Once upon a time there were estate agents. That was it. Nice and simple. If you marketed and sold residential property, you were an estate agent.
Today, however, we have ‘online estate agents’ and ‘hybrid agents’. This has led me to think about how things have changed in the industry and if we’re allowing ourselves to get too bogged down in unnecessary terms, thereby missing what’s really important.
A recent report by HSBC concluded that more and more of the house purchasing process is carried out online, suggesting there’s less need for face to face interaction. Certainly, the amount of media attention that some of the newer online-only players receive would corroborate that and I’m inclined to agree, to an extent.
The growth of PropTech, Artificial Intelligence and digital advancements have impacted how we all operate, but that’s simply progress. It aids productivity and drives efficiency, so long as we keep our eye on what is truly progressive and what is simply a fad.
What the rise of this technology should lead us to ask is, ‘why’?
‘Why has this technology become necessary?’ ‘How does the customer benefit from it?’ And importantly, ‘What do I stand to lose if I don’t adopt similar practices?’
Rather than be cautious of the ‘digital disruptors’, we should consider their success. Whether it’s the ability to purchase a book via Amazon; order weekly groceries; plan your next holiday or even interact with the medical profession, customer need for 24/7 access to services has risen beyond all measure. Estate agency is no different and that’s why we’ve seen growth in estate agency apps, virtual online tours and yes, even the online-only agent.
But, and in my mind, it’s a big BUT, there’s something that digital advancements will never replace – the personal touch!
Bookshops (amongst others) were shaken up by the rise of Amazon, but those who were hungry to survive simply diversified. They offered coffee corners; opened in the evenings for book clubs; they even started to offer internet terminals – the very vehicle that had threatened them!
And the reason they did that was simple: it was what their loyal customers wanted – the personal touch; the reassurance of someone who shared their passion for books.
The same could be said for property. When dealing with often the largest financial transaction we’re ever likely to be involved in, the majority of us do so with the reassurance that there’s someone there who’s ‘in it with us’. We’d be unlikely to pay thousands on a luxury holiday without knowing there’s a friendly voice on the end of the phone or in the high street branch, if needed – we’re even more unlikely to do so when the figures stretch to the hundreds of thousands, or beyond.
Whilst we must learn from the opportunities that digital advancement offers and diversify to ensure we’re offering our clients the touch points with us that they demand – whether on or offline – we must do so without losing sight of what we’re still uniquely positioned to provide - the human touch.
So, I return to my original point: what’s in a name? It’s my belief that the man and woman on the street aren’t concerned with the label our businesses operate under. Traditional agent, hybrid agent, online only agent – it really doesn’t matter. For them, trust in a brand; a reassurance of a quality service; and a seamless experience whether on or offline, are the factors which will be important to them.
So perhaps it’s time that we dispose of catchy buzzwords and instead focus on the service that we deliver – that is, after all, what we’re here for, isn’t it?
*David Westgate is Group Chief Executive of Andrews Property Group