Many UK companies outsource some aspect of their operation, but the property industry has been a particularly enthusiastic adopter of this approach. Oxford Economics estimates that the industry spends at least £2 billion a year on outsourcing, but that’s small beer within the wider UK where, in total, businesses spend £207 billion a year, or eight per cent of the nation’s economic output.
Outsourcing gained traction during the early 1990s and, according to research by Deloitte, a third of all companies in the property sector now use it in one form or another.
The most popular areas are IT, sales progression, property maintenance, rent and deposit collection, lettings management, call handling, referencing, inventory compiling and floor plan production.
One unintended outcome of this outsourcing bonanza has been to enable the birth of online only agents, who are able to break down the moving or renting process into ‘service packets’ and offer them online via a ‘tick box’ approach, precisely because there are so many outsourcing partners. Purplebricks, remember, is reportedly backed by investors with strong links to Capita, an outsourcing giant.
But for most traditional agents it’s all about letting experts do the job that they aren’t trained to do. Brian Farrell, founder of the floor plan platform Metropix, agrees, “Our customers tend to come direct and want to totally outsource the floor plan process because they just don’t want to do it, although they can use our drawing software or ‘fax and draw’,” he says.
But what drives agents to outsource business tasks in the first place? We asked three to explain.
James Neal, Director, Neals, Woodbridge, Suffolk
Outsources: photo editing
Describe your business
“The business was founded in 1951 by my late father and it has been a family affair over the years as my older brother used to work here too. We handle all types of town, country and village properties and also have an auction room with regular chattel sales throughout the year.
Why not let an expert help? It’s horses for courses and good outsourced service suppliers should be used and applauded. James Neil, Neals.
Why do you outsource your photo editing?
“We pride ourselves on the presentation of our work and photography is one of the important elements,” says James.
“From my perspective we should be putting our clients’ properties in the best possible light so we use a professional photographer for the larger properties but for the rest – however good we are at
using a camera – there are occasions when you get the white balance wrong or make a room too dark.”
James realised that his photos needed to be corrected by someone, John Durrant at doctor-photo.co.uk was an ideal solution.
“He makes a silk purse out of my sow’s ear,” says James, by adding blue sky, colour improvement and shadow reduction – and sometimes more radical work.
“We had a skip on a drive, it wasn’t taken away as quickly as the owner had hoped so we took a photo of the property with the skip and then had it removed so we could get on with the marketing,” he says.
“Because we are not photographers and we don’t have hours to spend on Photoshop and because we don’t do it all the time, we think, why not let an expert do it?
“I don’t think there’s any issue with that. It’s horses for courses and when they’re good, outsourced service suppliers they should be used and applauded.
“One of the things I like about using Doctor Photo is that they have a sense of humour; when a photograph is uploaded and you’ve given the instruction to proceed, you get a message saying that your photo is now on the operating table!”
Steve Wiggins, Bond Residential, Chelmsford
Outsources: Facebook and Twitter posting
Describe your business
“Graham, my business partner and I set up the business in February 2010 with just the two of us and we’ve gone from strength to strength. In 2013 we won our first industry awards,” says Steve.
“We now have 11 staff and offer sales, lettings, land and new homes; we work with quite a few developers and have a presence on the main site in Chelmsford, plus three other sites.
“We’re very busy, with two offices now and the Chelmsford sales market is pretty lively. If we market any property for under £400,000, after doing an open house event we are often flooded with offers.
“We did one last weekend which had 24 viewings followed by nine offers, seven of which are above asking price.”
Why do you outsource your social media?
“When Graham and I set up the business we did our social media ourselves mainly to get our brand out there,” he says.
“It enabled us to explain what we were doing, what our backgrounds, local knowledge and expertise were.
“We picked up most of our initial business from friends and family rather than Facebook. But two years it got to the stage where it was clear that to do social media properly we were going to have to spend an awful lot of time on it.
“We considered employing someone to do it in-house but we worried about controlling what they posted. The other option was to outsource and I had been speaking to Ian Watson, who runs Agent Media, from the minute we set up.
“In the early days it was more about surviving from day to day so we said no, but as the business grew and we began to look for a marketing techniques that could differentiate us from other agents, we thought about Twitter and Facebook.
“Then one of our own tweets got us an instruction. So, a year ago, we took Agent Media on a three-month trial. I have a catch-up call with them every week and a monthly face-to-face to discuss stories and events to use on social media.
“The key change since Agent Media took over our social accounts is that it’s less about us now and more about the world around us.
“We realised that, when people aren’t selling their homes, why would they be interested tweets or stories about us?
“Agent Media said that we needed to get more of a community side going and promote local events and businesses, show our local knowledge.
“I like to think we led the field locally and other agents have followed suit. One competitor now posts a lot and takes a more humorous approach than us. I think a recent tweet of theirs involved a naked member of staff behind a ‘For Sale’ sign.”
Jeremy Brown, Xact Homes in Solihull and Knowle, West Midlands
Outsources : floorplans
Describe your business
“Formed in 2008, we provide sales and lettings services via two branch offices in Solihull and Knowle and employs a team of 25 across the two sites,” says Jeremy.
Why do you outsource floor plans?
“The way we structured the business when we set up was to outsource services wherever practical and possible.
“We have a large team and I prefer that they concentrate their time, efforts and expertise on sales, marketing and customer service, rather than on administrative activities.
“One example is Metropix. We started working with them to supply our floor plans as soon as our firm was established and we use their AutoDraw service.
“We are now recognised as the largest agent in Solihull, Knowle and Dorridge, which we believe, is down to our excellent customer service. Our aim is to provide a world-class service and part of this is the turnaround of marketing materials for each new instruction. A key aspect of this is Metropix which ensures our floor plans are delivered quickly and accurately.
“On average we produce 50 or 60 floor plans a month; we provide sketches to Metropix following a visit to the property and within 24 hours we have a professionally-drawn plan, produced in our corporate colours, ready to be used.
“A major advantage is that we don’t have to employ someone specifically to draw plans. I know other agents that work in this way, so we know there is a direct cost saving to our business.
“There are other benefits, we don’t have to worry about people being away on holiday or off sick. Metropix is there 24/7.
“Also, the client’s expectations have increased over the years – they want quick results and turnaround. Pictures are taken digitally so are available straightaway and they expect the same with floor plans. The way we work with Metropix means we can be extremely responsive.”
How to outsource – a brief guide
We asked Samantha Jones, from phone call answering company Moneypenny to give her best advice to agents. Moneypenny answers 1.2 million calls a year on behalf of 950 estate agents and says this number has been growing rapidly over the past 12 months.
How do you decide whether outsourcing is for you?
“Start by weighing up the impact of outsourcing on your bottom line and on your day-to-day operation alongside the service that your customers will receive, and whether it will make your business more productive.
“These are the cornerstones of any business and should form the foundations of your decision. The differences in service, ability and attitude should be key indicators alongside any price considerations.”
Never compromise on quality. Only engage with an outsourced partner who will add value, quality and trusted professionalism. Samantha Jones, Moneypenny.
How do you choose an outsourcing partner?
“Quality and a strong cultural alignment have to be primary considerations. Choose an outsourced partner that shares an ethos similar to your own; someone you can trust in the same way you would only hire a person you know will fit in.
“Think of them as an extension of your company; an extra internal department. They need to understand every aspect of your business, how things work and how the people operate.
“Do your homework. Ask if the provider can put you in touch with a few of their clients who would be happy to discuss their experience. You might have been impressed by the sales team, but they
ultimately aren’t the ones that you or your customers will be dealing with on a daily basis.
“Never compromise on quality. Only engage with an outsourced partner you are confident will add value, quality and tried and trusted professionalism to your business. You don’t have time to waste on poor providers and to be the best you need the best people around you.
“So much of building a strong, lasting relationship hinges around delivering an excellent service of course, but also on soft skills such as expectation, understanding and communication. Last year an International Business Report by Grant Thornton highlighted that these nontechnical skills are the most important factors taken into account when outsourcing; and rightly so. You can’t put
a price on reputation.”