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Customer-Centricity in the Property Sector, With John King

Episode 44 John King, a property specialist, shares his views on the shift towards customer-centricity in the property market over the past decades. Is customer experience the same in every industry? John's ideas show an entirely different perspective on CX as you know it. He also talks about emotions and conflict resolution in fragile situations. 

Episode 44

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Episode Summary

John King originally started his career in retail as a young, ambitious professional. Moving to the property sector where he spent the next 40 years, John developed his interest in understanding the importance of human interaction during the process of a property transaction.

In our conversation, John was reflecting on the technological shift which runs certain business departments with merely no human intervention. In today’s world, business indeed cannot survive without technology. However, the cost balance of technology adoption has been certainly challenging. Based on his personal observations, organisations often seem to rush into deploying all sorts of software solutions when they are not achieving the business objectives they wish to achieve. Yet, many of these companies fall into a trap of failing to identify the correct technology in the first place.

The premise of John’s work philosophy is that the entire process of property transaction is driven by two factors – emotions and desires. According to him, customer experience is the journey, a desire is the beginning and gaining is the result all of which is measured by customer emotions. How emotional could a property transaction get? “A sale or a purchase of a property is meant to be as stressful as a death and divorce,” says John. If that is the case, could emerging PropTech solutions really handle such an emotional customer without human communication?

This article summarises podcast episode 44 ” Customer-Centricity in the Property Sector" recorded by CX Insider. For more information, listen to the episode or contact John on his LinkedIn profile.

Written by Valentina Svobodova

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Full episode transcript

John: So interestingly enough, having gone from retail and going from old school property, I've seen a massive change into the digital world and how people interact with the tools that they're given and get what they want. That's what nobody should forget, that the customer experience is the journey, but the desire is the beginning and the gaining of what they want is the end.

Valentina: In today's episode, we focus on the property sector and specifically how the way of building customer relationships has evolved during the last couple of decades. John gives us very interesting viewpoints on his understanding of customer experience. So let us know what you think and enjoy the episode. Hello, everyone, welcome to another CX Insider podcast episode, this is Valentina speaking, and today Greg and I are joined by John King. Welcome to our podcast, John.

John: Nice to be here. Thank you very much.

Valentina: John, your almost entire career has been focused on property and estate management and property sales and lettings. It's a sector in which the term customer experience is not that widely adopted. Unlike in other industries like retail, in which businesses create dedicated CX teams or chief experience officers who directly report to CEOs. Yet if there is anyone who can say they've gained a very rich experience in customer relations and have a customer-oriented mindset, it is you, especially considering you work for a company providing tenancy deposit schemes and protection. That's a service in which customer relationships can be quite fragile. So I would like to start off by asking you, could you tell the audience a bit about your career in customer relations?

John: Yes, and good afternoon, everybody. I think from the point of view of what Valentina has described, although most of my career going back 40 years, has been across the property sector and I have worked in lots of areas associated with property. I have a confession. I started off in retail and I was trained by a big national company. High class and customer experience wasn't referred to as customer experience. Everything was to do with sales sales per square foot in the retail environment. Stock turnover, even logistics really hadn't come into play in the late 80s and early part of that decade. Why I moved into property particularly was by chance. It was an opportunity at that time for me to think about this business, about what transactions needed, human interaction. And I have a second confession all in one go. I'd never thought we would move into an area where the interplay between the customer on a physical level may be reduced to technological solutions. But it's quite clear that we are accelerating massively, whether it's to do with PropTech or FinTech, online tech. All these elements have come into play and have actually created a strata, a sub-level within customer experience. And that term customer experience is really about feedback, isn't it? It is about this gaining, what our customers in whatever environment we're in or getting out of it. So interestingly enough, having gone from retail and going from old school property, I've seen a massive change into the digital world. And this business about customer experience is about people and how people interact with the tools that they're given and get what they want. That's what nobody should forget, that the customer experience is the journey, but the desire is the beginning and the gaming of what they want is the end.

Valentina: Yes, thank you for addressing the digital input in businesses, it's something that I will touch on in my next question. And it's interesting that you started in retail, as you mention, like almost 40 years ago. And back back then, customer experience probably wasn't a thing. But now looking at it from the customer experience perspective, what do you think were the main challenges, the main challenges that you faced in the property sector?

John: Well, I think that the issues resolving resolve need resolving, if I think about things that need resolving in the property world, transactions have a lot of emotion in the property business. So if you're just talking about a high street agent who is talking between a seller and a buyer, that's quite a simple transaction. But there's a huge amount of emotion involved within that one piece of transaction. And of course, then if you click on, like, bits of Lego to the outside of that with the other people who get involved and may impact on that transaction, the stress is often talked about the if you just look at a sale and I think lettings are similar, although they speed it up. But if you just look at a sale or purchase of a property, it's meant to be as stressful as death and divorce. I know there's lots of arguments about that, but whether the customer experience is deemed to be suitable, I think really depends on what the outcome of the transaction is. And I think this has been the main issue for estate agents.

John: Let's look at high street estate agents getting within their world not a very good name because of this conflict between the experience and the outcome. And I think if we were talking to high street estate agents up and down the country today, they would say they still experience the same problems that the transaction has speeded up. So we are talking about emotion, we're talking about desire, and we're talking about a whole transactional process, which is has been now supported by new tools. The old tools were knowledge. How approachable you were, how accessible you were. We've moved to a 24/7 environment and property, in fact, I think we've moved to 24/7 in most environments now. And therefore, the desire of the customer is if I want to contact somebody and get input now, you should be accessible. I think there are lots of lots of these tools in the digital framework which are taking up a lot of that slack and providing that interaction. But it's still it's still emotion. I think customer experience is fueled and has to be measured by customer emotion.

Valentina: Yeah, it's it's very important to to to know how to manage and how to manage conflicts and the emotions of the customer. One challenge that I would like to address and talk to you about is the the digital challenge, actually. And in one of our episodes, we invited a seasoned strategist, John Auriga, for those who would like to listen to his episode. It's called The Three Pillars of Effective Customer Experience. And he talked about the technology paradox. Now there is a high demand on businesses to adopt new technologies. And often what the top level executives want to do is to deploy new technologies. Yet on the other side of the spectrum, there are customers who say, oh, no, we want more human touch, we want more human input behind those robots. So and yet today their business cannot survive without technology. But it's really about finding about finding the right balance between these two things. So where do you think is the right balance between the digital and human interaction and organizations

John: That does bring a big conflict within businesses? I think businesses are realizing that they cannot do without technology. Let me reiterate that they realized for a long time. But the cost balance between the benefit has been challenging for companies looking at their ledger books, and it's usually when they're starting to lose business or seeing their competitors offer an extra benefit that they take up that particular challenge. And I think what you've what you've alluded to there is, is that the customers want everything. It's a bit like fast food, isn't it? They want high quality and they want it as soon as the app has been opened and they've made their selection. It doesn't necessarily mean that what the customer gains in terms of that experience is is is the best in the marketplace, but it's instant gratification. And I think what the difficulty for companies in satisfying that instant gratification is this business between having enough resources. And it's a horrible thing to say. But individual staff members are very costly and there is a a move towards technology because it's cost-saving. So eventually you are going to find that customers are going to get. What they desire in terms of speed in that transaction, but they may not always get the quality that they really want.

John: And I think if you look at the age ranges of different customers, I think a lot of younger customers, whatever their purchasing power may be, but when they're going out to the market that they're quite happy to buy without any human interaction. But when you look at these high quality services or shall I say high quality, but with big cost impacts and investment, buying a property, horrible thing to say. But divorce and death again twice, twice in one conversation. Not a particularly happy thing to talk about, but these are guided by heavy, heavy human interaction. At one time, knowledge in the property market particularly was the key power and individual operators within a region. Agents in a high street, within a road, within an area would have that knowledge to be able to guide the market and control it. And they would make a living out of turnover in that respect. And then we've moved to this regional expansion and now national expansion. And we could well find ourselves with national companies in the future who we nearly there who would start to mop up the whole of the marketplace. Now, the differential between some of these national companies will be customer service. Will there be somebody there to physically answer the phone? The banks have experienced the same problem.

John: If I'm in retail and I need to to to speak to somebody to resolve an issue of a bad product or an undelivered product, will there be somebody there to help me? If I'm a lawyer and I'm giving personalized service about death, divorce investments, I'm going to need to be contacted. So you're never going to get rid of that human interaction? We don't want to get rid of that human interaction. We actually want to release more time and that digital aspect, lots of lots of companies understand what they now deliver is an online transactional operation. Whether you're buying a ticket, whether you're buying a pair of shoes, whether you're buying insurance shares, all these things could be delivered within a transaction which could be controlled. In the digital world, the key is going to be, how do you back that up, how do you interact with your customers? How do you operate in making things better? Because once we get to the point where everybody is able to deliver the best they can, it's going to be that customer service measured against customer experience, which retains the customer to come back time and time again.

Greg: I couldn't agree more that, John, with how you rounded that bit of actually about how it's almost come full circle. It started with individuals being that unique differentiator with their local knowledge and the local experience. Then technologies come involved and obviously it's played a role and it almost feels like it's gone back full circle now where, you know, you're competing again. But at that level, when it comes to individuals being your own unique differentiator in terms of the quality of service that they can offer. Because I guess one of the questions I have to you is, you know, as we've seen this rise in I don't really know what the term is always, you know, technology that allows you to self sell your house. You know, I see people advertising their houses on Facebook marketplace, whereas in the past that, of course, never would have happened. But so you've got rising competition from technologies that allow you to sell your house yourself as such. So to counter that and going back to something you mentioned about employees being a large overhead for organizations, how important is the role of a staff member, therefore, nowadays in the end to end transaction of a property?

John: Well, let me start at the back of that. At that point, Greg, I think they're very important. I think they rescue certain situations that nobody can see coming. And technology can't do that on a list. If you give them a menu of choices, it's not going to resolve it, but property, tech and fintech can take up a lot of the heavy loading at the front end. So I've been lucky enough to move from this is going to make me sound very, very old. But window display advertising and local paper advertising, which was done in a very haphazard and almost childlike way. When I compare it to what we get now to the evolving world of portals, property portals where the advertising is, is where it's not even national, it is world wide. And that means that you can advertise your property in a suburb of an urban center, London, Birmingham, Manchester, and you can have that scene within seconds across the world. Now, advertising in the old sense, therefore, has been completely pulled apart. And although you may need to have a piece of software in your own office to initially deliver the information into your own recording software, you should keep your keystrokes down to a minimum. And everything's uploaded. And and you've got this massive audience that you would never have had in the past. I think the idea that you can get rid of human intervention entirely is is is not is not achievable. Why? Well. We got to understand that that form of customer experience is that people buy people what has been improved through the covid lockdown's so far these that the first six months this is my iteration of how I feel, the experience when I think the first six months we were in a playground of possibilities.

John: But the back six months have proved that without the human interaction, without the looking into people's eyes, judging body language and being able to communicate those fine elements that we've been given, everything has been dealt with in a sort of a very plain language sort of way. And people do crave human interaction. So people by people, it's a very old phrase. You can take it. I said it, but somebody else said it years ago. And and we are very gregorius, most of us. And although we are changing because we sit in front of screens to work, to entertain and to make our own life and made work, we still crave interaction. So I think if you just take the physical process of buying a property. Just take that you need to get inside and people do crave not only looking at the bricks and mortar, but they look at who was living there or the description of who is living there from estate agents. Actually, I know very few people who sell or let their properties where there isn't some form of human interaction. So people buy people, sometimes they buy lifestyles. But I say sometimes I think we all buy lifestyle, whether it's celebrity lifestyle or the chap up the road who's got a better house and you want to be you want to be like him.

John: So I think that human interaction is is critical. I mentioned about this heavy lifting bit and the portal's so the online representation, the the accessibility, the 360 degree video views, the access to maps, information, this sort of information is brilliant. It's absolutely brilliant. It's taken the B.S. out of transactions and it's also taken away the buyer beware aspect, which still exists. But but by everywhere can be backed up. We can all do our own research. So you mentioned there about possibly the rise in self marketing that has been there for years. And in fact. If I go back 30 years, I think there was a company who said we'll provide the board, you pay us for the advertising and we charge you a fixed fee whether you sell the property or not. So the idea has been talked about for a long, long time. It's just more professional now. And they're all disrupters in the market. In fact, there's disruptors in all forms of marketplaces, aren't there? And I think if property had finance and shares, you are seeing people getting involved to try and make it more accessible to to the man in the street, man or woman, person in the street, so that they can they can benefit and they can make this work by their own choices. I think the thing about property sales, slightly different from property, lettings lettings are much more instantaneous.

John: Commercial properties are much more geared towards business benefit and investment is it is another area. But if you just look at the we have a sixty five percent of people in their their own will to own their own homes in the UK, although the prices may be having an impact on whether that is maintained in the future, that desire to to own your property, we can say there was a very big marketplace. And yes, there are people saying we can save you money and then we get onto the argument about how do you pay an agent and commission and all that sort of stuff. But I think that that's all part of the when you choosing somebody, what do you want to get out of it? And if somebody is going to possibly achieve a better price on the sale of your property, is the commission something you should be worried about? Is it more to do with the service, the knowledge that success, the tools, those sorts of things? Or would you just choose somebody because they're half the price? So this is where people come into it. So it's the whole transaction. The whole process at the beginning is all about what do I want to achieve? How am I going to do it and what am I prepared to put into it? And then on the other side of it, the professionals doing exactly the same. But what you want to do is to deliver what they say they can deliver for sure.

Greg: And I guess following on quite nicely from that and something that relates to every industry, regardless of where where you operate, is is customer conflict. And we all know that along every journey or every transaction, whether it's buying a TV or buying a property or, you know, subscribing to a service, inevitably every organisation's going to get it wrong at some point. And how you resolve that conflict could be argued as being one of the major opportunities for delivering or recovering a failed customer service or failed service. Full stop. So, you know, in the property space, conflict certainly happens in various forms. But in your experience, how do you. Teach and how have you educated staff over the years on on how to approach and how to resolve conflicting situations with customers have to have a golden bullet, Issachar, or do you have any ideas that you can share with our audience? I think always will be eager to hear that.

John: I think this is is the most common common area of resolution because it is a resolution. We've all heard the phrase that you can put a lot, a lot, lot of time into securing and gaining a customer. It may take you a long time, but once you've got them on board that success, it takes a nanosecond to lose somebody. And that means you've unravel all that hard work very, very quickly. It's all about communication. That's that's that's what I'm going to say, that is what people need to understand. And it doesn't start with when the conflict arises. It starts with what may happen. And I think all companies do, to a degree, try and do this. They try and make sure that they are delivering the right information, that they're not trying to confuse, overcomplicate or even distract the customer from what is going to be happening within a within a transaction. So lay it out, make it very clear, make it make it understandable. But if you look at most people's websites these days, what they have at the bottom is an area that says complaint. That's almost an invitation to people to complain. But this is on my experiences that these things are not an issue for being sad. They're an opportunity. There are an opportunity to engage and in fact, you will probably get out of that conversation much better understanding the customer's experience and issues than you will if everything goes well, because you may try and get somebody to give you a five star rating on trust pilot.

John: You may try and give them feedback or you may ask them for feedback, rather, and you may find yourself saying, well, we'll base it on what they say. But even if you've had a good experience, most people moved on to their next transaction by that time, each customer where there is an issue where you'll probably learn the most. So how do you educate your staff to do with that? You let them be people and you don't get to write long winded emails. You pick up the phone. That's the biggest surprise. I think when somebody brings to your attention that they have an issue and it's about asking them, what can I do? I want to help you book, what can I do to resolve this situation? Explain to me what's gone wrong and then try and put it back together again. You will not always be able to do that. But if you put all those efforts into it, the likelihood is everybody will get something out of it and somewhere along the line there will be a compromise.

Greg: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. And in terms of you touch there about educating that, in educating those ideas and sharing those ideas with staff that you've trained. And obviously training has been certainly a big part of your career in terms of enabling staff, improve us in practice, improving practices around this area. I guess I've got two questions, but I can probably still combine them into one, which is, you know, how do you approach training as such in terms of enabling customer service, facing representatives to create that that ideally a long term positive relationship with clients? So first, the first part of the question is that, which is how do you how do you approach the training of customer service to create those long term experiences? And then secondly, in something I think that follows on quite nicely there, which is, you know, how important is simply listening in those in that practice? Is that something that's part of what you educate people about you? They're talking about they're just picking up the phone. But how important is you know, it's just listening to your clients.

John: Yes. I think the second part of what you said there, it is important to listen so may be asking clients their experience will feed into how you can make the service better. But sometimes customers don't know what they want. I'm probably going to get this quote wrong, but I do believe that Steve Jobs, when asked by a journalist about his iPhone, what research did you do before you put together the phone so you could establish what your customers wanted? I think his response was they don't know what they want. So I designed it because I know better than they do, which I think for somebody who is of that magnitude and we look back on what he has done in that area and say, wow, he obviously had a vision of what it should look like. That doesn't always happen in all businesses. But I think if you are trying to produce an experience, you don't want to amend it. If you've got a very clear vision of where you want it to go. And it may be that you're listening to somebody who isn't going to be one of your customers. And that's a that's a tricky one, because you can't always appeal to the masses if you're not going to sell to the masses. So I think what happened for us in training, my experience of coming from what I would call dinosaur world into an online transactional world digital world recently is that we used to do a lot of face to face training. And I mentioned when we started talking that people do like to meet people, that they are gregarious and they do like to experience that forward-facing view of training.

John: But what we have learned over the last year is that online training is so much more cost-effective, it's more beneficial. It can be fed back time and time again as refreshers. It does allow people to still continue without losing time. So it's time effective primarily. But you can't get across the bite-sized pieces, some very simple process is quite quick. Now, that training may at one time have been directed at staff members, it may be directed at people who interact with your services, their customers, but those customers also have customers because they may be reselling your service as part of their service and then their customers may also have customers. So it goes a long way down the line. So actually, you're making it more accessible in that sort of online environment. But it does have to be done in a way that allows the knowledge to be absorbed. Click quickly. And people do look very visually nowadays, but it has to be almost like infotainment. And although I haven't experienced that, I can very much see the role of of of of gaming within this digital transactional world where in the future we may well see people purchasing and doing services by their understanding of gaming. I know from my own, I'll call them young adults now that they've grown into that computer world and they're using gaming to entertain themselves and they may be going to gain that sort of requirement for future learning and also future purchases in whatever a customer transaction world they go into in the future.

Valentina: I just wanted to quickly say that the exact quote by Steve Jobs is people don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. I might try saying that to my teacher at university that we have done your market research. No, not necessary. People don't know what they want anyway. I'm just going to show them.

John: I don't think it's exceptionally relevant that I think in the property world is the world. The one quote I was given as a young estate agent. Years and years ago, 40 years ago was people don't buy what they set out to buy. In other words, because they were entering a market at a particular moment, their selection is what is available, but they come with some proscribes ideas of what they will buy and they will amend what they want to what is available. In other words, just like with the mobile phone, you can do a bit of research on areas and what size of accommodation you want. But invariably I've had people say I want a detached four-bedroom house. They end up buying a bungalow because they're going to build it, build another floor on top or somebody who says, I don't want too much garden and they end up with half an acre. So people don't buy eventually necessarily what they set out to buy. And I think you can apply that to a lot of customers. And that's why sometimes customer research, customer experience and customer feedback, feedback being after the event just shows you that you couldn't have done anything about it. It's the chaos theory.

Valentina: Yeah, I agree. Sorry, Greg, I jumped into your question. Go on.

Greg: Now. So good. No, no, I don't have any more questions, but I've badgered John enough now with with enough questions. But yeah, no, I think it's been a very interesting conversation today because I think a lot of people see and get involved in the property market. But why not necessarily map those direct correlations of customer experience and how how actually what you face in the property market, those are challenges and opportunities. He does map very similar to other other industries like banking or retail or even health care somewhat. You you're battling with conflict. You're battling with high emotional and stressful environments, which is what you face in every industry. So very interesting conversation today. John, thanks for the for all of you for your insights

John: And ideas as a pleasure. And I think if people remember, we are still people. Whatever environment we're in, we're not we're not bitts. We all people. And we still need interaction to to some degree. And what we don't want to do, of course, as we move into these high tech era, is maybe find some people are ostracized from using services. So people who have access problems, people who are maybe of an older generation, people who maybe have learning difficulties, they shouldn't be obstructed from still gaining the same sort of customer experience as anybody else. So we are talking about people and there's a lot of different people out.

Valentina: Mm hmm. Before we finish this episode, there's always one last question that I ask every guest speaker, and you've shared so many insights with us today and gave us so much advice. But if you were to pick only one thing, one thing that you learned during your career and that you could pass it on to civic leaders like the one most important thing, what would it be?

John: I think it would be don't treat your customers as digital information. They are personable and therefore they're not just a mark on your ledger. So that's why I've talked about Interaction Gregorius. I've talked about face to face because we are in an era where it's very easy just to see your customers as a pie chart or a dashboard or graph that much more than that.

Valentina: Thank you, John.

John: Pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. It's been great. Thank you.

Valentina: Thank you for listening and I hope you enjoyed the episode, if you did, please don't forget to, like, share comment and subscribe on your favorite channel. And I will see you next week.