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Is Corporate Agency living on borrowed time?




I honestly believe the big agencies with their big brands are living on borrowed time, as the importance of an agency’s brand and branding to be successful are slipping with every year that passes into the 21st Century. In the 1900’s, when information was short supply, curtailed and slow, people depended on a brand’s goodwill for quality assurance. However, things have changed in every industry since the Millennium, and it’s a matter of time that it will change in estate agency and lettings.



I honestly believe that anyone with enough passion, drive, intelligence and patience can open up or even grow a stagnant lettings agency (or lettings and estate agency) and compete and beat the mega brands of Connells, Countrywide, YourMove, the franchised brands, even the likes of Savills and Knight Frank. It won’t take a huge multi million pound budget either. 


The three barriers to opening an agency


Let me explain ..before social media and the tinterweb, if you wanted to open an agency, there were three major barriers to entry that used to exist as a gateway to estate agency/lettings. These barriers were reach, acceptance and ability .. but now they no longer exist


  • reach –  Today, anyone can publish content on the web for almost no investment. I have over 3,000 letting agents on a weekly basis read my articles for not one penny...all because of social media.
  • acceptance – Today, you don’t have to be the Sunday Times to have your clients accept and engage in what you want to say.
  • ability –  You don’t need to be a journalist to write interesting stuff (but make sure it’s interesting otherwise they will drop you quicker than a lead balloon).

Anyway, let me tell you a story of my childhood to show why I say this ..

When I was ten or eleven, my family and I went on holiday to North West Wales... boy was it grey and wet. My father had just bought a new Ford Sierra XR4 x 4  - basically a one down from a Ford Cosworth, but without the silly spoiler and boy was it quick .. like brown stuff off a shovel it was. This car drank petrol for Britain and this was in the time of BU (Before Unleaded). This behemoth of a car needed 4 star and if you could get it, 5 star petrol (yes, there was such a thing). 


Just like Tom Cruise was running on vapours in Top Gun as he was about to land his F14 Tomcat, I can remember my father driving past three petrol stations, refusing to stop as the petrol stations weren’t one of the large oil giants (such as Shell, Esso BP etc) but they were one man band outfits such as ‘Yakeydar Petrol’  or ‘Anglesey Oil’  that still appeared to have manual pumps, where some old boy would even fill it up for you, because they didn’t trust you. 


Brand is everything Son


To my dad the brand name was everything.“No, son, I’ve never heard of that one,” he would say. “We’ll go with the brand, I don’t want to put second rate stuff in the XR4.” ..all the time, the petrol needle was further into the red than the Greek economy .. we were on vapours!


Now, I want to ask you a question ...  I want you to think for a second about the last few things you bought, especially decent sized purchases . I don’t think I will be far wrong to think you went to a search engine, looked over the reviews, asked your mates on Facebook, and maybe even visited few comparison website sites. I bet in some (not all, but some) of your buying decision was influenced by what lots of others said was the best choice to make — in spite of a brand name or even brand recognition. Hell, I bought this Lenovo laptop a while back because the reviews were ace .. I had never heard of them, but thought, well if everyone else says they are good, they must be? How many of you have decided on a hotel or holiday on the feedback of a complete stranger on TripAdvisor?


What does Tripadvisor mean for Agency?


So what does this mean for estate and lettings agency? I am not suggesting that having a big brand isn’t a good thing, quite the opposite, all I am simply saying it’s not enough anymore. Your brand will not, on its own, get you the business.


The tinterweb, social media and the connection society we live in, the ability of anyone to find out anything by going to a website called Google (other search engines are available) , typing something into that site and the millions of answers, millions of pages of info at your finger tips is something people would have only dreamed about 20 years ago. It has levelled the playing field to the point where a ‘nobody agent’ with a better collection of raving fans can compete with the largest brands,  in any industry, especially agency.


Forget the Online vs High Street agent model, that is an irrelevant question. Yes, there is a place for a couple of big UK wide online agents but even then, look at the likes of easyProperty, they aren’t exactly pulling up trees and making seismic waves in the market. 


High Street vs Online is the wrong question you should be asking


However, if you are starting an agency today or want to grow one, in my humble opinion, you don’t need to have an expensive piece of real estate sucking up pound notes like a Dyson on speed. Don’t get me wrong, having a piece of glass on the High Street is very helpful, but it is not ‘the be all and end all’ of whether you will succeed .. we have all seen these agents who open with their fancy ‘lardydedar’ offices, for them to shut the door after 12 months.  


.... a High Street office doesn’t equal success. 


So, if you are starting your own agency, and you are going online (or High Street), I am more than happy to give you my thoughts and opinions on what I would do (or not as the case may be) by either dropping me a note via email or picking up the phone.


Today, all landlords and property sellers want is someone who cares. Companies don’t care, less does the brand, but people care. One phrase I hear constantly in the property business is this, 


.... lettings/estate agency is a people business, not a property business.


How do you compete against the big brands?


When you start your agency or you are finding it hard to grow your agency, you look at these mighty brands, and you ask yourself, ‘How the hell can I compete against these massive chains of agents?’ With this in mind, I think the question you should be asking is this, “is this agency owned, organised and run by people who will allow the people who work there to care?” Generally, the bigger the firm, the answer is nearly always a big fat “no”. 


That might sound harsh, but I speak to many people in the industry, especially during the last 18 months. I have only come across three Area Managers who work in Corporate sphere, who I thought, Wow. The rest have been magnolia tinted number crunchers. You see caring is fickle, volatile, hard to manage and regulate and often expensive in the short run. I feel sorry for the people who work in such environments, to have bosses who don’t care about their staff, who see them just as a number who provide numbers for the spreadsheet. Your own people in your offices must be cared for first, then in return  they will care for the customers more. 


It is a great dishonour to the loyal staff members because the long term upside is huge. 


Brands are not so important nowadays


I think in agency (both lettings and sales), there is a trend with the bigger firms to over emphasise the significance of their branding, their networks, their fancy technology, even processes and efficiency. I know why they are doing that, but perhaps, it’s an idea that might just be flawed. 


All thriving, successful companies centre everything around the needs of people because people are the in essence the final consumers of every product and service. Without people, every great business in the world would be worthless and estate and lettings is no exception: it is people (agents and their landlords/vendors/purchasers) who make the decisions about what to buy and when.


Yes, you could always try and beat them with cheap fees, but even if you do get the business, you won’t get much money from it, because you are doing your stuff on the cheap. Or you could try and beat them at their own game, and spend thousands in advertising and sponsoring everything from every roundabout in the town to the village fete (the last one does work quite well actually!) ... or you could play your own game. Embrace a new way of doing things. 


Your  Brand is You .. not the logo


Your brand is YOU .. not some fancy logo like the other agents who hide behind the facade ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ (definition here https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/all_fur_coat_and_no_knickers )


You are the difference .. not the brand, not the logo. If you can be the most caring, most trustworthy, most honest, the most hardworking agent in your town .. then you will win. People ultimately choose to do business with people they like and trust.

.. but here is the issue, how can you prove that, if you don’t have the properties to sell or let in the first place? It’s like the chicken and egg .. you need to prove trust/caring/hardworking etc., to get the property but you need the property in the first place to be able to prove trust/caring/hardworking etc.

Ten ways to prove Trust without having the property

.. but you CAN prove all these things (trust/caring/hardworking etc )without having the property .. here are ten ways to do it



1.      Trust is transferable .. I don’t care what you say, but if someone says to you, you need to go and speak to that guy, he knows what he is talking about, their trust is transferred to you. The amount of times my clients have told me (and fellow clients in out Facebook Group) of landlords who recommended their lettings agency, but that landlord who recommended them had never met my client, let alone used them. Word of mouth is one of the most successful, by far, to prove trust, because here is the best bit .. trust is transferable. If someone says I’ve heard good things about you from people I know, the entire relationship changes. You get the benefit of the doubt. When someone recommends a plumber to you, do you question what they did for them, how much it cost, did they have the correct certificates .. no, because you trust that person, that is good enough .. landlords recommend you to other letting agents


2.      Pressing the Flesh ... I love to speak to Steve Frost from Martin and Co in Chelmsford. He has people walking in off the street, and when the receptionist stands up and says, ‘How can I help you’, he has lost count at the number of people who have said, ‘I want to talk to him, point towards Steve at the back of the office,  the man that writes the article about the housing market every week in the paper ’  .. most turn out to be landlords. See his blog and you will see why he has landlords coming to him, two or three a week .. Ring him up yourself and ask him .. this is his blog ..  http://chelmsfordproperty.blogspot.co.uk/



3.      Have we met before? Network, network, network.. if you have interacted with someone in some way before they see your marketing material, blog, your newsletter etc etc, be that at the local Conservative Club, Golf Club, Rotary Club, PIN meeting or Chamber of Commerce etc etc, even if it’s for 30 seconds, that will alter the reaction that person will have when they do see your marketing material for the first time.



4.      Can I have your autograph? Taking it to the extremes, the number of letting and estate agents who adopt the principles of being the local ‘Property Guru’ who get stopped in the street is amazing.. in fact Paul Tobias-Gibbins, no word of a lie, was asked to market a property because of the weekly articles he puts in the weekly newspaper about the local property market, but the owner also asked for his autograph!



5.      Scarcity – The early bird gets the worm – One of our letting agents who adopts the landlord farming principle (we call ourselves farmers), so Farmer Singh from South London is doing wonders with his blog, with the VIP area on his blog for landlords, where they have to enter their contact details to get access to the best Buy to let deals .. however, the way he does it is truly sublime ...



6.      Are you interesting? If I spend my time, reading your blog, listening to your podcast or reading your newsletter, what’s in it for me to listen to what you have to say?  If you are interesting .. people will start to trust you.




7.      Old ideas vs New ideas  Everybody loves talking about the property market .. there is nothing new in that. But by writing meaty articles about the local property market each and every week, you are making landlords think about their property in new ways .. and if you can get someone to think and you are interesting .. human beings like things they are interested in and by eventually getting them to like you .. from that, trust emerges.



8.      Google Results on the first page of Google are more trusted. It’s so easy to get to the top of your towns ranking with a good blog about your town’s property market .. Google loves fresh content. Farmer Chris from North London, six months after starting his blog, is ahead of Rightmove, Zoopla and the big boys when you type his ‘town’ and the words ‘property’ and ‘blog’ .. how good is that? 



9.       How long have you been showing up?   Having a blog, and constantly posting shows you deliver every time. Farmer Daniel, a letting agent from Hertfordshire stopped doing his blog for a few weeks. In our Facebook group for letting agents who adopt the principles of being local property gurus, a group where we share ideas, he said last week,  “Haven't written my blog for a while due to dealing with other ****** recently but decided to kick it off again this week with a couple of BTL deals and a nice piece about development projects.. in my town. Posted it everywhere yesterday and have had 4 calls already. 1 accountant called who has lots of properties, 2 being refurbished and there's a good chance I'll get to let both. I thought I'd let you know to encourage you keep writing your blogs. Don't be an idiot like me and stop for a couple of months - you must keep the machine going as it really does work”.



10.  The Punters .. they just love ya’ Honestly, if you have been doing this for while, this article writing, this becoming the town’s local property guru, people will talk about you. Farmer Rebecca from Middlesex says all her friends have told her, without asking, everyone in their suburb is talking about her newsletter and blog. These people won’t ring you up and tell you that .. but they are talking about what you write .. because middle aged property owners are interested in the property market .. and you are the source of info, the mother-lode of news, the fountain of knowledge with thoughts and info on the local property market ...



Bottom line is this my fellow agent, you will be judged, so surely its best to plan on being judged in the best possible light and be that trustworthy agent?

  Want to read more?  I am the Author of the Landlord Farming Blog which has over 280 posts going back to 2013, on attracting landlords to a letting agency http://how-to-grow-your-lettings-agency.blogspot.co.uk/

  Want to listen to more about the ideas I mention? Listen to the UK’s first iTunes approved Podcast for Letting Agents, a podcast on how to improve your lettings agency. https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/letting-agent-podcast/id1014892281

  Want to visit my website?  Hereis is www.christopherwatkin.co.uk

  Got something on your mind? I’d love to know your thoughts on this topic – please leave a comment, or if you are shy, email me at christopher@christopherwatkin.co.uk


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