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July/August 2009

A brave new world that certainly makes a change from featuring dead spiders

COMMENT by DAVID PERKINS

ARE we past the worst? Certainly there are encouraging signs out there to suggest this may be the case.

I have even heard reports of agencies looking to recruit additional staff to rebuild from the skeleton crew who have helped the firm itself survive.

One courageous outfit plans to reopen an ex-estate agency office in a nearby town although I am not sure that is so wise.

We are all being told that the business is changing fundamentally. If so, why look to open an office which has failed in the recent past? Isn’t that investment somewhat misdirected?

Once would-be buyers and sellers would automatically head for their nearest town centre to trawl up and down the high street.

In many commuter towns, there was a premium to be paid for offices in or near the station forecourts.

Remember how Jeremy Agace built the original Mann & Co business concentrating on locations up and down the line from Waterloo.

Bairstow Eves based its operations on access to Liverpool Street as it spread out into Essex while Connells fanned out into Buckinghamshire from Marylebone Station.

But today how many serious would-be buyers and sellers will start by visiting their town centre?

A few, perhaps, but they are more likely to be seeking an internet café than an estate agency. Most have no need to leave home anymore; they merely go on-line.

The Government recently acknowledged that it now regards broadband as an essential service – along with water, main drainage and electricity.

It wants to see a high-speed internet service go totally nationwide in only a few years. Frankly, in this new optic-fibred environment, what point are permanent branch offices?

Regular readers will recall that I have long questioned their value – pointing out that the most profitable office I ever ran was on the second floor with a twisted old wooden staircase as the only access! Fire regulations? Forget it.

Those stairs helped qualify applicants rather effectively. Basically only the fit, healthy and most desperate attempted the climb. It worked since we outsold the opposition by a wide margin leaving them to service the unfit and the unhealthy.

From this experience, I went on to suggest that rather than close an unprofitable branch it might be an idea to sublet the ground floor and move upstairs – at least halving the overheads. What we did retain was a window display which was easy to maintain.

But we also had other window displays in local village centres visited once a week to update the information. These were rented window spaces or simply an illuminated wooden display case screwed to a flank wall in a prominent position.

This approach worked well, providing one selected appropriate properties to feature and we usually included as many ‘wanted’ messages as those ‘for sale’.

And where we could not find a proper display, we would slip a handwritten card into a newsagent’s window along with the second-hand furniture, or cheap holiday.

An important tip if you want to follow this idea – simply don’t look too smart; always dress down and do not print your cards too professionally as this can easily get them refused.

Personalised ‘wanted’ advertising can be used to fine tune and balance the book. Yet some estate agents do not use ‘wanted’ advertising which is daft: to be successful you need to balance two supply lines – sellers and prospective buyers — and the better the balance between the two the easier it is to sell property.

That said, many estate agents who use bland, uninspiring wording, maintain that ‘wanted’ advertising does not really work for them whereas I am convinced that carefully drafted and targeted copy can work wonders.

From the outset of my estate agency career, our advertising guru taught me the importance of personalisation.

He would stress the ‘three Ps’ – not ‘price, place and property’, or whichever combination you prefer – he meant ‘personalise, personalise, personalise’! And this theme I went on to develop with great success.

One particular advertisement was so strongly personalised it never got around to mentioning a property, yet I calculated that we used it 19 times and could trace 11 sales to the leads this simple piece of copy created.

Furthermore, this worked best as a small classified, nothing too big nor costly.

But these days the internet is most people’s first point of call and I cannot see the need for ‘conventional’ estate agency services returning even if, in a few years’ time, sales volumes are back to or exceeding previous levels.

I doubt the spread of branches will recover to anything like the previous numbers.

I am not actually suggesting that people will no longer need our professional help – just that the service can be better offered in another format.

I saw a recent report that a specialist buyer’s agency has taken to using ‘wanted’ notices in shop windows as though this was a new idea! We offered this type of service years ago, telling serious buyers that if we did not have something suitable for them we would go out and find it.

We did not charge for this search service and would explain to the property owners that, assuming we were able to negotiate a successful sale, we would expect our normal commission.

The one condition was that the prospective buyer had to promise to visit everything turned up in a search on their behalf, however inappropriate it sounded initially.

The fact is people do not trust estate agents – perhaps politicians for the moment rate even lower, but you will know what I mean.

I had a special form which prospective buyers completed and signed off giving their consent to us featuring their particular circumstances in any way we thought necessary.

These days, one can probably set up the ‘virtual’ office windows without having to make the regular trips with fresh photos and the latest crop of price reductions.

The idea came to me as I was deleting the host of useless e-mails that build up most days. One was from a firm marketing a digital picture frame that was really no money at all and not a bad size either. It struck me that to equip a remote window display with 10 or a dozen of these could work well. Initially I thought of popping around with a laptop to change or update the displays.

They could be on a simple time switch to avoid attracting vandalism at night and, maybe, toughened glass for the case. Then I thought further.

These days, I rarely see my younger son. A year ago, he was a regular visitor after work when he would rectify in minutes any computer problems I had been wrestling with for most of the day: it cost us a supper.

Today, he can access my system remotely. Sometimes he is in and has it sorted before I have finished outlining the problem! When the mouse takes off on its own I know who it is.

I am quite sure he could set up a remote display with digital pictures and a modem facility so they could be updated whenever, from the office keyboard.

What flexibility — and how impressive. Any applicant especially keen to live in a particular town or village could have their personalised requirements on display in the town square within seconds.

But the brave could go further. ‘Private treaty negotiation’ is supposed to mean what it says – that the negotiations are kept private – but one of the most successful agents I know used to broadcast progress to all and sundry!

Admittedly this was in Northern Ireland where they do things differently. He had a blackboard in the street outside on which was chalked the latest property to go under offer, and how much, with an invitation for passers-by to better it!

In the window was another board with all the current sales in progress with the latest prices to beat. Come lunchtime, various individuals would pop by – just to see what price their neighbour’s property had reached. It was a somewhat drawn out series of sales by public auction.

Of course, this grated with my concern for best professional practice but there again, clearly both parties must have known this would happen and had agreed and accepted this approach – so it was an accepted variation of custom and practice.

Now, using digital pictures and communication technology, why not give it a go?

What is the impression you want to create? That your agency is the one where it all happens. So messages could be changed regularly throughout the day. It would be a change from the dead spiders still featured by many estate agencies.

David Perkins can be contacted
at PO Box 333, Carterton,
Oxon, OX18 3WZ,
on 0870 350 1865 or at:
david@david perkins.co.uk.