We’ve launched the first episode of our OnTheRecord podcast
We’re pleased to launch the first season of our brand new OnTheRecord podcast.
In the first episode, CEO Jason Tebb is joined by Bob Scarff, MD of Callwell to share their views on PropTech, its impact on the estate agency sector and how adopting new technology can benefit all agents.
Bob joins us as our first ever guest having worked in the sector for 40 years, notably leading the Estate Agency Division at Countrywide, Bob started Callwell in 2016 with the aim of providing agents with more control of their leads.
You can listen to the inaugural episode of our OnTheRecord podcast below.
The full Q&A of the podcast episode can be found below:
OnTheRecord S01E01 – The Lost Art of Estate Agency
Jason Tebb: Welcome to the first episode of on the record. I’m Jason Tebb chief executive of OnTheMarket and over the course of this first season of podcasts, I’m going to be talking to the innovators in our sector to discuss their journey in the industry, their views on PropTech and their opinions on how adopting new technology can benefit every agent.
I’m really pleased to say I’m joined today by the legend. I think I can call you that Bob? The legend that is Bob Scarff, MD of Callwell and widely regarded I think as estate agency royalty now to be honest. Welcome Bob, it’s really good to have you on our first episode. Great to have you with us and I’m really pleased that you’ve agreed to be our first guest.
Bob Scarff: There’s lots of folks out there who can think of a few other words for me I’m sure but I’ll settle for either legendary or royalty, whichever you prefer.
Jason Tebb: Okay, thanks Bob! Maybe move on. For those who are listening who may not be familiar with you and your history and your story, maybe just give us a summary of your illustrious career date and maybe an update on what you’re doing now as well might be useful.
Bob Scarff: So I left school at the age of 18 and became an estate agent pretty much straight away, working for the same company for the best part of 40 years. I started (as a) trainee sales negotiator with a small independent firm in Milton Keynes called Taylors and through a succession of various takeovers and mergers and stuff that happened over the following years, I ended up running the estate agency and financial services division (of Countrywide) from 2008 to when I left in 2015. When I left it had a thousand branches and 650 mortgage consultants.
I left in 2015 and frankly didn’t really know what I was going to do next. It was completely unexpected, but I bumped into a fellow called Rob who had a piece of kit that turns emails into phone calls, emails, and text messages and it was so much better than anything else I’d ever seen either in Countrywide or elsewhere. He and I decided that we’d go into business together and he and I own a business called Callwell.
Jason Tebb: Great. Thank you. We’ll chat a bit about Callwell in a few minutes. Cast your mind back if you can, to those days before property technology. I’m old enough, just about, to remember it, but in those days before PropTech, before CRM, maybe even before portal, what was your daily routine like in the office and what were the things that you think were so important that you learned back then that we still need to remind ourselves today?
Bob Scarff: Well, I think a lot of the things that we did then good agents still do to this day. I mean, a theme I think you’ll find a lot of people of my generation will talk about prop tech as having made people lazy and I certainly can think of many examples of that in estate agency, but good agents have used technology to do the old things even better than they ever used to be done in the past. So it would be too simple to say that it’s made everybody lazy.
The daily routine, frankly, it always kicked off with a morning meeting and I suspect that’s much the case nowadays at branch level. The differences will be in those days, a branch manager sat at the desk with two or three people gathered around him – and I will say him because 40 years ago it was very rare to find a woman in charge of a branch. Wrongly, but there we are, that’s what the world was like in those days. They would be gathered around and they wouldn’t have a computer, the only screens any of them would have ever seen would be TVs at home. They’d have a paper diary, they’d have a paper message book and they’d have a tray full of applicants from the day before. And the tray full of takeons, as they would’ve been called in those days rather than valuations, the takeons for today and basically the process of a morning meeting was all around making sure that all of the opportunities that we’d been given the day before had been fully exploited, all of the appointments have been carried out well and we’d discussed the outcomes. Had all of the messages been dealt with? Then for today what viewing appointments what valuation appointments and takeon appointments had we got lined up for today? So it’s all about asking ‘did we get the most out of yesterday?’ and ‘are we going to get the most out of today’?
Now the other big difference of course between those days and now is that although people talk about how the portals replaced newspapers, newspapers for the most part were not the most important thing that an agent did. It was in some parts of the world I’ll grant you, some of the big cities. I remember when I first started working in Coventry in 1990, when the Coventry Evening Telegraph hit the doormats on a Wednesday evening, which was property day, you could hear when it started to happen because the phones started to ring straight away. But in large chunks of the country it wasn’t really about that. It was about keeping an applicant record, keeping a book, a box, whatever it was, with a bit of paper or card, phoning out new instructions. One of the areas in which I think some agents do get lazy is that they rely on alerts to tell people, either off their own website or from one of the portals, they rely on the alerts to tell people about new instructions. Whereas in the old days, if you didn’t pick up the phone and tell people about your new instructions, your price reductions and your backons, then there was no other way of telling them. And it literally was all about getting viewings.
Jason Tebb: I totally agree with everything you said. I remember the days of getting out my applicant box and calling through those applicants, you flipped over the back of the card.
Bob Scarff: Did you have cards or bits of paper?
Jason Tebb: I had cards then yeah.
Bob Scarff: In a little box?
Jason Tebb: Yeah in a little box.
Bob Scarff: In a little box.
Jason Tebb: You used to flick through and used to pick up your card and it had a star on it if there was a local property to sell, if it didn’t have a star on it then there might be a property to sell, but it just wasn’t in the local area. You’d flip it over you’d see the last viewings that took place on the properties that you booked for them. You saw a bit of feedback on the right-hand side and on this little section at the bottom there was the really juicy stuff, the history, the stuff that helped you build rapport. You know, what they did for a living, whether they had pets or kids, and if they were open to a different type of location, whether they would compromise on size location, conditional price, or one or two of those things. It really was a sort of visual representation for me and that really helped me build the rapport and get to know my applicants. I think sometimes that in a reactive market like what that you’ve just described, where properties listed the calls come in, you’re booking viewings and you become a phone booker. Sometimes that rapport building’s really hard to do. You don’t get to learn enough about that applicant.
Bob Scarff: Yeah. I can’t remember I ever went into that much detail over soft facts but they were definitely places for it. You know, you definitely find people scribbling notes at the bottom of the card. I mean the area I worked in at the time, in and around Milton Keynes, had an enormous amount of influx from people relocating. So whether or not somebody was relocating was a big factor. In those days it meant that they’d have some fairly meaningful relocation package behind them, which basically meant they were an unencumbered buyer and they were like gold dust. If you had an inquiry from a buyer like that and you looked after them better than any other agent had looked after them, then you were definitely going to sell a house to those people. You just didn’t know which one yet.
Course that’s the other big difference to be fair to the modern generation. Listing was much simpler then, the documentary process was much simpler, money laundering hadn’t been heard of. In fact, when I very first started, you didn’t even need to get a vendor’s signature on anything, you just needed to verbally confirm what fee was and off you went. But the other big factor, I suppose they sort of go together, is that multi-agency, particularly where I worked at the time, that was far more of a thing than it is now. And I think to this day the biggest difference between a good agent and a bad agent is how much difference is there between what they promised the vendor standing or sitting in their living room and what they actually deliver. And I suspect in too many cases the difference between what they promise they’re going to do and what they actually do is too great and I think that’s probably nothing to do with the internet and property portals but it is to do with the change in mentality where so many more of the properties that are on the market now are with sole agencies. Because in the old days if you promised a vendor you’d do ABC and you didn’t do it, then within a week you’d have lost the instruction to another agent. Or at least another agent would also have it on multi-agency and I think that alone made an enormous difference to the urgency with which people dealt with these things.
Jason Tebb: It’s interesting and I think that one of the things that I always carried through with me in my agency career was always aim to exceed expectations, not meet them. Try and exceed a customer’s expectations.
Bob Scarff: Yeah.
Jason Tebb: From the perspective of where the market is now it’s probably not hard to meet expectations in terms of the volume of viewings, the number of applicants that call. I think the exceeding element is managing a sale or a tendency through to a successful move in or exchange and completion. That’s where the real challenge is now I think, rather than necessarily finding a buyer or a tenant.
Bob Scarff: Yeah. Finding the right buyer. I mean it’s easy just getting, particularly in a market like we’ve had for the last two or three years, it’s easy getting the number of viewings, but you probably promised that vendor that after every viewing you’d give them a feedback call or you’d email them something, or send a text message, or whatever people do nowadays, but you’d give them feedback every time. And of course, people either don’t bother or they forget. And things have been so busy I do understand why it’s difficult to keep on top of absolute everything, but you did promise that vendor you would give them feedback every time. And even if it doesn’t make a big difference, because what you worried about the vendor’s still got five grand over the asking price from the 16th person that viewed it etc, did it really matter? It sort of does because it leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth of the vendor because you didn’t actually do what you said you’d do.
And particularly when it comes when it comes to paying your fee and that old issue that if you sell a house too fast you have problems getting your fee and if you sell it too slow you have problems getting your fee. Ok then Mr Vendor when would you like me to tell you that I sold your house? (Should I) leave it a secret for a week and tell you in a week’s time? So you can’t win. But you’ve a better chance of winning if you delivered what you said you would deliver.
I think the other thing, it’s interesting that people talk about the modern generation they don’t like to speak on the telephone, well if that’s true then there’s a lot of people who aren’t going to end up being very good estate agents. Because if you can’t talk to somebody properly, if you can’t get what they want, get what you want out of a relationship by talking to them, then you are pretty stuck. And I think the biggest example of that for me, nobody’s come to any harm with this yet, is the fact that the majority of offers that I’ve experienced and people I’ve spoken to and things I’ve seen, the majority of offers are negotiated now by email or text message. And obviously people like the onliners, the no frills agents, have sort of fed into that because they actually facilitate it. That’s what people want, and I’m sure in some people that is what people want. But unless you’ve got the fight story, unless you’ve got a little bit of colour to add, a little bit of persuasion, good old fashioned persuasion explaining your circumstances, I’m sure there are many deals that haven’t happened because an agent, a proper agent, didn’t get involved in the negotiation.
Jason Tebb: Yeah.
Bob Scarff: Now, as I say at the minute, probably nobody’s been harmed by it because everything’s been going so crazy, particularly the last two years. The most difficult thing with dealing with offers isn’t closing the deal, it’s trying to not upset all of purchasers when they don’t get the thing that they wanted.
Jason Tebb: Yeah.
Bob Scarff: When the market turns and it won’t be if, when the market turns, that forgotten art of negotiation will still be alive and well in many agents, but I’m afraid it will have been lost in amongst a load of emails and text messages rather than speaking to people. When I started you weren’t even allowed to put in an offer verbally over the phone, you had to go and see the vendor unless the vendor lived outside of the area, it was an empty house and they lived away. And even then my boss would expect to see the file with the address of the person where they were living to prove to him that it was somewhere else. In every other case you had to go and see the vendor and although maybe that isn’t necessary now, the modern day equivalent would certainly be having a Zoom call, a video call with every vendor. And actually that’s a great example of how modern technology makes old fashioned things better because you’re still getting to see them, you still get to see their body language, they’re getting to see your body language. You’re able to discuss the thing properly and talk to more than one party at the same time, but you haven’t got to get in your car and drive for 20 minutes to somewhere if they’re not in. You don’t have to knock on the door and come back. So that is a great example of how modern technology can make an old way of doing things even better than it was in the past.
Unfortunately, I suspect that too many agents probably just send them an email. Those people that came around last night offered so much, what do you think? At the minute it hasn’t really mattered because deals have been done anyway.
Jason Tebb: Yeah, but at some stage in the future that might, that might change as in market cycles it always does.
Talk to me about Callwell in a few seconds if you can, what does it do and why do agents need it?
Bob Scarff: If you don’t believe in talking to new inquiries to properly qualify them then actually you probably don’t need it. But if you do believe, particularly in sales – I accept that in lettings there may not be as much need to talk to somebody because it’s less of the emotional thing than it’s with a purchase – but if you believe that you’re only going to find out the real backstory, the real motivations, find out really what this person is about by talking to them, then you absolutely need Callwell. Because emails come in from OnTheMarket, from Rightmove, from Zoopla, from the agent’s own website, they disappear off into an inbox, everybody thinks that someone else has dealt with it, or it just gets ignored. It gets lost, amongst all of the other stuff. That is the only reason I have been able to come up with, both in the last five or six years and when I had a job dealing with a thousand branches, it’s the only reason I can explain why these things got missed.
So Callwell takes all of those emails (and) puts them in one place so that branch staff only have to look in one place to see all of their incoming customers. And what we are really known for is turning those incoming emails into the opportunity to create an immediate phone call back for that customer. Not by call center, although if the agents themselves have a call center that’s another matter, but it’s not my people ringing your customers. It’s your people ringing your customers and particularly with a valuations where they’ve probably asked two or three agents at the same time, in fact with many of the AVM products are available on the portals, it absolutely is going to go to more than one agent at the same time. You want to be quick off the mark and you want to make sure that you’re talking to them. I would say with all types of leads, a quick phone call, the immediate phone call, is important. However, if you don’t completely agree to that and you don’t want to ring every person, you only want to ring valuations, or you only want to ring those people that have said they’ve got a house to sell, or you only want to ring first time buyers, then you don’t have to have the phone call every time. You can either have nothing or you can have a text message straight away and a phone call. You can have an email straight away and a phone call. You can play games with your opening hours and you can decide to do different things at weekends, different things with overnight etc. Over the last five or six years we’ve developed enormously into a situation where it literally does do whatever you wanted to do at the front end, whether you’re a lettings agent who doesn’t really want talk to anybody until they’ve passed a few tests right through to a sales agent who wants to speak to absolutely everybody as quickly as possible after they’ve sent in their email inquiry.
Jason Tebb: Great.
We believe the digital age has sped up communication and believe it’s made things more efficient (but) there is nothing more valuable than a telephone call or a face to face. And of the phone calls, which sadly I’m sure maybe aren’t as prevalent in some businesses, some agents and some probably outside of the sector too, but the amount of things you learn within ten seconds on a phone call that you wouldn’t learn in ten minutes on an email is phenomenal. You’re building that opportunity to really get your personality across, which is after all (why) potential sellers, landlords, buyers, and tenants repeatedly say they go with agents that they trust the most. The ones that instinctively trust. It’s very hard to gain trust on an email. It’s very easy to get your personality across on the phone. I think it’s a great product and thank you for describing it and I wish you well with it.
I’m going move for just because we’re coming towards the tailend of our first podcast. I want to talk about some other points and some other questions that I had for you really around your career because it’s been a long one and a career with lots of highlights. I just wondered from your perspective, what do you, think’s the best career advice you’ve been given?
Bob Scarff: It’s corny, but the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get. One mantra that’s kept me going all these years and took me from being a branch manager to an area manager and all the rest of it.
People look back on their careers and think, you know, I got lucky. I went from this job to that job yeah, yeah, yeah. But actually, it’s because you worked hard every step of the way. And I think probably the other thing is, and maybe this is a slight dig at some people’s perception of the modern generation, is don’t be afraid to make a mistake. If you cock it up, depending upon what the consequences are, you might get a big kick up the backside, you might get a little kick up the backside, you might just get the mickey taken out of you, you might just get a funny look from somebody, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is did you bother – and this is where people go wrong – did you bother to analyse how it happened and have you now put a trigger in the back of your head to make sure that when that same scenario presents itself, you’ll reacting the right way and do the right thing, and not make that same mistake again. And although I can’t actually say I’ve never made the same mistake twice, I’ve certainly not made the main same mistake four times. I’ve made the odd one three times, but every single one of those, there’s always been a learning point. So yeah, I think that’s probably the two most important things I’ve learned.
How about you? How about you?
Jason Tebb: How about me? I mentioned it earlier actually, but I think I was always told very early to exceed expectations. Don’t just match them, exceed them. Always be thinking about how you can differentiate yourself from others to be memorable and create a lasting impression with your potential clients, with your customers. And so I suppose from really early stage I always thought how can I be different? How can I be memorable? How can I really create that lasting impression with my customers, my clients. And I think in an industry, which probably as technology has developed, it’s harder to get your personality across. Learning those lessons so early on in my career was probably massively valuable and I still keep them today. I now always think about angles around, you know, how can we make this different as a proposition to our new customer base? How can my staff differentiate themselves in their own conversations they’re having? So I think that was really great advice from the individual who gave me that many years ago, twenty years ago.
Now we’re running out of time. Time has flown, but thank you so much Bob, for joining us. It’s been really good to chat to you and hear your insights and your views on not just the sector, but on lots of things.
You can find out more about Callwell here… https://www.callwell.co.uk/