The key to success is good training
by Clare Bettelley
Craig Walford is on the brink of rolling out a franchise model that has the potential to revolutionise the agency market, arming franchisees with invaluable skills at a time when the industry needs them most.
Sir Bryan Carsberg has recommended the creation of an entry standard qualification for agents as part of his recent review of the residential property market. The industry is unconvinced that a qualification is the most effective measure to raise standards, but there is a consensus that standards need to be raised, which is why Craig Walford’s new franchise model looks tipped for success.
Yes, we are in the middle of a market downturn and yes, agency closures are rife, but rather than putting plans on hold and awaiting a recovery, Walford is in the throes of preparing for the launch of his model, which has been in the making for the last three years.
Walford started his agency career in 1989 with Countrywide. He left to join Newman Estate Agents - the Coventry and Warwickshire-based agency owned by Sean Newman - as a manager and has been working as a consultant since leaving the business last year. More on that later.
Walford’s franchise model has one key ingredient, which he is convinced will differentiate it from existing franchises in the market: highly trained staff. All applicants will endure a 90-minute, internet-based psychometric test, followed by a 30-minute debrief, which is designed to identify their strengths and weaknesses.
“We identified, in estate agency terms, what good looks like,” explains Walford. “And then invited a psychometric testing company to come in and determine how it could measure that through its testing.”
“There are certain qualities you need for franchising; we are looking for staff who are serious-minded, completer-finishers, attentive to detail, caring and good consultants, with a resolving nature.”
Applicants are required to possess 25 skill sets, of which Walford expects to see strengths in six or seven areas, with high scores in two or three of these.
“The testing helps us identify weaknesses in areas we need to work on with them. Part of the training programme can address these, if applicants have got the right attitude to change."
Walford insists that he learnt some of his best agency skills from the jewellers, Ratners Group, now known as Signet. He praises the company for teaching him about attention to detail, which is ironic, given that Ratners is the brand made famous by its owner’s gaffe in calling his merchandise “total crap” in the early 1990s.
Nevertheless, Walford says he was able to transfer the sales skills he learnt to agency, hence his gripe about agents’ existing service
He explains: “Agents do little for too much, which is why it is not a professional business to be around in many ways. There is a lack of trust about the industry, which is not helped by the lack of consistency in service standards.
“That kind of estate agency I really dislike. I love great estate agents who deliver what they say they are going to do.”
He adds: “In terms of customer experience and the way service industries as a whole have evolved over the last 15 years, estate agents are historic. If we were making mobile phones, they’d still be bricks.”
Walford considers verbal communication with clients as key, which is why his training will focus on every word his franchisees utter.
“I help people understand what they are saying to people and how it affects them. Estate agents are dim because they don’t understand that what we say to people affects what they think and how they feel about us.”
Walford’s franchise model will consist of a regional partner – ie. him at the outset – under whom 12 ‘local partners’ will work, with each responsible for zones containing up to 10,000 houses.
Walford plans to have created 12 ‘hubs’ within 33 months, then roll out the model across the UK and white label it.
“We want to do estate agency what the iPod did to the Sony Walkman. We can’t change the way people buy and sell houses, so we’re looking at moving from the existing agency business model and creating something new.
“There is such a demand for something different – clients want it and the industry wants it, hence the creation of the Tesco project.”
Walford was involved in the initial Tesco Property Market sale process in a consultancy capacity.
He entered consultancy after five years with Newmans, which he left after a difference in opinion with Newman about his future with the business.
A management restructure at Newmans resulted in the departure of many of its directors, leaving Newman and Walford to run the show. The pair then grew the offices from two - Rugby and Coventry – to eight, creating land and new homes, lettings and survey businesses along the way.
By 1995, Walford was keen to have an equity share of the business. “I was concerned that I hadn’t got any skin in the game in Sean’s core business. My main responsibilities were operational and training.” Walford explains the frustration and sheer exhaustion of trying to implement Newman’s newly created focus on learning, which saw the introduction of no less than 133 new initiatives throughout the business.
“Sean [Newman] was one of two things, depending on how you look at it – he was either inspirational or an awful entrepreneur and a real taskmaster.
“We got to the stage where I was helping him grow this business into a bit of a mini empire and I didn’t think it was fair that I was having to do a lot of the work with no financial stake.”
As Walford mulled his career options, he scooped a whopping £66,000 on the Euro lottery – his first attempt at the game.
“I bought the ticket on the Friday and didn’t check it until the Sunday night,” he recalls. “It was hanging up on my clock in my kitchen and I thought I’d better check it.
“I went into the lounge; my wife was there and my two boys and I told them I’d won the lottery. I remember being on my knees trying to convince them that we really had won – it took me about four attempts to convince them,” he laughs.
The win resulted in a new holiday home for the family in Fuerteventura and a conversation with Newman about his future with the business. In response to Walford’s request for an equity share, Newman proposed a franchise operation, which he suggested that Walford could manage.
“He asked me what I thought of people working from home, based on the US-style concept of the one-to-one agency model. He said this was an opportunity for me to come in on a proper partnership deal but he wasn’t prepared to consider a 50-50 deal.
“There are two sides to every story. But the problem seemed to be that he couldn’t change his perception of me as the trainee manager that he had recruited. As a director, you recruit managers, you train them up from nothing and they get stronger and stronger, but you still see them as you recruited them and I’m sure that’s how he saw it. But of course, the reality is that you know yourself, that you’ve grown up and moved on.”
Walford entered consultancy after leaving Newman, which resulted in him advising Jon Cooke about his franchise business Intercounty. It was an ironic twist of fate for Cooke, who, according to Walford, had claimed Newman’s franchise concept as his own – Newmans was part of the Fine & Country franchise of which Cooke is a director. Walford was given the opportunity to run a franchise division for LSL, the property group of which Cooke is also a director, but he was reluctant to join a corporate business at the expense of his own creation. “I told Jon [Cooke] that I really wanted to build a dream; I didn’t want to be counting beans.”
Walford was approached by Kent-based agency Miles & Barr while working as a consultant and, while in the throes of presenting his franchise concept, a partnership was born. Walford will create and manage the franchise as part of the agency’s business, with its existing staff being offered the opportunity to become franchisees.
Walford insists he can avoid the traditional pitfalls of franchising – namely inconsistency of service standards – through his commitment to attention to detail.
“It’s about time management – agency is such a multi-faceted business. It’s a really labour-intensive, diversified, fragmented business, so marketing and managing a consistent message is something that is a real challenge. It takes a lot of upfront work in time and money to get it right later.”
Walford reverts to his passion for sound training to ensure a consistent franchise message. “You have to work with people who want to listen. It’s how you deliver a message to them and how you check they’ve absorbed the information afterwards,“ he explains.
“The key to any success in business is the whole cycle; it’s not just about implementation, it’s about the review and control process. The most important thing is to help people understand things for themselves. Unless you’ve actually experienced something, you can’t understand it. So, with my consultancy and my training, I try to let agents live the experience by really helping them treat people as they’d expect to be treated.”
Technology will also be key to the business. Walford and Miles & Barr have been busy scrutinising software packages that can generate client leads and support clients’ experience of the process thereafter.
“So, when people buy a business with us, not only will franchisees have a sale pipeline, they’ll have a client line that is sustainable and lasting.”
Walford wants his technology to identify the ‘user journey’, ie. every aspect of clients’ involvement in the house buying and selling transaction, to enable his franchise to attract and support clients every step of the way.
“We want to know where clients come from, how we can get hold of them and how we can identify them before they have even thought
He claims that one of the key things his IT system will do is identify every single house that goes on the market with each agent in a given town. It will also identify the date it came onto the market, how long it’s been on and when its asking price was last reduced.
The barriers to entry to Walford’s franchise are tough, so he relies on finding potential franchisees that can rise to the challenge. That said, any agent not prepared to review theirservice standards, regardless of whether or not they plan to join Walford, should probably question whether they have a future in the industry, which is set for huge change in the next few years - and not before time.
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