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Property Natter: estate agency then, now and in the future

How has the world of estate agency changed in the last few decades? That’s the question this week’s Natter is going to try and answer, with the help of expert agency trainer Richard Rawlings and Simon Bradbury, Director at Thomas Morris. 

The days of fax machines, smoking in offices and relying solely on the local newspaper for advertising are long gone, with agents having to adapt, evolve and move with the times. 
Smartphones, technology and online advertising now play an integral role, with agents having to strike a fine balance between new and old – keeping alive the best of traditional agency while embracing modern, innovative approaches too.

Without further ado… 

Simon Bradbury

I first joined the industry in 1983 after a number of years in politics working as an agent for the Conservative Party – I pick all of the most loved and trusted professions!

The main differences between then and now are mostly to do with I.T. and its integration within our business – oh and the massive reduction in the reliance on newspaper advertising compared to the massive increase in digital marketing.

What has changed for the better? I believe that the choice for the customer is much wider. The customer has the opportunity to use many more different estate agent brands, styles and business models than in the 1980s.

What has changed for the worse? Incredibly, no matter how much I ponder on this I really can’t think of anything! I know that we tend to look back with rose-tinted spectacles on an era when we used to have more time with customers – but in reality I simply feel that we can now look after more customers to a higher standard more of the time.

I’ve had to adapt my approach down the years. The market is far more competitive than it used to be. The need to adapt is absolute. It’s simply not good enough to believe that you will ride out the storm or think: ‘That won’t work here - it’s different where I am’ - which is what I often hear from agents around the country.

This quote (often incorrectly attributed to Charles Darwin) says it all for me. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. As the market changes, we have a responsibility to evolve our own businesses if we want them to remain profitable and successful. Ultimately we will all be (if we’re not already) ‘hybrids’ – offering a blend of technological and personal solutions.

Being tech-savvy is now essential for agents, as long as we never forget that “tech for the sake of tech” is not a good idea. Tech that really does make our jobs easier or more cost effective is where the real value is – as long as that view is shared with our customers. In my experience, it is the combination of great tech with great people using great systems that really works.

In 20 years’ time where will estate agency be? I foresee even greater legislative obligations.  I anticipate an increased role for technology, making all of our lives faster and ultimately more convenient. I know that a lot of agents won’t agree with this but in my view Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) will play an ever increasing role in all businesses including estate agency by the year 2037!

If I could bring back one thing from when I started out…Honestly? Smoking in offices! I really miss the sheer pleasure of pulling together a deal while puffing away on a cigarette and drinking copious cups of coffee. Somehow I can’t see that happening but you did ask!

An agent in 2017 can learn from an agent in the 80s. Don’t just rely on technology, branding and all that stuff. Though they’re all fantastic tools and offer brilliant support, the one piece of kit you need to rely on is you.

Richard Rawlings

I’m one of those sad individuals who always wanted to be an estate agent at school. I started as a junior negotiator with Sturgis (now John Wilcox) in 1981, spending much of my time photocopying other agents’ details onto our own letterhead under a reciprocal arrangement between all the agents in Kensington. The system worked well until a man called Jon opened an office up the road. He happily took our “half-comms” but, instead of sending us his own, he door-knocked our clients and “stole” our instructions. He went on to sell his business (Foxtons) for £375 million (and I didn’t!). Lesson 1: prospect mercilessly! It’s more important to promote your agency than it is to promote a specific property. This is truer today than ever before. 

There was of course no internet in the 1980s. We mailed out a huge and expensive postal pile every day to our applicants, all of whom had probably responded to an ad in the local newspaper. So we had far fewer buyers per office than today. Each negotiator probably had no more than about twenty in their plastic card box. Each card gained its own character depending on how well-thumbed it was and how many notes appeared alongside every viewing conducted. 

Those who challenge the system, win. Although one always has to be charming with clients, there is a strong argument to be aggressive in business. In order to succeed big-time, you have to solve a problem - very often a problem of which even the consumer is unaware. 

Whilst competition was always rife, this has now reached new levels. Our sole agency fee in the 1980s was 2% and 2.5% for multiple agency. Most agents charged about the same and sellers chose the agent they preferred, as there was little differential in price. All the more reason why today’s agents need to radically ramp up their offering so that the public has other attributes on which to judge them. 

In the 80s we dictated flowery property descriptions in to a tape machine and the office secretary would type them out on a typewriter, correcting any errors with Tippex. I remember the happy day when the typewriter was replaced by green cathode ray word processor with a dot matrix printer – but it was so noisy we had to spend a fortune on a huge double glazed Perspex capsule in which it sat, occupying about a quarter of the office! We took photos (external only as interiors were deemed to be a security risk) with a special Polaroid camera that contained a mesh screen which gave better results when photocopied. There were no floorplans, video tours or EPC’s.

Viewings were usually accompanied and buyers would be taken in our own car from house to house. It was a numbers game, and still is. The more you show, and the better you know your buyers, the more sales you’ll do. Too many agents rely on technology to do the work today – that might be OK if volumes were huge, but they aren’t. What’s the point of having an automated matching capability when you only have thirty instructions?

Agency in 20 years’ time? Well within twenty years agency will undergo transformations that might seem unthinkable today. I think that agency will polarize drastically with 30% of sellers choosing cheap or online agents and 40% using boutique agency charging up to 2%, with the remaining 30% somewhere in the middle. Most firms will offer a low-cost entry point, but skillful agents will use this to upsell to a better, enjoyable, and certainly more expensive, service that adds value to the moving experience.

There is SO much out there to know and use. As an estate agency trainer, I have found that there’s huge benefit to be gained from travelling the world speaking to agents as far afield as Australia, the USA, South Africa, to gain a deep insight into the ideas, techniques and initiatives that diverse agents use to gain market share. Agents really should adopt a global attitude if they are to punch above their weight locally.   

I cannot think of any aspect of modern agency that is worse than it was. For me there is no such thing as “the good old days”. Agents have vast opportunities today, especially digital, from which to profit. It tends to be those businesspeople who are new to the industry who succeed over those who lament the way agency has changed. 

In the past I don’t recall any agency offering any form of training, other than “there’s your desk, there’s your phone, off you go, you’re on your own!” Fortunately, my boss was an inspiration in good practice and integrity and some of it hopefully rubbed off. It was only when I worked at Pam Golding in Cape Town for four years that, through their training programme (which I subsequently ran), I discovered how little I actually knew about the science of agency and how to harness the psychology of buying and selling.
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If you have any comments to make on how estate agency has changed, you know where to put them.

Until next time… 

*Nat Daniels is the Chief Executive Officer of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.

  • Simon shinerock

    So I've been in Agency since 1987, when I bought a second hand Seekers Franchise in Putney. At the same time I was in the Life Assurance business, I was a producer and Manager specialising in Pensions and mortgages, in 1989, when I started Choices I left behind a financial services sales team of 72 determined to transform agency into a one stop shop, my original Home Sales proposition was an up front fee plus a reduced commission on sale, Commitment + Incentive = Effectiveness. I was trained in professional selling and sales management by The Imperial Life of Canada, perhaps the best sales and management training ground there has ever been. Everything I learned in my intensive two year management course is 100% as relevant today as it was then. That's why I can say with utter certainty that good people are 90% of good agency. It therefore follows that attracting, developing and retaining good people is 90% of what makes a great agency great. It is also why Purple Bricks et al are going to struggle because they are making a people play, not a brand play, or a technology play, a people play and I strongly doubt they know what they are doing, or what they are up against trying to run huge nationwide commission driven salesforces. That said tech does play a vital part and I agree we have to be flexible, adaptable, agile and open minded, all things that really good people usually are. Success is always the exception, never the rule, it makes me laugh when good old boys declare themselves the establishment and band together to shut out the upstart competition (did anyone have a vision of tumbleweed blowing through a ghost town with a saloon with the Letters OTM emblazoned over the door)? You just know that such behaviour signals both a end and a beginning, the paradox being that while everything is always changing, nothing really ever changes at all...

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