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By Nat Daniels

CEO, Angels Media


OTHER FEATURES

Property Natter: how tech-led will estate agency be in 10 years?

Around 18 months ago, just a few months before the pandemic hit, I did a Natter with the team at software company VTUK about a new product they’d just launched called Openview, which they said would help transform the estate agency market forever.

Here, I check back in with Peter Grant, chairman and chief executive of the firm, for his thoughts on technology in agency, the impact of Covid and why evolution is always better than disruption.

So, without further ado…

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How digitalised will estate agency be in a decade’s time? Will there still be high street offices and lots of face-to-face meetings by then?

The government are making it pretty clear that they wish the industry to be more controlled and compliant. Their model for this is the financial services industry and that’s how I can see the industry changing.

This means three things for agency - first of all, that ‘relationships for life’ are going to become absolutely crucial and, to maintain those relationships, communication will be the main tool.

Secondly, transparency and reporting are going to become king and that means a lot of additional administration. With limited time to do this heavy sweaty work, it is easily catered for by automation by intelligently understanding data and your reporting requirements.

Finally, I believe that we will see a polarisation of the industry into the larger groups who will offer a service like Travelodge or Premier Inn and then the bespoke boutique agencies will have to offer a very high-class and very diverse service level, almost becoming the professional property adviser.

There are 20,000 chimney pot areas for everything property, and that’s what we’re working towards.

How was the rollout of Openview affected by the pandemic?

After 32 years’ experience, we know that the crucial period for a successful implementation is the first three months, and we have a dedicated team who hand hold and mentor new users throughout that period.

During the pandemic, we had to devise new ways to ensure that this service level was achieved. Of course, this was challenging and meant some rapid development of new processes, but we were lucky to be starting from a point where it was enhancing a pre-existing system that we were well-drilled with, so like a well-oiled guards battalion we were able to adjust and still deliver on our standards.

We did unfortunately have three severe cases of Covid, with hospitalisations, and this did rock the team, who at that point were all working from home. But by implementing a daily newsletter and a one-to-one rate of four-day rotation, we kept spirits high, and the whole team were exceptional in dealing with the challenges the pandemic bought.

With the rollout of Openview, why did you decide to leave the winning formula of Gemini and Aquarius behind?

First and foremost, we listened to our customers, and waited for the right time, for the right infrastructure, with the best technological platform available.

If you had the chance to go back 32 years and have your life again with all that you know now, what would you do differently?

Most people we speak with have had a bad experience in changing their CRM. We wanted to stop the need to change straight away. Openview is ‘Forever’ software and for ‘Everything’ software. It is fully automated in a bespoke way, not just some nice little bits of workflow. Multi-disciplined and completely cloud-based.

Now think of all the PropTech you currently use, the cost of them and how they don’t connect or integrate. Tenant maintenance reporting, inspections and viewings, sales progression, automated accounts, the list goes on! Openview has a module for each one, and it’s connected directly to the CRM.

One of our most recent innovations is our connection to the blockchain for conveyancing. With that, all the solicitors, lenders, search companies and Land Registry will all be connected. Our goal here is to be able to bring the time for conveyancing down from three months to one month, helping you save 30% of your revenue through lost transactions.

As if all of that wasn't enough, I’m going to come back to the beginning and elaborate on automation. In the UK, many banks increased the amount of ATMs they had at each branch. The staff that worked at the branches felt they were going to be replaced by automation.

This was not what happened! In fact, it was totally the opposite. Instead of the staff being a cost to the banks, they became profit centres by having the time to speak to customers and prospects.

That’s what automation does. Anything you can think of, we can automate for you. A process-driven business is worth more, easier to operate and recruit and train staff.

If it’s one thing you must have and need to invest in - it’s automation.

Will PropTech solutions now be more important than ever, as a result of the challenges and changes brought on by the Covid crisis? 

It’s interesting to approach that question from the opposite viewpoint, which is of course exactly what we do.

In 32 years, I have never met anyone who woke up in the morning thinking to themselves - I know what I’ll do today, I’ll change my software. On every occasion, we’re speaking to people who have serious problems and we’ve designed a platform that resolves those problems.

Covid was a huge problem, but really no more than any other problem facing the property industry in today’s climate, and it is in solving all of these, that we have created a variety of communication methods which we always thought would be extremely useful in agency.

However, Covid has dramatically accelerated this. We now have agents regularly using tech that we thought would be accepting it in four years’ time - and now our challenge is to develop and produce technology for the next five years, taking advantage of all of the open-minded and advanced thinking that the pandemic has created.

Why do agents need to embrace intuitive, automated, tech-led software solutions? Will those who don’t get left behind?

This is the same as asking why farmers need to use tractors and not horses to plough a field.

There can be no doubt that the latter is extremely skilful - a beautiful thing to watch - but unfortunately the former will always seem to happen because of the production capacity of the farmers that use tractors.

Through automation, we can deliver a member of staff who will do 10 times the work of a normal person, who is entirely loyal to the agency, who works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and never gets anything wrong.

Speaking to agents, they tell me that you need human interaction to speak to the public - and that’s true. Humans are part of the process, but for that we build in ‘management by exception’ rules.

Now imagine…you are the only agent on the street that is managing every single aspect of your business, while the others are only managing the problems 5% of the time and for the rest of the time are using face-to-face meetings to grow their business and take advantage of the new models that are about to hit this industry.

I don’t think you need to be too much of a wise man to see what the outcome of that will be, if you don’t get on board with automation.

VTUK has talked a lot about not reinventing the wheel - evolving, rather than disrupting. Do you feel there are too many providers who merely want to disrupt?

In truth, the technology that has been developed is relatively simple and it seems that every model now is all about marketing, pushing the idea that it is something fantastic and new - the emperor’s new clothes.

VTUK is all about combining technology with existing agency skills. We know that the most important thing is face time and what makes you different, over your competitors, is your uniqueness - not complicated technology. This is why all of our technology is designed to give you that freedom to work on the business and not in it. That’s evolving the business, not disrupting it.

We know that the agency model, and the people that work in it, will naturally evolve, but in the meantime, it doesn’t need disruption - it needs stability to be able to grow into the incredible business that it will no doubt become.

We are here to help you grow with efficient processes, a clear exit strategy and improved life choices.

How is your data model different?

We will be adding data via partner networks, rather than farming and selling our customer data like other providers. Data is the new gold, and we will make sure our clients have maximum use of it.  

For example, allowing an agency’s web master to access that data via our API and present really exciting and relevant information on the agency’s website and be the centre of their hyper locality. 

Our API is security-first. We didn’t want to go down the route of shouting about an “open” or “universal” API, we are big believers of connecting the right things to the right people. We will connect our data to customer’s websites and other third-party applications that we partner with, to make the customer and their customers journey seamless.

The next big step is our connection to the blockchain with our partners Coadjute, to streamline conveyancing. The software already benefits from the upfront data model and even the BASPI.


Thanks very much for the insight, Peter.

Until next time...

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

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