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Sales agencies face staff shortages

Finding the right people for your agency can be a challenge, says Andrea Kirkby, but the experts have some good advice.

Andrea Kirkby

Recruitment image

It’s never been harder to get the right staff than it is today. While the market has been competitive for years, according to Property Personnel’s Anthony Hesse we are facing the worst staff shortages in a generation in estate agency. Vacancies registered doubled from Q1 2016 to Q1 2017, with many clients unable to fill vacancies. According to Dove and Hawk, 74 per cent of employers are aiming to increase their staff numbers in the next twelve months, putting further pressure on a tight market. Only in lettings is the market relatively stable.

Alex Wiffen imageAlex Wiffen at Cherry Pick People describes the market as “incredibly competitive”. Surveyors are in “incredibly high demand”, as are top billers on the sales side – but, he says, “even trainees are hard to find.” He also points out that there’s a real cost to businesses which can’t find the right staff – he estimates the cost of having an unfilled negotiator position is something like £25,000 in lost revenue over a couple of months – to which you can add another £5,000 in recruitment costs.

Money isn’t necessarily as big a motivator as people think. However, it’s a massive demotivator if you don’t have enough of it. Alex Wiffen, Cherry Pick People.

Paradoxically, while it takes time to fill a position, agents need to move quickly once they’ve found the right candidate. Martin Halim at Prime People reckons clients who handle their own recruitment are generally filling vacancies in seven to eight weeks; he’d hope Prime People could do the job in four weeks, nearly halving the time. However, at senior levels, gardening leave has to be factored in, and that can add months to the wait.

On the other hand once a candidate has decided they want to move, they want to move quickly. James Huntly at Dove and Hawk says, “a truly motivated candidate will generally be in a new job within two to three weeks from getting their CV to a recruiter. Taking too long to make a decision will have an adverse effect on the hiring process.” Anthony Hesse puts it even more succinctly, “Act quickly. Good candidates do not hang around.”

WHAT ABOUT THE MONEY

As for salaries, while basic packages have stayed relatively stable according to Martin Halim, staff shortages are now putting upward pressure on basic wages. Alex Wiffen says the average for a trainee has risen from £10-15k five years ago to £15- 25k now, with managers looking at £25-45k basic and “anything from £50-100k+ on the OTEs”, while directors “are usually comfortably into six figures.” It’s quite easy to check average rates – Cherry Pick People and other recruitment consultancies provide salary surveys on their websites.

Alex Wiffen adds, “Money isn’t necessarily as big a motivator as people think. However, it is a massive demotivator if you don’t have enough of it. Someone on a £10k or £15k basic will be under huge pressure if they have a bad month and quickly look for something else as they simply cannot pay their rent or mortgage.” Agencies who like the idea of the ‘pain factor’ may find it makes their staff work harder – but on getting another job, rather than selling more properties.

Managers should also note that candidates who are led to expect a good offer, and then offered below the market rate, are likely to feel less than enthusiastic about taking the job. James Huntly tells agents that they need to know their budgets before they begin recruiting; “One way of immediately putting off a professional is to advertise your vacancy at one level only to change the goal posts at offer stage. “ Or as Anthony Hesse says “pay someone what they are worth, not what you can get away with!”

Not every agency can afford to pay top whack, so it’s worth looking to see if there are other incentives you can offer. James Huntly says, “a growing number of candidates are looking for a better balance elsewhere in their lives. Including flexible working hours and days, or longer holiday entitlement, can help trump a similar package that doesn’t offer that flexibility. Giving an extra day off for someone’s birthday goes a long way.”

REACH OUT

Traditional hiring processes may not find the right candidates. Josh Rayner of Estate Agency All-Stars has analysed data from LinkedIn, and says 75 per cent of candidates are “passive” – not actually looking, so they have to be actively headhunted. That’s where using a specialist property recruitment agency which spends its time tracking the best people can be worthwhile. Alternatively, agents need to spend time networking – not just with other bosses, but at all levels across the sector.

“Build bridges and reach out,” James Huntly says, even if there’s not a current vacancy to fill. Meeting potential candidates and networking proactively will pay off when a vacancy does arise. Keep track of candidates who were made an offer but didn’t take it; it wasn’t the right move then, but it could be next time. Good candidates who weren’t quite right for one role or one office might be exactly what’s needed for a different role – so don’t lose their CVs, and keep in touch. That’s what recruitment companies do, and it works for them.

Looking outside the sector can also access a fresh pool of candidates. Alex Wiffen says some skill sets are clearly interchangeable – “We’ve seen a lot of people make a successful transition from gym sales to estate agency, or people within complaint departments at energy providers making great property managers. So looking outside of the sector can be a great way to source exceptional talent.” It will take more time to train up such a recruit, but they can develop into strong performers – and, he points out, giving someone the chance to break into a new sector can engender great loyalty.

Take the recruitment process seriously. Make sure your own presentation is spot on – your candidate is judging you too. Anthony Hesse, Property Personnel.

Anthony Hesse, Property Personnel, imageAnthony Hesse agrees that widening the search can be useful; last year, 36 per cent of Property People’s placements were people with no experience in estate agency. But not every recruiter thinks it’s a good idea; James Huntly says, “the very best personnel are the people working hard for their current employers and are generally the ones taking business off your plate.” Attracting those candidates is crucial, he says, and firms need to think about what they have to offer – “what are you doing to be different from the rest?”

RECRUIT

Taking the recruitment process seriously is crucial. Some firms try to shoehorn recruiting in between valuations and viewings, leading to cancellations, reschedulings, and interviews competing with phone calls in an open-plan office. Anthony Hesse warns agents they’ll need “a room fit for purpose” – and no, that doesn’t mean the broom cupboard. He also stresses that the firm needs to use the interview to market itself to candidates. “Make sure your own presentation is spot on,” he says; “the candidate is judging you just as much as you are him/her.”

He also warns that “acting the baddy is so old school,” and just puts people off. Even if you’ve decided within a couple of minutes that a candidate’s not for you, “you should still sell yourself and your company… she may have a friend/colleague who could be perfect for your vacancy!”

The interview is always a two-way process, and it’s important to give as much information as possible on the opportunity and career progression. Martin Halim says, “The more you buy into someone, the more they buy into you” – on the other hand, if you don’t give a clear view of how candidates could progress with your firm, they may prefer to go somewhere else.

Most important, though, is identifying recruitment as a process that has to be done properly, just like marketing or sales. “Making sure you have a proper process for interview and selection is essential,” according to Alex Wiffen; that includes specifying exactly what you need, as well as assessing what you can offer.

RETAIN

Hiring staff is useless if you can’t keep them, and estate agency doesn’t have a good track record. Dove and Hawk’s survey showed 83 per cent of employees in the sector will be considering their career options within the next year, 95 per cent of them using a recruitment agency, and Alex Wiffen says, “I know many property companies and estate agencies where the turnover rate is as high as one in two.”

Keeping good staff starts with honesty during the interview process. Anthony Hesse warns agents not to “fluff up OTEs”, and to give new hires an accurate picture of the firm and the job, “warts and all”. Overselling “is a sure fire way to demotivate a new employee who will feel duped once it is obvious he/she can’t earn what you have told him/her” and they will probably be sending their CV out again in short order.

Having a good human resources policy always helps. Regular appraisals aren’t just a way for managers to track staff’s efforts, James Huntly says, but allow staff members to feel listened to and appreciated; having a long term career plan for each individual also helps gain long term loyalty. An honest and open discussion can sometimes reveal that a staff member is dissatisfied, and quickly sort out issues that might eventually have led to their leaving.

Building a supportive environment is easier said than done, but staff will stay longer if they are supported by training, development and a manager who is focused on making them perform better rather than berating bad performance. Anthony Hesse says monthly one-to-ones are a great way to keep staff on-board, and find out how to help them develop and progress within the firm. He also advises firms to carry out proper exit interviews. “It enables you to find out exactly why someone is leaving, he says, and adds; “the issue is often resolvable going forward.”

It’s a tough market out there. Compromising by hiring less experienced or motivated staff is a mistake – your firm’s reputation is at stake. So putting a bit more time and effort into the recruitment process isn’t really optional, it is critical for the success of your firm.

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June 19, 2017

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