'Two bedrooms, a garden and a tall latte'

The estate agent's role is looking shaky. Clients expect a lot more now - good coffee, for a start
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The Independent Online

The aroma of coffee may be a dated cliché if you want to sell your house, but now it's one of the tools being used to woo you into an estate agent. Pop into your "local" at the weekend and you're likely to be handed a cup of Costa Rican roasted coffee, the Saturday papers and a seat on an amoeba-shaped sofa.

The aroma of coffee may be a dated cliché if you want to sell your house, but now it's one of the tools being used to woo you into an estate agent. Pop into your "local" at the weekend and you're likely to be handed a cup of Costa Rican roasted coffee, the Saturday papers and a seat on an amoeba-shaped sofa.

Back in the 1980s, before property prices slumped, estate agents were at the peak of their power, unregulated and many untrained. They called the shots and alienated vast numbers of the public. Now it seems the worm is turning.

It's all part of the re-branding or repositioning of estate agents as a result of increased competition and the desire to become more acceptable. This is not only in the high street, where estate agents' fascias now vie for attention with the French bistro, but also on the web, which has fast become an essential added "window" for buying and selling property.

The results of a survey released this week by property website 08004homes.com re-veal the public still rates estate agents as the least helpful element when moving house. But Neil Mackwood, a director of the website, says: "Although they came bottom they didn't score too badly with around 60 per cent of respondents saying they were happy with the service."

Mortgage advisers came top with 80 per cent. Mr Mackwood sees the great disparity of service estate agents give as the problem. "Some are fantastic, yet others are deeply inept and tar the brush for the others."

The disgruntled public also has more opportunity to bypass the agent and their fees by selling privately. But this is rarely the chosen option for buyers and sellers who are income-rich and time-poor. With this in mind, some estate agents have seen the value of appealing to certain types of client. Morgans has an office in The Calls, a fashionable riverside warehouse conversion in Leeds. Properties for sale are displayed on digital "posters" produced in-house.

Managing director Jonathan Morgan is convinced this approach appeals to his clients - mostly young professionals. "As soon as clients come in they can see good interior, exterior and views-from shots of the properties, without having to wade through loads of details."

If the threat of competition has moved estate agents into taking steps to improve customer service, would not statutory licensing go further towards raising standards and shedding the overall negative public image? Graham Harris, president of the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), believes it is the only way to stamp out the cowboy element that has "swept in over the past 20 years". "We can only go so far with voluntary codes of practice," he says.

Self regulation has been slow and disappointing - only one in three estate agents has joined the Ombudsman Scheme. While the public is quick to blame the estate agent when things go wrong, by choosing one who has to comply to a code of practice they are less likely to experience problems with service.

Jane Pavitt, curator of Brand.New the V&A's autumn exhibition exploring branding, sees the whole idea of contemporary branding as "service with personality". "The way an estate agent's office, doctor's surgery and local bank are designed to look like a living room appeals to our expectations. If you are handed a cup of coffee and the FT it mirrors your own lifestyle and you begin to warm to the situation."

Ms Pavitt also sees postcode branding being used increasingly as a way of categorising consumers. "Your postcode reflects your income, age and lifestyle down to the newspaper you read."

London-based estate agent Ludlow Thompson recently reworded its logo to match its web address in response to the number of e-mail enquiries it is receiving.

Director Stephen Ludlow believes a high percentage of its clients work in the financial markets where e-mail is the main form of communication and time for house hunting is limited. "We've responded to requests from our regular customer questionnaires by giving each member of staff their own personalised e-mail to enable quick access to the client."

What about dressing down, just how far will an estate agent go? A survey commissioned by OfficeSmart revealed that around 60 per cent of the respondents thought that smart dressing commands greater respect from colleagues and clients. Psychologist Dr David Lewis believes "smart clothes convey an impression of a business-like approach, which the casual look rarely manages to communicate."

Mr Morgan agrees based on his experience in Leeds. "We thought dressing down just created a different kind of uniform and we felt disadvantaged when our clients were wearing suits. It seems to be a culture of the South-east."

Back in London, Mr Ludlow supports the north/south view. "Many people work from home now, so they come in to our offices dressed in casual gear and wouldn't see it as a problem if the staff are too." There have been embarrassing moments. One of their negotiators was asked if he'd come to deliver a fridge when he went to show a client around a house and had to explain the concept of a "dressing down" day.

When it comes to cars, estate agents show no signs of moving down a specification or two. While many agents start with a new bottom-of-the-range run-around, their sights are set a little higher once they meet their sales targets. Mr Ludlow thinks clients aren't in the least bit envious of the estate agent turning up in a smart car. "It shows that the member of staff is good at their job and has been rewarded accordingly."

And, of course, it could be another of those "feel-good" factors, so important in cementing relationships. The client is just as likely to be interested in discussing the agent's flashy new car as they are their flat.

Further info: Morgans, 0113 3980098; Brand.New is at the V&A from 19 October to 14 January 2001; www.ludlowthompson.com; www.08004homes.com; www.naea.co.uk