The F Word: Who will shake up the industry now?

Ambitious, aggressive and innovative, Foxtons changed the game in the 80s and 90s, but somehow estate agency doesn’t seem to have moved on since, says Simon Rose – have we really got nothing more to give?

Back in the 80s and 90s, an estate agency was making big waves in the London property market, turning the sales game on its head and putting a lot of other traditional agencies’ noses out of joint. It was, back then, the agency to loathe and love in equal measure. It was, of course Foxtons.

Foxtons was a hungry, ambitious, aggressive and innovative company. Unashamedly focused on the ‘game’ and getting sales through clever use of marketing, making it THE desirable agent to use. It was, if you like, the Wolf of Wall Street, the yuppie equivalent of the London property market. And it was incredibly successful.

After 21 years as a symbol of the firm’s dominance in the London property market, Foxtons’ flagship Park Lane office closed its doors for the last time in 2018

With its founder all sold up (how clever was he?!), Foxtons has now moved on to different tactics, somewhat softening its approach and now working with other agents, something the company never did in its prime.

The market is not what it was of course; the customer is more street-wise and has more choice when buying, selling or renting property.

Some agencies who scorned Foxtons back in the day, are now, ironically, reusing the Foxton’s business model. We appear to have gone full circle.

The business needed to change and so it did. On the other hand, some agencies who scorned Foxtons back in the day, are now, ironically, reusing the Foxton’s business model. We appear to have gone full circle. Sell. Sell. Sell. Buy. Buy. Buy. Rent. Rent. Rent.

You could say that many agencies have adopted the telesales approach to estate agency. Faceless ‘client service’ representatives expected to deliver high numbers (some confess to making 90 calls a day, with big flashing screens monitoring their performance) who could as easily be in New Delhi as Notting Hill; no personal knowledge of their clients, their property or indeed their area, endlessly making calls, drumming up appointments and viewings in order to hit their numbers.

There is all too often no relationship building at all. And then in April last year came along GDPR, making it no longer possible to cold call from a purchased database of prospects.

There is a lot of opportunity for lone rangers, says Rose

Agents in London are often referred to as expensive taxi drivers; while in the country they’re ‘viewers’ and there’s even a successful business where you can ‘rent a viewer’! Often recruited for how they present, they may have little experience or in-depth knowledge of either their clients/buyers or area and little desire to change that. But they don’t need to, because they are simply opening doors, switching on lights and locking up afterwards.

Experience now is often replaced by youthful arrogance – let’s be blunt, as we’ve all been there – it’s cheaper and therefore helps battered margins. However, with younger teams comes the young guns’ desire to make fast money with as little real effort as possible, anyone can become an estate agent nowadays, can’t they? Will any of these Millennials be in the same job in a year’s time? Probably very few of them. So this doesn’t really translate to delivery and good client service.

Volume tactics don’t mean sales, and while you might get bodies through the door on open days, it won’t necessarily convert to actual business. Today’s buyers and clients are savvy and won’t tolerate BS. They don’t have time to waste on futile viewings for places they’re not really very interested in, just so an agent can meet targets. And isn’t it frustrating when the contact repeatedly changes?

One good thing, for the likes of me – dare I say ‘retired’ from the corporate game, the KPIs and the numbers – is that there is a lot of opportunity for lone rangers; people who take more time, invest in developing relationships; prioritise helping fewer people at any given time, carry out more targeted searches, and in an independent capacity, we will inevitably get repeat business through loyalty – a result of quality time spent with clients. Plus, it’s more far more enjoyable than sitting in yet another meeting about a meeting.

We seem to have stagnated as an industry. I feel we’re in a sort of Groundhog Day. So much has changed in the last 20-30 years, but somehow our industry doesn’t seem to have moved on. Have we really got nothing more to give?

A recent Prime Resi publication by Mark Davis of branding agency me & dave, warned how developers need to differentiate themselves in the market. The same rings true for agencies:

“Two projects that we worked on recently demonstrate just how important it is to get to grips with exactly who your buyer is and then tailor your approach to grab their attention,” says Davis. “The property market may not be quite as crowded as the supermarket shelf, but the need to stand out, to really pop, has never been greater.”

Surely in agency world, a little innovation, thought and vision to the long term is possible. It’s time to take our industry to the next level, look to the future and that means a whole lot of honest navel gazing from the outside in.

It takes guts to shake up an industry, which brings me full circle back to the hugely innovative creator of Foxtons. In its day it was the marmite of estate agency, but it worked, eventually selling for hundreds of millions. Point being, that innovative change is possible. So how can we bring some of that back to our business?

Main photo by Andrew Gustar (CC-BY-SA-2.0)