A game of two halves?

A game of two halves?


So the first half of the year has zipped past. What will the second half bring? While none of us have a crystal ball, a general view from industry experts is that the rest of 2015 will bring similar challenges to the first six months.
 
Stock remains at a premium and completed transactions for the early part of the year were down by around 18% on the same period last year, according to Land Registry statistics. For traditional high street agents, these issues represent a real problem, particularly when "internet only" agents are clearly attempting to, and apparently succeeding in, gaining momentum and market share.
 
These challenges need to be faced by agents with a readiness to change and raise standards in all they do. If the market size remains stunted, the best agents recognise the need to grab more of that market. The only proven way to achieve that goal is to be tangibly different from and better than your competitors.
 
Upskilling staff and raising standards in all customer and client interactions are essentials. There are some free tips and ideas relating to those principles in our newsletter. Get in touch if you'd like some more.



Stand out to be outstanding…

Back in 1983 when I first started in the estate agency industry as a keen but raw recruit, I was lucky enough to be trained by a gentleman called Anthony Ekins, whose influence on my career has been greater than that of any other individual. Such was the charisma and inspiration of the man, that despite having three simultaneous job offers from agents at the time, it was only him I wanted to work for.

Amongst other things during his training and mentoring, he imparted the first rule of estate agency, which is as valid today as it has ever been…”If you have the best stock of well-priced properties, the buyers and tenants will find you.”

The subject matter that my existing and new client firms are requesting us to cover on our forthcoming training sessions serves as a clear barometer as to the typical challenges that the market is throwing their way, and there has been a high demand for courses aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of instructions, in both the sales and lettings sector.

Throughout 2015, we have worked with a large number of agents on this crucial element of their businesses, reviewing and perfecting the key stages of their “instruction operation” or “listing process”. How to win the business by being seen as different from the competition has been one of the most significant areas to be given attention.

Many firms are already good at what they do, however my constant mantra with these companies is that “good is no longer good enough”. Pretty much all agents who came through the challenging market of the last five years must probably be “good” to have done so, therefore any agent who conducts business to a “good” standard will almost certainly be perceived as the same as everyone else. In turn, if landlords and vendors perceive potential selling/letting agents as similar in standard and approach, those clients tend to base their judgement on which agent to instruct upon the most basic differentiator – the fee.

This is a disaster for most agents, assuming you are not one of those who are looking to rely on getting instructions by being the cheapest.

The best practice principles in securing quality instructions against high price/low fee competitors that we cover in our training are too numerous to list here, however a few essentials should be borne in mind.

One exercise we have conducted on recent training courses has been to issue a questionnaire to all the attendees that asks about the detail of their company’s services as well as those of the main competitors. Questions include ones about opening hours, number of property portals used, years of trading, number of completed sales in the catchment area over the previous twelve months, amount of combined staff industry experience, membership of trade bodies/affinity groups and lots more. It has been fascinating to see what a struggle it is for a large proportion of valuers to answer the questions accurately with confidence – even the ones relating to their own proposition let alone that of their rivals! One company’s valuers, when asked how many associated branches their firm had, gave a range of answers from 200 to 1500!

The old adage that “People buy differences” in selling is as relevant now as it has ever been. It is hard to see how a valuer can sell the “differences” of their service offering against a competitor when he/she has not grasped the detail of either. This is an example of a lack of knowledge which makes a valuer vulnerable to a superior clued-up rival. Plugging this knowledge gap is relatively easy with a well-structured training session (and perhaps a mystery shopper call or two to local agents). Once full knowledge is in place, it becomes clear which elements are your strengths versus the weaknesses of the other agents. This in turn ensures that the competent valuer can highlight those important differences between his/her services and the competition’s. The result of that approach is that the potential client perceives clear, tangible differences between agents’ offerings leading to them weighing up whose services will secure the best result in terms of price, speed and quality of buyer. The ultimate upshot of that deliberation is that the fee becomes of less central to the decision making process.

There are many other behavioural improvements that we have instilled in valuers which contribute to success – suffice to say that they are all geared to ensuring the individual stands out from the crowd.

Be different, be memorable, be successful. There really is no other option.



Adapt or die?

You don’t need me to tell you that the competition amongst agents for business is becoming more and more cutthroat and in many places there seems to be a race to the bottom between agents as far as fees are concerned (I heard &250 quoted as a sale fee by a high street agent just yesterday!).

Not only that, but  the competition is becoming more and more varied as new players move into the sector with online and discount options.

It really is a time of change and it is clear that in many places the market is segmenting into cheap “process-driven” options and high quality customer service estate agents. The fear I have is that agents who stay in what I call the “mushy middle” in terms of their service offering with little differentiation in reality from their competitors, will get caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.

We have already seen this development in the retail sector, with the development of online and discount retailing at the bottom of the market such as  ASDA and LIDL and premium brands to serve the top income quartile in Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. This has resulted in problems for the big supermarkets like Sainsburys and Tescos who lack clear definition in terms of the value customer proposition being seen as neither the cheapest nor the most distinctive in terms of quality.

The problem is that the only cost effective way of creating differentiation in reality is to develop the resources and processes we already have in order to deliver a higher level of service to clients. It still shocks me how many agents confuse working hard with customer satisfaction and in reality are not developing higher level customer service standards. There are too many agents who delude themselves that they have a compelling customer proposition when in reality they are providing a level of service that does not justify premium fees in the new landscape.

So what do we need to do?

Well, if we are to develop a high service option, we need to review the “moments of truth” our customers experience when they are in contact or are aware of our company and we need to ensure that as much as possible the experience they have at each stage is “bespoke” to the individual.

We then need to compare what we do at each stage to what our competitors do .Particularly in terms of the quality of the human interaction that takes place at each stage. Is the valuation/instruction process and experience we provide our customers with noticeably different from that of our competitors?

For example, do we always give a lettings valuation as well as a sales valuation on all marketing appraisals? Do we design the details and select photos alongside the client face to face? Have we replaced online or telephone interaction with face to face meetings and personal notes and solutions? Do we give our customer a transparent, documented and bespoke marketing programme clearly dated as to when things will happen and how the process will be reviewed?

As well as looking at the processes and routines we undertake as agents, are we really solving the customers’ problems?

Very few people call out an agent purely to find out what their house is worth (even if they say they do). The real need they have is to be advised fully on all aspects of moving, to identify how they can achieve the maximum price for their property, and to be reassured that we can help them avoid or handle any problems they may face in moving - for example, finding a property to move to. Every agent will tell clients they can sell their property, but to give awesome and differentiated service, we need to have new levels of knowledge and skill , combined with clearly different experiences at each stage of the process that are not merely marginally different from the experience they have with our fast improving competition.

New levels of customer service require the ability to accept that what worked in the last five years will not be competitive in five years time. The most effective survival strategy, although undoubtedly the toughest to achieve, for “traditional” Estate Agents is to make this transformation in customer service and value proposition your number one priority now, before the future becomes the present.

 



Meanwhile, outside the school gates…

A local estate agency has been the talk at the school gates at a town in Cambridgeshire in recent weeks. Two mums in the playground have said how they went to Agent A as they have used them previously to buy and sell.

Both were surprised at the amount their properties had gone up (seemingly in hindsight a little bit of overpricing by the agent in question). Both ladies said that initially they got feedback after each viewing but that had now tailed off and feedback had now become very hit and miss.

One mum said that she chased her agent to be told that “My colleague is on the phone but they have spoken with the viewer and I’ll get them to call you straight back with the feedback” – the client had still heard nothing two days later. Another mum told the agent that she was now going to instruct another agent and subsequently had a better quality of service from Agent A. However, she said it was a case of too little too late. She also said that her husband didn’t want to swap as he has always used Agent A but she told him that his loyalty was clearly not resulting in a good service. She also told him that the switch of agents was not open to discussion, and the fact that they have now changed agents seems to clarify who wears the trousers in that household!

Over my 32 years involved in estate agency, the overriding reason for vendor clients switching agents has been down to the same root cause – a lack of communication. This may include unreturned messages, lack of viewing feedback or simply insufficient updates.

There is often a disproportionate effort from agents in securing new instructions compared to retaining existing ones. I see real cultural issues in businesses where new instructions are the main goal but withdrawals or levels of client satisfaction are not measured or discussed.

If your staff were faced with two messages as follows, which would they deal with first?

Message 1: Mr Smith, an existing vendor/landlord, phoned to say he was rather disappointed at the recent lack of viewings and wants to talk to you about the situation

 

Message 2: Mrs Brown phoned to say she was considering taking her property away from one of your competitors and instructing your agency instead

 

Obviously there are merits in dealing with both messages swiftly but there is a strong argument to say that despite the fact that Message 1 is the more difficult and challenging call – and let’s be honest, less enjoyable by a long way – if it is delayed, it could well lead to even greater disgruntlement and ultimately a lost instruction.

 With instructions in very short supply for many agents, and many of your property listings being targeted and attacked by proactive competitors, it is the perfect time to review your client care policy. Remember the key definition “Effective client care contact is a regular structured call or visit made to the client with the aim of maintaining or increasing trust and improving the saleability/lettability of the instruction.”

 Review your culture, your system, your attitudes and the calibre of your client care. It is crucial to look after your clients, before another agent does.

 



Tour Dates

The courses will be

 

 "How to be an Exceptional Lister"

This special training course is for sales and lettings valuers, and covers a huge range of things an exceptional valuer needs to do before, during and after an appointment to win the business at the right price and on the right terms.

The key objectives are improving conversion rates, securing appropriate asking prices and maximising fees. It has been run for a number of our client firms as an in-house course but has never been run as an open event. The course has received amazing feedback and positively influenced the performance of all who have attended it.

The course will be a full day course being held in London on the 30th June, Manchester on the 7th July and Bristol on the 28th October.

The course will cost &225 plus vat per delegate.

To book or for more information contact us on 01480 405583, email us at admin@tm-traininganddevelopment.co.uk or visit our website http://www.tmtraininganddevelopment.co.uk/online-booking.php

 



Thought for the day...

"In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure" - Bill Cosby