Higher Tech for the Little Agent
Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week Feb 2005
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John Durrant is a big man – over 6ft 5ins ‘in every direction’, he admits. But that is nowhere near enough for his towering ambitions. Many a well-heeled resident of Surrey’s stockbroker belt will have spluttered over their cornflakes after glancing from the window to see a 56ft mast has sprouted overnight from a neighbour’s garden. Only the sight of the agent tinkering around at the base stops a dive for the complaint line to local planners.
Durrant is a familiar figure – possibly the one who sold them their house in the first place. And they are learning that the mast will disappear as quickly as it emerged – stowed in a car trailer that has become part of the agent’s site visit kit.. Many of the properties around this part of the UK are renown for their lung-stretching gardens and grounds. But how do you show that to prospective buyers when most draw up shortlists from pictures on the internet?
Aerial shots are now commonplace from specialists that have flown most of the country but they can be blurry or antiseptically formal. So Durrant has bought his own eye in the sky - a collapsible mast with a digital camera on top.Valuers and surveyors could follow his lead. Few venture up ladders nowadays, yet roof inspections are a doddle. Commercial agents will also see the potential for shots of larger premises.
The only thing more surprising than a mast sprouting overnight is the fact that a small firm run by a group of veterans in deeply conservative Surrey should be showing the way. Yet it is merely the most visible sign of the wizardry which has won Waterfall Durrant & Barclay a national award for use of technology. Virtual tours, automated databases and online progress reports are even more important parts of the transformation. The most refreshing aspect is that this is no love affair by bright young things expecting a blitz of technology to take over the business. ‘Many agents seen to lose track of the fact that this business is all about marketing,’ says Durrant. ‘If you can’t present your product properly, you should not be in the job.’
Technology can help, but needs to be handled properly. For instance, almost every agent now carries a digital camera. Yet how many think beyond the advantage of getting pictures quickly into a brochure or window? ‘I’m looking at an example where the angle is completely wrong. It makes the property look as though it is next to a main road. Another was taken at the wrong time of day, with the sun hidden behind the property.’
Agents can rely too much on their ‘expert’ advisers, dropping pictures into templates set up for ease of use. ‘Typically, the property is stretched or compressed to fit, which gives a false idea of what it looks like,’ says Durrant, who took time off to attend courses in Photoshop and Dreamweaver to ensure he avoided these potholes. Technology is also more than a timesaver, he adds. It must support, and improve, the essential function of buying and selling property. The key to WD&B’s operation is not whizzy gadgets but a customer relations system which attacks the most common complaint about agents ranging from the smallest residential operation to giant commercial groups – staying in touch.
Every property is entered into an electronic database. That may not be unusual nowadays but WD&B has created something normally associated with the asset managers of top commercial firms. Clients can log in to check:
This has double-edged benefits. It makes sellers feel they are in the loop rather than waiting for update calls that may never come. It also saves time, as agents can get on with selling rather than returning calls. The ambitious project led to some friction with the database supplier, which refused to tweak web listing software to include information such as ground plans and viewing comments. Durrant finds it difficult to comprehend a supplier that was treating him with the same distain he was trying to overcome in relations with buyers and sellers. ‘They had a we-know-best attitude to everything we asked for,’ he says. So the firm switched to DezRez. ‘We spent a couple of days at their office in Swansea with a list of more than 40 changes and they took them all on board.’
Not everyone can – or wants – to do business online, of course. Faceless technology can be dispiriting, as anyone who banks online can testify. As a balance, the firm set up a customer liaison officer to provide a human voice. ‘She is paid to love you,’ says Durrant – which could be a conversation-stopper when describing the job to friends and neighbours. She is certainly not classed as a secretary. ‘We have none,’ says Durrant. All the old routines are now done by agents on computers. That raises another critical question, however. How do you keep information up to date?
A host of similar proposals spawned in the white heat of new technology a decade ago collapsed because staff were more concerned at the end of the day with hitting the pub than tapping information into a database. WD&B has a simple solution: there is no alternative. We have no paper-based files. Everything has to go into a computer,’ says Durrant.
Surprisingly, the firm does not use hand-held mobiles for jobs such as inputting property information on site. WD&B has avoided the kneejerk idea that gizmos automatically improve efficiency. Connections are simply not yet fast enough to make them worthwhile. In any case, upgrading the online service to clients takes precedence. The firm already offers DezRez virtual tours but is planning a new service by Metropix which translates floor plans into a more realistic 3D for an extra £60. Most homebuying decisions are made by women, and research shows they have poor special awareness, says Durrant. This will bridge the gap and eventually enable them to also play with colour schemes and furniture layouts.
WHEN TECHNOLOGY GOES WRONG
Durrant was seething when a transfer between ISPs caused problems, briefly cutting off contact with customers. When technology goes wrong, some might be tempted back to good old pen and paper, but even this can involve cutting edge technology. Most agents rely on notes scribbled on site then typed into the office desktop, doubling the workload. Durrant is trialling a Nokia pen which scans as it writes. Notes can be downloaded straight to the office computer or connected to a mobile phone for messaging. ‘We tried digital dictation and voice recognition but it was not good enough,’ he says. Interruptions such as background noise were a problem.
WHAT DOES IT COST?
Many small firms are frightened off by the potential cost of switching to new technology. But spending can be minimal compared with turnover. Durrant points out that his Woking office alone earned fees of around £1m in 2004. The key, however, lies in savings. WD&B has 16 staff. ‘I would estimate we would need half as many again to work without the benefits of technology,’ he says.