Remarkably effective ways to lead from the front

Julian O’Dell

The role of manager or team leader in estate agency is extraordinarily challenging, given that many performing that role are still expected to be involved in front line activity. The ‘dual role’ of team leader and main value is performed by hundreds of individuals across the country, and is arguably one of the toughest. It is one I have carried out on a number of occasions and it demands a high level of skill, self-organisation and focus.

It is not all bad news however. The dual role is achievable, but there are a series of steps necessary to make it a success.

Firstly, it is crucial for you as to have identified and implemented clear standards of behavior and procedures in the key areas of business and to communicate these in unambiguous terms to the whole team – ideally in writing.

Secondly, you need to monitor these standards on a regular (in some cases, daily) basis. You must manage the staff against these standards to ensure adherence is constant.

Thirdly, you need a lieutenant to take responsibility for all the aforementioned activities in your absence.

Before looking at each element, it is interesting to note what happens when these three elements are absent from an agency’s culture.

I was asked to carry out two ‘mystery shopper’ exercises a while ago – one on the telephone, the other via email – on two separate agents, each of whom had multiple offices.

The telephone exercise revealed that offices within the same company were handling new applicants in a wide variety of ways in terms of the calls and the follow-up service. Even the way the phone was answered differed from branch to branch and the quality of the conversation (agenda setting, questioning, listening – all vital skills) ranged from reasonably good to totally unacceptable.

The email project where I posed as a motivated applicant enquiring via a well-known property portal resulted in entirely different response times from one office to the next – between 15 minutes and four days – and a huge range of diverse information being sent in a variety of formats.

Consider how this approach differs from the consistency of a high quality retail outlet like Apple, where standards are the same at all their nationwide operations.

The follow-up to both exercises also comprised very varied levels of service from a phone call the following day through to no information being received at all.

The problem with both these firms once we dug a little deeper was a lack of clear performance standards. There was a sense that people should just ‘do the best they could’ or get things done ‘as soon as possible’ – woolly language like this led to lack of clarity and inevitable differing levels of work.

As part of the mystery shopper exercise, a report is submitted which includes appropriate recommendations – in the aforementioned cases, the first step was to agree relevant service standards and then communicate them clearly to the staff responsible for maintaining them. One firm actually went as far as designing, agreeing, printing and laminating a superb ‘Customer Service Charter’ which all staff have a copy of, understand and adhere to.

The initial implementation of standards is one step on the road to success; monitoring and managing them through are the others.

One of the aforementioned firms has now introduced the sensible policy that every newly registered applicant (whether sales or rental) is checked by the manager to ensure quality control. He/she can quickly spot a member of staff’s shortcomings and address them accordingly to ensure they eventually achieve required standards. “Gentle pressure applied relentlessly” is a worthy management mantra in the attainment of high standards of staff performance.

Managing is likely to involve constant one-to-one coaching against the expected standards, praising where praise is due, addressing areas of weakness and in extreme cases, taking a hard line when a prolonged failure to reach standards is seen.

Lastly you should identify, appoint and train a lieutenant (actually, you may want to give them a more traditional title like ‘Assistant Manager’) to do all of the above when you are not there. He/she should have the same hunger for high levels of customer service and exceptional standards as you. You can then pass the baton to them each time you walk out the door, knowing that they will carry out your role until your return

If you are an ‘absent’ manager who finds yourself out on the road and running an office from a distance on occasions, these steps will ensure that the work is carried out to the best possible level whether you are there or not. You will enjoy the peace of mind that this brings and inevitably become even more effective yourself as a result.

Julian O’Dell is head of Marvelous Training Solutions.

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