Virtual viewings no match for real world eye test

There’s no doubting that after the COVID-19 lockdown, we are likely to see some considerable shifts in working patterns as we evidence and reflect on the benefits of remote working and what this may be able to bring to work-life balance and consequent changes in the way we operate.

Whether the utilisation of, and reliance on, technology changes everything about the way we work in the future remains to be seen but the immense impact is already becoming clear.

As an example, take for instance a recent tweet I read from a mortgage adviser which showed both the possibilities and the limitations of utilising technology within the home buying process.

The adviser said that just last week, a client of his had done a virtual property viewing and put in an offer; now, this week, when they were able to physically see that property, they had immediately withdrawn their offer, noticing a number of issues that had just not been visible during their remote, online tour.

That ability to have a good look around a property is a fundamental component in the process. Of course, there are many properties sold without a physical viewing by the buyer. In the COVID lockdown our own SDL Auctions business has sold over 250 properties without the buyer seeing them, but we all know that this is a small minority in a normalised market.

Despite all the benefits that technology delivers, I feel that our industry could only truly get ‘moving’ again when the lockdown measures were partially relaxed earlier this month and the opportunity for agents, potential buyers, surveyors, etc, to visit properties was made available.

Of course, this is only for England at the moment, and those in other parts of the UK are still not there yet and therefore any return to a new normality there is going to take a little longer.

Which, of course, is not to disparage how crucial technology has been throughout this period. Our ability to use our own Revolution mortgage broking system has been a game-changer for Stonebridge firms, because of its accessibility away from the office and the remote functionality it has provided from lead generation, to case notes and CRM tools, plus the regulatory compliance and commission functions. All of the benefits of this end to end platform for our members continued to support advisers and firms irrespective of ours and AR firms’ lockdown-imposed closure of offices.

However, we must also recognise there are some limitations. Take the client meeting for instance. While using Zoom or Microsoft Teams or other online video conferencing platforms, has been a real God-send, advisers often talk about the empathy and connection they have with clients when meeting them face-to-face and how, on meeting a client, seeing where they live and their situation, this can often change the direction of the advice provided.

That connection is not always possible via a telephone or online chat. I’m thinking specifically of advisers who might deal with clients at two ends of the spectrum particularly – first-time buyers and those in later life – who tell us that they benefit the most from a face-to-face approach.

In that vein, while technology will continue to be deployed and adopted far more than pre-COVID-19, there will be large numbers of firms who do want to get their staff back out in the field, or indeed into an office environment sooner rather than later. Our own poll suggests just a 9% swing in the firms who will move away from face-to- face, to a remote service. Having seen that operating remotely can work, it’s just not their preference or indeed their plan for the immediate future.

I know for certain that there is a different energy to working within close proximity of each other, with the ability to bounce ideas off colleagues, and develop strategies, or come up with solutions, that it just not quite so easy through the laptop screen.

Meanwhile, especially at the moment, our sector has a challenge to overcome in terms of ensuring that office spaces are safe. It will be about getting a happy medium between having that work space available but certainly for a reduced number of staff.

Some of the challenges of how we work with each other and with our clients are only just about to be encountered. Flexibility and inventiveness are going to be needed – clearly there won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Much will be done by trial and error, and good broker firms will be sharing best practice.

There are so many analogies and soundbites which talk about disaster yielding better times, including Einstein’s “in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity”. For the mortgage broker market, I see plenty of good things to come out of this terrible time we are working through.