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Are corporate estate agents more professional than indies?

Are corporate estate agents more professional than indies?

I don’t believe corporate estate agents ARE inherently more professional, but I do think they do a better job of getting their message across. Which of course, is most of the battle won.

I’ve worked in corporate estate agency, one-man-band affairs, and a few somewhere in between; as a negotiator, manager, associate director and, eventually, business partner. So I’ve seen the business from many angles, including those lovely insights you get when going into another estate agent to borrow some keys, which in my experience is rarely simple. What is it with estate agents and keys? Anyway, that’s for another time.

So, to the matter of professionalism. I guess it depends how we define it. There are certain elements I’m sure we’d all agree on: doing the best for your clients, not lying, not stealing, and not playing rugby in the office with a toilet roll. But after this, it all seems to get rather muddled. Is being organised professional, or just quite nice if you’ve got the time? How about having a smart logo, window display or website? Not really relevant so long as you do the business, or hardly optional given how much you charge? And are looking smart, being well trained, knowing where all your enquiries come from or having quality marketing materials about your company really so important? And we still haven’t mentioned professional photography, floorplans, decent software and being able to spell.

The list is endless, but if we were to say – purely for the sake of argument – that ALL OF THE ABOVE are elements of a professional company, then my argument is that the only place you’re going to get everything, is in a corporate estate agent. Or, at least, one with a goodly number of branches. But why is that?

The least organised place I ever worked was in a one-office estate agency. Everyone used to get annoyed with each other for leaving the diary in the wrong place, leaving keys in a car (or home), not passing on messages, and not leaving notes on files or applicant cards. Our photos were taken from bizarre angles – often wonky, too high up, or too near the floor – and regularly included items of dirty laundry and general mess. There was no training (other than a bollocking for behaving exactly like the manager did), and we made nice guesses about how many enquiries came from where – without ever asking an applicant how they knew about us – and based future advertising costs on that guess. That was in 1989.

How things have changed, right? You’d never find an agent these days using a paper diary, would you? Tippex, a biro on a string, and multi-coloured markers to highlight whose viewing is whose? Or one without a key system, or with dreadful photographs, or no website? Alas, yes you would.

Let me get one thing clear: in those heady days of the late 80s, double breasted Prince-of-Wales check suits and Ford Escort cabriolets, we were not crooks, we never ripped anyone off, and we were in fact a very nice bunch of people. More than that, we meant well. And that is where I think the independent agent spends most – and too much of – his or her time: meaning well. It’s not like that’s a stupid thing to spend time on and I truly don’t wish this to sound dismissive or insulting – although I suppose it’s inevitable that to some it will – but I simply don’t think that’s enough.

It’s great that the vast majority of independent estate agents are good, honest, capable people who want to make a living in the property world – a world they genuinely enjoy – by helping people move home. And there are some truly brilliant and expert people out there. Yes the industry has its fair share of idiots, but then where doesn’t? Idiocy is all round us, it’s everywhere we go, even in corporate estate agency. But that’s not my point. My point is that the independent estate agent, to my mind, spends too much time telling himself – and others – that it’s just not practical, cost-effective or otherwise to doll themselves up, get organised, train their staff, or ask people where they got their number from. They think that’s an area reserved for The Big Boys, with their bigger budgets, flashier offices, and more – and better – instructions. We have to understand that for the independent estate agent, life is different. That, since corporates got involved in the world of estate agency, the independents must be content with the scraps – and occasional gem – of what the corporates either don’t want, or somehow miss.

I find this sad, and I think the independents feel they’re stuck with what they’ve got. They might not be depressed about it, but they’re not overjoyed either. And surely if you own your own business, you should be, if nothing else, overjoyed.

Two things then: how to be overjoyed, and why you owe it to your clients to be that way.

For a start, most people don’t want to use corporate estate agents anyway, so you’re already at an advantage, and big buggery bollocks is it impossible – or even horribly costly – to give a corporate a rollicking good run for their money. Talking turkey, or even being frank, it’s the independents who have the most talented, interesting, creative and dogged sales people. But, so irresistibly smart and shiny is the corporate estate agent, you can hardly blame vendors for being seduced by the dark side. Everything about a corporate estate agent says: “Hey, come on in! We want your business! Look at what we offer! Would you like a sweetie?”

Why can’t independent estate agents – yes even those with one office – be like that?

As an example, when the credit crunch it, the agency I owned couldn’t afford to use a professional photographer anymore, but there was no way we wanted our photos to look crap. So, we got a photographer to train us how to take photos, bought a second-hand lens off Craigslist, a digital SLR camera from a friend, and a tripod on eBay. That came to a few hundred pounds – about the same as our monthly photography bill – and removed our costs forever. Our pictures looked pretty darn fine too, so it was double-hurrah all round. £300 spent, £3300 saved in the first year alone, image still intact. Who wouldn’t be overjoyed with such an outcome? And it’s not the only no-brainer out there.

I think it’s wise to ask yourself how much not spending any money is really costing you. I’m not suggesting you spend millions, or even tens of thousands, but look around your office and think, “If I spent, say, £5000, what difference to how my business functions – or possibly more importantly, looks like – could I make?” And then ask yourself how your business might profit as a result. Would it get 10 more sales per year, or 20 more instructions, or get you into a better part of the market? These are inspiring questions; asking how you can improve the future of your business is way more exciting than how to struggle through the next 6 months. No-one is ever going to use your company as a direct result of your visible cost-cutting, but they will use you as a direct result of your visible investment. Because, and here’s the thing, they’ll see it as an investment in your customers, not just you. They’ll see it that you’re giving it all you’ve got, that you’re having a go, that you’re well and truly alive. Better still, they’ll see you as a great choice of estate agent, a true professional.

Jazz up your window display, spend a few hundred quid on some decent copy about who you are and makes you great, or a few hundred more on a nice logo. Buy a key box, a decent camera, a software system. Clean the car. Get organised. Embrace social media and have brilliant Facebook and Twittter pages that show off your property prowess, and give them to someone to manage if you really have no idea what to say. Think about what would make it easy for someone to want to use you, and then do it.

This is what you owe to your clients. But more than that, you owe it to yourself.

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