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Culture club

Behind every successful firm is a positive culture, but it is no easy feat to achieve. Here, Charlie Wright outlines the starting point for creating and managing cultural change within estate agency.

I explored how agents can monitor client satisfaction in my last article [March 20], highlighting the importance of agency bosses instilling in their staff an optimum level of service that can be consistently delivered to all clients.

Culture underpins the service standards of any business, which is why it is crucial for agents to get theirs right. But it is no easy feat to perfect something so intangible, particularly when dealing with the diverse group of personalities that constitute agency staff. Perhaps the best way to approach your culture is to imagine an invisible force that affects the behaviour, commitment and decision-making of all of your staff.

We've all experienced bad customer service, from call-centre staff who clearly don't give a hoot about your predicament, to paying for goods at a till where the cashier barely acknowledges your presence. Such poor-performing employees tend to be determined to perform the minimum service that they can get away with, with both clients and colleagues.

At the other end of the scale are employees who regularly act beyond the call of duty to satisfy clients. And these are usually staff who are encouraged to take responsibility for their decisions and be accountable for their mistakes, and who are recognised and praised for their efforts.

Cultural shift
So how can agents facilitate a cultural change? As awkward and challenging as it may feel, agents should gather all, or a select number of staff, at an off-site venue and challenge them to identify what needs to change in the company to make it a great place to work. Staff should be reassured that they can talk freely without fear of retribution.

If you are met with a blank silence, it means that staff don't feel confident to speak their mind, for whatever reason, but this must not deter you from persevering with the exercise.

Kick-start the session with improvements you have already observed and, if staff in the group really won't divulge their thoughts, consider gathering a smaller group in a subsequent session.

That said, once staff believe you are serious about making changes to the culture of the firm, and that you will listen to their input, they will inevitably become much more forthcoming with their views.

It is crucial that managers never fail to deliver on promises made when running a business, and particularly when following such exercises. Moreover, delivery is not the end goal; any good manager will deliver, then repeat the exercise to gather feedback on the impact of any newly implemented changes to their business. Change creates uncertainty and scepticism and makes people uncomfortable, so take care to reassure your more nervous staff.

I recently performed this exercise myself. It was very painful for me to accept some of the feedback I received from staff, but because I listened and responded to even the most harsh criticism, everyone instantly felt happier because they now realise that not only do I care what they think, but I am also prepared to act on it.

This said, nothing matters more than treating your staff exactly as you expect to be treated in a perfect world. Make them love working for you and your company and they will go to the ends of the earth for you.
A strong cultural identity is key in service businesses more than any other; clients will experience it in every phone call, meeting, viewing and letter, so there is no room for error if you want you and your firm to be recommended.

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