Take a look around the industry and everything is speeding up. During the peak of the market earlier this summer properties were, it is claimed, moving from valuation to offer in just 48 hours and rentals receiving enquiries from tenants a few minutes after they go online.
There are many reasons for this speed, other than the obvious supply and demand imbalances in the market. As broadband quality and speed improves, everyone’s always ‘online’ as vendors, buyers, landlords and tenants keep their iPads and smartphones close to hand day and night.
Also, Rightmove and Zoopla are competing between themselves to offer ‘real time’ uploads – so customers now expect a very short gap between the photographer leaving and the property going live.
Everyone is accountable; everything is timed and they are prompted to do each task.’ Andrew Overman, Chilterns
But one element in the speed race that many people forget is software, particularly the property software ‘suites’ supplied by companies such as DezRez, Jupix and Estates IT, amongst many others. Without them the speed at which transactions now take place could not have reached such a crescendo and overall the industry would be a very different (and quieter) place to do business in.
These software systems enable companies to be set up quickly, expand fast and most importantly enable each transaction to be completed easily and transparently. This means agencies no longer need so many ‘bums on seats’ to run or start up a business.
“Speed is very important when you’re small because it’s the one edge you have to be able to go head to head with big agents and win – as we have done on many occasions, because we’re faster and leaner and they’re slower and just too busy and big,” says Neil Leahy, co-owner of Shoreditch, London agency Butler & Stag.
“We can have a sales property registered and photographed on day one and then have it up on the portals by the next morning or even that day. In lettings speed is even more important because while sales are usually sole agency, lettings are multi agency and you’re up against competitors who can be quick too.”
SPEED AND PERFORMANCE
Speed is also having an effect on internal performance too, something Neil Leahy illustrates with an example from his business. “Each sales negotiator owns an applicant from the moment they ‘claim’ them as they walk in, ring up or email – unless they fail to deal with them properly, something our software system enables me to spot,” he says.
“So there are various in-house rules that we have. A new property has to be ‘rung out’ to each applicant on our books within 48 hours of it coming on to the market, but if that’s not done then it’s open to ‘attack’ from other members of the team who can ‘steal’ that person’s applicant.” This is only really possible because their Estates IT supplied system enables them to do it, he says.
“On the sales side being on top of everything is important because over the past two months the market has slowed and we’re working harder to get people out viewing and making offers,” he says.
One area of debate within the industry is whether to include the entire sales and progression process into these systems. On the one hand some, like Butler and Stag, like to keep sales progression offline, partly because the solicitors and other professionals involved in conveyancing are still wary of electronic-only communication.
Others, like Norfolk multi-branch agency Chilterns, are happy if not keen for the whole process to be online and therefore more transparent. “We’ve gone completely paperless because I insist that the whole process is online,” says Andrew Overman, the company’s office manager.
“With Jupix, which we use, every member of staff is accountable; everything is timed and our negotiators are prompted to do everything. So if one of them commits to process or return paperwork by a certain date and they haven’t, then they will be prompted to do it.
“One advantage of this is that if someone is off sick then I can jump in and take over or allocate it to another member of staff without the customer being let down.”
Speed is a growing challenge for Chilterns even though their patch is what you might consider a relatively ‘quiet’ bit of Norfolk countryside, rather than city centre. Andrew says that after they’ve been instructed on a sale he’ll go to the house with his camera and iPad and “dictate the property details via SIRI into my iPad, go back to the office, save all that within Jupix, upload the photos, name the pictures and then green light the room descriptions and dimensions,” he says.
“So within 25 minutes of getting back to the office it’s live on Rightmove and our site and live on our social media channels. We then email the client to say their property is live, which from beginning to end can take only an hour – a decade ago that could have been a five day to two week process.”
But Andrew isn’t entirely sure that this obsession with speed, particularly among customers, is a good thing “for our reputation or the industry.”
“In sales, but particularly in lettings, it means the race is on to find applicants and sometimes that we’re not concentrating enough on quality and instead on speed of fulfilment. But in lettings it’s what many accidental landlords want because they can’t afford void periods.
“I want to slow the process down a bit and almost override the computer systems manually and educate vendors and landlords about the downsides – rather than allowing speed to be king and quality to come second.”
Speed and security
Although agents’ software systems do help promote increased transactions speeds, it is clear that they bring benefits too. One is that the once common practice of negotiators taking customers lists with them from job to job, or to start up their own agency, is now becoming much more difficult.
Most agents know it goes on and not so long ago it was common to hear candidates say they could bring a ‘desk list’ over with them during the interview. But now many of the systems have sophisticated tiered access systems in place to prevent it.
“I don’t condone it, but it happens”, says Andrew Overman. “So on our Jupix system we have four or five tiers of management which at the top means just myself and the two of the directors have full access on the sales side.
“It’s set up so only the appropriate people can export client or other data to an Excel or a PDF document. The Jupix developers have been clever because they’ve really thought about what services are needed at each level within a system.”
Speed and cost efficiency
The other main advantage of these systems is cost. In the past most agents relied on in-house IT infrastructures and would have to pay for a LAN network to be installed and cabled; buy all the software licences for Office and Outlook as well as configure it all; buy and install servers; get a back-up routine going and support the hardware.
But in recent years many of the system suppliers have switched to cloud-based platforms which, for the uninitiated, means all data storage, applications and systems are stored on an external server (usually provided and controlled by the system supplier) so all the agent has to do is buy some off-the-shelf computers.
“Within a lot of companies more people are working from home now, particularly if they’re involved in property management, and with the cloud all this is possible,” says Nick Hubbard of Estates IT. “Our system is scalable and quick to deploy – if they want to add an additional member of staff then they just call us up, we set the licence up and it’s done quickly – the majority of the systems that we now provide are cloud-based.
“At Butler & Stag, it meant Nick could sign up to our most cost effective model when he set up his company three years ago and it helped him keep costs to a minimum. And yet at the same time he had the same software capabilities as much larger and well-established rivals.
“And as his business has grown, so he has used more of its capabilities and added staff as he’s been able to afford it.”
Speed and transparency
Two interesting and potentially explosive issues that increased transaction speeds and ease of setup has created within industry are that, firstly, many agents are realising how automated the service that portals offer has become – and has led many to question the prices they offer.
“I know Rightmove and Zoopla have to invest heavily in technology, infrastructure and marketing but when you’re seeing a property upload in a matter of minutes, you do wonder what they’re doing for all that money,” says Neil.
The second issue is that these software suites have made it so easy to set up estate agency and upload properties to the portals that it’s enabled online-only estate agents to spring up much faster and more easily.
The irony is that while technology has transformed and improved the way estate and letting agents now operate, and reduced costs, the speed at which marketing takes place has also made the transaction so transparent for the vendor or landlord that these customers are beginning to see how everything works – and it’s this knowledge that has, to a certain extent, enabled online agents to gain some market share.