On the 23rd May 2019, at a secret location in Clerkenwell, a meeting took place with some of the top influencers in the property industry today. I assembled this revered group with just one aim: to get their views on what the property industry might look like in the future.
Here’s the VIP guest list:
Chris Watkin – Industry Copywriter
Jane Gardner – J P Gardner and Associates
Sarah Edmundson – Agency Allstars
Bryan Mansell – Agency Allstars
Mark Burgess – Iceberg Digital
Mike Day – Integra Property Services
Anthony Hesse – Property Personnel
Rajeev Nayyar – Fixflo
Ed Mead – Viewber
Steve Phillips – Growth Track
Daniel Lack- Growth Track
Gavin Brazg – The Advisory
Adam Day – Founder of Hatched
Tim Breden – Yomdel
Joshua Rayner – Rayner Personnel
Phil Jones – AshdownJones and Firewave
Each invited guest is an expert in their field, and often more than one field. Tech overlaps with lead generation, which merges with growth strategy. Experts like Adam Day, who has had, by his own admission, a colourful last few years, had some interesting insights into the future of agency in this country, whereas Gavin Brazg brought to the table a unique consumer voice, having advised via his website, hundreds of thousands of frustrated homeowners, trying to move house.
Agency has changed so much over even the last decade, it’s barely recognisable from the industry it once was. And yet a strong sentiment that was echoed over again on the day, was that the customer is still – or needs to be – at the very heart of all that we do. Perhaps in this age of #Proptech, it’s sometimes easy to be carried along on the wave of automation and apps, and forget that the clicks are actually people. As Sarah Edmundson from Agency Allstars says, “Our culture of thinking about leads needs to change. Leads are customers”.
I set my guests an agenda of three discussion topics, which were:
1. What’s wrong with the industry right now?
2. What’s being done well?
3. Looking in your crystal ball, where will the industry be in the next decade or more?
Plus a last curved ball question I threw at them at the end:
“What advice would you give to someone launching an independent agency today?”
What’s wrong with the industry right now?
There was a general consensus that any progress in the industry is slow, with little motivation to change, especially amongst the corporates. The independents are quicker to change, but often lack the understanding and the bandwidth that is needed to make the changes that will set them apart from their competitors. Mike Day commented that when an agency launches, there’s often a high investment in fancy offices, whilst the owner scrabbles around to find the cheapest possible website. And yet, that website is what’s ultimately going to bring them business, not the shiny new office.
On the topic of websites, Stephen Phillips remarked that agents are not valuing their websites as they should; they’re being left to stagnate. “They aren’t living or breathing,” he said. “They’re just created and then not touched for the next four years until the agent wants a new one.”
It’s not enough for an agency website just to exist, like a brochure; its primary function is to be a lead capture and conversion mechanism. But even when agents are using lead generation tools, like ValPal, they’re not maximising these leads. “The biggest problem is that agents do nothing with the leads that suppliers like Rightmove and ValPal provide for them”, says Bryan Mansell. And Tim Breden added that according to Rightmove’s own data,
“Over 50% Rightmove leads go untouched”. These leads aren’t cheap either, with ValPal leads costing up to £20 or more, generated through Facebook Ads, plus the monthly cost of the AVM itself, so why aren’t agents doing more with the leads they get? Craig also feels this is a fundamental issue in the industry, and urged us all to “Get the agent to understand the quality of the information that they get from ValPal”.
Anthony Hesse feels it’s a recruitment and training problem. Agents, after all, receive little or no official training, unless they’ve come through corporate. “Most agents fly by the seat of their pants,” he commented, “and the general lack of training means that the quality of an agency staff is lower than ever.” Bryan Mansell suggested that in the industry needs a central hub for all estate agents to find trainers and coaches, a move that I would applaud. There have been some steps towards this taken by key industry people, but the model that is being mooted is skewed towards a sponsorship model, so trust in the outcome is low. But let’s see how this pans out as the idea develops.
Jane Gardner feels agents are ignoring the fact that marketing has changed: “Too many agents aren’t embracing and realising the potential for social media”, she says. Adding that “Facebook Ads have got to be most powerful CRM system there is.” As a social media trainer and consultant, Jane see first-hand how few agents are actually using social media marketing effectively, and tries to help them navigate the choppy waters of using it to create and nurture new clients.
Ed Mead feels that it’s a communication channel challenge: “Online agencies are knocked too much, but they have the customer journey right”. It’s true that PurpleBricks have a very effective nurturing and conversion customer journey mapped out, and independent agents need to look at their own communication plan for prospects, to find and plug the gaps.
I made the point that the general public have no idea what a hybrid agent is or does, and that some homeowners think that Rightmove is an estate agent. Gavin Brazg added that those agents who work “at home from a back bedroom are perceived to be ‘online’ by consumers,” and it seems that this confusion is causing homesellers to make poor choices.
The process of buying and selling also came under fire: “It takes longer to sell a house in the UK now than it ever has before,” Ed Mead lamented. “And agents charge less for their services than anywhere else in the Western World.” Phil Jones agreed, “Conveyancing takes way too long and agents are selling their services on what worked 20 years ago (national coverage) and not what works today”. Which prompted Raj Nayyer to pose the question, “What is the business model for sales and lettings?”
Mark Burgess feels this is not an industry specific problem. “PurpleBricks don’t care about selling houses, it’s about collecting data.” And he went on to say “The ecosystem for the industry is not available at the moment. Agents are finding are it hard to run all the systems from the suppliers. We give the agents too many tools and they don’t know what to do with them.”
Raj Nayyer agreed. His app, FIxflo, integrates with 40 industry service providers. “We need to map out the customer journey and limit the journey points,” he says. Certainly, there is a glaring gap between the tech that’s on offer in the industry, and agents’ knowledge of how to use it effectively to grow their businesses.
What’s being done well in the industry?
It was tricky to stay on topic in this session, as our experts kept getting pulled back to the question of what’s broken and needs fixing. They were all in general agreement though that the onlines are leading the way in the digital customer journey. In the independent agency arena, the answer was harder to consolidate; there seems to be a lot of independent agents doing some good things, but no one agent is doing it all well. I think our agency, AshdownJones, is a good example of this. Our client experience offering, property marketing and social media are all world-class. But where we could do so much better, being brutally honest, is in our processes and systems. We’ve led our growth with marketing, and now, two years in, it’s time for us to go back to our foundations and make sure they’re rock solid. Here’s what our experts had to say on the topic of what’s been done well in the industry:
Stephen Phillips: “The best estate agents we work with are marketers first, and estate agents second.” Bryan agreed, adding that “Agents who place value on their website and online persona will be more successful”. He also made the point that his research shows there is currently a 180-day lead time from a homeowner first using ValPal or similar, to actually seeking a home valuation, and that we need to teach agents what to do in the in-between time.
is seeing a real shift towards video content, from the more forward-thinking agents in the industry. He cited Bourne Estate Agents as an agency who is doing great things with raw video. “Written, audio and visual content is so important. Content marketing is BIG and video is powerful.” He joked that Savills commissioned some research and found that homeowners are only interested in themselves, so those agents who are giving homeowners information about their streets, town and area will always do well with their content.
Mark Burgess quoted Google’s 7-11-4 strategy, and emphasised the importance of multiple points of contact with a potential customer across multiple locations and for many hours. The 7-11-4 strategy 7 hours of content, 11 touch points in 4 places (physical or virtual).
Gavin Brazg feels that PurpleBricks have the customer journey nailed, and that they are building trust right from the start. “Their first touch is slick and seamless and their service is efficient,” he pointed out. “Their intro and documents for pre-sale are from a property expert, and they provide transparency throughout, offering a seamless journey through to the landing page.”
Tim Breden commented that “You can’t bombard clients, but there is also an expectancy for immediacy”, adding that “the industry also needs to be forward thinking and reconsider opening times, considering that most people engage online at 8pm and later.”
Chris Watkin feels that successful agents offer a combination of engagement and touch points, so putting the client first in content and paying attention to the customer journey is clearly something that those agents who are doing this are gaining a huge competitive advantage over those who aren’t, and are yet to catch up.
Looking in your crystal ball, where will the industry be in the next decade or more?
I asked our experts to gaze into their crystal ball and make some predictions for where the industry is heading, and what this will mean for independent estate agents in the next few decades. We discussed this topic for quite some time, so I’ve pulled out the main points and soundbites that formed the headlines of this section:
“There will be less brands within the industry in the years to come,” Raj Nayyer thinks. He also predicts that the future of the independent estate agent will be to offer an expert “property concierge service, with fee levels that justify this level of service”.
Adam Day sees a future that looks much more like the US model of individual real estate agents, where agents are self-employed and trade under their own name. Gavin Bragz agreed, saying “Local hybrid agents will start to use the American business model.” Phil Jones feels the future will see more of a splitting of the industry: “It is going in two directions. The self-employed model, under an umbrella brand. And a bespoke concierge service, where vendors want marketing tailored to their needs.”
“The industry is facing a natural evolution, and the High Street agency is disappearing,” says Anthony Hesse. But he doesn’t feel that PurpleBricks have it right either. Mike Day agrees with Anthony and Adam, and predicts there will be less players in the game, and a consolidation of offices, a trend he’s already seeing in the market with his own clients.
Mike also envisages a future where the industry will be dominated by Artificial Intelligence. “You’ll be able Ask Alexa “How much is my house worth?” and receive an instant valuation. It’s a small step to then place a call to the agent and book a val.”
Tim Breden and Stephen Phillips both feel Rightmove could ‘flip’ at any time and change from an agent-only portal to one that is direct-to-consumer. This could cause the industry to change fundamentally overnight. Stephen also commented that Amazon “could easily take over the industry”, leaving the future landscape for agents deeply uncertain.
“It will become a consumer-led industry rather than agency led”, says Bryan Mansell, and went on to say “There will be a personal data vault that spans everything, and which will utilise Blockchains, as customers want a faster transaction”. He feels that this will bring the cost of moving down, as the conveyance becomes faster. (Let’s face it, it couldn’t be any slower.) Mark Burgess has a positive prediction for the conveyancing process: “Within three years, clients will be able to offer and exchange in one week.” Wouldn’t that be fantastic for our cash flow?
Some of us in the room felt that there is still a big part of buying and selling houses that needs to be carried out person-to-person, which Jane Gardner echoed when she said that “Things will fundamentally be the same with people buying from people”, and Craig Vile agreed, saying “People still need people to bring a sale to completion, but the journey will change”.
On the topic of people, some of our experts felt we needed to look closer to home to make the changes necessary to future-proof our agencies, to build and retain the very best teams. Ed Mead said, “The industry needs to address the work-life balance and look to recruit more women with children as they represent an untapped group of employees.” He went on to point out the danger of not offering this valuable section of the workforce the working conditions they crave: “The lack of flexibility is pushing employees to start their own businesses.” I added my own note of agreement to this statement, as I feel strongly that many primary care-givers would gladly sacrifice salary for flexible working hours. My own Business Growth Specialist, Naomi, was attracted to the job for precisely those reasons. We work around her childcare needs, and facilitate her working from home if necessary, and in return she brings an energy and positivity to the role that she just couldn’t do if she was stressed about pick-up time or her little girl being ill. Give a working parent the tools to do the job to the best of their ability, free of 9-5 rigid limitations, and you’ll get a better result from a happier team member.
And the last question we posed to our wonderful industry experts, slightly more jovial now, following a tasty lunch and probably a pud or two…
“What advice would you give to someone launching an independent agency today?”
Jane Gardner: “Be the expert and keep going!”
Mike Day: “Have a plan – What are you trying to achieve? Do your research first and aspire to be different. Think about your exit strategy early.”
Josh Rayner: “Get a good website, have an exit plan and keep your eyes wide open.”
Adam Day: “Be transparent. Create a good online experience with your website, work on touchpoints and create a really personal service to maximise the fee.”
Raj Nayyer: “Try not to do it all yourself, get personality tested and employ the right people.”
Craig Vile: “Decide on your strategy and create a business plan. Seek advice and insights from those with industry specific experience. Figure out when to spend money and when to keep it.”
Stephen Phillips: “Investigate where to open your agency, make sure it’s not in a saturated market of good agents. Spy on the competition, look at their marketing. Build a data driven company. Have a think how to drive your business with current technologies.”
Daniel Lack: “Put your business model into your target market lifestyle.”
Ed Mead: “Make sure you have funding for at least two years. Be open-minded and prepare to fail. Find a business partner to fill the gaps – be honest about your blind spots in your personality.”
Chris Watkin: “Go onto Rightmove and find all the best properties on the market with all your competitors and make videos!”
Gavin Brazg: “Identify owner niches.”
Anthony Hesse: “Seek advice, get the right staff and stick with decent fees.”
Tim Breden: “Be sure that you want to be a business leader. Not everyone is cut out for it.”
Sarah Edmundson: “Invest in good people and tech that complements your service. Do not give a portal money – do it on social media!” [Watch this space for an experiment Sarah and Bryan are running.]
Bryan Mansell: “Never forget that you are on your first day every day. Don’t put stuff in the diary that stops you getting instructions.”
Phil Jones: “Choose your market and stick to it.”
Me – “You can make money or you can make excuses. Decide which one you want to make and stick to it. Do whatever it takes. Phil went out door-knocking £1m-plus homes and got us to our first £500k in listed fees. So stop moaning you haven’t got any instructions – get off your bum and go door knocking.”
Well that was a hugely insightful and thought-provoking day! I’ve already been asked when the next one is, so I may make this a yearly event.
If you consider yourself an industry influencer and would like to be involved,pop me an email and let’s talk. Here’s to #Proptrend2020