You don’t need me to explain how many agents took against the tactics of OnTheMarket, even if they backed the principle. 

Relatively few agents ‘jumped ship’ from the portals they hate so much and some of those who did are publicly unhappy. As a result, and as OTM approaches its second birthday, it looks a long way from its stated goal of knocking Zoopla off the number two portal position.

There are other obvious examples. 

The industry has ARLA and UKALA - presumably with nuanced differences which mean one organisation offers slightly different services to letting agents than its rival organisation. 

Likewise we have TPO, the Property Redress Scheme and Ombudsman Services: Property - in other words, three rival redress systems. 

And we have several landlord organisations such as the RLA and the NLA - but of course there are others, too.

Why can’t we agree just to have one organisation representing each interest - it would have more members, more influence and more power?

Some less obvious examples come in the shape of ‘direct message’ tweets I have received in recent weeks: they were confidential, so I have no intention of naming names.

The first was critical of a particular industry figure because he appeared to support the idea of banning letting agents’ fees levied on tenants; this criticism seemed unreasonable to me, because it’s clear that several other industry figures (albeit perhaps a minority) feel the same way, and because in any case he’s entitled to his view - as we all are.

The second tweet was similarly critical of someone else who wants a more prominent role in an established trade body. The objection to him was that he was (apparently) vehemently pro-Brexit and thus (apparently) unrepresentative of the property industry as a whole. As above, it strikes me that such criticism is unfair and unreasonable.

Both direct messages implicitly urged me to publicise the ‘offences’ of the people in question. Not a hope - these people are entitled to their views.

But the point of mentioning these incidents is not to criticise them, nor to ‘out’ their authors. 

It’s simply to show the passion that exists within the agency industry. It’s strong - very strong - but in most cases it is a passion driven by something laudable: a desire for agents and the industry to do well.

The problem is that, in these days of individualism and instant social media expression, such passions are often contradictory: ask five agents what their views are on a contentious topic and the odds are that you’ll get five, maybe six, conflicting opinions. Each will probably be driven by an enthusiasm for the subject.

Which brings me back to CIELA, the independent agents’ group set up this week. 

The founding members say they want “to win the majority support of the approximately 15,000 small independent agency businesses across the country.” That’s a lot of agents to persuade to tow the line - whatever that line turns out to be.

It will be a major achievement if it happens and if so much of the industry acts in concert. 

But let’s be honest - the omens are not good.

*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn

  • Simon Bradbury

    What an excellent article and honest article.
    Frankly, the chances of this initiative working are best outlined in the words of Mike Tyson's promoter when asked about the prospects of his next opponent winning a forthcoming bout...
    " There are TWO Chances - SLIM and NONE...
    And Slim's out a town!"

    Mark Scobey

    This has more to do with revenue generation than improved standards in the industry. I have a firm recollection of my meeting with Charlie in March 2015 where he eluded to his next big financial opportunity...

     
  • Kristjan Byfield

    Great article Graham with some very interesting points, however I think far too many people are rushing to put CIELA and its objectives in a box. Not only that, but many are also quick to state what a categorical failure it is bound to be for X, Y and Z reasons. For now, all we want agents to know is that we understand the struggle. We get this issues and challenges and hurdles that we need to overcome. We don’t profess to know the all the answers, but we have some great ideas and, if we combine that with the voices of most of the independents in the UK, over time we can find solutions to these issues and truly champion our vital sector of this much embattled industry. Here are some of my thoughts on the various points raised in this article and I believe I am right in saying that they are shared by many- but my no means represent any set position of CIELA- it’s simply far too early for that yet.

    On The Market- this was not a representative body but a portal set out with 2 exclusive goals: to destabilise the monopoly of RM & ZPG and to massively reduce the portal listing costs of agents. That's it. Nothing more. It didn't set out to deliver new tech tools to help agents be more efficient, offer wider services, lead with innovation or seek to raise the profile of its member agents for any reason (other than listing with OTM). It had no consumer goal- it wasn't aiming to be the most responsive portal on the market, or the fastest loading, it didn’t seek to deliver a revolutionary product or layout for users, deliver a unique bridge between portals and social media........I could go on. It was a selfish goal that really focused on one thing and one thing only- cutting agents overheads. It placed its objectives above those of its member agents- applying the OOP rule and also asking agents to list properties with them several days before any other listings- including their own websites, thereby actually downgrading the SEO value delivered to the agents own site for their own stock. For an industry with such a bad perception (right or wrong) such a selfish motivation was always heading for almost certain failure.

    NAEA/ARLA/etc- There is no denying that these organisations help ensure a certain level of professional standards in an unlicensed industry. They are ‘voluntary regulators’. They train and educate agents, look to raise standards through compliance, and this is great, but as agents, especially today, we need more. They are not a consumer recognised brand and, as such, ultimately deliver little if any 'face value' in this respect. They are unwilling/unable to be the voice for agents in the media challenging the stereotypes and counteracting the negative stories with tales of success, innovation, excellence and (god forbid) the personal tales of Tenants/Landlords/Buyers/Sellers loving their agents and what they do for them. What is more they are, and must be, market-wide regulators embracing the evolution, innovation and spectrum of our industry.

    RM & ZPG- personally I have found that agents’ apparent ‘hatred’ towards these organisations is largely unfounded. When I talk to agents from any part of the country that are doing well (whether that be a start-up, seasoned or large established entity) they almost unanimously see huge value in what these products deliver in terms of results (applicant enquiries) and the ROI these deliver. Usually this comes down to understanding the metrics and monitoring your marketing activity. I doubt many agents out there can dispute the value in deals done with leads through these portals’ core subscriptions. However, if you are spending hundreds or even thousands a month on featured agents and post code banners and getting no leads- then this isn’t the portals failing (per se) this is the agent wasting the money on a product that doesn’t deliver. That money should be reassigned elsewhere- perhaps to social media marketing, flyers, local events & sponsorship. This expenditure should keep ‘moving’ until the right solution is found that delivers that agents the results they are seeking. After all, you wouldn’t keep a negotiator employed if they never did any deals so why would you keep spending money on a specific product with no proven results? If you’re spending £3k (or more) a month on additional ‘brand value’ products and getting little or no ROI- why don’t you hire someone whose sole objective is generating valuations? Or maybe offer a luxury holiday giveaway each month drawn from any valuations (sales and lettings) undertaken each month?

    Corporates & Online Agents- most agents actually totally understand the fact that the market will evolve- in a world of Facebook, uber and Deliveroo how can it not? However, the issue, at least in the wider media, is how do Independents challenge the two dominating messages out there- namely: ‘Why on earth choose a single-office/small agent to represent you when an organisation with hundreds of offices is much better?’ AND (of course) ‘Why keep wasting money on ‘rip-off agents’ when you can pay 10% and get exactly the same thing from online?’ How do we challenge this? To engage on an individual level ultimately comes across petty and is perceived as a weakness. That you must be losing the fight or must be lying to try and fight off the inevitable switch to online-only. Is there a point having a small independent advert extolling that agent’s values and benefits muddled in amongst 15 pages of glossy corporate adverts listings hundreds/thousands of properties, new offices, huge networks or new build schemes.

    There is a negative voice bubbling under our industry- in fact bubbling under almost every aspect of our lives. It seeks to proclaim why a company, service or organisation is rubbish/criminal/incompetent or some elaborate coup. It all too quickly slings unfounded, and often highly inaccurate, accusations around- for why, who really knows. We must not engage in this.

    Most of the agents who read this will (I sincerely hope) identify with a lot of what I have written here. They may not agree on my perspective and they may have a totally different idea on how to tackle it- but that is exactly HOW we will tackle and oversee these challenges. That is how we can rise up and represent our industry in the truest of lights. Through debate and discussion, through attempt and (god forbid) failure, through achievements big and small we can champion our fantastic industry and, in time, change the perception held by so many. But this will only be possible if the lion’s share of our sector do one simple initial thing- agree to unite in finding a solution.

    CIELA, I believe, truly represents a remarkable opportunity- one that agents up and down the country have been begging for for years…..even if they didn’t realise it until now. So, let’s not categorise it just yet; let’s not stick it in a box; let’s not doom it to instant and definitive failure; let’s not imagine treachery of some Machiavellian mastery. Let’s just accept that we agree on some of the key challenges ahead and let’s work together, let’s challenge each other, to overcome these and to become an industry that adds value to people’s property lives.

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