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Recruitment: experts advise

publication date: Mar 3, 2010
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recruitmentRecruiting is never an easy job. It takes time and it takes effort – effort which a lot of estate agents wish they were putting into getting instructions, or making sales, rather than trying to hire a negotiator.

Fortunately estate agents don’t have to do all the work themselves – unless they want to. The growth of specialist recruitment agencies supplying the property sector allows them to outsource at least part of the recruitment process.

Using a recruitment agency should, at the very least, save time spent looking at hopelessly unsuitable candidates’ CVs.

Annette Farrell of Estate Agency Recruitment says she regularly sees employers who have spent weeks sorting through hundreds of online candidates and sometimes interviewing as many as 30 candidates – and still have not found anyone suitable. It’s only after wasting that time that the estate agents call her!

However Simon Mortlock, sales director at Curchods, is not convinced by this argument. He says “It doesn’t take me too long to work out from a CV whether this is someone we want to see, or not. There are some immediate things I look for – sifting mechanisms like the cover note – so it takes me 30 seconds to sift through.” He prefers to recruit direct, and says he has found Curchods gets a good quality of candidate by doing so.

Recruitment agencies can save time in another way, though. While an estate agent typically starts the recruitment process with advertising and has to go through the stages of shortlisting, then interviewing and finally making a job offer, recruitment agencies already have a database of suitable candidates, so they can short-cut the process. Annette Farrell says, “We have been known to fill roles within 24 hours of being instructed,” though she admits that even with a full contacts book it can sometimes take months to fill senior, specialist roles.

One of the main things a recruitment agency’s clients are paying for is its contacts database.

Joshua Rayner, MD of Dove & Hawk, says the company gets over 50 per cent of its hires from recommendations, not from advertising – something few estate agents would be able to do. He regularly attends awards evenings and other property industry events, so he knows many of the people he’s dealing with personally.

quoteAt the same time, he says, a specialised agency should know the sector and understand exactly what’s needed. General agencies like Reed can be good for administrative jobs. “We use Reed to put those jobs online,” he says, but they don’t work well for key sales roles. “A McDonald’s branch manager is different from an estate agency branch manager. Just because you can run one doesn’t mean you can run the other!” He points out that he’s a former estate agent, so he understands the job, and knows the way the market works.

He also believes general agencies fail to understand their clients well enough. For instance, he says, someone who is going to fit in well at Savills or Hamptons just isn’t going to work for “the little one branch office that wants a bit of a Del Boy”.

The general recruitment agency is often driven by volume business – one PA or part qualified accountant is much the same as another and one client is much the same as another as far as they’re concerned. Specialised recruiters, on the other hand, are more likely to take time building relationships.

Annette Farrell says, “We genuinely understand the client’s business and have researched their company culture.” She believes this is crucial to getting the right person and sometimes, she says, the recruitment agency can be a better judge than the agent. “We are fortunate to have built up excellent relationships with our clients over the years, to the extent that we can often arrange interviews for exceptional candidates on the strength of our recommendation,” she says. “Good candidates and new clients can come from many different sources, but we do find that personal recommendation is the most consistent of all and produces the highest calibre of candidate.”

Like Joshua Rayner, she believes general agencies miss many of the subtleties of the market. “A high street recruiter is unlikely to fully understand the difference between a block manager, an estate manager, an asset manager and a residential property manager,” she says, so they are likely to put forward candidates whose expertise and experience is not the best match for the job.

Another big difference between the best specialists and the more general recruitment agencies is the proactive work that the specialists carry out to find the best candidates, rather than waiting for them to contact the recruiter. For instance, Dove & Hawk’s local consultants ‘mystery shop’ in local High Street agents, trying to identify the best people in the market.

“We headhunt,” Joshua Rayner says. “A lot of people just use Total Jobs or Monster, but we go out and find people. Everyone wants people with local expertise, and that’s what we can find.”

Quote2He also points out that regular clients benefit from the fact that Dove & Hawk belongs to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, and benefits from its legal and other resources. It can help clients with enquiries from employment law to typical pay levels within a sector.

But of course, this assistance has a cost – generally from 10 to 20 per cent of the first year’s salary, which is a fairly hefty bill working out at several thousand pounds per employee. There’s some evidence that recruitment agencies are recognising how much a disincentive this can be – for instance Dove & Hawk will be starting an online business. “Online is a cheaper business you can use with a monthly subscription basis,” Joshua Rayner says; he points out, too, that for his regular business, all placements are given a four week trial, “so if it doesn’t work out in the first month you get a 100 per cent rebate.”

Estate agents who really want to cut costs might consider one of the online recruitment boards, such as Monster Jobs or Totaljobs. However, while flat fees of £99 to £200 look attractive – there are even bulk deals available for multiple job postings – that’s purely for advertising. Few of these sites offer more than very cursory checking of candidates’ suitability, and none of them handle first interviews or full shortlisting.

The cost is probably one of the major reasons why Simon Mortlock is happy to do his own recruiting; his methods use a bit of his time, but very little money. “We have an incredibly low attrition rate,” he says, “so we don’t need to do a lot of marketing.” He uses the Curchods website, as well as the old estate agent trick of putting a notice in the shop window, which seems to get a good response. It attracts good quality candidates, too. “We have some pretty clued up people coming along.”

There’s a good case for using a mix of resources – perhaps using specialised agencies for more senior jobs and more experienced candidates, while going direct for trainees and using general recruitment agencies for support staff. That would probably secure the best result in the most cost- efficient way for many agents.

One thing that both recruiters and estate agents agree on, though, is that local press advertising doesn’t really work. Joshua Rayner would consider local print media if he was advertising trainee negotiator positions, but otherwise finds it produces the wrong type of candidate. And Simon Mortlock says, “We haven’t put an advert in the local paper. It’s not something that we would immediately think to do – not from a negotiator point of view anyway.”

The last couple of years have been dire for both estate agents and recruiters in the property sector. But it seems things are looking up. Curchods is now on a recruitment drive; Simon Mortlock says the firm is looking to bring in new trainees to a number of branches. Joshua Rayner says, “The market’s picked up again,” while two or three months ago, demand was mainly for listers, now, demand for negotiators is coming back, and he’s even hiring area managers.

Savage cuts in the workforce at many agents have left them ill equipped to deal with a more buoyant housing market, he says. “A lot of people have stripped down to the bare bones and now they’ve got gaps happening. If two of their negotiators go on holiday over Christmas and then someone is sick, they won’t have anybody to answer the phone.”

That makes speed of the utmost importance. “Quite often they say ‘We’re looking for this and we want it yesterday’ – desperately, urgently, not to fill it in a few weeks’ time.” He believes that makes the market very different from what it was at the height of the boom; now, recruiters have a much more challenging task ahead of them.

ask the expertAnthony Hesse of Property Personnel points out how while vacancy levels in residential sales fell, lettings and property management vacancies remained strong. But while that might indicate there’s a surplus of excellent residential sales candidates looking for work, that hasn’t in fact been the case. It’s become more difficult to get good people, because, “Up to 80 per cent of people either losing or leaving their jobs in estate agency are changing career paths,” thinning the talent pool. And with on target earnings now lower than when most negotiators joined the industry, it’s difficult to tempt them back. Many younger ex-negotiators are choosing to go travelling for a while, or to go back into education.

Annette Farrell believes estate agents have to raise their game to get the right people. The highest demand currently is for experienced sales and lettings negotiators. But she says these candidates know their way around the market and they won’t interview for positions where the expectations are not clear.

“Where the employer is vague about their requirements and cannot define the role or confirm the salary and benefits, candidates are reluctant to interview. Employers can miss out on seeing someone who could be hugely beneficial to their business.”

She also sees CVs from many managers and salespeople with financial services or retail experience looking to move into estate agency. But, she says, it’s experienced negotiators that the estate agents are looking for – not ‘crossover’ candidates. So an apparent wealth of potential, judged purely on the number of CVs coming in, masks a real shortage in experienced, qualified candidates.

Joshua Rayner agrees that this is a candidate’s, not a recruiter’s, market. “Dove & Hawk has got more jobs than have good candidates,” he says. He points out that while basic salaries have remained pretty much on a level for some years, the bonus element has been badly affected by the decline in property prices and in the volume of sales. “From about £30,000 in 2003 to 2006, OTE has come down to nearer £25,000,” he says, “and that just isn’t all that attractive.”

Joshua has one thing to say to anyone who left the market over the last couple of years. “If you’re interested – come back to the market, and fast, please!