WELCOME to the third of our interviews in our CX Conversations series. Here, David O’Sullivan, director of occupier and property services at Great Portland Estates, emphasises the importance of gathering regular, independent feedback from customers.
He talks about how ‘over-communicating’ during the pandemic has improved the relationship between landlord and occupiers and emphasises the ‘people-focused’ nature of the business.
Oh, and don’t do what the banks do. Definitely don’t do what the banks do.
THIS is the second interview in our series of CX Conversations and it’s with Kaj Bakker, the head of sustainability (Europe) for global REIT Cromwell Property Group.
Kaj is a passionate convert to the importance of customer experience in the property industry and talks about how annual feedback gathered by RealService across the continent has enabled Cromwell to better understand their occupiers.
He also touches on being the middle-man, the asset manager serving two masters – occupiers and investors. It’s understanding occupiers, he says, which will drive retention, reputation and revenue – and keep investors happy.
Next time, David O’Sullivan, director of occupier and property services at Great Portland Estates, emphasises the importance of customer feedback and how ‘over communicating’ during the pandemic has forged closer relationships between landlord and occupiers.
If you are a property company unconvinced as to the value of customer experience, please listen to our series of interviews with key figures from different sectors. We’ll be posting over the coming weeks and our interviewees include:
THE CUSTOMER. The head of real estate for PwC speaks stridently about the levels of service and engagement he expects as a major customer and he offers up a future of the office as ‘business theatre’.
THE ASSET MANAGER. The head of sustainability, Europe, for a global REIT talks about the importance of retention and reputation as key drivers for revenue.
THE LANDLORD. The director of occupier & property services for a major UK landlord explains the value of communicating with customers and how building relationships will serve them well in what are likely to be tough times following the pandemic.
1. The customer
This first interview is with Chris Richmond, senior head of real estate for PwC.
We asked him about the services he expects as an occupier, the role of managing agents and their preparedness for post-pandemic office life. Oh, and we also touched on the future of the office itself.
Next time, Kaj Bakker, head of sustainability (Europe) at Cromwell Property Group, will talk about being the middle-man, the asset manager serving two masters – occupiers and investors. It’s understanding occupiers, he says, which will drive retention, reputation and revenue.
CONNECTING on a human level with the end user is the way the office sector will remain relevant as it undergoes the most radical change in decades.
So concluded CGA founder and managing director Chris Garthwaite as he wrapped up the first roundtable event to mark his organisation’s collaboration with RealService.
The event was the opening salvo in RealService and CGA’s series Revitalising Real Estate and the discussion revolved around the theme Reimagining the Office: The Customer’s Voice.
“The office is one of the last institutions which is now breaking down,” he said. “Covid is an accelerator, but a distraction. The office now can be a home, a coffee shop, it’s wherever the end user wants it to be.
“It’s the biggest change in 40 years and probably one of the last industries which is being fundamentally altered.”
RealService and fellow customer experience consultants CGA have launched a strategic partnership with the aim of giving clients the best of both worlds: RealService’s expertise in the property industry and CGA’s renowned knowledge of other sectors.
The launch event featured some of RealService’s valued clients and they were challenged by one of the industry’s biggest customers, Chris Richmond, senior head of real estate at PwC.
Those around the table impressed Richmond with their commitment to customer engagement although he said his personal experience was a patchy one.
“Maybe PwC are dealing with the wrong landlords,” he said, adding that while some had engaged with him during the pandemic, there had been little dialogue around a return to work.
David O’Sullivan, director of occupier and property services at Great Portland Estates, said his team had, if anything, over-communicated with occupiers.
“It’s disappointing to hear of Chris’s experience, because I can say with certainty our delivery of that type of response has been exemplary,” he said. “We went early, issuing a return to work playbook to advise occupiers. We have kept every one of our buildings open, we’ve communicated throughout the process and run occupier clinics.
“Moreover, it has been a highly-valued process that has really improved our relationships. It has been the one constant thing we have been able to talk to them about in the last year and it has really cemented our relationships.”
While Richmond was preaching to the converted an even bigger question remains: what is the office environment going to look like in the future?
PwC have announced they will be embracing flexible working with its chairman Kevin Ellis saying he hopes it will be “the norm rather than the exception” and that “we want our people to feel trusted and empowered”.
Its workers can now work from home for a couple of days a week and start as early or as late as they want, which could have major implications for the space PwC currently occupies.
RealService founder and managing director Howard Morgan, who facilitated the discussion, wondered if space should be priced by the day? “Surge pricing is prevalent in every other sector,” he said.
Paul Rostas, founder of Plus X, the coworking provider, said: “We’ve tried to develop our product in a different way; we used to work at our desks and have an away day to think differently, maybe now, we work at home at our desk and come into the office to think differently.
We haven’t really tried a hybrid model
“Maybe Monday is for one company, Tuesday we set it up differently for a different organisation. From a cost-efficiency point of view that’s appealing; we reconfigure the space as and when people need it, driven by what the customer wants.”
For Dan Lovatt, head of property management and build to rent at Transport for London, the problem is two-fold.
He said: “First there is a technical side – help me with PPE, signage etc but then it’s, ‘I’ve got this space, help me understand what I am going to do with it’. The second lockdown has been a lot harder on people and there is less of a desire to work from home.
“Presenteeism plays a part. We talk about a hybrid model but we’ve either all been in or all been out, we haven’t really tried a hybrid model.”
From his perspective outside the property industry, Chris Garthwaite said change was inevitable.
“I remember working for Kingfisher when the internet arrived. It’s the same here. Your customers will have access to anything they want, on their terms. The focus must be on considering what are you selling? Is it productivity? Flexibility? This is about brands selling environments and this is where it starts to become really interesting.”
*RealService and CGA would like to thank Dan Lovatt (TfL). Michelle Laramy (The Crown Estate), David O’Sullivan (Great Portland Estates), Paul Rostas (Plus X), Rowan Packer (Mapp) and Raj Rajput (Hines) for responding to Chris Richmond’s challenge and to Chris Richmond (PwC) for being the provocateur.
CX Conversations: Listen to Claire Middleton’s interview with Chris Richmond here.
RealService, Founder & MD, Howard Morgan will chair a webinar in the British Property Federation’s ‘MyBPF – Digital Series’ on 29th March. He’ll be exploring the customer experience skills gap and how we can ensure our industry has the right skills for the future. Full details and sign up here
Nurturing a diverse and skilled workforce is a key element of the BPF Redefining Real Estate long-term agenda for change.
Pre-pandemic research by RealService for British Council for Offices (BCO) identified that “the disruptive forces reshaping the way we work call for an equally disruptive response in the way we serve our customers” and that “there is a wide and increasing skills gap in both the quality and quantity of talent able to deliver the customer experience expected by occupiers” The Coronavirus Pandemic has widened the gap and called into question how we educate and recruit in the property industry.
This webinar will explore “What is the mindset and what are the skills that the property industry needs to nurture for the post pandemic world?”
Prof Yolande Barnes
Bartlett Real Estate Institute
Head of Estate Management
Executive Director, Head of Scotland
RealService, founder & MD, Howard Morgan, has been appointed joint course director for the new CX in Real Estate – Future Leaders Programme launched by Experience Makers and the Bartlett Real Estate Institute .
Experience Makers is the real estate industry champion for customer experience professional training and research. The Bartlett Real Estate Institute (BREI) is part of University College London’s world-class faculty and the focal point for all built-environment professionals to re-think real estate.
The CX in Real Estate – Future Leaders Programme is the first short course of its kind to combine academic research with industry insight to provide a vital understanding of customer experience strategy in property, and the skills to implement it.
This exciting initiative is the culmination of research and consultation carried out by Experience Makers and partners that highlights an alarming gap between current training and the skills required for a fast evolving and increasingly service-driven industry.
The impact of coronavirus has plainly revealed the property industry’s reliance on its customers. The call for new and improved knowledge on how to create attractive and healthy places that respond to customer need has only increased.
Fellow course director Prof. Yolande Barnes, chair of the Bartlett Real Estate Institute, said: “This new short course is an exciting next step in our journey to explore the richness and diversity of the value that real estate generates.
“The programme sets out to open minds to new ways of thinking about real estate in the Covid-19 era and will equip students with practical tools to put this into action. Our ambition is to foster a new generation of professionals who see real estate not as a commodity, but as means to deliver an outstanding experience to customers.”
The CX in Real Estate – Future Leaders Programme is aimed at ambitious individuals working in all areas of property and its related fields, who recognise that real estate has evolved and who see themselves leading CX programmes at asset, team or business level.
Initially delivered online via eight units over six weeks, the intensive short course provides participants with a rewarding learning experience, equips them with practical tools to take back to their business and offers the chance to be part of a new alumni of property professionals with a customer mindset.
The CX inReal Estate – Future Leaders Programme is supported by Experience Makers members and developed in consultation with an Advisory Group of leading organisations passionate about pushing the industry forward.
These include The Crown Estate, Get Living, MAPP, Savills and Transport for London. Their involvement ensures that the programme is rooted in real-world aims, actions and successes.
Howard Morgan, said: “RealService was founded 20 years ago with the ambition to transform our industry’s approach to customer relationships. RealService is a proud supporter of Experience Makers with it’s mission to champion education and research in customer experience in real estate. I am thrilled to be collaborating with Professor Yolande Barnes and UCL Bartlett, an academic partner that shares our ambition to rethink real estate.
“I believe that this programme is an international first and am excited to welcome participants from the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.
Following the success of the first programme held in June the next programme will start in November 2021. Information about the next course is available here:
About BREI (+ UCL press office number +44 (0)7747 565 056)
The Bartlett Real Estate Institute is a new global institute that is rethinking the traditional view of real estate. We offer MSc programmes, short courses and research opportunities that critically evaluate real estate within its wider societal, economic and environmental context.
Experience Makers are the real estate industry champions for customer experience professional education and research supported by a network of leading organisations and trailblazing individuals committed to pushing the industry forward.
A Zoom focus group facilitated by RealService as part of the UK Apartment Association’s ‘Build to Rent Festival’ proved that valuable, qualitative feedback can be obtained in a cost-effective, but powerful way.
RealService founder and managing director Howard Morgan brought together a group of five BTR residents, with experience of renting in UK, USA, Europe and Asia, to share a wealth of insight during a well-attended 45 minutes on-line session.
He said: “We would have loved to have been together in one room but the Zoom technology worked a treat and the format could easily be adapted into other residential, industrial and office real estate settings.”
The participants were given flash cards on which they could provide simple answers or ratings before going on to explain their thoughts in more depth.
Morgan said: “We were able to touch on all the core issues around communication, responsiveness, value for money and potential areas of improvement, but we also got some surprise extras, which you generally would not get from individual online questionnaires.
“Having the group interacting together also meant we were able to reach a consensus on some issues, instead of having five separate opinions.
“For example, the four participants in favour of having an app or portal to log repairs or register deliveries were able to put their case to the one who thought apps cold and impersonal. Hearing the argument from your peers is much more powerful than hearing it from your landlord.
“There was an insightful discussion around what they each wanted from the relationship with their landlord, the amenities they valued and the importance of feeling part of a community, be it within the apartment complex or outside it.
“They also came up with several simple but useful ideas, for example having a one-stop BTR listings website or having a garage-sale service for those moving in or out.
“All in all, it’s a really cost-effective way to get great feedback, which make great use of the power of Zoom”
Sylvana Young, design partner at The Young Group, said the session had produced “genuinely useful feedback that both supported and challenged operators’ perceptions”.
She added: “The panel was real, balanced and informed with a good mix of experience, backgrounds and covered multiple locations.
“There is huge value in understanding what is important to customers. We carry out qualitative and quantitative research ahead of launching a scheme and we monitor customer service through the living journey. But this facilitated something different as the panellists were able to share and discuss their views to a wide audience in real time.”
Harriet Jones, the producer of online community Experience Makers, co-facilitated the session. She said: “It was really refreshing to be involved in an event which heard directly from residents.
“It seems a really simple but effective way of involving your customers and it was great to receive feedback from the particiopants who enjoyed the chance to share their experiences”
Dave Butler, chief executive of UKAA said: “As an organisation, we have been trying to do some online research and was pleasantly surprised how well the session went. The model has great potential.
“The best thing is that is it good to talk to customers live. A survey will get you individual views but that dynamic of having people together gets you views that you can share across the sector. It feels like a much more interactive experience.
“You do have to get the curation right, the mechanics right and there’s a skill in that. You want to keep the conversation interesting, and flowing. A rotated group repeated regularly would give great results.
“RealService has the expertise and innovative skills to maximise these opportunities.”
Ready to focus?
If you would like RealService to run an online feedback focus group with your customers, please contact Howard Morgan (email@example.com). We can:
Identify your needs
Contact and recruit suitable participants
Devise the discussion guide
Facilitate the focus group
Draw actionable insight from the discussion
RealService is a customer experience consultancy helping our clients create great places to live, work, shop and relax. See more at www.real-service.com.
Experience Makers is a champion for customer experience research and education in real estate. Join the network at www.experiencemakers.com
We can all see that the pandemic has accelerated some important working trends. There has been an increase in flexibility in terms of where and when people work. Automation of jobs has been pushed forward on the agenda with technology enabled working catapulted into our lives, and the horizon for robots replacing repetitive tasks and use of AI moving even closer.
At RealService, we have been talking with occupiers and observed that, although people who have been forced to work from home (WFH) by the pandemic have found that technology has enabled them to do that successfully, what is missing is the sociability and serendipity of the office. Companies are grappling with rethinking what the office is for. The working models based around most people spending most of their time office based has been shattered and forward thinking employers are going back to the drawing board and building a new model.
Whilst we are still in the midst of the pandemic, it is easy to look at the empty office space and conclude that people want to stay at home to work, and some studies, such as Leesman, show that people think they are more productive and are happy working from home. However, Professor Lynda Gratton, of London Business School points out that there are gaps that employers need to recognise and factor in. The office also provides opportunity for socialising, networking and creativity. These things are very difficult to do remotely. Bruce Daisley, author of The Joy of Work, and Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat, agrees that there are gaps that need to be filled when people are all at home, only meeting on Zoom. Those random, chance conversations after face to face meetings and informal brainstorms are valuable to organisations. As this plays out, companies are likely to find that they are missing these vital aspects of working life.
Research done during the Covid crisis says that, not only have people enjoyed working from home but, without the daily commute, they have been able to spend more time with their families and more time working. However, Lynda Gratton suggests that this has come at a price. Some feel isolated and unconnected and many are missing out on chance conversations and random meetings and connections which spawn creativity. It is essential to take on board that employees have their own, individual, experience of WFH and to understand what they are. No two WFH experiences are the same and so no single answer will suit everyone.
Bruce Daisley believes that the ‘Hotelification’ of office space will become the norm with companies forming team hubs that meet in the workspace together at pre agreed times. One thing we can all agree on is that to entice people back, the experience of being in the office needs to be better than being at home.
Another point that needs to be taken into account is ‘Zoom fatigue’. There is a limit to how much the brain can absorb, using this medium. We all need a social break now and again and some human interaction.
So how will businesses move forward?
One pointer for the future comes from Kevin Ellis, Chairman, PWC who on 20th October 2020 is quoted as saying
“From the messages I get from our people I know that many really value having the option to use an office, whether for a personal or business need. In the longer term it will be important to continue to ensure offices offer people something more than they can get at home, whether it’s working together, innovating or learning. I am sure I’m not alone in wanting this to be the case.”
But not all employers see things the same way and it’s our view that office life will not go back to where it was before the pandemic. Some organisations are already designating employees and long term homeworkers and this trend is likely to continue. Perhaps the term ‘office’ will become obsolete, in favour of ‘workplace’. Businesses will need to re draw what work looks like, and what and where the workplace is. They will need to identify aspects of job roles that can be done at home, and others that would benefit from having people together, at least some of the time. They will need to gather insight into how their employees are responding to the new world.
So as we go through this pandemic, and come out of it, as we surely will, and as future of work emerges, we need to remember that we are inherently social beings and business need to harness the value of social interaction in a way that gives us the best of both worlds. In all of this, one thing is still true – customer and employee experience is everything.
Does your organisation have the skills and insight it needs to navigate its way through this new world?
RealService, like many other businesses has had to pivot our services to meet the needs of our clients during the pandemic, and we have been helping them keep even closer to their end customers. For landlords, developers and managing agents, this means gaining more insight into the behaviours and emotional needs of employees and finding a way to be part of the solution not the problem.
If you’d like to discuss how you can think differently about the future of your office portfolio, contact:
There’s a joke about outrunning a bear that Benedict Cumberbatch (as Alan Turing) tells in “The Imitation Game”:
There are two people in a wood, and they run into a bear. The first person gets down on his knees to pray; the second person starts lacing up his boots. The first person asks the second person, “My dear friend, what are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear.” To which the second person responds, “I don’t have to. I only have to outrun you.”
In the first blog in this series I looked at the ‘Stages of Change’ model and our reaction to change, which our body perceives as a threat.
This blog looks at whether, faced with the Covid-19 crisis, it’s better for the property industry to pray or lace up its boots!
From bricks and mortar to hospitality
It’s more than 25 years since I returned from the USA with a vision for our industry founded on the principle that we are “no longer in bricks and mortar business but part of the hospitality industry”. An industry inspired by the best hotels, seeing our tenants as guests rather than an anonymous income stream. It’s seems common sense now but it was close to heresy back then!
Some in our industry saw this idea as a ‘scary bear’, and prayed it would go away. Fortunately, others ‘laced up their boots’ and they’ve become our clients and friends.
Last week Property Week launched a campaign to “Save the Office!” encouraging the industry to lead from the front on the return to the office. Of course, it’s sensible to ‘underline why workplaces are so important and showcase best practice so employers can help their people return to the office confident that the appropriate Covid-19 safeguards are in place’. But I can’t help feeling that if this campaign is to be successful it needs to look beyond saving “bricks and mortar” and at “saving our customers”. Let me explain.
Offices will be saved not because developers like to build them, investors to own them and corporate leaders to enjoy their corner offices, but because people choose to work in them. Employees of the past had no choice where they worked but that’s different now. Covid-19 has broken the dam and given employees the taste for a different workstyle. The rows of empty desks in our cities and business parks are the strongest reminder that it’s employees who are our ultimate customer.
The latest data from Leesman doesn’t give much comfort to the “pray’ers”. 82% of 127,000 employees surveyed agreed with the statement that “my home environment enables me to work productively”. That is 19% points higher than the 63% of employees who say they have a productive workplace.
At RealService, we believe that the future of the office industry lies in getting in-depth insights into what motivates both the 82% “productive at home’rs”, and the 18% who looking for a different solution.
But if only it were that simple! There are a lot more than two types of customer, and the task of creating a new vision for the future workplace requires a granular understanding of the needs of the close to the 30 million people who form the UK working population. You can then scale that up to include the 1.25 billion knowledge workers across the world (source: Forrester).
We can learn lessons from the hospitality industry (itself decimated by Covid-19) where the focus is on asking “what is the experience that our customers want?”. For the property industry, this means applying the tools and techniques of service design to our existing assets and future developments. The starting point for our asset management or development plans should be “who is our customer and what are there practical and emotional needs?” and not “how much space can we get on the site”.
Likewise, our customer retention strategies need to step out of the world of spreadsheets and into the world of loyalty and brand building.
At RealService we believe that the successful development, asset and property management strategies of the future will be shaped by standing in the customer’s shoes. It’s only by truly aligning ourselves with the ultimate customer, that we’ll be able to outrun the Covid-19 bear.
So, we’re campaigning to “Save our Customers” and their businesses, and hope you’ll join us!
Howard Morgan is the founder and MD of RealService
If you’d like to understand ways that RealService customer research, consulting and training is helping our clients to get ahead in the Covid-19 era please contact
RealService Founder and MD, Howard Morgan was invited by financial recruitment specialist, Goodman Masson, to host a roundtable discussion with leading CFO’s and FD’s in the hospitality and restaurant sector.
With well-known operators like, Travelodge, making the headlines and the battles lines being draw, is there a better way to align the interests of owners and operators?
Here are some top tips for avoiding conflict
Talk about the whole package
Hospitality industry CFO’s were clear that the landlords that they were making most progress with are the one’s who are willing to look at the whole package. That means not just the March 2020 quarter’s rent but also the June and September quarters, service charges, monthly rents, turnover caps and the basis of rent calculation. Those landlords who recognise that “we’re in it together” is more than a slogan and actively engage in understanding the operator’s business and constraints will make the most progress.
Look at each other’s break points
CFO’s are pragmatists and recognise that both parties have break points. Those break points could for example be linked to external funding commitments. Recognising and being transparent about these constraints can save a lot of time. Honesty is the key – this isn’t a time for gaming and hiding behind smoke and mirrors.
March quarter rent
Not everyone sees the withholding of rent at the March quarter day the same way. While most hold the line “we can’t trade, we have no income so how can we pay rent?”, not all agree. One FD told us that they do not believe that landlords should be denied the March rent as it was neither the tenant nor landlords fault that the lockdown was brought in. This FD took the view that withholding the March quarter rent set the discussion about the future financial relationship on the wrong footing.
Be clear about language
There is a lot of new language being bandied about and FD’s told us that it’s important to make sure that both parties have the same understanding. Deferment, holiday, freeze, suspension, credit, waiver, abatement, concession, discount, reduction can mean different things to different people. Take care to define terminology.
Don’t lose sight of our commercial reality
FD’s were keen to caution landlords about the speed of restart. “It’s going to take time to restart operations as the lockdown is released and its could be 6 – 12 months before the new normal is reached” said one FD. In the meantime, the viability of operating restaurants or leisure venues under social distance rule is likely to be marginal. “Just because a unit has reopened, don’t expect the pre-covid rent to be immediately affordable”. One FD warned that “if landlords are greedy, it’ll make more sense for us to keep a unit closed”.
New operating formats
Hospitality operators are actively looking at new formats that will allow them to reopen and maintain their brand presence but comply with social distancing regulations. Expect to see coffee shops operating on a takeaway only basis and leisure operators to reduce the density of customers. The view was expressed that high street stores are far more likely to open first rather than those in a managed shopping centre environments.
Fixed rent v turnover
CFOs see turnover rents as an essential element of the future leasing model. Most recognise and accept that this will lead to more involvement by landlords in their businesses. Some are wary saying “It will also put pressure on our already stretched finance departments. We don’t need more complexity now”. For a business with say 600 units across the UK, the thought of renegotiating leases from fixed to turnover and potentially running each on a difference turnover percentage is daunting. There are lessons from the airports and stations where true turnover rents are well established.
Proceed with caution
One COO told us that he had decided not to enter into any written variation agreements with landlords until it was clear whether the Government would be offering any further support for the landlord and tenant relationship. There was wide support for pan-industry initiatives to win government support for a rent furlough scheme.
CFOs are starting to think about how they can build clauses into lease agreements which reflect the possibility of further lockdown waves and whatever comes next after Covid-19. They express the view that landlords and tenants will want to introduce force majeure clauses.
Don’t press the nuclear button
A final word of caution. FDs warn those landlords who are not willing to engage from pressing the legal nuclear button. They say that contrary to perceptions “we are not being showered with cash by the government”. This is not a time for heavy handed action like winding-up petitions. “Hospitality operators have long memories and will want to work with owners that they trust” warned one FD.
Focus on the future
So what are the final messages from CFOs and FDs for landlords?
“Look at the long term, be flexible”
“Don’t just talk partnership, bring the words to life”
“Accept the reality, the March quarter has gone, let’s focus on the future landscape”
RealService would like to thank Paul Goodman of Goodman Masson for inviting us to chair this event.
If you would like to discuss any of these themes, or understand more about the ways that RealService can equip you and your teams with the insights and skills to operate in the Covid-19 era, call Howard Morgan
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