Digitising traditional industries

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Over the past year and a bit, if you follow me anywhere online you’ll probably have seen some references to the torturous time I’ve been having trying to move house. Back in July 2015 I wrote about my experience of getting a mortgage whilst self-employed, and having finally exchanged I feel that I can now tell the tale of another aspect – using an ‘online’ estate agent.

This digitisation of a much-berated industry has gathered immense speed over the last couple of years, coming with the major benefit of claiming to potentially save you thousands over traditional agency fees. Big players include Tepilo (launched in 2009 by Sarah Beeny and agency Codegent), eMoov, Purple Bricks, and our agent, HouseSimple.

Choosing to go online

Apologies to the lovely estate agents out there, but after experiences ranging from cringeworthy to teeth-gritting with traditional agents as we started to view properties, my boyfriend and I sat down and did the old classic exercises – identifying your audience, and considering our own needs.

Our house to sell was in a very particular location – near to a station, and on a new-build estate populated mainly by young professionals. The house isn’t a ‘family house’, but is of a certain size and would appear mainly to first-time buyers and those looking to perhaps upsize from a smaller flat. With all of this in mind, we guessed that the people who would be interested would likely be looking in a specific location with commuting in mind, and that they would be the kind of people who research online. We knew that advertising through online marketplaces such as Rightmove was our priority – appearing in the window of someone’s agency was less so.

Signing up with Housesimple

Visiting the first house we had an offer accepted on was all done through Housesimple. It seemed a very sensible way to do things, and on looking at what it’d take to list our house we liked the ability to pick and mix the services that we needed, so we signed up with them too. The pricing and service structure has changed in the year since then, but we paid up front for the following:

  • Premium listing on the house simple website (including valuation advice, photography and floor plans)
  • Premium listing on Rightmove, Zoopla + 700 sites
  • Sales progression – getting offers through to completion
  • EPC
  • Marketing ‘booster pack’ (sign outside your house, etc)

All viewings were booked either through the central call centre or online, with emails coming in for us to arrange a time directly. We did all of the viewings ourselves, which was primarily due to feeling like estate agent viewing services are a bit rubbish, and because we have pets that we didn’t want to risk getting let out. This in itself wasn’t a pain – the worst bit was the constant tidying which would have had to have been done anyway!

Viewings and feedback came thick and fast, and on the whole it was very positive. The ability to directly mail viewers was extremely handy, although it was sometimes amusing to see feedback written as though they would be passed on via a third party – viewers not understanding the premise.

During the course of our sale the website interface had a big revamp which sadly introduced some frustrations. With my professional hat on it was clear that there were some big UX challenges, but also some technical limitations that were driving these. I tried to contact HouseSimple to see if they’d be open to working together but sadly never heard back – let me know if you’re reading and would like to change that!

People, processes, and technology

So all (mostly) good in general. The digital aspect was doing its job, and whilst there were some obvious problems with the design and systems, I’m sure these could be fixed. Where deeper problems started to appear were the more serious interactions, and where people were involved.

Human interactions

Our first experience of real frustration was making an offer. This, it turns out, is still very traditional. You can book your viewing through the site, leave feedback, but there was no ability to submit an official offer. To do this you need to call up, leave a message with someone (who is usually incredibly busy), who calls the vendor and then calls you to feed back. If you make a revised offer the process repeats. This is when we first found out how understaffed the call centre appears to be, because it required a lot of chasing.

This continued to be evident in a variety of ways, including not being informed when the seller de-listed the house we’d had an offer accepted on (we thought it was still ours for ages), not informing a potential buyer that we’d rejected his offer, and most concerning, us asking our eventual buyers for feedback days on only to find out that they’d made an offer days previously that had never reached us!

The long process

Our selling and buying process was fraught with chain collapses and all sorts of nonsense. Throughout it all we somehow managed to keep our original buyers, despite them at one point being mere days away from being officially homeless. We therefore never had to go back to re-listing status, but because it took a year, we accumulated a lot of case notes. This was a problem at crunch times, when we’d try to speak to ‘our’ sales progression person in order to pass on a message only to find out they didn’t work Fridays or were off on leave, and someone else would struggle to pick up the case and to act on tasks quickly. I would love to see the internal systems that are being used, but I highly suspect that this is probably a poor experience for internal staff. This needs to be a priority as much as the user-facing website.

Eventually we found it far quicker and more effective to use the original messaging system (intended for viewings) and eventually personal email to discuss any urgent matters with our buyers. This direct contact proved to be far quicker and more effective than the message passing that the sales progression team provided, and at the point of exchange we’d all but abandoned the official sales progression route.

Don’t neglect your wider experiences

This, to me, is the key lesson for companies who offer a hybrid or ‘online only’ system. When you look at the websites for these companies, many shout about their slick interface, fantastic customer service, that viewings can be arranged 24/7, and that their team will support you through the sale – however unfortunately the wider service design of the end to end experience (from my perspective) has not always had as much thought put into it as the shiny website store front. No matter how good the digital platform, if your back-end systems are limited, your staff interfaces are frustrating, your processes are inefficient and your team can’t meet customer needs quickly, it’ll end up being a poor experience for your customers. I’d encourage anyone thinking about digitising a traditional industry to put as much thought into transforming the processes themselves as they do with considering the digital presence that it all revolves around. Hey, we can even help you with that if that’s something you’d like to discuss!

The end?

With all that said, I would use an online service again in future (disregarding the fact that I am never, ever moving house again!), but I would probably go even further. This approach did save us thousands of pounds in up-front fees, but probably lost me much more than that in terms of the time I personally spent chasing them up.

Next time, I’d be sure to do some research beyond the initial digital experience, aiming to get a feel for what the other processes involved are like, and how efficient and pleasant they would be. I would also consider cutting out the industry’s human service offering entirely – perhaps going straight to marketplaces with a listing, and employing a separate PA service to handle all of the chasing on my behalf, or even trying to go direct to the parties myself.

Whilst the current online offerings are good, I look forward to seeing how much better they can be once they decouple themselves further from more traditional thinking, and embrace wider design considerations across their systems and their teams.