Looking to sell your property quickly, for a good price and with minimum hassle? Of course you are but usually that means having to engage …………..an ESTATE AGENT!
Recently I had the pleasure of attending a conference alongside 50 odd (no pun intended ;)) estate agents.
Whatever the public perception of estate agents, they have a job to do, businesses to run and livelihoods to support just like the rest of us. Frustratingly, some agents still appear to be in the dark ages and to survive, definitely have to ‘up their game’. Encouragingly, although the conference was an opportunity for many to meet up with old friends and sparing partners, some had come along to learn new tips and tricks for (hopefully) taking their agencies forward.
One of the reasons I’d been eager to attend, was of course to network my own business, (an outsider on the inside so to speak!) nevertheless, I was also interested in listening to a couple of the key speakers. In particular, Julian O’Dell, who I’d come across on Twitter, as @agencytrainer a year or so ago and been a keen follower of ever since.
As well as being a partner of Thomas Morris estate agents, Julian runs another business (training estate agents) TM training&development. A few of my contacts had heard him speak and some had even raved about his training courses. For me, this was too good an opportunity to miss.
Most of my clients have estate agent stories (or sagas) to tell; some good but mostly, unfortunately, bad! Although I too am in the business of ‘helping to sell houses’, I’m usually called in when clients are fed up with the agent, or at their wits end when the property isn’t selling as quickly as (they think) it should be. Selling is a stressful and emotional time, some agents get it right, some obviously don’t! I have firm views on what you should expect from your agent, the level of service they provide and how they should market your property. So pencil in hand, I was ready to take notes.
Julian is an extremely engaging speaker but generally what he said was all common sense. Most of his ethos is what ‘we’, the public, want or should expect to get from our agent, so why did he need to spell it out to them?
Luckily he had time to chat afterwards and although I’m no roving reporter, agreed to answer a few of my probing questions….….
Julian, I’ve given a brief description of your ‘day job’ above but perhaps you could you summarise your business and background for those that don’t know you?
In 1983, I began my estate agency career with an independent company in Olney, Bedfordshire. After spending a number of years with legendary British estate agency Ekins, Dilley & Handley I accepted a Senior Management position with the newly formed Prudential Property Services – taking a keen interest in personnel issues and staff training.
I eventually became disillusioned with corporate life and in 2000 was invited to become a Partner with trailblazing company Thomas Morris – a firm that in 2001 went on to win the coveted Cendant Cup – and with it the accolade of the ‘Best Independent Estate Agent in the UK’. In 2002, alongside my estate agency interests, I established TM Training & Development who have coached and trained teams and individuals in numerous countries throughout Europe, including Italy, Spain, Wales, Scotland and Germany. I was joined in 2007 by Peter Chapman – ex Managing Director of central London agency, Chestertons.
I’m now a regular speaker at industry conferences and about to undertake my first engagement on the African Continent in the form of the South African Fine & Country conference. I’m also a contributor to a number of the UK’s leading property publications and sit on various industry judging panels. My proudest professional moment was when TM training & development were awarded the Sunday Times Gold Estate Agency Supplier of the Year award in London in December 2010. In the same year, Thomas Morris Estate Agents won three industry awards including “Best Independent Estate Agency Chain of the Year” at The Negotiator awards.
My interests include my family, music (particularly from the 1970s), football (I am former PA announcer and a lifelong fan of Luton Town), foreign travel and anything to do with property.
After so many years in the industry, what is it about the role of an estate agent that still interests or excites you?
The role of a diligent agent in solving people’s problems by helping them sell and/or buy successfully is still an important one. In the current market, most people who move are doing so because something in their lives dictates that they have to – often something problematic. High quality agents identify those issues and suggest and supply the right course of action to their clients. The right advice and action from the right agent can genuinely make a difference to the quality of life of many of their clients.
Why do you think estate agency gets such a bad press?
Estate agency gets a bad press for many reasons – a few of which are sadly justified. Having moved recently myself I was shocked and disappointed by the lack of professionalism and customer care displayed by many practitioners. Poor communication, lack of listening, slack attention to detail and broken promises are not uncommon judging by my own experiences and those of the mystery shopper exercises we conduct.
Agents are also portrayed in soap operas, sitcoms and television dramas as wide boys or bumbling buffoons which perpetuates the perception of the public. Our cause is not helped by stories of dishonesty that rear their heads in the media with predictable regularity. Just this week, a number of London agents have been found guilty of obtaining parking permits in central London through fraudulent behaviour – a few bad apples spoil the reputation of the whole industry.
In reality, the majority of agents I work with on the training and consultancy side are well-intentioned, honest, hard working and ethical in their approach.
What does it take to be a good estate agent?
As a firm, high standards of behaviour and conduct which are monitored and ahered to, aligned with a dynamic brand and great marketing are a great start. Appropriate staff recruitment, reward, retention and training are crucial.
As for individuals, there are numerous key criteria under the three umbrella headings of knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Knowledge includes that of the relevant legislation, local and national market, property stock, amenities, facilities, benefits of living in your catchment area are all important.
Key skills include communication, questioning, listening, rapport building, prioritisation, time management, objection handling and many more. Training and coaching in these skills accelerate and maintain effectiveness and set individuals apart from the competition.
The paramount attitudes are a will to win, positivity, flexibility and a good team ethic. If these are in place from the start, individuals have the raw materials to be successful. The missing knowledge and skills can then be bolted on through training, coaching and mentoring.
Which common mistakes do you see happening time and time again?
Lack of attention to detail is a personal irritation of mine – just today I have seen an estate agent’s website description of a property that reads “Viewing recomended to avoid dissapointment”. Furthermore, the property apparently had an “enterance hall” and a vent for a “tumble dyer”. These basic careless errors show a poor approach to quality and accuracy and are a reflection of the care and pride the agent takes in their work.
Lack of listening is a constant bugbear too. So many friends, family and acquaintances have bemoaned the experience of receiving entirely irrelevant property information. My wife and I were sent an expensively produced glossy brochure of a property recently. One of our criteria was that our next property needed to be within a maximum 25 miles of my wife’s workplace. The property in question was 64 miles away – an utter waste of everybody’s time.
There is also an over-reliance it appears on technology and a loss of focus on people skills. Agents spending money on ipads and QR codes would be well advised to invest in the development of staff skills. A mediocre valuer provided with an ipad does not become an excellent valuer…. they become a mediocre valuer with an ipad. That does not mean their results will improve.
Do you think estate agents will ever stop being vilified by the public?
Possibly, but we still seem to appear at or near the top of the list of “least trusted professions”. Until practitioners across the board conduct themselves in an entirely open and honest fashion, the industry will struggle to shake off the stigma.
There is no entry barrier to becoming an agent and the introduction of entrance examinations and licensing would be a healthy step towards improving the public’s perception. In America, such an approach leads to “realtors” being widely respected in the community and to client relationships more in line with those that we have in the UK with our accountants and solicitors.
Is there one improvement (all) agents could make immediately to better their service?
Improve the quality and frequency of proactive communication. The biggest criticism of agents that I hear is that they do not keep in touch with their clients and customers. The better agents I have dealings with contact their key customers weekly by telephone to develop and maintain trust, rapport and loyalty.
Apart from keeping you gainfully employed, why do you feel estate agent training is so important?
The market size in terms of transaction numbers has reduced massively since 2007 and agents who want to survive and outlive the competition long term need to improve what they do to grab a bigger slice of available action. This does not happen through mere willpower – improved knowledge and skills have to be in place. Training makes this happen!
The current news for home sellers (and therefore agents) is pretty bleak, what are your thoughts on the market at the moment?
As previously stated, the market size has fundamentally changed. In 2007, there were 1.6 million sales transactions in England and Wales. That figure is likely to be no more than 0.6 million in 2011. 1 million transactions disappearing represents a huge challenge, particularly in light of the fact that there has been nowhere near a proportionate reduction in the number of agents competing for that market.
There are numerous factors that suggest no change to that number of annual sales for the foreseeable future. Many first time buyers can’t or won’t buy, investment buyers seem to be hesitant about putting their money into property in a big way, despite the lack of interest it is earning in the bank and/or the massive risks involved in stocks and shares.
Transaction numbers are the most important element to agents. Whether prices rise or fall is somewhat of a red herring, although I believe they will reduce further before they recover.
The agents who will be best positioned to thrive in the short- and medium-term property market are highly likely to be those with robust and successful lettings and property management operations as there is a culture shift toward property rental in the UK.
How do you see the world of estate agency changing over the next few years?
There will doubtless be changes as the years roll on, but although online agency has its place and offers an alternative to the traditional approach, I believe that due to the size and importance of property transactions, a person to person relationship will always play a massive part in the moving process. For that reason, I do not see a huge dying away of high street agency nor a surge of popularity for online agents.
I hope, as previously stated, that entry criteria will be introduced and that malpractice and dishonesty will fade away.
With the advent of sites like Tepilo, do you think people are more determined to try and sell their homes without using an agent – particularly to save themselves huge fees?
The perception of saving money by using sites like Tepilo needs close scrutiny. On the face of it, marketing your £200,000 property for free or next to nothing via such an approach will save the customer between 1 and 2% of the sale price (i.e. £2000 to £4000 in this case). An attractive option surely?
Well maybe not… A dilligent, trained, proactive estate agent will have a vast band of registered, qualified potential buyers who will be vetted according to their motivation, ability and needs. If none of these existing batch purchase the property, the agent has the a range of marketing methods including advertising, high street presence, boards, website and portals to attract a new wave of enquiries.
Negotiating the best price takes skill and training. Agents are equipped for this task and their experience and knowhow can make an enormous difference to the level of offer encouraged from interested parties. Finally, the hardest part of the job is often the cajoling, chivvying and careful management of the progressing of the sale. Some transactions can take weeks or even months of blood, sweat and tears to nurse through to completion. Without a calibre agent involved, sales can fall apart at all sorts of key points in the process.
If your property fails to realise the best possible price or your sale fails to reach exchange of contracts, the fee you pay is of far less relevance and a low fee or no fee can very quickly become a completely false economy.
As the online phenomenon grows, do you think we will see the end of the high street agent?
Should agents consider changing their opening hours – I mean with most of us working longer hours, is it still feasible to operate a branch Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm?
The best agents I work with already open all day on Saturdays and Sundays in recognition of their clients’ needs and lifestyle. This approach is often combined with late night weekday opening and phone lines that are manned until 9pm or even later.
This flexibility of “opening” hours coupled with the 24/7 availability of information on the internet is definitely a route which proactive agents will continue to opt for.
What key factors should a home seller look for when asking an agent to value their property?
Research into which agent to employ to sell your home is extremely important and directly linked to your chances of achieving the best possible price in the shortest possible time with the minimum amount of aggravation en route.
Vendors should look for evidence in local newspapers and online as to an agent’s track record at dealing with properties like their own. Examine closely how they will market your home – are floor plans, internal photographs or video tours employed? Have a drive around the local area and look at the board presence of the local estate agents. But be careful with this exercise – it is not simply the amount of boards that is important, but rather the proportion of the total that read “Sold” or “Under Offer”. It is this ratio that can illustrate the effectiveness of an agent’s sales operation.
Finally, visit or contact the office in the guise of a potential buyer. A little time invested in “mystery shopping” will demonstrate an agent’s level of customer service and sales skills.
All agents are not the same. It is a vendor’s responsibility to establish the differences before entrusting any of them with one’s most valuable asset. Another method of research is to visit sites like www.allagents.co.uk to see what previous clients have to say about the agents in the frame.
Assuming they typically select 3 agents to value, how does home seller choose which estate agent to instruct – select the one with the highest valuatio or the lowest fee?
See some of the answer above. In addition, it is vital that vendors recognise that some agents overvalue simply to get the business and then work on the client to get the price down over forthcoming weeks or months. This typically leads to an excessive lead time to secure a buyer and in many cases at a lower selling price due to the property becoming stale or having the stigma of being a difficult one to sell having been on the market for so long.
Pricing correctly is of paramount importance in the current market, Buyers shop around and have easier access to available properties than ever before via the internet. If a property does not compare and compete sensibly on paper with others of a similar nature, there will be a shortage of enquiries and viewings.
Low commissions are the approach of agents who do not have a service proposition to justify anything other than cheap fees. As in most walks of life, the customer gets what they pay for.
A vendor should take a close interest in the services on offer in terms of marketing and communication. If you pay an extra £1000 on commission but in doing so you appoint an agent who secures a quality buyer at the asking price who exchanges contracts in 4 weeks, then clearly that extra money has been very well spent.
I feel it is no coincidence that on my travels around the country, I have yet to visit a place where the cheapest agent is selling the most property.
Beyond this, clients should request visual evidence of sales success in the area. Any agent can talk the talk, but in the current market it is critical to select an agent that can prove they walk the walk!
In your opinion, what is the best thing about being an estate agent?
The challenge, the variety, the fact that no two days are the same, that one never stops learning as new situations present themselves regularly and that it is genuinely an industry where hard work, honesty and professionalism reap rewards.
Despite the fact that moving house is regarded as one of the most stressful experiences in life, an exceptional agent can alleviate vast amounts of that stress and help people fulfil their dreams and aspirations. Thank you cards, chocolates and wine from satisfied clients give me the same glow of pride as they did 28 years ago when I first started in the business.
Apart from recommending my services 🙂, what else should agents do to help their vendors sell more quickly and for the best price?
Retain the relationship of trust that has been created at the point of instruction by ensuring regular informative communication and reviews. Be assertive enough to suggest changes to the property, the marketing and/or the price whenever necessary, and work with the client as a team who have the same objective in mind.
Get specific feedback from all viewers as to why they are not offering on the property. Ask for a price opinion from each viewer – even if the property isn’t for them, it is likely they will have an idea of the appropriateness of the asking price. A property is only ever worth what a buyer is prepared to pay for it, so it makes sense to establish that figure from all viewers to pass on to the client.
And obviously, more importantly, employ the services of one H Silver!
Many thanks to Julian for taking time out from his busy day to give an insider’s view into the business and for his candid responses to my questions.