The Robinson Jackson Group boast a unique number of ‘old-timers’ (better referred to by us as ‘experienced’ Owner Partners) who work alongside talented young staff that are just starting out on their careers. Both old and young are constantly discovering how technology can be utilised in an industry that traditionally relies so heavily on personal interaction.
The Partners’ soundbites below suggest that technology has aided the management of information for agents, and in turn enables them to reach out to more of the public than ever before. However, the emotive nature of home ownership and the emotional roller-coaster of moving may always limit the impact technology can have within the housing sector. Their longevity as estate agents mean they have the broadest perspective of the trends that have influenced the industry over the last 25-50 years! Way before Rightmove or even the internet was a glint in an innovators eye.
20 years ago, we would have spent many hours sending mailing lists; labour and cost-intensive. A nightly ritual for applicants was to sieve through the pile of particulars received that day – yes, no, maybe. With technology, applicants can see what they want to see and no more if they choose. Sometimes I feel the magic of finding a dream home that doesn’t fit an ‘alert criteria’ may one day be lost, but thankfully via suggestions made by local estate agents – “you must see inside this one!” – people are still falling in love with properties they never knew existed.
Agency spend has moved from paper-based communications into digital and that trend seems to be accelerating. Knowing whether people want to be contacted via email, text, WhatsApp, Facebook etc. is a constant challenge. It’s perhaps a relief for us, who need to open a two-way dialogue quickly, that most customers see a property on Rightmove and still call us to enquire. The volume of calls since the advent of portals is now a lot more and spread through-out the week, rather than on Thursday mornings with the release of the local newspaper. The constant flow of new properties listed, sold and progressed through to completion continues to demand exemplary teamwork. I feel that’s the reason local branches containing small dedicated teams seem to be winning over converging multi-skilled teams based in vast open-plan central offices.
When I set out in my twenties the thing I enjoyed was conversing with the public. My fellow Partners and I have of course needed to learn how to use a computer, format an email, run searches on Rightmove and data-mine our CRM system. (All alien phrases to anyone who’s worked in agency longer than a decade.) The reality is that the agents with the best reputations for customer service are not using technology to replace personal communication, they are using it as an additional tool to enhance their contact, and it looks like the public are appreciating this approach.
Technology has made it quicker to measure, photograph, produce great details and launch a property to the market across multiple platforms instantaneously. Within minutes we can send emails to waiting buyers, receive calls from Rightmove and book viewings into customer’s properties for that evening. We can track the number of people that have seen the property, the number of enquiries and use the information to assess our marketing tactics minute by minute. It’s fast-moving, it’s 24/7 but it’s not retail. While ordering a product on Amazon triggers an army of night-time logistics, I believe buyers are sympathetic enough to understand that requesting a viewing via the web at 1 am, is not going to trigger a response from a homeowner until the next morning, whether the messenger is human or artificial intelligence. We have seen agents go 24 hours to mimic the retail sector and then retract it, I think the public is looking for a balanced service – convenient but without interrupting their privacy.
Owning and running for many years’ high street branches in suburban towns I observe no less bustle today than a decade ago. The pavements of South East London are packed with people diving into coffee shops, using local restaurants and yes, sticking their heads around the door to ask; “How’s the property market?” Most days I’ll stroll the high street and because we’ve been here so long, I’m often stopped in the streets by past customers who have bought or rented from us. People often say local communities and shops are dying because of the internet but our high street still draws the crowds. Most importantly for us, the local communities like to deal with familiar companies, based I guess, on the trust accumulated over the many years of our presence.
Technology has made the biggest impact for my business behind the scenes predominantly with our increased use of database management tools. The systems we use are terrific at grouping customers into categories so we can tailor our service to their requirements and track the frequency of communication. Front of house is very different, with the telephone yet to be replaced by alternative methods such as social media or online chat. All generations use the convenience of email and texts particularly when sharing property details. But if a buyer spots something they like, they don’t want to miss out and it’s the phone they reach out for. In fact, 75% of our Rightmove enquiries come via the telephone.
As one of the youngest partners I find the prospect of new technology becoming available to estate agents and our customers exciting. The industry is sometimes accused of not moving with the times, however I feel that is a little unfair. Perhaps some are dinosaurs, but for the most, we are comfortable embracing anything that will make things run smoothly and deliver the best results for customers. The reality is that alternative ways to sell property have not presented any benefit over tried & tested methods. Because the public are trusting us with their biggest asset, any flaws in new methods are soon exposed.
We now have filtered and better-quality leads landing with us every day of the year. I don’t, however, hear from the nosey neighbour anymore – a shame in a way. Most customers are already loaded with information by the time they reach us. Like a doctor, we unravel the public’s self-diagnoses and fill in the gaps in their knowledge. It’s great that we still have such a valuable role. I think there will be a further proliferation of information online which will initially confuse the public and actually necessitate an increase in agent face-to-face advice. Businesses will thrive if they retain the ability to build their business on relationships.
We saw through 2016/2017 an over-reliance by everyone on the internet to sell houses. It felt at times like a conveyor belt – market the property, book an open day, take multiple offers by Monday morning. Sadly, during this period the selling skills we were brought up on were lost. In today’s market, we have had to quickly share our sales experience with younger staff and teach them the art of selling. Agents that solely rely on internet leads are now struggling, while those that utilise technology alongside tried and tested sales techniques are working hard and delivering great results for their customers. I think it has taken a tougher market for the public to appreciate what an estate agent does,
Technology isn’t just about the latest gadget or system staff use, it’s also had a huge impact on our branches’ appearance. For 50 years, I have enjoyed watching the progress of technology play out in estate agent’s windows. The latest printing techniques onto transparencies – coupled with hi-tech displays – give property photos a ‘high definition’ quality at night and the latest advancements in fascia lighting make offices beacons on the high-street. I’m now (cough) 75 years old and witnessed the decrease in footfall many years ago and the growing impact of the internet, but a strong brand presence in the heart of the local community continues to deliver reassurance for our customers. That’s why our partners are committed to further investment into the network.
A successful estate agent needs both innovation and motivation, one is not a substitute for the other. Innovations (many of which my 50-year business partner, Peter Jackson pioneered) only work when paired with highly motivated staff (my job!), who deliver it with 100% enthusiasm to our customers. If technology is introduced solely to replace, rather than enhance staff’s invaluable contribution to the sales process then it invariably fails.
Our fellow partners and their staff understand every single way that our business has had to modify its trading framework during our 50 year journey; from ‘closed at weekends’ in the 60’s & early 70’s to open 9am – 7pm seven days a week, through to embracing new technology to ensure our core proposition is available at everyone’s fingertips 24/7. Technology has aided the way we work and communicate with the public, but it has not led to major cost efficiencies, nor has it reduced the headcount in our offices. Sales remains a labour-intensive process where buyers and sellers rely on professionals to move home. If good agents continue to prove their worth and work with technology rather than against it, I think real people will be helping the public for many years to come.