No "New" Normal Yellow Brick Road
The Road of Yellow Bricks in the 1900 book, or the renamed the Yellow Brick Road in the MGM musical of 1939 starring Judy Garland, had many allegories that grew from its’ part in the story. One central theme that seemed to run through all of them was that the road represented an individual path for those that chose to set out on it. The road had many forks and crossroads, many choices to be made as to which direction to go in, and only those on the road were capable of making those decisions with the help of those they trusted most, in the films case, Dorothy and her friends the Tin Man, the Lion and Scarecrow. What mattered was the journey and how they got there not the destination itself, as everyones' Emerald City is their own, individual to the beholder, and is in actual fact itself simply a representation of what matters most to the companions. That journey is anything but normal.
I fundamentally dislike the use of the phrase, “new normal”. It is simply a term coined to help with the application of sales funnels for all the businesses that have been encouraging people to join them on their lockdown webinars so they can help them adapt their own business to this unknown quantity. What does it mean? This period isn’t the new normal, in fact it shouldn’t be given a label at all, it is no more than a challenging period we have to deal with before familiar life returns; life won’t fundamentally change as a result of COVID. By next year, central London will be as busy as it ever has been, and the memory of pandemic will have started to fade.
This isn’t the first pandemic, or major challenge our society has faced that has meant that for a relatively short period we have had to adapt our behaviour and practises and believe it or not this isn’t as serious as it looks, it simply appears to be worse as it’s new, and we have had to learn how it works and how to manage it. For example, so far, the UK has had 81,000 deaths from CV19 and we all know the attention that has rightly received on the ten o clock news for the last 9 months. However, 20,000 people die of influenza each year, and no one even mentions it.
I am old enough to remember when AIDS broke out in 1981 and trust me that was far scarier than this; the HIV adverts on TV of the tombstone and the warnings that went with it. Technology in 1981 was light years from what we have today, but the virus was as virulent then as it now in 2021. Data speed and management is key in fighting any challenge including a pandemic, but that has evolved as we have over the last 30 years. In 1981 it was Ceefax, Sony Walkmans and Betamax. Today we have the cloud, thought tech, and instant 24/7 anything we want.
The proof is in eating of the pudding. To date, there have been 1.9m deaths worldwide from CV19, we have a vaccine, and most adults should be immunised by the end of 2021. Small beer in comparison to HIV that has so far claimed 32m lives – more than in WW2 and as many as the bubonic plague. No one talks about that anymore. It’s not news, and we have learnt to live with it. We will do so as well with Covid 19 with an annual vaccination program like flu, or MMR. There is no new normal, just the continued familiarity that continues to evolve as it always has done, as we do, as technology and everything else does.
That evolutionary process by definition will include things that we have all learnt during the last 12 months as it did in 1981 and every other year in between. We now know that we don’t have to rush into the office for one meeting, we have zoom and other platforms, that we know work. Businesses have learnt to trust their staff and that WFH will now feature as part of their strategy going forward, but it won’t be the main stay of working practices. As humans we love social interaction too much for it to become mainstream. WFH will simply become a feature of how we go to work, giving staff a better work life balance, giving the business cost savings and better productivity, but meeting people will still be the predominant part of going to work. COVID has in one example created an evolution in how we work. AIDS likewise created a similar evolution in gay rights that we now regard as a part of the fabric of society. Evolving familiarity, but not a new normal.
In the property world, many commentators, consultants and stakeholders have been trying to persuade the industry however that this new normal is a different world, where we have to fundamentally adopt different practices permanently that proved useful during the first lockdown and may be proving useful once more in lockdown 3.
For example, virtual viewings is a favourite of mine. There is a queue of proptech companies, who coincidentally offer virtual viewing services, or have a vested interest in recommending them, bombarding estate agents with what I will call propaganda, that their businesses will suffer or even fail if they don’t now conduct these virtual viewings as routine even after lockdowns are a distant memory. P for propaganda is also P for poppycock and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding as to how the estate and lettings industry works and the purpose and advantages of carrying out a physical viewing.
Let me also caveat this with by saying that this is not an anti proptech sentiment, just my chosen example. Many businesses will have learnt a lot over the year about how technology can help their business be more efficient and profitable, indeed many will have been forced to kicking and screaming, which isn’t a bad thing. Technology and proptech has an important part to play, but only is so far as it assists agents delivering the skills, advice, expertise and service that they are being paid for, not to replace it. Facilitators if you will, where efficiencies and improvements can be delivered in terms of time, cost and presentation. Docusign was one of the first many years ago for example. Huge costs savings on postage, paper and time, and looked far better than what was received in the post, creating convenience for everyone. Good value for money as well. No brainer.
However, far too many “proptech” companies, keen to jump on the gravy train have created products or services that offer none of these, or only in a diluted fashion, and exist only to feather the beds of the companies themselves. Navigating which businesses add value and which don’t, is not easy for agents in the furore of white noise that exists in that sector with everyone trying to shout louder than everyone else, or where supposed 3rd party supplier sites simply indiscriminately recommend the companies that pay for their Gold or Platinum package.
So, coming back to virtual viewings. Invaluable in a lockdown, and they have their place in a constantly evolving world, for perhaps buyers, tenants or Agents who want to use them as a screening tool when those people who are not local to the area they are looking to move to, want to collapse the 20 they have seen online to the 5 they then want to view in the flesh, but that’s where it stops. Physical viewings are invaluable to Agents on so many levels, which is why in May, when the lockdown finished, most were quickly back to doing them much to the chagrin of virtual viewing providers who were telling them, a brave new world had now arrived, where virtual viewings were the future.
Face to face viewings provide an invaluable means for the agent being able to collect intel from buyers, to qualify their motivations and better understand what they are trying to achieve. A better chance to sell, to close, to reinforce relationships with buyers and vendors, to hone their own skills, to cross sell other services, to book valuations for local vendors, to be out and about in their town, seeing things, and bumping into people. It would not be unusual to come back from a set of viewings with a valuation booking, or some local intel, perhaps seeing a competitor valuer leaving another property, or a list of addresses from buyers of properties that had been told about, some of which weren’t even yet on the market.
Conversations and events happen on viewing trips that would never happen in the virtual world or stuck in an office. Moreover, a deal put together on the back of a virtual viewing is a deal not worth doing as it then becomes conditional on that physical viewing still taking place at a later date, when chains have been built, money already spent, expectations and dreams set. I wish I had 1p for every viewing I booked where I thought it was a nailed-on deal, only for the actual viewing not to go as planned. Could be anything. neighbours, natural light, bus stop, road noise, looked bigger on screen etc, it’s a long list.
So, the world, yours and mine, is no newer today than it was last year or the year before, it is constantly evolving and changing as events and influences upon it happen, whether new innovations in technology, war, government policy, oil prices, subprime lending in the boonies in the US or even a pandemic. Decisions about your business and which direction to go in should be taken in context of this, following the good practices and disciplines, the technology that provides the best efficiencies and outcomes for your business, not because you are told you should, or even because many other choose to or you feel a need to conform.
Good disciplines and practices adopted when the business was in its infancy quite often go out of the window in what we are told are “normal times”, both in business and at home. Complacency sets in. Let me turn that on its head. Good disciplines come into sharp focus when we come across challenging times, but this is a good opportunity to hit the reset button like we do on New Year’s Eve each year and try and maintain these recognised good practices every day. Reset every morning when you wake up, not every 365 days.
Place alongside those good practices and disciplines, looking to adopt some of the latest innovations and best industry practice, that best benefit your business (not other peoples). Be aware, put aside the time each week to make it your business to keep abreast of what is going on, be on the front foot, don’t wait for a pandemic or any other challenging event that shocks you into taking a look. Zoom/Hangout/Teams is a classic example of this. Very few property businesses had even heard of these platforms, Skype the possible exception. Now, everyone uses them every day, and will continue to do so frequently in the future. The key as with any off these new applications that have been useful to you in a lockdown is how then they could become an advantage in the future. For example, conducting interviews using these platforms instead of the traditional telephone interview.
So, the pandemic has been a useful shake up, and there are many changes, resets, disciplines and practices that I believe that businesses should be focussing on at the start of 2021 as we head towards the end of the SDLT holiday and the end of furlough, that I will touch on in other blogs in the next couple of weeks.
Most importantly though, remove the thought of normal, new or otherwise. Normal doesn’t exist, whether new or old, unless you never make any tweaks, adjustments or improvements to your business. Normal is a mindset that doesn’t encourage exploration and forces you to accept what others would have you believe is what you should be doing. By definition normal means, “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected”. Was that how you saw it when you set your business up? To be the same as everyone else, to conform, accept average, and follow the crowd?
Inevitably there and is and always will be lots of common ground between businesses that agree on best practice, or best product, you see it everywhere and that’s to be expected. There are some great values, processes, disciplines and services that many businesses use that would make differentiation between them quite difficult, but there is one important distinction that should sit alone with each business, that is unique to each.
The businesses have made those decisions, did so with their cultural values in mind, their people, their SWOT, their customer & competitor analysis, their business plan, having done their research, invited input, explored, questioned and then arrived at that decision but did so independently, concerned only with what was right for their business, whether the same as others or otherwise.
Not because they were told it was normal to, old or new. It’s your Yellow Brick Road.
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