One of many major challenges for lettings agents is which software system to choose and it’s not a one-off either – you need a system to get your business launched and then, as it grows, upgrade or replace as the years go by. We asked three people with deep experience of them – an agency owner, a senior property management figure and a provider – to explain the key issues.
The revolution in lettings software has been swift and extraordinary as over a dozen companies compete to offer better, easier and more comprehensive lettings management systems to agents.
This race has driven significant innovation and now the software is usually part of a dashboard of capabilities that the package offers, including property management, negotiator team, financial, client and performance reporting – a far from cry from the rudimentary Excel spread sheets used ten years ago.
But with sophistication – and the extraordinary capabilities – comes expense and complication, most systems require careful thought before plunging in and whipping out your cheque book.
You can’t just plug in a new system; it has to be carefully integrated over time.” Lucy Pendleton, James Pendleton
The letting agent’s view
Lucy Pendleton, MD of London based James Pendleton, sums up the challenges faced by agents considering a software package. “It is vital to get it right, once the software’s been plugged into your business it’s very difficult to extract yourself and start again – you have to be sure it’s correct for you.”
James Pendleton has recently spent a great deal of time and effort plugging the Reapit system into its operations. “I think many agents don’t realise you can’t just plug in these systems because of the data and compatibility challenges; they have to be carefully integrated over several months,” says Lucy.
“We are moving over to Reapit, slowly transferring each database system and we’ll eventually have our accounting system using it too. It’s another three weeks before we go live and it hasn’t been cheap.” But for Lucy, the hair-tugging and bank account emptying are worth it.
“For me it’s the reporting; it’s very helpful because you can see how your business is performing, not just for your clients but also look at internal performance too,” she says. “The other vital bit is the login facility for landlords so that they can print off statements when they do their tax returns instead of asking us for the paperwork to be sent over.
“Many of our landlords don’t work in the same time zone as London so if they’re in Australia and want to know whether their rent has been received and what their deductions are, they want to do it when it’s convenient to them – which is when we’re all in bed!”
Lucy also says she is so relieved that she will never have to again go a through a lever arch file to find out, for example, how much has been spent on a property on maintenance.
“These software systems are good for business management too because you can see how many people have registered to view a property, how many viewings there have been, which contractors have been to work on a property,” she adds, but one weakness of all these system is accurate data input by staff. “The secret is to have strong training for new users and ongoing training for existing ones,” she says.
Lucy also says these systems can be expensive and that you’re stuck with them to a certain extent. “You can change providers but it’s costly because you’ve got masses of data that’s been uploaded on the old system and you don’t want to lose it – it’s your past, your future, your everything,” she says.
“If you want to move provider you’ll have to scrape the old system and transfer it to the new one – but the data is often coded differently so there’s a risk you’ll lose some of it – and when you’ve got ongoing rental details and annual accounts information live, you can’t afford to lose it. It’s a risky thing to do.”
Lucy says you have to sit down and think about whether you’re making the right choice for the size of your business and where you want it to go – if you think it’s going to outgrow your software provider in the course of the next five years, it’s worth looking at a larger software provider which may be more expensive now, but quite possibly not so expensive in the long run.
“We pay per user and then we pay for the units of the software that are active, for example storage and financials,” she says. “You have to get the service level right too, because these systems are so vital, any support package you sign up to must include a Service Level Agreement around downtime – which shouldn’t happen and needs to be remedied immediately. A couple of hours is the worst I’ve had.”
The property manager’s view
You have to tinker with your own processes to suit your chosen system.” Callum MacGregor, Braemore
Callum MacGregor is Director of New Business at Edinburgh property management company Braemore, with 3,500 properties in its care. Callum speaks with authority about lettings and property management software and systems – he’s on his third.
“I started out using Clearstone, which at the time was very basic, then moved on to CFP Winman, which was great and sold to us on the basis of its finance capabilities,” he says. But a year ago he transferred over to LetMC. “It’s very detailed and can be used in every part of the business to run a variety of reports and, for example, see how your teams have performed over the past week, it is pretty good.”
It’s risky. You don’t want to lose any of your data – it’s your past, your future, your everything.”
Like most current letting systems, LetMC offers much more than just lettings and is helping Callum’s team complete almost every task. “The only thing it doesn’t have is an HR function; we use Natural HR for that,” he says.
“The thing is that regardless of the software system, no matter how detailed and robust, you have to change your business model to fit with them, not the other way around.”
Callum searched and searched and couldn’t get software that sat perfectly with how he currently operates, so he’s had to change how he operates to suit the system. But he likes the system’s scaleability. “We’ve just launched an estate agency arm and LetMC were quick to put on an update to enable that.
So what’s his advice to agents on the procurement trail? He says lots of research; work out what’s most important to you as a business; what you need to function well and drill into that and find a package that best suits your operation – nothing’s ever going to be perfect and you’ll never find the perfect piece of software.
“You’ll have to tinker with your own processes to suit the system you choose,” Callum says.
But what about the data challenges that Lucy Pendleton flagged up? “The problems you may face will depend on the size of the business,” says Callum. “I’ve worked with a business which had 900 properties under management; when we switched systems and there was a hell of a lot of data inputting involved,” he says.
“However, recently we changed over to LetMC because they were prepared to do a lot of the data inputting for us.“ As soon as you get to certain number of properties under management, it’s a huge hassle, a bit like changing banks; it can seem to better to stick to the devil you know.
But what Callum really likes is how it easy these systems make it for agents to upload to the portals. “It’s really important that the portals work with our software supplier to ensure that our listings go smoothly. It’s very difficult for a small/medium size agent to deal directly with the portals, we tried it for eight months, data inputting on three different websites – an absolute pain.”
The software provider’s view
Nick Hubbard, at EstatesIT, based in London, has been developing and selling software solutions for sales and letting agents for many years, “It’s been a busy year – everything’s up,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for eight years and I’ve not known anything like it since I started and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. We had a ridiculously busy September,” he says.
His offering differs from some providers because EstatesIT offers a traditional desktop PC based system and a cloud version, both of which integrate into and utilise Microsoft Windows.
Like many of his competitors his system is organised with three key business areas in mind – lettings, sales and property management – but in reality his system is a ‘business in a box’, a trend that’s spreading.
Office systems must be accessible to agents who are increasingly using tablets and phones on the move.”
This means that, as well as offering property management including tenancy and contract management and reporting, viewings, tenancy agreement and renewal management, systems like EstateIT’s offer a host of communication abilities including some very sophisticated text and email based communication abilities.
“More lettings agencies are shifting towards software add-ons that enable managers and directors to understand what each branch’s running costs are.
“Another trend is that more clients are asking that, within their branch network, we write the software so each branch can’t see what the other branches are doing – their part of the databases are ringfenced.
But the biggest issue for many is the ease and cost of data transfer should they change provider. Nick says set-up costs are less of a problem for his clients because of the way his database software is configured. “Our programming tool is Open Database Connectivity friendly, which means we can access and move data around without having to in and re-input it or re-format it.
“It’s something agents really need to think about when they procure a system – how portable will their data be if they want to transfer over to a different provider, whether it’s us or someone else,” says Nick.
The most difficult bit is getting the accounts data out in one piece.” Nick Hubbard, EstatesIT
“To be honest the most difficult bit is getting the accounts data out in one piece, the rest (such as diary events and viewings data) is usually easier, but it depends on which software house you are dealing with. Some of them just don’t want to play ball.”
“We try and be the good guy; if the client wants to move on then obviously we’re not happy about it but hey – let’s help them migrate their database – it’s their data not ours at the end of the day.”
The great debate on agencies operating online versus on the high street continues as the culture of online shopping, for almost any product or service, grows. Certainly even the most traditional lettings agents have an online presence, so their software has to support their online branding and all the services they offer. And it doesn’t stop there, although much more business is, allegedly, being transacted online, agents are out in the field far more than they are in the office, with viewings, valuations and visits.
Mark Goddard, CEO at the Property Software Group, says, “We have witnessed an increase in agents accessing their emails and working ‘on the go’ with smartphones and tablets, and that’s why
we offer desktop-based or cloud-based software for our CFPWinman and Jupix products.”
The future, therefore, will certainly include an increasing reliance on mobile technology so you need to make sure that requirement is high on your priorities list.