Lesson 1: listen to the client...
With sales plummeting and 15,000 jobs at risk, estate agents are undergoing tougher training, says William Little
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