Being embarrassed to be an estate agent is not a new feeling for me.
I am sure my fellow practitioners may well share my pain when, for example, at a dinner party the conversation turns to the subject of jobs.
Admitting to be an estate agent often feels a little akin to admitting to be a serial shoe-sniffer or granny mugger. We are generally not liked, despite generally doing a decent job, for generally the right reasons.
So, it was with much surprise that my embarrassment levels reached new depths just a few days ago. It may well surprise you when I reveal the location of this. I was not out with friends being asked about what I do for a living, I wasn’t meeting a partner’s parents for the first time and I certainly wasn’t at a dinner party.
I was attending an estate agents’ award ceremony.
Now, surely dear reader, you would think this would be the last place I would be embarrassed to be an estate agent.
After all, this was to be a celebration of our profession, a night where new stars and lifetime achievers would rub shoulders and share both the limelight and awards.
The evening started with much promise. My London and Kent brands had each been shortlisted in four categories, a massive achievement for relatively small, independent brands.
My staff and I are were having a pleasant evening, out in our finery in central London, and out with, supposedly, the best of our peers.
After a delicious three-course meal the awards ceremony started.
All remained pleasant until the online agent of the year category was announced. The room, almost to a man, started booing. These property professionals were reduced to a herd of naysaying numpties.
I felt shame and disappointment. I was in a large room full of the crème de la crème of my industry. My fellow guests were meant to represent the most forward thinking agents in the land. For goodness sake, I even heard someone on my table say that they “hated f***ing online agents”.
Now, much has been written of the online versus high street agent battle.
Personally, I welcome the challenge that online agents bring. I do not fear them because I feel that my own offices can offer a better service.
I do not fear them because property, like car sales for example, remains one of the few business transactions where currently, actual people still need to view the actual product on offer.
Of course, technology is getting better and with that in mind I am keeping an eye on the latest technological breakthroughs. Virtual reality headsets look exciting, but I see these as toys, trinkets if you like, to win instructions from landlords and vendors.
Can you imagine choosing where to live based on a virtual walk around? Not yet. Maybe not ever. But certainly not until we have full, immersive, holographic technology widely available. And even then, wouldn’t you want to meet the neighbours and check out the walk to the station?
So, I don’t fear online agents. I am amazed it has taken them this long to begin to take a small market share.
I am even happy they exist as I feel that our industry needs constant evolution and I think the online agents have made many of us take a good, long, hard look at our operations to see where we can improve.
Old-fashioned, low-tech customer service, like talking to a person not a call-centre robot, has returned to the fore because it’s something that clients want and actually high street agents can do.
From a cynical, business owner perspective, the great thing is that excellent customer service doesn’t really cost anything.
Apart from a little time and patience, high street agents can introduce and maintain a world-class customer service by simply understanding how their clients want to be treated.
We all know this instinctively. Why? Because it is how each of us want to be treated.
So, don’t boo online agents.
Don’t be afraid of them. Embrace the challenge they bring.
Definitely don’t reduce your fees. This battle will be won on customer service levels, not on percentages.
* Spencer Fortag is managing director of Dockside Properties Kent and regional manager of Landmark Estates