Call me old-fashioned…

Call me old-fashioned…

The managing director of a small estate agency positively beamed with pride as he explained the expensive computer system which was going to revolutionise and improve his company’s sales beyond measure. Or so he thought.

But a year later, the results have not been as great as expected. In truth, the computerised sales approach has been a double-edged sword. On reflection, Mr M.D. feels that if he could turn the clock back (one of the few things his whizzy computer cannot do), he might have done things differently.

Of course, there are positives that the system has created.

Matching applicants to properties is quicker. The computer serves as an efficient memory-jogger for the staff. It includes a watertight diary system. A myriad of data is but a button push away. Every possible report relating to business performance can be produced quickly and simply. And there are many other advantages besides…

But in the aforementioned firm, the new computer-driven culture had reduced, and indeed almost replaced, the all-important human touch.

On conducting a telephone ‘mystery shopper’ exercise, I discovered that every single call was structured identically. The computer screen controlled the conversation. All calls featured exactly the same questions in exactly the same order, accompanied by the sound of the rat-a-tat-tat of the keyboard, as information was logged on to the system.

There was no attempt to build rapport, nor any evidence of warmth or spontaneity on the part of the negotiators. I felt that I was being logged on to a database as just another entry. It was all terribly cold and impersonal.

The staff even used phrases like “If I don’t put semi-detached on the system, you won’t get those details”, and even the ridiculous question “What is your minimum price?” – I’m always tempted to say 50p at that point. Once the minimal qualification had come to an end, we get a touch of Little Britain as the negotiator says “Let’s see what the computer shows we have available...” It was worryingly clear that any subsequent service to be received by an applicant would be entirely dictated by a machine and not by a human being.

As a result of the screen-driven conversation, negotiators relied entirely on the computer match. In one case there were supposedly in excess of 50 suitable properties. Can you imagine a typical applicant truly digesting information on that many properties and having the time to accurately home in on the ones worth looking at?

The limitations of this type of conversation led to poor qualification, and thus a high degree of guesswork on the part of the negotiator as to the real needs of the applicant.

One of the real concerns was that I had was that the essential questions that need to be asked when qualifying a prospect did not feature in the conversations – simply because those questions were not prompted by the screen.

There was another significant problem, namely that all applicants were entered straight on to the computer system without sufficient quality control being exercised, leading to thousands of applicants needing to be serviced, the vast majority of whom never made the agency any money.

Later, one negotiator told me that it was not unusual for a new instruction to be matched against over 150 applicants. As a result, the staff had become emailers rather than salespeople.

Upon my tactfully reporting back the findings of the ‘mystery shopper’ exercise, the managing director spent time considering the potential pitfalls of his firm’s approach, and together we came up with a plan of action which involved a lot of changes.

Applicants are now initially registered on forms, which allow for a more natural conversation and for flexibility as to the order in which the information is gleaned.

A follow-up telephone call is then made to the applicant after 48 hours to check that property details have arrived safely, to requalify and to encourage viewings.

Genuine hot applicants (those that are truly ready, willing and able to purchase) are managed by a separate card system. They are entered onto the database too but they are, after all, not going to need to be on it for long, as they will be buying imminently.

Doubtless this procedure will sound sacrilegious to some agents in times of striving for a “paper-free” environment, but the benefits do genuinely outweigh the downsides.

This revised approach has led to a lower number but higher quality of applicants on the active database. The hours freed up are used to keep in touch with applicants by telephone, persuading them to view and buy.

In short, the computer is no longer the master but the slave, and business is very, very good.