Software companies are evolving the way their systems operate, driven by the rapidly changing needs of sales and lettings agents.
“As more people rent properties and fewer step onto the housing ladder, coupled with a housing shortage in the UK of affordable homes, so more agents are stepping into the lettings field in order to remain competitive within the industry,” says James Toogood, Group Sales Director at Property Software Group.
The flip side of this is that the larger suppliers such as Dezrez have noticed that agents also want software that, put simply, is easier to use and is built around an agent’s operation rather than the other way around.
Expectations of software have gone up a level, you should expect customisation, greater efficiencies, less tech headaches and competitive prices . Freya Davis, Dezrez.
Software platform, not a system
To deal with this, many software systems are instead re-inventing themselves as a flexible platform that can adapt to the ever changing operational, commercial and regulatory needs of agents.
“We’re seeing the mind-set of estate agents changing,” says Freya. “Instead of wanting unrelated solutions for different elements, agents want a platform they can build on. It’s less expensive to maintain, connects different abilities and branches, and enables estate and lettings agencies to adapt quickly to market changes.”
This approach is what software engineers call Software as a Service (SaaS), it’s what they are asking for when they request a system that can be moulded around their business needs. In the past, businesses instead built their operations around the software. For example, across all of the brands at Property Software Group, including Alto, Jupix, CFP, Vebra and Core Systems, a large part of their success is the ability to integrate with additional industry services in order to offer a platform of services, according to James Toogood.
“We strongly believe that agents should have the ability to access their software and seamlessly enjoy additional services all from the seamless integration with our selected partners,” he says.
The most obvious output of this trend is the growing number of companies now offering innovative ‘bolt on’ software to use on these new platforms. You may know some of them, from established players such as Metropix (floor plans) to relative newcomer Fixflo (for property management).
Others include BriefYourMarket for marketing and email comms, Van Mildert for tenant referencing and a plethora of EPC, mapping and image-improvement software suppliers. “Where some estate agents are forced to work around their software provider protocols, and may wait months for a patch that bolts onto their sales and lettings platform, our customers click and pay,” says Freya. “They can even suggest new items they want us to build or third parties they’d like us to integrate with.”
What’s clear is that agents are aiming to extend and diversify their business. That is why the sector is seeing far more interest in software as a platform.” Agents are excited by a platform that can integrate agency disciplines into a streamlined enterprise,” says Freya. “Once you have integrated your business, you can start to look at automating processes and making other efficiencies across functions.
“Expectations of how software can be used to do better business have gone up a level. Expect customisation, greater efficiencies, less technical headaches, and competitive prices. The challenge on how to deliver this is down to the software companies you pay to service you.”
Third party bolt-ons
As mentioned earlier, one result of this ‘platform’ approach is that more and more agents can now order up third-party services via their software systems.
One long-standing company that has embraced this is Metropix, the UK’s leading supplier of floor plans.
We like this sort of integration with the big software houses because the two systems do all the fetching and carrying, rather than the agent having to do it . Brian Farrell, Metropix.
“We like this kind of integration with the big software houses because it takes more ‘clicks’ out of the floor plan creation process,” says Brian Farrell, the company’s managing director. “The two systems do all the fetching and carrying for them, rather than having to go to and fro between different software systems.”
This has allowed some new services to spread fast that otherwise may have struggled to become familiar names to agents – the most recent example being Fixflo. Its rental property repair and management software is integrated into nine of the main software suppliers including Veco, VTUK and Rentman, but is still working to integrate it’s ‘bolt-on’ into the others. “The trend for software providers to stop making ‘systems’ and move to more accessible ‘platforms’ has been accelerating recently,” says Rajeev.
We have noticed that under pressure on fees, many agents are trying to become more efficient by streamlining internal workflows. Rajeev Nayyar, Fixflo.
A downside of this approach is that not all providers are approved for use with every software provider. For example, you might sign up to Fixflo’s service but if your software supplier hasn’t integrated it yet then your business will have to run both systems in parallel, rather than together. This will lead to duplication of effort and extra cost.
Many people believe that the looming wall of regulation being introduced for, in particular, lettings, will be an ultimate test of the new software as a platform approach.
And it may take time. Brian Farrell says not all of the software providers and boltons will manage to integrate, partly because “some software providers ask for payment to integrate third-party systems like ours, to which we say ‘not on your nelly’!” says Brian.
“Most integrations that we’re involved with are not commercial arrangements; the software system providers do it because it’s an advantage for their agent clients. Those that try to charge to integrate are putting those clients at a disadvantage, really.”
Another example is EPCs. Most of the systems such as Dezrez or ExpertAgent will have two or three EPC suppliers for agents to choose from and, though they may make a few pennies from each transaction, really they just want to provide choice. This is also good for innovation. “It would be very much more restrictive for all of us if the last gatekeeper for innovation was the question ‘can we get this new ‘bolt-on’ accepted by the software providers’,” says Brian.
“As it stands, whatever we develop – assuming it’s advantageous to agents – is freely available.”
So what of the future?
Many believe the looming wall of regulation being introduced for, in particular, the lettings industry will be an ultimate test of this new platform approach. Will it, many wonder, be adaptable enough as so many new regulations and laws are introduced both nationally and regionally?
The ultimate test will be to please those who use it at the coalface, the young and no doubt still blasé, negotiators tapping away at their desks.
Brief Your Market www.briefyourmarket.com
Expert Agent www.expertagent.co.uk
Van Mildert www.vanmildert.net