Has email killed the art of the sale?

17 January 2017 | Sinéad Canning

Sinéad Canning, Director at Residential Edge, guest blogs for LonRes and discusses why agents should still pick up the phone.

In the olden days, before the tech. revolution transformed estate agency in to the digital affair it has become today, the phone was the most powerful tool in the agents’ professional tool kit. New instruction sheets would circulate for each negotiator’s daily applicant call out. Armed with little more than a brief outline of the property, the agent would have to pick up the phone and describe the new instruction in all its glory. And so it was that the art of the sale was born! The most successful agents were the ones with the most enthusiastic delivery, the fastest dialing fingers and the greatest ability to instill urgency in their buyers.

In the fast-paced market of the ‘noughties’, buyers who wanted to purchase a property had little choice but to agree to a viewing off the back of this description. Otherwise they risked their dream home slipping through their fingers in the time lag between a new instruction coming to market and the paper details being available to post. A mutually dependent relationship was forged: the buyer needed the agent to know what was on the market and the agent needed the buyer to actually buy what they were selling. The relationship may not always have been harmonious or fulfilling, but it was a direct relationship all the same and its lifeblood was the telephone.

Scroll forward 15 years and the modus operandi of the industry has changed almost beyond recognition. Visit your local high street agent and far from being greeted by a cacophony of ringtones and a wall of noise generated by people loudly selling property over the phone; you are more likely to be greeted by the sound of silence or the soft clacking of keyboards. The pre-eminent telephone has been replaced by e-mail and with that the atmosphere and energy of the industry has also changed. Automatic matching means that agents no longer need to actively communicate with buyers because e-mail will do all of that for them. Tick the right boxes on the applicant’s digital record and a computer will take care of the rest.

This is not in all senses a bad thing. Digital methods of communication have flayed hours off the old way of doing business, offering not just efficiencies, but also certainties. Vendors know that their property will have been matched to all applicants registered on the agent’s database nationally and internationally, without exception.  There is no longer a margin for human error or omission.  This matching happens automatically and in the 24 hours after the instruction has gone live. Time zone and language barriers have been eliminated also, which in a global market is a great thing. 

Superb property details with multiple colour photographs, interactive floor plans and maps can be circulated across the globe at the touch of a button. The comprehensive nature of these digital details also makes it easier to establish if a property is appropriate for a potential buyer. Buyers no longer routinely find themselves disappointed and underwhelmed by what they are viewing, since they can establish the orientation, aspect and overall appearance of the property in advance. In fact, new technology has enabled an entire industry in off plan new build sales to go mainstream, since without digital visual aids such as CGIs, flythrough movies and the like such sales would be nigh on impossible. 

Paper details in contrast, are hugely inefficient not to mention costly to the environment. Think of all the postage, the sheets of A4 paper and printer cartridges, the staples, envelopes and photographic paper. Paper details are slow in every way. They have to be delivered by (snail) mail or by hand. They make it impossible to deliver the same level of service to international buyers as domestic ones. It is worth mentioning here that the demise of paper property details has also spared recent generations of agents the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing and soul-destroying afternoons of envelope stuffing which drove many of the older generation to drink!  Let us celebrate this amazing time efficiency in an industry that is plagued by time wasting!

Without doubt the digital revolution has delivered efficiencies, but it has done so at the expense of both human contact and of active communication. I can't help thinking that automatic matching allows estate agents to feel they have discharged their duty of care to the vendor. When a new instruction has been e-mailed to all registered applicants, the agent need do no more than sit back and wait for the viewing requests to roll in. It doesn’t matter in this context if the agent knows their buyers or can easily recall what they are looking for. It used to matter tremendously: applicant qualification was the key to a successful career in selling property. Before computer algorithms took over the essential work of matching buyers to properties, agents had to use their brainpower to do this. They had to really listen to their applicants, probe their requirements and understand what they were hoping to achieve with their property purchase. The whole transaction was that bit more imperfect perhaps, but definitely more human. 

E-mail may be an efficient way of communicating, but it is certainly not an emotional one. E-mail cannot convey colour, sentiment and feeling in the way an excited person telling you about a new instruction can. Moreover, we are all drowning in e-mail these days and people no longer pay as much attention to anything but the most essential material in their inbox. Communicating by phone is a more personal way of doing business that pays attention to human side of property transactions.

I can’t help feeling too that lots of agents end up hiding behind e-mail instead of engaging with the public on the phone. Agency is a notoriously challenging business: agreed sales fall through, parties fall out with each other, people change their minds. If an agent hasn’t honed their telephone skills on easy calls to register applicants or tell them about a new instruction, how do they develop the skills to deal with the difficult calls that inevitably happen?  It requires courage to tell someone they have been gazumped, or that their buyer has pulled out. It requires resilience to deal with the reaction to that news. E-mail in these circumstances is never appropriate. Surely the phone should be the first port of call at all times, with e-mail playing a harmonious second fiddle. I believe this is the only way to ensure the business of property sales remains about people and their lives rather than about data and algorithms.

About the author

Sinéad Canning

Director, Residential Edge

Sinéad Canning runs independent sales & marketing consultancy Residential Edge, which delivers bespoke and commercially driven advice to London’s residential developers. Her clients have included renowned developers Lendlease and Argent.

Sinéad has worked in prime central London property since 2000, spending 10 years working as an estate agent and sales’ manager for leading London agencies Foxtons South Kensington, Savills’ Sloane Street and Carter Jonas’ Knightsbridge.  Since leaving agency, she has worked for ‘golden post code’ developers Rigby & Rigby and Northacre plc. 

Visit Residential Edge.

Sinéad Canning guest Blogs for LonRes on the art of the sale in estate agency