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RealService Founder, Howard Morgan, recently spoke at the Navigator Forum organised by our strategic partner, CGA 

Our collaboration with CGA is enabling us to provide the best of both worlds to our clients: customer insight, CX consulting, training and benchmarks from within and outside the real estate industry.

A report of his presentation is available here and reprinted below with thanks to Chris Garthwaite and Carla Hall at CGA for the invitation.

www.cgaexperience.com

 

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Introduction

Cities around the world have seen a fundamental change in the way we use property and real estate. As with many of the seismic shifts since March 2020, this was a trend that was already in motion pre-pandemic, but Covid-19 has escalated the evolutionary process.

While change presents challenges for commercial property owners and those in businesses that hinge on real estate (not least UK pensions, which are underpinned by property), it also presents opportunities as well. So, how can businesses adapt their thinking to create a customer experience worth paying for in 2022 and beyond?

What’s changed in real estate?

The overarching change is that we simply are not using commercial property in the way we were five years ago. Remote working is perhaps the most obvious change that has occurred, with digitisation opening opportunities for people to live and work beyond the overpopulated and highly priced realms of major cities.

Remote working was a creeping trend that has leapt forwards, with many wishing to continue working from home all or part of the time going forward. It opens all kinds of opportunities, ranging from ‘levelling up’ income and local spending across the UK to providing more job opportunities for anyone who can’t travel into the likes of London and Manchester on a regular basis.

While there may be some friction between businesses and employees as to how the remote working model plays out in the long-term, as of September 2021 50% of British employees are still working from home at least some of the time. That’s up from 37% before the pandemic. The change has prompted technology to advance in order to improve the remote working experience. Last month alone we saw Facebook showcase their haptic glove prototype, allowing you to feel objects in virtual reality.

It’s not just offices, however, that are seeing changes. The high street has been under ‘threat’ since the dawn of the internet, and the challenges of the last two years have meant that anyone who hadn’t changed their shopping habits to the digital realm has now been largely forced to. As a result, shopping centres and brick-and-mortar stores are suffering.

Even rented housing and apartment buildings are facing enormous change in cities (linked back to remote working). As people realise that they are not bound to urban areas, landlords find themselves competing for tenants in a way they have never had to before.

We are at a moment of profound change and for lots of businesses that’s a daunting prospect, but it’s not a situation that has never occurred before. For example, one might see both an industry and society parallel in the colliery closures and ensuing miners strikes in the 1980s. They, too, were a way of life, impacted entire communities, were linked to the very essence of how the country was run, and had the capacity to make entire businesses irrelevant in a very short space of time.

Reimagining the proposition for commercial property

Against this backdrop we need to change the way we think about commercial property. What is it for? How is it used?

Since 2002 Barclays has been selling off its office buildings and leasing them back. Large city apartment buildings have been plagued by scandal and a loss of trust post Grenfell, and shopping centres are floundering. For example, Bluewater’s 30% stakeholder, Landsec, is currently in talks to buy Lendlease’s 25% stake for £200m. That would represent an overall value drop of around £800m over the past three years.

That said, we are seeing a repurposing of those buildings and the way they’re used for work, life and leisure. What businesses need to think about is how to provide services that enhance experience in these environments.

Space as a service

In offices, stats show that typically just 2 out of 10 corporates are satisfied with the services they get from landlords. So, the old is being outshone by the new, as ‘space as a service’ providers like WeWork capture the mood and gain 9 or 10 out of 10 in customer satisfaction surveys.

The shift in our approach to commercial property comes down to two things: service and experience. Office and apartment buildings are shifting from a focus on ownership to the monetisation of services. That includes physical space as something people consume according to need. That might be in the likes of WeWork or student accommodation providers like Unite Students. These are no longer places to simply crash for the night, they provide tea, coffee and services that enhance the experience.

The tenant as the customer

In apartment buildings, landlords are being called out for abusing power (only recently, Luke Johnson wrote his piece ‘Time to end the abuse of tenants’ for The Times). There’s also a rise in pressure groups like Guardians of the Arches, calling for tenants to be treated as valued customers.

One example that Howard highlighted, was from Quintain Living. Their lifestyle focussed rental company has been developing an area outside Wembley, producing something colourful, imaginative and experience focused. It includes a rooftop community space on the 14-storey residential tower, as well as two floors of office space which tenants can use free of charge. What they’re delivering as a result is not just a roof over your head, but a community that’s nice to live in. There are camper vans on the roof, which can be offices for the day, colourful post boxes and hot tubs – the emphasis is on the experience.

In many ways this is forward thinking. However, one contributor pointed out that in other ways, this emphasis on community is a throwback to the way continental Europe structured its communities in the past, with commercial premises on one floor and housing on another. There is inspiration to be drawn from the past as well as imagining the future.

Training and behaviour

The missing link between reimagining the way we use commercial property and executing those plans successfully is a combination of skills and strategic capabilities.

A mindset change

In the first instance, it’s about a mindset change. For a long time, those who have owned or managed property, have had the luxury of not really thinking about the customer and their experience. Property has been in demand, so landlords have been able to command high fees without providing any service. Now, commercial property owners find themselves in a position where it needs to give people a reason to come to them – they need to think about the customer experience.

It’s a way of thinking that the hospitality industry has understood for generations. CGA’s Graham Ryan recalled living in an apartment building in the USA, where the concierge added enormous value to each tenant by knowing everyone’s name, always saying ‘hello’, and being engaging. The community loved him, and 26 years later, he remains a positive memory of that experience. That individual and his customer service created value for that asset.

It is a mindset that forward thinking businesses are seeing tangible benefits from across the board. For example, researcher Dr Danielle Sanderson investigated the determinants of satisfaction amongst tenants of UK offices. She found that if you can increase satisfaction by one unit on a 1 to 5 scale, you can increase total returns by +1.9%.

New skills and training

For many businesses this will require a change of perspective, but ultimately that’s driven by introducing different skillsets at a top level, and training to make sure that those values are then reflected through the different customer touch points in the business.

A contributor noted that it’s essential for teams as well as leadership to be inspired to this new way of thinking. She said that staff need to be taken on the same journey as leaders through appropriate training and mentoring. It was felt that if teams are not involved in that transformative process towards customer experience, then they will naturally pivot back to what they know.

It was highlighted that traditionally, the recruitment process into the property industry has focused on chartered surveyors, but those qualifications and courses don’t cover customer service or customer experience. They are transactional. Unless those individuals are naturally inclined to service, they won’t have the necessary skills to address customer experience. They must be generated, taught and trained.

With that in mind, we are now seeing more and more jobs available for a Head of Customer Experience, and training providers are catching on. For example, UCL has launched a short course titled CX in Real Estate – Future Leaders Programme.

One contributor, whose company is in property investment, said that they have moved from a one size fits all approach to a one size fits one experience approach. They have pivoted the business so that everything is consumer centric. Where a landlord might have traditionally only had contact with a tenant when a three-year tenancy agreement came up for renewal, there’s now a property management layer that’s about knowing the customer and ensuring they want to stay. The question they ask themselves is ‘how can we be Ritz Carlton for living, office space and logistics?’ The Ritz Carlton has its own centre of excellence, so they are creating a similar capacity in-house to ensure staff training.

The gap in strategic capabilities

In addition to training, there’s the question of what a more experience focused approach to the property industry looks like and what businesses need to factor into their budgets and capabilities to make that happen.

Pastries and ice creams

One contributor works with a landlord who had worried: ‘We can’t supply enough milk to our office building!’ It’s a new issue for landlords, but as they are now providing tea and coffee making facilities, the logistics around milk and how much they needed becomes something to think about. The same landlord had questions about their Danish pastries – were they too big? Should they be providing them at all?

Whether it’s pastries or luxury toiletries, in many ways such an issue seems trivial, but when it’s done to scale it is both a budgetary and logistics consideration, the likes of which hoteliers and brand consultants have been thinking about for decades. There’s a need to decide what’s required, when, how much, how it’s being delivered, how waste and cleaning are to be managed. It’s also about measuring the impact of these small details on the customer experience so you know what to change, increase or decrease.

Historically, no budget would have been put aside for these experiential factors, even if the thought had been there to implement them. Now, the property industry needs to incorporate them into its thinking. The service charge system in the UK has meant that’s where the budget is set. Most properties have a budget line for letting but they don’t have a line item for customer retention.

One contributor remembered suggesting to the owner of an office building that they give ice creams to all the occupants if the air conditioning system went down. The response was ‘we don’t have the budget’. Today, new operators are coming into the market, and they are more attuned to a service-based way of thinking. In short, the pastries and ice creams are accounted for.

Marketing and measuring satisfaction

Even how we ‘purchase’ space is changing. Increasingly, online portals are playing a role in how we search the market for property. Outside property you can purchase in one or two clicks, but can’t with property – is that part of the future? At the moment, pricing isn’t dynamic either, but is that going to change? If we’re renting offices by the day, will we see surge pricing? Will there also be more TripAdvisor style review platforms for property?

What do each of these things mean for skillsets required within the property industry? What partnerships would create a competitive advantage?

The conversation raised several interesting avenues for exploration as well as exciting prospects for the future of the property industry. Key trends were identified including:

  • The rise of property management
  • The tenant as the customer
  • Space as a service

All of these warrant further exploration within themselves.

The speed of change in customer expectation is dramatic and the way in which customers are feeling and behaving when it comes to commercial property is entirely different to a few years ago. Is there enough industry awareness of that change, or is it just the enlightened few who are making a difference?

Howard concluded that as a mentor within the property industry, he often asks those who have newly completed their professional training, ‘have you thought about your tenants as customers?’ To date, no one has responded in the affirmative. It’s a skills gap and a huge opportunity – it’s just a question of harnessing it.

 

THE Build To Rent [BTR] industry is ready to embrace an accreditation system which would set standards and protect the sector from rogue operators.

At a virtual roundtable event chaired by RealService founder and managing director Howard Morgan, industry leaders discussed how Build To Rent (BTR) could continue to improve its offering to customers. In summary, the participants agreed it was time to begin an accreditation process which could define a set of standards, be a trusted guide for customers and provide a means of communicating performance to audiences such as investors – while still leaving room in the market for different offerings at different price points.

Attendees observed there was an emerging need. “We are approaching a period of development and maturity in the sector so things which might have seemed impossible three years ago are now within our grasp,” concluded UKAA chief executive Dave Butler.

Accreditation and data transparency

Participants explored whether an accreditation system should involve the release and sharing of underlying data between industry peers. The main conclusion among attendees was that the sharing of data was not an immediate priority – not yet, anyway – but there appeared to be consensus around the need for a set of minimum standards around what customers should expect.


The debate around data sharing centred on trust, the quality of the information and the method of harvesting it.

Katherine Rose, director of BTR & PRS at Navana Property Group, said: “Sharing data is important but I don’t think the industry is ready to do it yet. We’re all still a little precious and also, how accurate is that data? Everyone wants to look good and how truthful are they? I’m not sure everyone will play fairly. But it’s the way to go. We should all pull together and be less precious.”

Opportunities for Market Differentiation

PPP Capital’s Sanjeev Patel, managing director of LuxuryDigs, said: “I do believe there is a need for accreditation but I also believe there is a place in the market for a Premier Inn and a Waldorf.

If you want a Waldorf, fantastic, pay for it

“If you want a Waldorf, fantastic, pay for it. If you want a slightly cheaper product, go to a Holiday Inn or a Premier Inn and pay a bit less. They may be very different but in both you will get a clean room and a comfortable bed. I’m comfortable with everyone signing up to a minimum standard – a high minimum, mind you – then you can pitch your assets wherever you want them to be and marketing and customer expectations can be managed appropriately.”

Creating standards 

“I would draw an analogy with Wimbledon,” said, Howard Morgan.

“People had been hitting a ball around for a long time but had no ability to compare their skills with others until Wimbledon came along and defined a set of rules and how to score. I think there comes a point in an industry’s evolution when someone has to say it’s time to draw up some standards that we all abide by and, although it might not be comfortable for everyone, it seems that we are getting closer to that point.”

The group also heard from Chris Garthwaite, the chief executive of customer experience consultancy CGA, who worked with 26 different rail operators to define a set of common standards.

‘Accreditation builds trust’

Having an accreditation system, he said, would build trust and help re-set expectations.

“Trust is a key differentiator; if you lose trust, you lose loyalty. In a world which is accelerating, becoming more digital but where you have a fragmentation of customers, understanding the emotion and sentiment of your customers will become fundamental to delivering the value of the brand – or the industry – to those audiences.”

There is already an accreditation system in the student accommodation sector and according to Jane Couch, chief operating officer of Fresh Property Group, while this is an extra cost – around £2-3 per student – this extra spend actually helps attract investors.

“Investors are traditionally risk-averse but they know about the accreditation costs up front and it means they know you are a responsible operator who is not going to have problems with negative feedback hitting the press.”

Prospects and next steps

Dave Butler said there was already a UKAA benchmarking group working together to deliver a manifesto around what ‘good’ looks like and he issued a call for anybody who wants to contribute to that debate.
“While I’m not going to die in a ditch over the sharing of data – I think that’s a while down the road – it is hugely important to define ‘good’,” he said.

Read the article on the UKAA website here

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.”

Surprise extras

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”

Challenge perceptions

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”

Dynamic experience

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 (howard.morgan@real-service.co.uk). We can:

  • Identify your needs
  • Contact and recruit suitable participants
  • Devise the discussion guide
  • Facilitate the focus group
  • Draw actionable insight from the discussion

 

About us

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