So where does this damaging public perception of letting agents come from and why does it persist?
A PR gap seems to be dogging the industry, according to the panel of experts. Agents are locked in a public relations battle against activist groups and public opinion – and, so far, it’s one they’re not winning.
“As a journalist, I receive two or three press releases a month from Generation Rent, and one or two a month from Shelter,” says Graham Norwood, editor of Letting Agent Today, who moderated the roundtable which was organised by PropTech supplier PayProp.
One way to overcome ‘negative’ press is to shout the positives.
Kate Gregory, sales director at Agent Rainmaker, believes this imbalance in media coverage isn’t surprising, but that “if we want the perception of our industry to change, we need to go out and present a different one.”
Another view that needs to be countered is that of agents seeing tenants as a cost, not as clients, according to Emma Cooke, policy manager at the National Trading Standards Estate and Letting Agent Team.
“Often we go in and say to agents: ‘We’ve had a complaint and we’d like to get your side of the story. Can we discuss it with you?’ And they reply ‘Well, we thought the tenant was just being annoying. They kept coming back and writing letters, they were really getting on our nerves.’ In other words, they were just being consumers,” Cooke explains.
Neil Cobbold, chief sales officer of PayProp, argues that agents need to take complaints seriously, as even a minority not doing so is a big reputational risk for the industry.
“We don’t realise just how much one tenant’s bad experience can spread. Every time a tenant comes with a complaint, agents have an opportunity to shine – and to have a ripple effect on how our industry is perceived. A lot of that is about the complaints procedure. I’ve had complaints with companies where I didn’t necessarily get the result I wanted, but I still felt that it was dealt with properly. I was listened to by that professional.”
Kristjan Byfield, co-founder of base property specialists and The Depositary, says agents have a duty and responsibility when it comes to compliance and improving the industry’s reputation.
“I’ve spoken to agents over the years who have another agent in their patch who is an absolute shark. They know they’re breaching HMO regulations. They know they’ve not got proper Client Money Protection. But do they tell anyone?” he said.
“Additionally, we have to be really strict with our tenants on behalf of our landlords – but we equally have a duty to be strict with our landlords on behalf of our tenants. So, if you’re presented with a landlord who doesn’t bother with licensing fees, or when the landlord’s property is looking shabby, you put your foot down. The control we have as agents is to choose not to work with that landlord – even when it hurts from a business perspective.”
Landlord Action’s Paul Shamplina, who highlights the work of the minority of rogue landlords and letting agents in his show Evicted! Nightmare Tenants, says redress has helped to improve the reputation and regulation of agents.
“By law, letting agents and property managers in England and Wales must join an approved redress scheme (agents in Scotland and Northern Ireland are not required to do so). Redress schemes handle unresolved tenant complaints and may order agents to pay compensation,” he explained.
Sally Lawson, founder of Agent Rainmaker and a former ARLA president, believes lightening the regulatory burden is crucial.
“The industry model we have dates back to the 1990s and before. Thirty years later we have around a hundred times as much compliance work to do. But there just aren’t enough hours in the day or pounds in the bank.”
“We need to reduce the workload on agents. That’s where PropTech comes in. There’s a lot of room for agencies to make more use of it,” she concludes.
To read more about what your agency can do to improve the reputation of the industry, download and read the report in full.