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The journey of leadership in a brave new world

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With Robert Ward

Robert Ward has never shied away from responsibility and challenges. Buying his first agency at 21, in the leafy North shore suburb of Wahroonga, he is now steering one of Sydney’s most iconic bespoke brands, Di Jones, through a journey of rebirth and reinvention.

Three years ago, he decided he wanted to do something bigger and found himself in a meeting with the legendary Di Jones and her husband Bill. Robert recalls, “The brand was 24 years old and she was an icon. She was a trailblazer and known for innovation and it was a huge moment to sit in her lounge room and listen. I was trying to act tough, but really inside I was absolutely panicking and just so pleased. I formed a great relationship with her and admired her greatly and it’s sad that she's passed on. If she could see what we're doing now. I promised her that I'd honour her legacy and take her name to places that she wanted to see it go so it's amazing to be taking this forward."

Since taking on the role of CEO, Robert has grown the brand quickly from Wahroonga, down the North Shore to Paddington and out to the Southern Highlands. He doesn’t seem to see all the doom and gloom currently gripping the market. He only sees opportunities in this brave new world.

Once a merger is complete with another leading independent brand, they will be the largest independently owned real estate company in New South Wales. With 165 staff, over a billion dollars in sales and 3500 properties under management, Di Jones has become a significant business. The warm and beloved brand Di Jones created, resonates with their target audience. Robert says, “Brands are about the people inside them and the DNA and the values. Our four values are family, passion, authenticity, and collaboration. It's certainly aligned with what she believed in at the time so whilst the people have changed, the brand has stayed the same. We're kind of rebirthing those same set of values and DNA and it's allowing us to move forward."

Understanding the buyers

Di Jones clearly understands the market they serve. Robert realised there were clear trends and lifestyle choices being made by the buyers presenting to their offices. Robert says, “It all started because of our original office in Wahroonga. People tended to go through a journey where their children left school, and they'd want to stay on or either move to the Lower North Shore, the Eastern suburbs - Paddington, Woollahra - or Bowral or Burradoo on the Southern Highlands. We took on the Woollahra office because it meant we could handle both sides of the transaction."

He adds, “More importantly, we could swim upstream because on a Saturday afternoon at the moment in Di Jones, we might have anywhere between 1000 - 1500 groups go through open homes. I can get a report on a Saturday afternoon that says, ‘Well, down in the Southern Highlands, we've had 200 people through, and these people live on the Upper North Shore, these people live in the Lower North Shore,’ because we're capturing that data at the open houses. Before they've even got home that afternoon, we know that person in real estate mode, and we know that we can target them. We're in a position where we can provide leads for our agents, but more importantly, we now know by studying those patterns, where we need to target properties to ensure maximum result for the client."

Providing a great customer experience

Robert is committed to providing a seamless, immediate and consistent customer experience. He says, “We have everything coming into one place, so that means that shortly we'll be able to turn on some artificial intelligence, and every single enquiry that comes to a Di Jones listing will have a response within four minutes. We did some research last year that showed that the average response time for an enquiry on realestate.com.au and domain.com.au was actually 42 hours. When you think about Uber these days, when you're waiting for six minutes for an Uber, you actually get frustrated. We've centralised which means we can provide a better customer experience."

He understands that if you provide a good experience, the consumer is more likely to provide relevant information, which in turn enables agencies to provide useful content to them. Robert says, “It's about handling that front end experience, so the rivers of gold don’t flow through your fingers and we prevent leakage. The team agreed last year, ‘Yep, Rob, you can have all of our enquiries, you can have all of our inspection data’. We pooled it all together, and we got this rich base platform, which we can create things from."

Creating collaborative teams

Robert really understands that real estate is a team sport in the digital era and has transitioned to help staff to work collaboratively and to play to their strengths. They have centralised their data and are looking at ways to take on big players entering into the market in ways never seen before. He says, “The only way to get around that is centralisation and bringing your data together and collaborating. If an agent inside our business doesn't collaborate and doesn't live by that value, it's just not for them. We let a million dollar writer go because they wouldn't collaborate. As soon as you let one, the rest of them start wanting to do it as well. It's all in, and, all of us together are much more powerful than each individual."

The company is about to implement Pitch, Sign and Flow. Robert says it fulfils compliance but it also makes the salesperson's job easier. He says, “I think there's been a lot of talk about technology and all the bits and pieces that are going to make a salesperson's job easier, but I think over the last 10 years, the salesperson's job has in fact got harder. If I think about my first day in real estate, I remember walking in, there were no computers on the desk and I thought to myself, ‘Well, this office is really behind the times’. The reality is you don't want sales people sitting at their desk with a computer typing away at a database. They need to be existing in a space which is listing properties, talking, negotiating, selling. That's it."

He adds, “As a group we provide technology enablement, which will enable the salespeople to do what they do best. If you think about solicitors and barristers and junior paralegals - they all have a role. The barrister only comes in to close and do the deal, and I think that's the same in real estate. The high producing agents, if you really study what they do - they spend their time on buyers, on sellers, in lounge rooms, facing customers and people who are about to make a decision. That's what I want, to get to a point where our salespeople, and we might have 100 or 200 at one point, I want them spending their time doing that."

Candidly, he argues, “A good salesperson is actually not good at front end experience, which is responding to email enquiry and responding to phone calls, because they tend to take the phone call, say, ‘Yes, mate, the price guide is $1.2m’, and hang the phone up without actually understanding what that journey is about for the client, because they're in a hurry. You can replace that front end, leave them sitting in the space they should be sitting in, and then fix the back end experience."

A new approach for a new age

Finally, Robert is really determined to do business differently – to be as warm and generous with his staff and clients as Di Jones was herself. He says, “If people want to leave, we'll give them a copy of their data and let them take it with them. We're not about sort of keeping it away from them. In fact, we'll even send an email to their whole list of people and say, ‘Look, just letting you know that John's about to leave. If you'd like to go with him and keep in touch with him, just click this button here. If you'd like more information, click this button, or if you'd prefer, I'm here. If you'd like more information, click this button. Or if you'd prefer we didn't get in touch, click this button’."

He says, “As an industry, I think we've got to get away from closing our arms across ourselves and thinking that we own things, and open up and say, ‘More is more’. We need an abundance mentality. How do we have that view? We see real cases every day in Di Jones, where someone in Wahroonga is meeting someone who happens to own an investment property in Neutral Bay, or has a weekender in Bowral or Burradoo, and they're picking up on it. And every day it's getting stronger and stronger because the data gets richer and richer. We're only three years in, but we're so far ahead because for other people to catch up and centralise, it's a huge journey."

The benefits of being agile

If companies want to change how they work, Robert believes, “They've got to have a genuine, compelling reason for the change and be able to deliver that, and I have no doubt that the larger franchise groups would like to do this. They'd like to bring it all together, but again, they don't know how. I mean, some of them can't even get their marketing consistent, let alone try to get the data together. We're just lucky because we can move quickly, we're agile, we can innovate, and we have a set of beliefs. When you're inducted, we explain: ‘These are the values of the organisation, this is how we run, and if you're not onboard with that, that's okay. It's not because there's something wrong with you or something wrong with me. It's just not the place for you’."

In the future…

Robert says, “What we're passionate about is providing the best services for salespeople so that they can do their job better than ever.” The way they will do it is by using the guiding principles listed below.

The Di Jones six key foundations

1. Provide a brand offering

Constantly ask: What is our offering? How are we improving it? Is it the best offering out there?

2. Have great marketing

Great marketing ensures that internal and external clients aspire to have themselves represented by the company.

3. Technology

Is it enabling us to be better at our jobs, or is it actually bogging us down? There's a big difference. Robert says, “Technology can bog you down, or it can enable you to be more efficient. And it is an enabler. It will never replace people, because you can't have a relationship with a computer. You can with a person. There's emotion involved in that."

4. People and growth and rewards and recognition  

Constantly ask: What are we doing to bring people together? How do we create a sense of community? How do we reward and recognise our staff?  

5. Training, coaching, mentoring

Training is, ‘This is what you need to do’. Coaching is, ‘This is how you do it’ and mentoring is, ‘Let me help you bring it together’ - and your personal life might perhaps be part of that as well. 

6. Lead generation

The biggest one. How do we generate qualified leads for our networks, so they can actually make more money in less time and have more fun? Even if this brave new world changes how business is conducted, people will always need to sell houses. Di Jones will be there, ready and waiting.
 

 

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