Interview: Christopher Sellwood on the changing face of Foxtons

The boss of Foxtons’ recently-launched Prime team opens up on market uncertainty, digital strategy, and the joys of working with other firms…

The boss of Foxtons’ recently launched Prime team opens up on market uncertainty, digital strategy, and the joys of working with other firms…

You have been working in the Prime Central London market for nearly two decades; how does the current torpor compare to the other slowdowns you’ve experienced?

In 2018, we saw a continuation of the downward trend in sales transactions levels which began back in 2015. The difference between this market and previous ones is that in the past any change to market situations was due to a single event. The financial crisis affected lending, which of course had a knock-on effect on the housing market, whereas the current market situation is due to ongoing uncertainty. We are yet to see the latest Land Registry data for the whole year but we wouldn’t be surprised if 2018 ended up being a record low for transaction levels in London.

Foxtons has closed six branches in the last year – including the flagship Park Lane office, which you helmed for the last 12 years; can you talk us through the decision, and the impact the market is having on the wider branch network/strategy?

We continuously review our cost base to ensure it reflects market conditions. As a result of ongoing market weakness, and our industry-leading technology allowing for extended branch reach, we recently closed six branches: four on the outskirts of our network (Beckenham, Enfield, Loughton, and Ruislip), Park Lane and Barnes. We continue to cover over 85% of London from 61 branches and have no current plans for further closures.

Foxtons recently launched a dedicated Prime team, which you are now leading; could you talk us through the service, and how the new division differs from the mainstream offering?

Differences from the mainstream offering also include negotiation on fees, up-scaled photography package, listing on LonRes, and the ability to work on a joint sole basis.

Foxtons Prime was born out of a desire to set the standard for our customers by offering a more bespoke service. I am very lucky that within Foxtons we have some very experienced, committed, highly-trained experts who have worked for us for a long period of time. The idea was to build a dedicated team around these individuals in order to offer exceptional levels of service to Prime customers. Differences from the mainstream offering also include negotiation on fees, up-scaled photography package (including a Matterport virtual tour), listing on LonRes, and the ability to work on a joint sole basis.

Prime Lettings operates on similar principles, catering to landlords and tenants who require tailored services from an experienced and specialised team. Thanks to the extensive contacts they bring, these experts, working in tandem with our network of interconnected offices, are able to quickly source the perfect tenant for each property. We ensure one single point of contact for our Prime landlords and tenants, from registration and throughout the tenancy period.

Foxtons’ flagship Park Lane office closed its doors in 2018 as part of a review of the branch network

We noticed Foxtons had recently signed up to the LonRes network; are things now changing in terms of the way you work with other agencies, and the policy of not negotiating on fees?

Yes, we are now listing our Prime instructions on LonRes and have already completed deals in both sales and lettings, and we recently won the LonRes ‘Sale of The Year: West London’ award, which is testament to our exceptional Prime sales team. There is an amazing level of talent and experience out there. If we really want to get the best results for our clients in the current market then we have more to gain by working together. I am really enjoying trying to do deals with other agents, as a lot of them used to work alongside me at Foxtons. We currently have no plans to change our sales fees in the core business.

Foxtons blazed a trail with its digital offering, but unlike some other large agencies has so far chosen not to offer (or invest in) an online-only service/platform; is there something in the pipeline, or has the decision been taken to focus wholly on full-service agency?

Estate agency is fundamentally a people business. We know that our customers want to deal with knowledgeable, experienced and committed people who will deliver results throughout the complicated process of selling or letting a property, especially at a prime level in London. Our brand is also a cornerstone of the business, prompting awareness and associating customers with consistent, high levels of service across our network.

Over the past year we have invested heavily in our people and our brand, with additional resources also directed into technology, which plays an important role in amplifying these important areas. We believe this three-pronged approach will allow us to consolidate and extend our market-leading position and provide the best service possible.

As one of the first agents to introduce an online portal for our customers (My Foxtons) we have been able to constantly refine and improve this service, enhancing usability and vastly expanding the number of transactions that can be completed digitally. For example, sellers can track property viewings with feedback, view clicks on listings across Rightmove, Zoopla and, as well as accept or reject offers from their smartphones. Landlords can track tenants’ issues reported through the platform, sign documents, access one-click tax information and much more. We’ve found that our Prime clients particularly value this suite of services.

In addition, Foxtons is expanding its use of technology to better understand customer behaviour, with new analytical tools that allow us to improve our services and business efficiency. We are also constantly negotiating potential partnerships with companies that could offer diversified income streams, complementary technology, and access to new customer segments.

Foxtons has produced some of the most talented deal-makers in London, many of whom have gone on to make serious waves with their own firms; why is the in-house training so successful, and what makes a truly great salesperson in your opinion?

You get the feeling that they are going to add value to your life by working with them

We have a very talented training department at Foxtons. Many of our trainers have previously worked in the front offices and have a comprehensive understanding of what actually happens at the coalface. This is one of the things I have always loved about Foxtons – the amount of experience that we have across the business. Most of our directors started as negotiators and worked their way up through the ranks, so at every level there is someone our salespeople can call on for advice, who will have an in-depth knowledge of their role. We also pride ourselves on the amount of ongoing training our teams receive throughout their careers here; you never stop receiving training at Foxtons. One thing I always notice in the best salespeople is energy. They have the ability to grab your attention and make you listen – you get the feeling that they are going to add value to your life by working with them.

On the same note, how hard is the agency finding it to recruit and retain new talent at the moment?

We interview a large number of applicants for each vacant position at Foxtons. Our bar is set very high and we only take on the best people. With 61 offices across London and a company policy focusing mainly on internal promotions, there is always opportunity for career progression. One of the other reasons for setting up the Prime team was to offer another level of aspiration for our most talented negotiators. We have recently also employed experienced negotiators who have worked for other agencies, in order to further strengthen our teams.

Foxtons has been using virtual property tours (Matterport) for just over a year; what’s the reaction been like from clients and buyers? And are there any other new tech innovations that you think are having a significant impact on the estate agency business?

The ability to book viewings and sign documents on a mobile phone has got to be a game changer

We started using the Matterport camera for Prime instructions and have found that it has gone down well with both buyers and vendors. With so many properties on the market we are always interested in new ways to differentiate our listings and provide the ultimate in convenience for viewings. The virtual viewings are especially suited to the lettings market as they help speed up the time between an initial enquiries offering. We also have an applicant portal that allows our customers to self-serve. The ability to book viewings and sign documents on a mobile phone has got to be a game changer.

You personally operate across the most sought after postcodes in the capital; which prime locations are seeing the most activity right now, and have there been any notable geographic or demographic shifts of late?

The areas where we have seen the most activity in the Prime market have been Notting Hill, South Kensington and Chelsea. We have seen a shift away from the overseas investor buyer and are finding that the predominant buyers at the moment are UK-based end users who have a specific motivation for moving. This could be due to upsizing, downsizing, schools, etc and is the likely reason some of the more residential areas are seeing a higher level of activity.

How realistic are vendors’ expectations at the moment, and how are you managing them?

Generally, I think vendors are a lot more realistic about their prices than we have seen in the past. In some cases it is the buyers who are shopping around and are making it very difficult to agree a deal. The best way of managing our clients’ expectations is by offering them exceptional service and keeping them updated with regular contact. I tend to find that if vendors think you are really trying your hardest for them then they are more likely to listen to your advice. If they are looking to buy It is always good idea to get them out looking so they get a good idea of what is really happening in the market.

If you could bring in one policy change to improve the way the industry works, what would that be?

Surely it has to be around the conveyancing process. Everything else in estate agency is moving forward and is being made more efficient and transparent. Properties are still being conveyanced in the same way as they were 20 years ago and are now taking longer to get to exchange than before.

When was the last time you were genuinely blown away by an instruction?

I have just been instructed on a stunning 2,000 sq ft lateral flat in one of the finest portered buildings in Marylebone, overlooking Bryanston Square. The flat is on the 2nd floor (this floor has the highest ceilings) and has seven windows with balconies overlooking the square. Apartments rarely come up for sale in this building – the vendor has owned it for over 19 years.

Marylebone’s Bryanston Square