Estate agency is still a job where someone can walk out of sixth form college one day and be selling houses the next, with no formal qualifications or training required. Most agents, though, do realise that training can improve their own and their staff’s skills and profitability and direct at least a small portion of their budget towards it.
But while generic business skills courses are available everywhere, relatively few firms offer courses specifically tailored to estate agents. Pam Hadley, Head of Courses at NFOPP, says, “The training market is quite limited, to be honest,” when it comes to courses specifically for sales and lettings agents.
NFOPP is known for delivering the training that leads to industry qualifications such as the NFoPP Technical Award, “but,” Pam says, the NFoPP Awarding Body is a separate company and offers the qualifications via distance learning. NFoPP itself offers short courses; some support study for the qualifications but are also attended by delegates who are not studying for a qualification. The courses are in Business Skills, Estate Agency, Letting and Property Management, Block Management, Auctioneering, Commercial Property and Inventory Provision.
I focus on practical training designed to improve profitability – and I offer a cast iron money-back guarantee.” Adam Walker.
Other training firms concentrate purely on business skills. Adam Walker says, “I focus on practical training, designed to improve profitability.” Course titles such as ‘Win more instructions and increase your fee levels’ and ‘How to gain more valuations’.
A similar focus on business tactics is found at TM Training and Development, where courses include ‘How to be an exceptional lister’, ‘Selling in a tougher market’ and ‘Make more mortgage appointments.’
The greatest hindrance is not competition or the market, it’s weak management; some provide unsupported training or, worse, optional training.”
On the other hand, Easy Law Training takes technical training and puts it on steroids. Concentrating purely on property law, the firm’s courses are impressively detailed; Tessa Shepperson says, “You wouldn’t believe you could spend an entire day on tenancy agreements, but you can!” Tessa also delivers one course which looks at ways of ending tenancies – what happens on the death of a tenant or landlord, for instance (a tenant’s death doesn’t end the tenancy). There’s also a complete day on landlord’s repairing obligations (helped, she says, by the fact that “we have a great barrister delivering it; he’s very funny”), one on law affecting HMOs, and another on law for leaseholder landlords.
The old saying, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” doesn’t apply in agency training; the quality of training staff is cr practising estate agents. Feedback often mentioned how refreshing it was being trained by someone who worked in the business.”
All of Easy Law Training’s trainers are subject matter experts who understand their topics in depth. Tessa says, “David Smith does a great day on HMOs, and he knows a lot about the subject, because a good deal of his day job is defending landlords who are being prosecuted for breaching the regulations!”
It’s also important that trainers keep up to date in a changing property world. Julian says, “Trainers have to keep their fingers on the pulse; their credibility is at stake,” and while Adam says the titles haven’t changed “for many years,” he says, “the topics do.”
Easy Law Training positively thrives on change. In October, it will deliver a workshop covering a whole raft of regulatory and legal changes affecting the private rental market, from the Deregulation Act (including anti retaliatory eviction provisions) to new Right to Rent checks and Health & Safety regulations.
Costs –v- benefits
No one will deny that training is a good thing, but the business case for training is sometimes hard to make. Richard Rawlings from Agent Masterclass says, “Only the most progressive independent estate agencies seem willing to invest the £1,000-£4,000 needed for specialist external training designed to overcome the apparent threats of lower volumes and online competitors.
“Such training inspires the confidence and skills required to be the passionate expert in the face of intense competition, whilst empowering agents to be so professionally attractive that they don’t have to reduce fees or overvalue to secure instructions.
“However, one of the greatest hindrances is not the market, nor the competition; it’s weak management, some of whom provide unsupported or even optional training. The problem may be in the unexciting term ‘training.’ Those who regard it as “Essential Success Coaching” tend to report the most impressive results.
Some firms are reluctant to spend on people who may leave – but if they had training they may be less likely to leave.” Pam Hadley, NF-OPP.
Pam Hadley says staff turnover is an issue, “Turnover in the property industry can be quite high, so sometimes companies are reluctant to spend money on people because they anticipate losing them.” If you have 40 per cent of your staff leaving within a year, that’s 40 per cent of your training budget wasted. But that’s a vicious circle – staff might not leave if they were given adequate training. The fact that many agencies see 30-40 per cent turnover, against a national average of 18 per cent, suggests that something’s going wrong – how much is down to poor training?
And the costs can be recovered. Julian O’Dell says, “We aim to deliver content that makes a difference to the bottom line. We don’t do theory, we focus on nuts and bolts.” For this type of training, there’s not a firm line where training stops and consultancy begins; a recent client, as a result of the training, completely revamped the way they dealt with applicants, getting more information, and matching them more successfully to properties. O’Dell points out that his firm wouldn’t be getting nearly so much repeat business if clients weren’t seeing the benefits.
Get the managers in first! If you train from the top down, the training gets properly directed and reinforced.” Julian O’Dell, TM Training.
But, he advises, agents need to monitor their success. “Every course we run, there’s a simple measure you can apply to quantify the business improvement,” he says, whether that’s the conversion rate, fee levels, or new valuations appointments made. He suggests the best returns come from thinking of training in terms of the firm’s overall business needs. “Firms that do it properly say ‘Julian, we want to increase our conversion ratio from x to y’, and then I scope out a training programme based on that priority, however many days it needs and whatever it takes.”
Adam J Walker has a slightly different approach; he offers “a cast-iron money back guarantee” if anyone really doesn’t think their training was worth what they paid. He says it’s several years since anyone claimed a refund – and in that case, “his employer had sent him on the course for poor performance!”
For Easy Law Training’s clients, success is measured not in terms of profit, but in terms of pain avoided. Increasingly, agents are at risk of prosecution or legal action – the current class action being brought against Foxtons is just one example.
HMO law, for instance, is now a minefield. “If you haven’t got a notice in a public area saying who the manager is, if the banister is a bit wobbly, and the front steps haven’t been maintained, and your rubbish is somewhere mice can get at it, that’s four potential prosecutions,” Tessa Shepperson says. She notes, too, that while previously that would have meant four separate fines of up to £5,000, the potential fines are now unlimited – and it’s agents as well as landlords who are being fined.
This message clearly resonates with agents, Pam Hadley says that news items on topics such as financial crime are often cited by individuals and firms as reasons for seeking training. She also says that the legal based courses are selling best at the moment; “that may reflect the tough business environment, and firms trying to cut costs,” she explains, since money-laundering compliance is a hot topic, and firms know the penalties of non-compliance.
What’s in demand elsewhere reflects the state of the market as a whole. Julian O’Dell says, “It’s all about stock at the moment.” Agents want to know how to spot opportunities for valuations, and how to convert those valuations to instructions.
With so much on offer, some agents simply pick and choose from what’s available. Others train only particular staff, whether that’s graduate trainees, new entrants, or branch managers; some firms even use training as a motivational tool – a day out of the office with a nice lunch attached.
However, Julian O’Dell says a more disciplined approach to training delivers greater benefits. If you only train the junior staff, there’s a risk that the benefits of the training won’t transfer back into the work environment. When he’s asked to train everyone in a firm, he prefers to train top down, bringing the managers in first, “so that the training gets properly directed and reinforced,” sometimes including changes to systems and processes before the less senior staff get their training.
Deciding to make training a more strategic issue also enables firms to request courses custom designed to their requirements. NFOPP, for instance, has run courses in-house for a number of firms, sometimes because the firms aren’t located near any of their regular training locations, and sometimes because they’re being asked to train more than 20 staff at the same time to ensure the whole firm is up to speed.
With all that training resource out there, firms really have no excuse for inadequate provision for staff training. They just have to decide what their priorities are. As Julian O’Dell says, “Training can really give you the edge – as long as it’s the right kind of training!”
- Adam Walker www.adamjwalker.co.uk
- Richard Rawlings www.agentmasterclass.co.uk
- Easy Law www.easylawtraining.com
- NFoPP www.nfopp.co.uk
- TM Training www.tmtraininganddevelopment.co.uk