If you've been looking for a new-build home recently, you've probably come to the conclusion that however different their products, most companies sell properties in more or less the same way.
The late Sir Lawrie Barratt, who gave Britain's largest housebuilder its name in the 1960s, is credited with introducing the show home over 40 years ago and the marketing style hasn't changed a great deal since then. Most developments will have a manned marketing suite, through which house-hunters have to go to get to the show home and in which they can look at plans, pick up brochures and perhaps look at a miniature 3D model of the development.
The aspiration to own a new home hasn’t changed much either, with the Department of Communities and Local Government registering 117,000 new homes completions to the end of September 2014 and nearly 140,000 new homes starts in the same period. This is against the backdrop of an acknowledged shortfall of hundreds of thousands of homes across the UK.
What has changed is almost everything else, including technology, telecommunications, the retail landscape and customer expectations. In the early 1970s, smartphones, email and the internet were the stuff of science fiction and these developments have ultimately led to a whole new way for consumers to seek information and purchase products. Buyers also now have much greater expectations when it comes to customer service and aftercare, and are often vocal online and on social media if the expected standards are not met.
“A review of the last NHBC/HBF customer survey shows a picture of declining satisfaction as buyers progress through the purchase journey,” says David Graydon, managing director of marketing company Classic Folios, who work at group level with seven of the UK’s top 10 housebuilders. “Of the 37,000 purchasers who responded to the survey, 12,800 were less than ‘very satisfied’ with the handover process. Fourteen thousand buyers were not exactly blown away with the information they were provided on moving in day, and more still – 16,700 – felt the service after moving in was not highly satisfactory.”
Housebuilding has a reputation for being slow to respond to change and compared to some industries, seems to have been left behind a little in our technology-led world. While the traditional new homes marketing model is still dominant within the industry, there are a number of companies aiming to change that model and introduce some new thinking to refresh the process.
“It would be far too bold to say that there is something wrong with the way that developers currently market their homes, but there are ways in which I consider it could be done better,” says James Mercer, managing director of Navigation Suites, which counts a number of Britain’s largest housebuilders among its clients. “I think that it’s time for an overhaul and for the process to become more customer-centric, better driven by technology, and more focused on what the customer wants. The process could become softer, less formal and more welcoming, at least once within the marketing suite.”
Use of technology
Graydon is also sure that technology is the key to changing buyers’ experience. “People are increasingly aware of how technology has changed the way companies do business,” he says. “ As millions of consumers are shifting their buying behaviour to smartphones and tablets versus shopping in-store or even on their PCs/laptops, it will inevitably follow that customers will expect the house purchase process to be, at the very least, more impressively backed up - with personalised digital support.”
He believes that the current marketing model is flawed and needs to be updated. “The main shortfall that we find (and experienced as purchasers ourselves) is the limited capabilities of housebuilders to deal with visitors, potential purchasers and subsequently customers, in a totally joined-up way as individuals, throughout the customer journey – from pre-sale visits through to reservation, completion and beyond.”
“We all want to research on the move, make informed decisions, compare everything, check with our social circle if we are on the right track, be in ecstasy at a One-Click checkout – and we have our minion gadgets to help us with all of that,” adds Pedja Guzvica of Axeo, whose portfolio includes household names such as Berkeley Homes, Linden Homes and Taylor Wimpey and who has been pushing the message home to his clients about the expectations of today’s savvy buyers . “Information is the magic word: the more you give, the less likely it is that your customers will ‘browse away’ from you and land somewhere else.”
“For example one of our clients, a very well-known large developer, has identified over 500 development-specific questions that a buyer may want to have the answer to and asked us to incorporate that into their Axeo system. Features like this prevent the unknown and could actually give more control to both the buyer and the developer.”
Improve the user experience
Mercer is most frustrated by the way that many housebuilders present their marketing suite and show home: “I really object to the ‘flytrap’ – the way in which potential purchasers or even just interested parties have to negotiate the maze and complete paperwork before they are even able to view the product, and then have to renegotiate the whole process on the way out. The show apartment is almost always hidden away at the back or upstairs out of view, and our industry is one of the only markets in which this is the case.
“The user experience is not great, and if the sales team is too busy to meet and greet them immediately it can be an uncomfortable experience for people who will often be making the biggest purchase of their lives. They want to feel valued, but can instead feel that they are treated with suspicion, having to effectively pass the sales person’s test before they can view the product.”
His solution is to implement a system where the customer’s needs are the prime consideration. “I’d love to see the show apartment at the centre of the sales process for developments – I dislike the way that the system can make people feel penned in. At Navigation, we’ve had a total re-think of marketing suites and our strategy is to do exactly that, with the customer experience coming first and foremost.
Technology will play a major part in this, he adds: “There are so many ways that even existing technology can support the marketing process, and it would be great to see it implemented and become a key part of the mix. Not only that but consumers will increasingly expect it and will want some form of theatre or engagement that technology can offer.”
Mercer suggests providing homebuyers with all the manuals, serial numbers, contract information and updatable data such as contact details for their homes and appliances on an iPad. A viewer’s show house experience can be enhanced by using publically available photos from their social media accounts on programmable photo frames throughout the property, utilising existing technology.
Lessons learned from other industries
With a general consensus that the industry needs to make significant changes to the way it entices homebuyers, where should housebuilders and developers be looking for inspiration? “Apple is an absolute leader in innovation, 100% driven by the ‘user experience’ which can be pretty much translated into the "customer journey" that developers are so keen to master. They spend billions in research so really why re-invent the hot water!?” asks Guzvica. Mercer also admires the US giant’s shops, where “the till is taken to the consumer.”
Mercer also looks at the car industry, where technology has allowed buyers to “effectively build their cars online and really allow them to visualise the final product, letting them feel that they are buying something bespoke”. He’s an admirer of McDonalds, too. “New restaurants are being built with iPads built into tables for the kids to play with. This is something that’s simple to recreate and would make the family experience within marketing suites much less stressful.”
Graydon is an admirer of the way leading retailers have worked to engender customer loyalty: “John Lewis and Amazon are examples of best practice. In just the same way as the retail trade acknowledges and works hard on developing the lifetime value of a customer, so too could housebuilders.”
Each of the marketing companies we’ve spoken to has already developed its own technology and software that is bringing changes to the way their housebuilding clients are working to engage house-hunters.
Classic Folios’ has a cloud-based system called myHomefiles which works across the entire construction and selling process, from pre-sales through to aftercare. Graydon explains: “[It] gets buyers connected into their new community, providing local information and helping support a social infrastructure. And whether a homeowner needs to reference videos or manuals to help understand their heating system or community travel plans, Classic Folios products provide everything buyers need to enjoy their new home. myHomefiles support thousands of individual buyers every step of the way through the nitty-gritty of the purchase process but, importantly for customers, far beyond this.”
Guzvica describes Axeo’s approach: “What we have been working on is to create an entire digital interactive ecosystem that is development specific, in a familiar format and that can work on all those ‘research gadgets’ used by the modern buyer. Basically, we want to help create a customer journey that genuinely flows from their visit and experience in the marketing suite to them pretty much taking the entire marketing suite in their pocket – with the model and show home included!”
At Navigation, Mercer and his team have taken the use of touch screens one step further, using large, touch-sensitive surfaces to allow the buyer to research and retain the information that they need: “Our tables are fully interactive, personal and engaging technology that serves personal information, with a great user experience that really allows purchasers to visualise what they are buying and create their own bespoke brochure which they can email to their own accounts.”
All this technology sounds expensive, but while it may seem that these innovations are destined only to be seen in high-end city developments, Mercer, Graydon and Guzvica are all in agreement that buyers across the UK and at different price points equally demand and deserve to be treated better in the process of buying a new home.
“The basic need of all customers is the same,” says Graydon. “Whether they are buying a multi-million pound lifestyle apartment or a first-time buyer investing in their first one-bedroom terrace – to feel valued as an individual customer, to know that the housebuilder will be there to help them with their purchase and to put things right if anything isn’t quite right after moving in.” Mercer concurs: “Why would rural consumers settle for less? It’s just as big a purchase for them.”
Some developers are already heeding the words of their marketing experts and re-appraising the traditional house marketing model they have used for so many years. Where a few lead, others will no doubt follow in time but even an evangelical like Axeo’s Pedja Guzvica doesn’t see a complete revolution on the cards.
“[The marketing suite] will be there for a long time as a required part of the sales process especially when selling off-plan. I guess it provides the reassuring physical presence when you haven’t laid a single brick in the ground and it’s also the reflection of the brand. What’s inside though should definitely change.” As for the humble sales brochure? “Put it in the bin – that’s where most end up anyway – and replace it with something more functional.”
Though an overnight change in the way new homes are sold in the UK is highly unlikely, if you are on the hunt for a new-build, you may be in for a pleasant surprise the next time you visit one of the thousands of developments underway across the country.