In June 2015, I presented for the first time in public, and, not being one for doing things in half measures, I took to the stage at the prestigious Lettings Live 2015 seminar, in conjunction with The Times & Sunday Letting Agency of the Year Awards, in front of over 500 delegates to speak about how to build a successful letting agency.
When I was asked to speak at the seminar by good friend and industry guru Peter Knight, I thought it would be a panel interview or, at most, a brief 10-15 minute presentation. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be a daunting 40-minute slot, one that took me almost 3 months to prepare for. I readily admit to being pretty terrified about standing in front of an audience of some of the best people in the lettings industry, and it took nerve and a whole lot of practice, to get me up on that platform. For instance, I attended a public speaking master-class for a ‘fun’ weekend; I read lots of books on the subject, including the excellent …And Death Came Third by Lopata & Roper (which made me realise that the majority of people consider death to be easier than public speaking) and stood in front of my Keynote presentation on the TV in my lounge, recording myself over and over again. In the end, my biggest worry was over-running when I struggled to get the speech down below 50 minutes (typical estate agent – once she starts, she doesn’t want to stop), even prompting nightmares where someone from the awards crew would drag me off the stage by my hair. On the day of the seminar they promised me that a trap door would open dead on 40 minutes and I would just disappear into the depths below, finished or not!
I was to be speaking about my career as an Estate and Lettings agent, including how I got into the business at the age of 21 with the corporate agency Connells, winning their UK negotiator of the year award in 1988, and moving into independent agency and starting my own franchise in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire in 2002 for the established North London agency Parkheath Estates. In 2010 I rebranded my company to Sewell & Gardner, the names of the founding members, Alex Sewell, who ran our sales & new homes departments, and myself on the lettings side. Sewell & Gardner went on to win the Overall Lettings Agency of the Year trophy in 2013, scooping 5 gold awards, and in the same year also won the Gold Grand Prix ESTA for Best UK Sales & Lettings Agency and the Negotiator Award for best independent lettings agency. A pretty good haul for one small agency based in the Home Counties, if I do say so myself.
Part of my presentation was a selection of 5 points that I felt were key to my success and, for those who missed the event (tut, tut) that is what my blog is about. Whilst I was talking primarily about my lettings business, I do feel that most of the items I mention, can be used in sales departments too, so I hope you find one or two gems that you can try in your own businesses:
- Become the local expert
Having spent the best part of 15 years selling houses, I was well aware of how lettings was ‘the poor relation’, often overhearing comments saying that ‘it’s so easy to rent a property, you only have to do a couple of viewings to get a deal’ and ‘tenants are a dime a dozen’. However, as I moved into lettings full time I realised it was awash with legislation and I had an awful lot to learn. I can clearly remember coming back to the office after every ARLA meeting and having sleepless nights over what I didn’t know and what the consequences would be if something went wrong.
I was determined to be the lettings expert in the local area and once I was qualified, I set out to ensure every member of my team trained and passed their ARLA exams. To see how my staff became empowered, not only with the confidence to know what should be done, but also with the skills to turn away bad business, was a delight to behold. I could not imagine letting a novice negotiator loose on a landlord or tenant, without having a qualified colleague beside them, to show best practice and help them navigate the minefield that is lettings.
In addition to basic lettings legislation, the team needed to fully understand the sales process and how to interact with investors, because a huge percentage of our lettings income was coming from professional landlords who were expanding their rental portfolios. It was hugely important to know how to calculate gross AND NET yields, explain the capital growth of properties in the area, and estimate the return on investment over a desired period, be it 5 years, 10 years or longer. In my opinion, it is imperative for lettings staff to know how much the popular rental properties sell for, at all times, and to be able to guide landlords towards the best deals in the area, and speak with confidence on this subject.
- Build an engaged team
Estate agency is an emotional business. People move their lives and their families based upon, in many cases, one 20 minute viewing. It is so important, in my view, to really immerse ourselves in that customer journey if we want that deal to be a success, and hopefully one that will lead to repeat business, either in years to come, or as a recommendation to friends and family due to their happiness and a feeling that someone really cared.
If your staff are just order takers, if they are just waiting for the next internet lead or email enquiry, then they are probably not going to be fully engaged in their work. That is not the kind of team I wanted to have, so I set about working on a structure to build an engaged team of people who liked to interact on a social level; people with old-fashioned values as well as modern skills.
Each staff member’s personality had a big part to play in our brand and it was so important to make sure that everyone knew how they fitted into the team. Their strengths were highlighted whilst their weaknesses went from failings to challenges and opportunities to work upon together. If someone showed willing and put the effort in, but ultimately didn’t feel confident with certain parts of the role and yet excelled in other areas, I would try to be flexible and move staff from one job role to another. Having moved myself from a marketing role into sales, then into lettings and then back to marketing, I really understood how someone might start working in one area and then move into another, somewhere which suited their skills or circumstances better.
As a business specialising in knowledge of the local area I felt, wherever possible, I should recruit local people. The advent of social media to agency life offered a great opportunity to target local people with available job vacancies, and this started to take the place of the local newspaper for our main source of new staff. Again the advent of video into our business meant we could record recruitment videos, using the member of staff being promoted onwards or someone in a similar job discussing the skills required for the role.
Everyone in the team had a chance to be rewarded for great work, from the Saturday staff, the trainees, the accounts and admin staff, up to the branch managers. It was a huge part of our company ethos to say ‘thank you’ to our team members for their ‘wow moments’, the times when they went over and above what would normally be expected, in order to help someone.
- Make happy customers
This is not about dropping your fee to make the landlord happy! That is not the approach I would adopt because once you drop the fee, you can’t get it back up again. My philosophy was to help the landlord to understand the value of the work they were getting, by justifying my price with clarity and educating the customer on everything I, or my team, would be doing for them. I would always try to connect on some personal level through a shared interest or hobby, and would definitely treat tenants and landlords as I would treat my friends, giving my best attention from the time we met and from then onwards, regardless of whether they did business with me or not.
I always instilled this level of customer service as a core value for everyone in my team, making a main part of their job about retaining customers, gaining referral business and getting great feedback, which all happens as a by-product of exceptional service. It was never just about getting X number of deals on the board or a certain amount of income in the bank, that literally just happened as a result of the service we gave and our want to give that same service to everyone we could.
Here are some of the customer service incentives I put in place:
Firstly we were very aware that our tenants of today could be our landlords of tomorrow, so we needed to ensure that they were treated just as brilliantly. All of our tenants received a moving day bag full of essentials and some personal goodies picked by the negotiator or property manager. Bags were delivered on moving-in day just after the check-in, a great opportunity to ensure everything had gone smoothly or to help if not. These moving bay goodie bags were a fantastic referral tool too.
We provided packing boxes for customers to de-clutter their homes ready for moving. The customer told us the number of boxes they needed, which we delivered and then collected them for our local charity Watford Mencap. Taking this one step further we often had staff helping to pack or lift & carry for the move itself, especially if someone was on their own or elderly.
Reward Card Scheme
We developed a fabulous reward scheme, which encouraged people to trade locally, and also encouraged shared business within our community. Every customer received a reward card when their completing their deal and were entered into the bespoke reward card website, which had all of the offer coupons to download. A dedicated team member visited all of the local shops and businesses each week, ensuring that they had up-to-date offers, that our reward card sticker was in the shop window, that they had photos and stories to share on their dedicated page on our own website, and that they were getting as much out of the card scheme as our clients were. It was a mutual arrangement to promote their business in turn for promoting ours and, over the years, it brought us many customers so it was definitely worth the effort.
We invited our investors to come on board our mini-bus tour where we would take them to any rental properties being sold with tenants in situ, so that they could talk to the tenant, see the rental history and really get a feel for taking on a property with a tenancy intact. We also showed any sales properties, which would make great investment opportunities, providing the yield and capital growth information and give examples of other similar places already rented. Lastly we showed all of our new homes developments, particularly the best investment plots, and we also had a great ‘in’ with other local sites who had to sell through the agent who’d introduced the land, but perhaps didn’t have such a strong investor database as us. Not all sites would agree to a one-off deal, but when you have the lure of 15 investors coming on one appointment, it often proved hard to turn down. The tour bus ran on a Saturday morning, kicked off at 10.30, usually showed about 8 properties and then ended with a buffet lunch in our local pub, and a chance to chat to our lettings and finance experts. This tour was very popular and successful.
Landlord VIP Scheme
We believed in looking after our multiple landlords or long time clients and these were invited to join our VIP membership. Offers kicked in from year 4 onwards, with rate discounts, free safety checks, invites to our forums, just lots of nice touches to make the clients feel special. The best part was our office ‘Landlord Scrapbook’ where all the VIPs sent in photos of their homes, families, pets, holidays etc or sent us informative emails, letters or postcards, so that every team member (even the newbies) would recognise those very important customers if they came into the office.
- Get into the community spirit
Reciprocity is something that I found invaluable as a business owner. I loved the towns I worked in and I thoroughly embraced the local community, as did my staff whom, in the main, lived locally.
Initially we joined forces with a local charity and started to raise money in many traditional ways such as giving donations for client feedback and then we moved into the more creative zone. ‘Soak the Agent’ was one of our favourites where we invited our clients to come and throw cold wet sponges at members of the team (or buckets of icy water for the more generous ones); we had teams running in the local Annual Pancake Race; we made smoothies for our customers using a ‘Smoothy Bike’ and delivered them to all of the local shop staff; we made lots of cakes and attended lots of fetes and we sponsored lots of local football, cricket and rugby teams. We even organised a Sewell & Gardner Music Festival called ‘Chorley-Woodstock’ showcasing many local bands, whilst auctioning ourselves as VIP hostesses for the night and raising thousands of pounds for Oxfam.
Our entire Social Media plan was geared around our community work and highlighting our staff members to the local area. In fact, I believe it was this structured approach to social media, which helped us to win the ‘Social Media Gold’ in 2013 at the Estate Agency of the Year Awards.
- Always be prepared
Let’s face it the future of our industry is ALWAYS changing, whether it is new or changing legislation, new innovation, or new direction, nothing ever seems to stay the same. I have always tried to embrace new concepts, starting my social media pages before anyone else in the local area thought about it, custom building 3 websites and learning all about how Google ranks your site, the benefits of keywords and blogging for search engine optimisation. I embraced new inventory software and brought that service in-house, saving thousands of pounds. I trained a member of staff to provide professional photography, floorplans and energy performance certificates and, more recently, property and office videos.
Of course, the biggest change for me came when I sold my business to Countrywide last year. Selling is a tricky process and one fraught with emotional stress but, thankfully, my business was in good shape and very compliant. Even so, it took a lot of hard work, much of it under cover of darkness as selling is something which remains top secret until the day everything is completed. I would say that anybody thinking of selling their business needs to put a lot of work into getting ready before inviting offers, and be very sure of your decision because once the ball starts rolling it gathers speed pretty quickly.
I really hope that you have enjoyed reading my article, and if you would like any further information just comment below with your question and contact details, and I will get back to you shortly.
Thank you for reading, please let me know your feedback, it’s important to me.
JANE GARDNER, FARLA, MNAEA