Switch on to utilities

With bills rising faster than inflation, Lisa Isaacs explores the benefits for agents offering utility comparison and switching services to homemovers.

Link to Utilities feature

If you’re a dedicated follower of property fashion, the thought of morphing into a ‘concierge’ style of agent may have crossed your mind. Already Humberts has repositioned itself with a ‘Living’ division, while INHOUS is including concierge-like services as part of its property management offering.

Then there are the disruptors who are already going the extra mile. Quintessentially Estates has announced that every new UK rental agreement will include a complimentary one-year membership to the Group’s concierge service, giving tenants access to bespoke experiences, luxury services and preferential rates.

AskPorter Concierge is an app-based service providing real-life porters to clean, shop and sort laundry, as well as take care of general maintenance in rented properties.

While an all-out lifestyle concierge may be too drastic a departure from core estate agency, what is appealing is a home-help style of concierge where an agent offers services intrinsic to the moving process. A huge part in this is utilities – and the good news is that agents don’t have to increase their headcount or retrain staff to become involved.

Switch on to utilities

There are several utility partners who are happy to navigate your movers through the tariff minefield, oversee connections and manage accounts on behalf of agents and without cost. Arrangements can be co-branded or even white label to help agents to position themselves as an all-round service provider, and there’s plenty of marketing support to help agents promote in-branch utility services to a wide audience.

In return, agents are asked to inform their customers about the partner’s utility comparison services, preferred suppliers and moving notification packages, with the prospect of referral fees for introductions and new custom.

It’s bemusing enough for most of us to get our heads around tariffs and utilities – doing so during the stressful moving process is a huge ask, and many movers are delighted to be helped.

Link to Utilities feature

Link to Utilities feature

Sarah Weir, Operations Manager at One Utility Bill, likens the energy market to the stock exchange – with overbuying and underselling often behind reduced tariffs or new customer offers. “The wholesale price of energy fluctuates. Sometimes providers will release new low price tariffs at the end of a reporting period in order to boost customer numbers and once the sales period finishes, the tariff is removed and this is a cause of ever changing prices.”

Our service also means letting agents needn’t speak to a utility supplier ever again. As well as all the account set up, we will handle queries from the tenant and deal with any objections. Sara Weir, One Utility Bill.

Many movers end up on the highest utility tariffs as they’re simply too perplexed by the options available or too busy to research and switch. So how refreshing would it be if agents provided a service to movers that was free, helpful and well timed – without any extra work on their part?

Evolving to offer utility services

Scott Mackay, Director at Tili, says agents could benefit by considering themselves as true service providers offering long-term concierge services. He says there are already indications that agents are beginning to think this way, “We’re increasingly being asked to add value to agents’ business and Tili is developing a wider range of lifestyle services to serve a more demanding sector. Agents want to be creative and innovative and they want to satisfy unprecedented customer needs.

“Think media services, bespoke offers that arrive digitally to complement key milestones in the home-moving journey and ‘nice-to-have’ perks, like the digital assistant who orders the champagne to the new house to toast a successful move. It might sound frivolous but we’re in the age of Alexa, Siri and same-day delivery: this is the new age of expectation.”

Scott is, however, keen to stress that offering utility services won’t create an extra workload for already besieged agents, “A partnership with Tili actually takes away a large element of the handholding done by agents, as we become the ones who help tenants and homebuyers navigate the move-in process. We seamlessly integrate with the agent’s system, so there’s no extra work to input the details of new movers, and the customer automatically receives an email inviting them to complete their home move with Tili. Our service comes with no set-up costs and we even market our service on the agents’ behalf via direct communications with their clients. This leaves the customer delighted and lets the agent get on with doing what they do best.”

A compelling proposition

We know concierge-style services are sold best when they make life easier for all those involved but they also need to provide an irresistible draw for customers and elevate agents above and beyond traditional buying, selling and letting services.

One Utility Bill’s concierge angle is simplification; consolidating the utility bills of tenants – including energy, water, media, TV license and broadband – in to one fixed monthly payment, as well as managing the whole affair on the tenant’s behalf, from start to finish. “With our Bills Inclusive package, tenants don’t need to speak with any utility suppliers to start or manage their account,” says Sara.

Not having to call round, compare products or set up multiple direct debits has a certain stress-free ring to it – a weight off tenant’s shoulders that should be a soft sell – but companies like One Utility Bill are making life easier for agents too. “Our service also means letting agents needn’t speak to a utility supplier ever again,” adds Sara. “As well as all the account set up, we handle queries from the tenant during the tenancy and deal with any bill issues.”

Utility overload

Reducing the utility admin workload for agents is a reoccurring theme among utility partners and many have entered into the utility notifications area, which helps over-burdened, under-resourced agents as much as it does movers. Consider it a concierge service for agents, especially those in the lettings sector who are frequently notifying suppliers of incoming tenants, outgoing renters and void periods.

Another supplier, Utilitell, wraps up two concierge-style services within one brand. Although it owns and operates its own Ofgem accredited, full energy comparison service, it’s the iammoving.com notification service that takes away the onus of letting suppliers know who is moving out and who is moving in, as well as handling meter readings and bills during void periods.

Link to Utilities featureEileen Rutschmann, Founder and CEO of Utilitell, says that over 700 letting agents are already using its iammoving.com tenancy notification software, “Our primary benefits are time and stress saved, which can be extensive. Some of our partner agents have saved the equivalent of a part-time to full-time employee over a year, thanks to our notification service. An agent simply tells us the details of a property and the tenant, and we notify the utilities as well as the local council – even stepping in where there are meter reading discrepancies and reversing court summons.”

Our primary benefits are time and stress saved, which can be extensive. Some partner agents have saved the equivalent of an employee over a year, thanks to our notification service. Eileen Rutschmann, Utilitell.

Utility partners are not just for high turnover letting agents either, with Eileen encouraging sales agents to harness the benefits of a utility concierge, “The Utilitell service can be used by agents working with buyers and sellers too, and we’re currently developing an advanced product interface that will help agents extend into this market more.”

Telephony too

When we think of switching suppliers and tariff comparisons, we immediately think of gas and electricity but there are also huge merits attached to switching suppliers of TV, broadband and telephone services.

Moving time isn’t the best time to broach switching. A better time is once they’re settled in and understand their usage needs – then encourage them to shop around. PJ Darling Director, Ittria.

Link to Utilities feature
PJ Darling

Both Scott at Tili and PJ Darling, the Director of Ittria, refer to the ‘live when they arrive’ aspect of utilities, which refers to having broadband and phone lines connected when a mover arrives. It taps in to FOMO – the fear of missing out – and the expectancy among movers that WiFi and Netflix will be available from day one.

Link to Utilities feature
Glen Seddington

“Broadband is now considered critical by most and although it has not traditionally been classed as a ‘utility’, it has now overtaken the likes of gas and electricity in importance to a tenant,” says Glenn Seddington, Managing Director at Tenant Shop. Glenn does point out that setting up broadband runs on a different timescale to other utilities, which can cause a headache for letting agents trying to get tenants connected. “Broadband has a two to three week set up time and our model accommodates this in combination with the traditional utilities of electricity and gas, and subsequent requirements around insurance,” which highlights why a utility specialist pulling the strings can save agents time and logistical frustrations.

Broadband is now considered a critical service by most people. Although it has not traditionally been classed as a ‘utility’, it has now overtaken electricity and gas in importance to a tenant. Glenn Seddington, Tenant Shop.

Utilities anytime

With the ability to save movers hundreds of pounds and earn referral fees, why aren’t agents offering utility services on a constant basis? “Wherever there’s an opportunity to engage with a mover, there exists an opportunity for additional revenue,” says Scott.

“A simple referral url link is all that’s needed to set movers in the path to utility savings and this opens the door for agents to market Tili in any way they wish.”

In fact, PJ suggests utility success could all be in the timing, “The moving process isn’t actually the best time to broach switching and suppliers with movers, as they are already busy doing everything else. I’d suggest a better time is once they’re settled into a new property and understand their usage requirements – then they should be encouraged to shop around.”

Branching out to offer a utility concierge service starts to chip away at the notion that agents are only useful for buying, selling and letting, which we know leaves agents exposed to market conditions and limits income opportunities – the latter is especially pertinent as the duration between moves becomes ever greater.

Introducing concierge services also paves the way for out-of-market communication and evergreen relationships with clients, and provides the ability to target the general public – including those who may have never used the agent before.

It’s a notion that certainly provides food for thought around the future of estate agency.

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