We are increasingly entrusting the most important decisions of our lives to technology. Our jobs, relationships, homes – there’s nothing it seems that can’t be fixed by the press of a button.

There are some obvious – and good – reasons for our online fixation. The promise of greater choice, 24/7 access to the ‘shop floor’, more control over our own decision-making, lower costs…  But there are inevitable downsides too: products or services we don’t really need, time wasted glued to our laptops and smartphones – and an ever-diminishing role for real human interaction.  

In this piece, we talk to professionals across legal recruitment, property, relationships and travel about the role for professionals in a world that can’t stop swiping.

Fool’s gold?

 

In law, technology increasingly permeates every part of legal service delivery – including how people are recruited into firms.  ‘In the legal sector, we have seen an increasing number of law firms investing considerable energy into direct sourcing. When done well, this can really add value to the recruitment process, helping firms to engage upfront with a broader pool of talent,’ says Tim Skipper, Managing Director of recruitment firm Totum Partners. ‘But it can also lead to a scattergun approach that wastes everyone’s time and even damages reputation.’ Attracting unsuitable candidates won’t help recruitment. And focusing on cost at the expense of employer brand can be dangerous.

In the property sector, too, over 90% of people now begin their property search online. ‘The portals have become enormous, with online agencies springing up with massive investor backing,’ says Emilie Thysse, Owner of Yellow Door Talent Development, an executive training consultancy that operates across the service sector, including estate agency, where Thysse started her career.

But the process, she argues, lends to poor customer service. ‘Professional “traditional” agents don’t get paid until the property exchanges – a huge proportion of the work is spent on seeing the sale through the conveyancing process, keeping the solicitors, buyers and vendors on track through what is often an emotionally fraught process,’ she says. Conversely, online agents are typically paid a fixed price for listing the property on their website. ‘There isn’t the same incentive for online agents to see it through,’ she adds.

While upfront fixed costs may seem cheaper and clearer than the commission charged by traditional agents, Thysse thinks that the percentage fee also incentivises agents to get the best possible price. ‘The perception is that by going online you save commission (and TV advertising is fuelling that), but the reality is that a skilled, professional agent who has access to the right buyer and can negotiate on your behalf can often achieve dramatically more on the sale price achieved – often as much as 10-15% more,’ she says. ‘You have to unpackage the fees. What are you actually getting for your money?’

The same goes for recruitment, says Skipper, where consultants are incentivised to ensure placements work in the long term – financial and brand success is predicated on a recruitment firm’s ability to make matches that last.

Time cost


Talking to professionals in recruitment, property, relationships and travel, it is clear that many clients and customers come to the professionals when an online search has failed – and often only after wasting considerable time. ‘People think going online is a quick fix,’ says Rachel MacLynn, who set up high-end matchmaking agency Vida Consultancy in 2011. ‘But it’s so time consuming. People go on endless dates that don’t go anywhere, or don’t meet up to expectations, and then they’re back to square one. We’re a coaching service too, so we help clients through the whole process.’

Thysse agrees, arguing that while people may start their property searches online, statistics suggest that far fewer end up finding the property they buy in this way. That’s because requirements shift. ‘A good agent listens, guides and advises the buyer to help them understand the market and prioritise their needs. This takes forever through trial-and-error online portal surfing,’ she says.

‘We benefit from those that struggle to find what they are looking for online,’ says James Bell, Managing Director of Turquoise Holidays. ‘I think online is great for inanimate objects – a washing machine, for example. But something like a holiday is different – it’s emotional and often involves complex requirements.’

He cites, by way of example, honeymooners who are often booking their first luxury holiday, and need help knowing where to start; or families with special requirements for partitioned or adjoining rooms. ‘I wouldn’t come to us for a flight to Edinburgh,’ he says. ‘But if I needed a transfer, hotel, and a range of things, it becomes harder for the internet to cope and compete,’ he says. He adds that they often have arrangements with smaller hotels and groups too – those that they have a direct relationship with and that struggle to afford the cost of a listing on the large online portals. ‘This is where we add value,’ he says.

The question of value

 

In recruitment, Skipper emphasises the importance of meeting everyone face-to-face. This means that he and his team not only get to know clients and candidates better, but they can often address misconceptions and unique requirements – a candidate who wrongly thinks that law means working all hours, or a law firm that doesn’t know how to define a new role or the skills that will be required to deliver an agreed business objective. 

And yet, he knows of law firms that have hired people purely to trawl LinkedIn in search of suitable candidates to source directly. ‘We know if a candidate isn’t suitable for a role, right from the get-go,’ he says. ‘But we see firms taking the LinkedIn route and going right through the recruitment process before discovering there’s a fundamental problem – like the candidate’s salary expectations go vastly beyond budget.’ Understanding the market, the candidates and the recruiting law firms, and being involved to help broker a good deal for both parties means that in the long run time and money is saved when a better and more enduring match is secured. ‘You have to remember how much value you get from working with experts,’ he adds.

MacLynn agrees. ‘The team at Vida comprises psychologists and highly skilled and trained professionals. Most are multilingual and come from international backgrounds. They know the market like the back of their hand,’ she says. MacLynn says that 80 per cent of Vida’s clients secure long-term relationships, typically by the fifth or sixth introduction.

For Totum too, Skipper says that the vast majority of those they have placed in director-level positions are still in their roles three years later, which is testament to their ability to assess not only the core competency of their candidates but, crucially, their cultural fit. For the more traditional professionals, the long-term success rates are an important differentiator.

But is this value really being articulated against the simple and cheap online offerings? Bell, for instance, talks about how Turquoise Holidays has realigned its business in the wake of online operators, and put more into service delivery. ‘The price we offer is also comparable, often cheaper – hoteliers often give us a better rate and we rarely lose out to Expedia. If it really was cheaper online then we’d be more concerned,’ he says. But to look at the company’s description online, the first thing you notice is the word ‘luxury’. For many people, this will not equate to ‘value’ or great service, but to expense. ‘We thought about this for a while, asking how do we grow? And we decided that luxury but affordable was the best direction,’ he says. Conveying the message that you can deliver both may well be the challenge in today’s online environment.

Real world security

 

There may be signs, however, of a backlash against online outfits. Bell says that Turquoise’s branch in Beaconsfield is so busy at the weekend that the challenge is to find sufficient staff – ‘People like to see that it exists, that what we offer is real,’ he says. At a time when a growing number of people have fallen foul of travel scams – arriving for holidays at villas that don’t exist, for instance – it’s reassuring to deal with real people who are accountable. ‘We don’t sell anything we haven’t seen,’ says Bell.

‘The safety aspect of online agents blows my mind,’ adds Thysse. ‘Often you don’t get accompanied viewings – you’re just letting anyone into your home, with all the risk in terms of burglaries and personal safety.’ Some online agencies are now addressing this, offering accompanied viewings as an optional extra – but this will add to the price, of course, diminishing the perceived cost advantage of going online in the first place.

Emotional vs practical need

 

This doesn’t necessarily come down to a fight between traditional and modern operators. ‘I think the market is polarising,’ says Thysse. ‘On one side lie the online offerings for a fixed fee. At the other are the more consultative businesses.’

‘The type of client we typically work with is looking to meet not just a practical need but an emotional one,’ says MacLynn. As the emotional component in the transaction rises – the ‘forever’ home, the long-term relationship after a bad break-up, the job that gets you out of the rut – so does the need for human understanding and interaction.

‘Studies have shown that there are a lot of activities that simply cannot be automated,’ says Thysse. ‘Any decent headhunter, estate agent or matchmaker will know that listening and understanding their client is essential to piece together the role, house or partner they will choose.’ She cites a quote by Daniel H. Pink from his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, ‘Routine work can be outsourced or automated; artistic, empathetic, non-routine work generally cannot.’

But perhaps the key to all this lies with the word ‘decent’. For between the automated online offerings and the consultative people-based businesses lies the middle ground, where operators try to be all things to all people: a quick fix with low prices, endless options and supposedly excellent customer service to boot. When they fail to deliver, they give a bad name to everyone, and compound the problem of distrust that ultimately undermines all. It is these operators, thinks Thysse, which need to be wiped out.

‘As professionals, we pride ourselves on our ability to build lasting relationships with clients who trust us to deliver time and again,’ says Skipper. ‘We now need to work harder than ever to articulate and demonstrate this worth in an online world focused on often illusory promises of immediacy and low cost.’

And for every hour we spend glued to a screen, searching for the job, house, partner, or whatever else we think will make us happy, we surely have to remember that we do it instead of spending time with friends and family in the here and now, and at the expense of our kids who think that being hooked to a tablet or phone is the right way to live. And then we have to ask, is the priority really to save money or, in these all important areas of life at least, is it to make the right and the best decisions first time?

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