Hexham in Northumberland sits in the gorgeous Tyne valley near the confluence of two rivers that create the mighty River Tyne and is overshadowed literally and historically by its huge 12th century abbey. In 2005 it was crowned England’s Favourite Market Town and it has a famous son too – actor Robson Green.
But such pleasant attributes have not shielded the local economy from the recession. Despite being half way between both Carlisle and Newcastle, it’s been tough being a sales or letting agent in Hexham since the financial crisis.
According to Rightmove the number of agents in the region has dropped by at least 25 per cent following the recession.
“The North East has been hit very hard by the downturn particularly the housing market,” says Ailsa Mather, Director at local sales and letting agency Andrew Coulson. To make sure they would be one of the agencies that survived through the recession long enough to enjoy the slow recovery taking place in the region, Ailsa and Founding Director Andrew Coulson had to take some drastic measures.
Founded 26 years ago by Coulson, the business had to downsize from 12 staff to four and shrink the area it served.
“We didn’t make everyone redundant – some people left on their own accord, some people retired but we did have to re-stream the way we did business,” she says.
“Before the recession we used to cover a huge geographic area – due East to Heddon-On-The-Wall, as far south as the M6, up to the Scottish Borders and all the way over to Carlisle. Because of that huge coverage we regrouped and said look, what are the areas that aren’t selling, where do we actually think our core business is?”
Instead of covering both Northumbria and Cumbria, Ailsa and Andrew decided to concentrate on the former and, because 18 months ago their agency used to be called Northumbria and Cumbria Estates, a rebrand became necessary for the business – which is 90 per cent sales and 10 per cent lettings.
“The reasons that we rebranded and changed the name weren’t just about geography, though. Because Andrew set up the company and very much works on the coalface and still does most of the valuations – not a lot of directors do that – we thought it would be a good idea to name the business after him.
Therefore, it was a chance to look how the business marketed itself including the website, printed material, shop-front display and branch interiors.
Ailsa and Andrew decided to do something radical, which was needed because as the recession continued to bite so other agents in the town were engaged in a fee cutting war. So the pair turned to Suzie Pattison, Managing Director of the print and marketing services company Ravensworth. “Suzie and I worked very closely together; we wanted to keep the corporate colours and be sure that by changing the name people realised that we were the same team,” says Ailsa.
“We went with Ravensworth because they are a one-stop shop, everything that I needed for the rebrand could be done with them and I didn’t have to go anywhere else.
Ravensworth helped with the design process including a new strapline for the business and work on its new branch facia boards. Ailsa had already decided that she wanted back-lit window displays but what she also wanted to achieve was to make Andrew Coulson completely different from all the other estate agents in the town.
Suzie also worked on re-branding all the company’s printed material including their company brochure, lettings folder with insert, new home cards, ‘we have moved’ cards, stationary, direct mail flyers with pay as you go data and back-lit window cards.
Seeing the light
Ailsa then decided to turn their downstairs gift shop underneath their office – which had also helped them trade through the recession – into a ‘buyers and sellers’ lounge into which they put a mock fireplace, settees, a coffee machine and a huge interactive TV screen. And while such café-style public areas are now almost commonplace in the UK’s larger cities, in Hexham this caused quite a stir.
These days so many people rely on their portal listings, but we know our customers; it’s all about relationships and we’re now selling more properties before they even go on the portals!
“As far as I’m aware no other agent in the North East has done what we’ve done with our branch,” says Ailsa. “We wanted to be different, we wanted to stand out and highlight how we are a professional company that thrives on customer service and, because of that, Andrew and I wanted to do something completely unusual.”
The centrepiece of the rebrand within the branch has been its back-lit displays which feature both in the window and around the interior. This, when you’re standing outside the branch on a dark autumnal night, lights up Fore Street, the town’s main shopping area.
“Ravensworth’s special Backlit Duratran printed window cards really make our properties stand out. We use the finest transparency material which gives more vibrant, sharp, crisp details” says Ailsa.
The results of leading innovation in Hexham have been interesting. Since Andrew Coulson put in the town’s first back-lit window displays, four of the other six agents have followed suit.
“Feedback from customers over the past 18 months has been great and we’ve turned the business around. People love the relaxed atmosphere because they’re not being pounced on by negotiators to ‘sell, sell, sell.’ We also have a private area upstairs where they can do deals or make offers, for example, away from the public area – which is important in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.”
“But it has been a mountain to climb and it was extremely daunting; to be fair I did have my reservations about doing it, which Andrew didn’t, bearing in mind it was our silver anniversary and everyone knew us by our old name.
“But Andrew is very well known locally and because we kept the corporate colours, people understood where we coming from.”
Back to basics
One unusual aspect of the agency’s transformation has been that, although the rebrand included a new-look website, Ailsa’s focus has not been on digital. She believes that the mistake some estate agencies have made is to rely too much on the property portals, other digital channels and estate agency software.
“Instead, we’ve gone back to basics; we know our vendors inside out, the vendors have direct access to Andrew and myself and not only that, we know our customer base and look after our applicants.
“It’s all about relationships. At the moment we’re selling more and more houses before they are loaded on to the portals because we know our customer database.”
“These days so many people rely on their portal listings but because we’ve traded through the past two recessions we know how to trade out of the bad times and have the experience to deal with it.
“The market in the North East hasn’t picked up significantly yet – there’s still a huge North versus South divide so we needed to do something completely different. But there is light at the end of the tunnel- things are improving but it’s still very challenging. It’s difficult to get deals through. But because so much of what we do is in-house we have so much more control over it.”
The results of the rebrand are clear. On busy Saturdays people are sometimes queuing to get into the Andrew Coulson office, Suzie Pattison says, and the company is enjoying a better trading position that’s “turned the business on its head”. And all the other agents in Hexham seem to be copying what they do – which is said to be the ultimate form of flattery.