Branching (is) out
Property briefing: do solicitor firms gain a market advantage from estate agency branch offices? The owner of one innovative business argues that there is a better approach
Two years ago, we had four estate agency branches in the east of Scotland and were talking about opening further branches in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. Then I woke up one morning absolutely convinced that branch-based estate agency isn’t dying, it’s already dead.
MOV8 Real Estate, Estate Agents & Solicitors is no stranger to challenging convention in the residential property sales industry in Scotland. When we launched in 2009, after the financial crash, we offered one fixed estate agency fee for everyone, regardless of the value of their property.
It ruffled a few feathers, but the business rapidly grew to become the largest estate agency in East Central Scotland, both for the number of properties coming to market and the number of sales, a position it has held since 2014. Having launched throughout Scotland a few months ago, we would expect to ruffle a few more.
Potential clients back then either loved or hated our model. And that was fine. We were offering something completely new to the market and we knew our niche: the tech-savvy property seller who mainly wanted to communicate online. Having no high street branches was one way of keeping costs down which, in turn, allowed us to offer extremely competitive rates. Our service now appeals to everyone, but we have retained that innovative edge.
Growing, and pruning
Over the years, MOV8 Real Estate started opening up estate agency branches across Edinburgh, but not because I thought branches were in any way necessary to provide great customer service or to sell a property.
We opened branches in response to the needs of corporate introducers such as asset managers acting on behalf of lenders in possession. Asset managers tend to take quite an old-fashioned approach to instructing an estate agent. For many of them, you must have a branch within five miles of any property sale instructions.
After committing to a branch-free approach, we closed down all of our branches over a two-year period, and in 2017 moved the business into a 4,500 sq ft head office in South Gyle, Edinburgh, with all staff operating under one roof.
Does providing an end-to-end solicitor and estate agency service to buyers and sellers rule out branches as a viable business model? It is, after all, how most solicitor estate agency businesses in Scotland operate. In short, yes. I believe that customer service dictates that the future of solicitor estate agency is branch-free.
From late 2015 onwards, we tried to operate our Conveyancing department out of our existing branch network. However, when we moved everyone into South Gyle it was revolutionary. Suddenly, we had our entire team of solicitors, paralegals, administrators, cashroom and estate agency all together in one office. They were able to communicate much more easily and with better cooperation between the teams. This fostered a friendlier culture, better communication and therefore a hugely elevated level of customer service, borne out by all the reviews we have since received on Trustpilot and Google.
So why the new office?
In August 2019, MOV8 opened its new Glasgow office in Renfrew Street. If branches are a thing of the past, that obviously begs the question “why?”
From a commercial point of view, the main reason was to satisfy the needs of builders and developers who introduce estate agency and conveyancing work to us. It is important to them that we have a physical base near to them and near to their clients. However, of equal importance to us was our ability to tap into the huge pool of talent that exists in what is perhaps the largest job market in Scotland.
We will settle more than 2,000 private client conveyancing transactions this year, and closer to 3,000 in 2020. We want every one of those people to have a five star customer service experience. That can only happen if we have the best people. The best people want to work in the best working environments, so we have funky, modern offices which present a dynamic, inviting environment for staff and clients.
There is a view that with the traditional solicitor estate agency model under pressure throughout Scotland from hybrid estate agencies, having local physical premises might be seen as a key differentiating factor to help solicitor estate agents win business. But I strongly disagree that having branch premises protects a business from the threat of online or hybrid agents.
On the list of things that property sellers in Scotland want, local presence is actually way down the list.
What really differentiates solicitor estate agents from a hybrid estate agency shouldn’t be that you can pop in to see us locally. It should be that we offer a far superior service by recruiting the best professionals in the industry who deliver better results at competitive prices. As a hugely important part of that, solicitor estate agents can offer an end-to-end service that includes both the estate agency and conveyancing work.
For me, better staff recruitment, integration and communication within modern offices in strategic geographic locations is key to a progressive business model for modern estate agency and solicitor services in Scotland.
Robert Carroll, managing director, Mov8 Real Estate