“How much do you charge?”

“How much do you charge?”

A little while ago, I witnessed the following scene in an agent’s office when a female customer walked in.: “How much are your fees for selling?” asked the woman. The young female negotiator looked up at the visitor and replied “1.5% plus vat”. The customer said simply “Thank you” and then turned and walked out. I think it unlikely that she would return at any stage to instruct the agent in what I assumed to be the relatively imminent sale of her property. A priceless missed opportunity.

Coincidentally, many of the Mystery Shopper calls we conduct have centred on testing agents’ skill and ability at handling fee enquiries from potential vendors and landlords. One of them was without doubt the worst mystery shopper call I have ever heard.

Mystery Shopper: “I have a house to sell in X Road, and wondered what your fees are for selling….”

Agent: “At the moment our books are full and we are not taking on any extra properties…”

Some readers might find that hard to believe but we have recorded proof for anyone interested in hearing how not to run an estate agency!

Given that whether an agent majors on sales or lettings, or is functioning successfully as a fusion of both disciplines, there is no doubt that success hinges on stock acquisition. Every agent should be aware that the manner in which fee enquiries are dealt with needs to be to a better standard than ever before, and one that outshines the competition.

A fee enquiry is often the first step on the road to securing an instruction and as such represents the start of the decision making process on the part of the client.  

These calls kick off by my simple enquiry...”How much do you charge for selling/letting?” and the responses are varied.

The last twenty Mystery Shopper calls failed to incorporate the key “best practice” principles of handling a fee enquiry effectively. All agents quoted a fee without necessarily needing to do so. One agent said that whatever I was quoted elsewhere would be beaten by her agency, betraying a desperation which didn’t inspire confidence. Four others quoted their standard fee and then reduced it in the next breath without the original fee being challenged. Another quoted immediately the rather bizarre fee structure of “1.5% if we sell at the asking price, 1.25% for selling at less than that”. I was sorely tempted to suggest that presumably all his clients try to secure an offer of a pound less than the asking price as this is massively financially advantageous while costing the agent a significant chunk in commission. Another said, “It is between 1 and 1.5%.” Well, call me old-fashioned if you like, but I reckon I would opt for the 1% option is I was given that choice as a consumer!

So what should be done to get the best out of these calls?

The first point to consider is what the agent’s objective is when taking a fee enquiry. Clearly it should be to secure an appointment with the caller to carry out a market appraisal. With this in mind, there are certain key points to factor into the call to ensure the overall aforementioned objective is achieved.

These points include a positive start to the conversation to assure the caller that they are right to be considering you as an option. Thank the caller, state your name and that you will be able to help, ask their name and check it for accuracy and use it but most importantly, deflect them from the issue of fees.

Deflection is best achieved by answering the customer’s question with a question of your own. The most appropriate question is “Whereabouts is the property?” as this ticks a number of useful boxes. Firstly, it helps you establish whether it is an area that you cover and/or have healthy demand in. In some cases the property may be off patch or covered by one of your other offices if you have them.

Finding out the location then gives you the opportunity to discuss your recent or historic successes in that area, as well as evidence of current demand. This further reinforces the fact that the customer has picked the correct agent to call. We have trained some of our client firms to drive this point home by asking the question “Have you been recommended to us?” or the even more confident “I assume you have been recommended to us?”

These initial approaches are designed to kick off a conversation which steers away from the subject of fees. It surprises some agents that this is easier than they imagined it might be but the whole premise of this technique is that although the fee question is asked as the customer’s first question, it is by far from the most important issue in the mind of the customer. In actual fact, it is simply a way they consider suitable to start the dialogue with the agent.

Given that the initial perception of the vast majority of vendors and landlords is that agents are all the same, it is essential that fees are discussed after differentiation and rapport have been established. This would be ideally covered later rather than sooner.  By effective deflecting, followed by subsequent engagement in conversation about the property and its merits leading onto the reason for the valuation and potential timescales, an appointment can be booked with the client without discussing fees. These are best left until the point by which the client has bought into your company and the valuer, likely to be towards the end of the marketing appraisal appointment.

Fee enquiries are not easy situations to handle if staff have not received training in how to do so, but they remain an absolutely critical part of the job especially in a market where instructions are harder to win. It is a simple but watertight principle that the higher the standard of fee enquiry handling, the higher the number of marketing appraisals and ultimately the higher the number of stock and subsequent sales and lets.