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10th July 2019

Not all classrooms have walls

On behalf of Redbrik, I recently visited Seattle, USA, with a pre-eminent group of industry figures from the UK and Australia, all of whom share the same belief that we can improve our industry. What was so attractive about this trip was that we were not only going to discuss opportunities to make our businesses better but also visit and learn from some world class organisations.  

These businesses have challenged the status quo to grow, develop, and evolve. These are businesses that are not interested in short-term gain, but the belief that if you do things right, do things that solve people’s problems, you can be relevant and vital not just now, but for a generation and beyond.

For those who only know Seattle from the sitcom Frazier, the city is home to some incredible organisations. Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft to name just four that are headquartered in the ‘rainy city’. It is a fascinating, dynamic place and one of my favourite cities in the USA. I fell for its charms when I was fortunate enough to visit on a family holiday as a teenager and, returning some 20 years later, the city that is framed by Puget Sound and Mount Olympia still gets me.

We did not go to Seattle to necessarily look at how homes were sold in America. That was of interest though, and we were excited to listen to and learn from Keller Willams Worldwide (the world’s largest estate agent by the number of employees). It was about more than that. It was about learning from how these incredible companies are solving customer problems, many of which customers weren’t even acutely aware of!

We visited the new ‘Amazon Go’ store to experience the future of retail. Amazon is setting new standards in everything they do. Who could have conceived delivery within an hour from an online purchase before Amazon Prime? Here’s how the ‘Amazon Go’ Store works:

You download an App to your phone and enter your Amazon Prime details. On entry to the store you scan your phone and then simply take what you like and leave the store. There is no queuing, no physical payment and your receipt is sent to your phone on leaving.

It’s brilliant and all Amazon have done is use technology to take all the annoying parts out of the shopping experience. Extrapolating this idea, we have implemented our own online viewings request and valuation function into our website, so customers can request these services 24/7 at their convenience.

We know we still need to be a customer led experience and will always need to offer a human interaction. We need to advise, negotiate and solve problems for our clients, and that cannot be automated. Surprisingly, Amazon is also showing that in this digital world they too are migrating to bricks and mortar stores. They understand that their brand needs to be both online and off-line. This is also in line with our own long-held views that you must have the best on and off-line exposure and experience.

Talking of physical spaces, we have always worked hard to create welcoming and carefully curated offices that allow us to interact with our customers and showcase our properties differently to the rest. But, what will environments need to be like in the future? We have a strong vision for our customer spaces. Like the seven amazing $30m Starbucks Roastery coffee shops around the world – one of which I was able to visit in Seattle – these need to be
    multidimensional places that encourage clients to come in, explore, learn and get the advice they require in a really interesting, informal environment. Who knows, that could also include a coffee shop!

We were also able to listen to and learn from some great individuals on the trip. One of those leaders was Howard Behar, a past president of Starbucks. He was truly inspirational and really engaged us with fascinating insights into the successes and failures during his long tenure. However, what I really took from him is how Starbucks dared to be different. They did simple but highly personal things that were just not done at that time, like asking your name. Starbucks trained their people to ask questions and make people feel good about their day. They believed that people did not go to their stores for the coffee, they went to Starbucks to feel good about themselves.

Howard talked openly about the empowerment of people within Starbucks and how they recruited only on attitudes and belief. While we have not grown at the same rate as Starbucks, we have moved from a one branch business, run by just Julie Bulheller and myself, to employing more than 50 people across five buildings in sales, lettings and new homes.

It is a testament to Redbrik that we have always been able to recruit the best people, and we empower them to do what they know is right for our customers. While we know we have highly effective and experienced staff, we’ve also realised from this trip how much more workplace training happens in the USA compared to the UK. Consequently, we have re-examined our own training regime, and are working with one of the industry’s top training teams to help our people get even better. 

At Redbrik, we have always tried to look long term, with an ambition to grow and offer end-to-end solutions for our customers. We know our reputation is everything, so it was with great interest that we got to experience a tour of the Boeing campus and speak with employees about their recent troubles.

A staggering 35,000 employees a day come to work at Boeing (they have to work in different shift patterns to the rest of the state, so they do not overrun the highways at clocking-off time!) who are housed in the largest building in the world. It was incredible to see that the scale of their ambition matches the size of their operation.

Perhaps what was even more remarkable was that our guide, probably someone of relatively low pay grade, was trusted and able to answer questions around the recent 737MAX disasters. It was very refreshing to hear their staff take ownership of the issue and give such heartfelt responses, something we always encourage our people to do.

The trip also provided us with examples of some truly incredible service that you rarely seem to get in the UK. Service that was not about spending thousands of pounds to wow customers but creating systems and processes to allow employees to do what they love – looking after people.

It started at the hotel, right from check-in. The staff had taken the time to know why we were coming and knew exactly how long we were staying. They asked questions throughout our stay to make the ‘experience’ better. Getting to know exactly how you liked your coffee, or how you liked your eggs at breakfast.

I suffered from jet-lag terribly while I was in Seattle, so I was often up before 4am. With little else to do at that time I’d get up and go for a run. In the hotel entrance, the ‘security guard’, a highly engaging hotel representative, greeted me with “Jet-lag? It happens a lot, please take a chilled water bottle and towel. Do you know where you’re going to run? We have these handy pocket-sized maps prepared with different routes to take in the sights of our amazing city.” All these tiny yet memorable details, all before 3.45am!

I left, contemplating just how much the little details matter and how I want our service to leave a lasting impression on our customers.

There were so many more examples, but I am sure you get the picture. The hotel was not cheap, but it was by no means the most expensive hotel in the city either, yet I cannot imagine getting more from any other. And I feel that is so true of our service at Redbrik. We are often not the cheapest, or the most expensive, but we will strive to deliver the best experience, and most importantly, the best result for our clients. When that service and expertise is linked to the marketing of your biggest asset, that experience can lead to generating thousands, and in some cases, tens of thousands of pounds worth of difference.

The trip has also given us new and exciting ideas to create and deliver different services that we are already working on bringing to you. We are obsessed by helping people with their property decisions and want to create a relationship with you that is not just transactional. In the same way that you might build a long term, beneficial relationship with your doctor or your accountant, we want to be here for you whether you are buying, selling, investing, letting or simply maintaining and adding value.