David Alexander comment: Tech no substitute for staff's nuanced expertise

There has been much debate in the media lately about the effect of internet transactions on the retail and consumer banking sectors, mainly the consequences of store and branch closures. Yet what is happening in estate and letting agencies has largely gone unnoticed.

Web browsing for property has accelerated since the wide adoption of smartphones, says Alexander. Picture: contributed.

Just as traditional shopping for a pair of trousers or withdrawing money or arranging loans is being overtaken by digital technology, so it is happening with the sale and letting of residential property, but much more under the radar, if you’ll forgive the pun.

It is just as significant as the internet-driven changes in other areas. Web browsing for property has accelerated since the wide adoption by the public of smartphones because it means this can be done on the move and not just while sitting at home with a laptop. In theory, this should mean a reduction in staff costs for estate and letting agencies because internet transactions require fewer personnel than those done on a face-to-face basis. However, property sales and lettings are different from other consumer outlets because the products on display are not exactly portable. Investors buying a property online is now quite common but virtually every potential owner-occupier or tenant wishes to physically view the house or flat they hope to buy or rent. Consequently real, live people are still essential to any business in this field; indeed, while our share of online-generated business has grown exponentially in recent years, our staff numbers have never been higher.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Emphasis on choosing the right staff, therefore, remains crucial, as does training for those already on the staff books through structured sessions by accredited training specialists or by “on the job” training by a more experienced member of staff.

In hiring staff I do, of course, take cognisance of academic qualifications. But that does not tell you everything about a person. When a job involves dealing personally with members of the public – specifically, in our case, conducting property viewings – good communicative skills plus a reasonable level of articulation, are of great importance and totally separate to whether an individual is or is not good at passing exams. Consequently, from time to time we will hire someone whose academic background is not particularly brilliant but who, instinct tells us, has the right attitude and skills for the job. Conversely, we have academically minded staff holding university degrees in subjects totally unrelated to property but who have made a success of things in our sector for no other reason than they are “naturals”.

Unquestionably, well-trained staff are happier and more efficient than those who are not and how well employees perform – and are perceived by customers (both landlords and tenants) – is crucial to maintaining and driving business. In our sector, perhaps above all others, “the market” is of huge benefit to the public because should one agency fail to live up to expectations there are plenty more to choose from.

Of course, property sales and lettings is no different from other forms of consumer business in that periodic downturns lead to situations where some members of staff need to be let go. Generally, however, the “buoyancy” that characterises property sales and lettings means there is usually always work for someone with sufficient experience and the right attitude. Indeed, there exists a certain culture reminiscent of wider commerce and industry several decades ago: eg if you fall out with the boss and resign on a Thursday evening you can step into a similar job with a new employer the following Monday morning.

Because of this employee fluidity within the sector I often get asked: “Why spend so much time and money on training someone who might leave you for a competitor?” To which I reply: “But what if I don’t train them and they decide to stay with you indefinitely?”

I rest my case.

David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander.