Les­son 1: lis­ten to the client...

With sales plum­met­ing and 15,000 jobs at risk, es­tate agents are un­der­go­ing tougher train­ing, says William Lit­tle

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Sellingpoi­nts -

There is a sil­ver lin­ing to ev­ery cloud. With the gloomy hous­ing down­turn comes the pleas­ing knowl­edge that es­tate agents are hav­ing to work hard again to earn their keep — so much so that we can al­most feel sorry for them.

Un­til a few months ago, they were quite happy to ad­mit that un­lock­ing the front door was all they had to do to shift a prop­erty. Now, how­ever, de­mand has sud­denly col­lapsed, with the av­er­age num­ber of homes sold through agen­cies down by about a third on a year ago; the fall in sales is the worst for 30 years, ac­cord­ing to a re­port this week from the Royal In­sti­tu­tion of Char­tered Sur­vey­ors (RICS). Con­se­quently, agents are graft­ing hard, hit­ting the phones ev­ery day try­ing to keep the dwin­dling num­bers of prospec­tive buy­ers on board.

Yet it may come as a sur­prise to know that the qual­ity of an es­tate agent’s train­ing can make or break a deal and can even sound the deathknell for the whole com­pany. Some 15,000 jobs are said to be at risk, and a re­cent sur­vey by Move­withus, a net­work of in­de­pen­dent es­tate agen­cies, re­vealed that 4,000 agen­cies may be forced to shut by this time next year. Most will be those that don’t have the skills to cope in dif­fi­cult trad­ing con­di­tions.

“Train­ing is vi­tal to the busi­ness now. Over the past few years it has been rel­a­tively easy. Es­tate agents were just tak­ing or­ders — if one per­son didn’t buy a prop­erty, then an­other would come along fairly shortly to buy it. But now that has all changed,” says Nick Salmon, com­mer­cial di­rec­tor of Har­ri­son Murray es­tate agency, based in the East Mid­lands — an area where hous­ing prices are fall­ing fastest, ac­cord­ing to the RICS.

It is not the fall in house prices that con­cerns Mr Salmon, how­ever, but the de­crease in trans­ac­tions tak­ing place be­cause po­ten­tial buy­ers are find­ing it harder to ac­cess fi­nance. “We’re hav­ing to take a big­ger piece of an ever smaller cake,” he says, re­veal­ing that the in­tro­duc­tion of a com­pre­hen­sive train­ing pro­gramme is part of the com­pany’s strat­egy to at­tract buy­ers. “We de­cided to put in place a more struc­tured train­ing pro­gramme. This might sound like sales talk, but we wanted to make sure that the ex­pe­ri­ence that the cus­tomer had of our com­pany is suf­fi­ciently dif­fer­ent from oth­ers that they will do busi­ness with us,” he says.

Mr Salmon is cagey about what ben­e­fits the train­ing has brought his com­pany, not want­ing to pass on the good ideas to his com­peti­tors, but most of it has to do with sales staff build­ing rap­port with the cus­tomer in or­der to un­der­stand their needs bet­ter.

“We match buy­ers with what they need rather than what they want,” he says, sug­gest­ing that if a cou­ple wanted a four-bed­room house, the ne­go­tia­tor would find out how many peo­ple would be liv­ing in it. “If they say only the two of them, but they have grand­chil­dren com­ing to visit, we would sug­gest that they look at a twoor three-bed­room prop­erty with a stu­dio in the gar­den. It en­ables us to show them more of the prop­erty on our books,” he says.

John La­timer, the 22-year-old man­ager of the com­pany’s Northamp­ton town-cen­tre branch, be­lieves that the ex­tra train­ing has made a dif­fer­ence to the way he in­ter­acts with sell­ers and buy­ers. “The course re­it­er­ated the need to get the ap­pli­ca­tions of buy­ers right so that we aren’t send­ing the wrong peo­ple around to view houses and wast­ing the ven­dor’s time,” he says.

Only last week, a po­ten­tial buyer called in want­ing to view a num­ber of prop­er­ties, but Mr La­timer dou­blechecked his fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity be­fore pro­ceed­ing: “He wasn’t fi­nan­cially able to buy the prop­er­ties he wanted to see. He would have made an of­fer and it would have col­lapsed be­cause he wouldn’t have been able to gain the fi­nance. He didn’t have the right de­posit. We would have wasted our time tak­ing him around five prop­er­ties.”

Mr La­timer be­lieves that build­ing rap­port with buy­ers is es­sen­tial, but re­quires time and pa­tience. Two weeks ago, a cou­ple from Lon­don wanted to view two prop­er­ties they had seen on the firm’s web­site. “They weren’t in­ter­ested in ei­ther of them, so I took them back to the of­fice and sat down with them for half an hour. It be­came clear that they wanted to be within walk­ing dis­tance of a school, re­quired ac­cess to a spe­cific mo­tor­way junc­tion, and they wanted a quiet vil­lage-style lo­ca­tion,” he says.

Yet the cou­ple had been look­ing at the wrong side of town for the prop­erty they wanted. “If no one had helped them, they would have spent a long time find­ing their ideal prop­erty, and they would have just mud­dled through,” he says.

With his lo­cal knowl­edge, they were lex Bur­goyne, 26, who works at Douglas and Gor­don’s Not­ting Hill of­fice, has been an agent for nearly three years, but ad­mits that the down­turn in the mar­ket is caus­ing some prob­lems. “We use a per­son­al­ity test to help us judge what type of peo­ple buy­ers are,” he says. He re­veals there are four types: D, the dom­i­nater, I, the in­flu­encer, S, the steady, who needs lots of re­as­sur­ance, and C, the con­veyancer, who needs lots of in­for­ma­tion. “I am very good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the first two, but the last two I have a prob­lem with, be­cause I am an in­flu­encer. I can chat, I’m a typ­i­cal sales­per­son. But the other two want to go slowly and get in­for­ma­tion. They don’t just want to be picked up by some­one in a flash car and a suit. They don’t want to be spun a story. They want de­tail.”

Ms Ken­dall ex­plains that un­der­stand­ing the per­son­al­ity and needs of the buy­ers en­ables Alex to change his approach. “Alex can start able to put an of­fer on a four-bed­room house within a cou­ple of weeks. “The house was close to lo­cal ameni­ties, junc­tion 15 on the mo­tor­way, and it is an old vil­lage. They of­fered £250,000 at a dis­count of 3 per cent on the ask­ing price. It was a very good of­fer in this mar­ket.”

Even in Lon­don where the mar­ket is sup­posed to be main­tain­ing its buoy­ancy, es­tate agents are find­ing it hard to sell. Suzie Ken­dall, train­ing man­ager for Lon­don es­tate agency Douglas and Gor­don, re­veals that she has set up monthly drop-in ses­sions at all their of­fices in or­der to deal with some of the emerg­ing prob­lems.

Aadopt­ing some of their traits, giv­ing them what they want so they can buy into him and get him,” she says. “As Alex is a high I or in­flu­encer, when he talks to an S or a C, he needs to change the struc­ture of the con­ver­sa­tion, giv­ing them the in­for­ma­tion they need in or­der to help them move for­ward in mak­ing a de­ci­sion. By en­gag­ing in a way that com­forts them, Alex is much more likely to get a bet­ter re­sponse.”

Alex takes this on board. “No mat­ter how good you are, you have to keep learn­ing new tech­niques so you don’t get set in your ways. An approach may have worked in the past, so some ne­go­tia­tors will stick at that, but new con­di­tions need new ap­proaches,” he says. He also ad­mits that he spends more time on the phone, talk­ing to ven­dors and buy­ers, cre­at­ing, what he de­scribes as his own buzz: “Ev­ery phone-call is an op­por­tu­nity. I go back through all the peo­ple whom we have been in touch with over the past few months. Call­ing peo­ple back has an amaz­ing ef­fect.”

It may sound ruth­lessly pushy, but Ms Ken­dall in­sists that they are just putting their clients’ needs first: “We are never go­ing to make some­one buy some­thing they don’t like,” she says.

This is es­pe­cially the case in the cur­rent mar­ket. “There are still plenty of peo­ple out there want­ing to sell or buy, but —un­like last sum­mer — they won’t settle for any old thing. They are in the mar­ket, but they won’t com­pro­mise. We have to work out what emo­tional but­tons to press. We need to look af­ter th­ese peo­ple. If we don’t help them to buy the prop­erty they want, we aren’t do­ing our job prop­erly.”

Drop-in ses­sion: train­ing man­ager Susie Ken­dall passes on some use­ful tips to es­tate agent Will Ben­z­ing at one of Douglas & Gor­don’s Lon­don of­fices

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