“We appreciated very early on that as a business we would be measured in the future by our response to Covid-19,” Paula and Jonathan Alsford – Realmark Whitfords
When panic surrounding Covid-19 began to filter through the West Australian real estate market, Realmark Whitfords owners Paula and Jonathan Alsford made a conscious decision – communication would be paramount, and clarity would be crucial.
“Initially we were hit with some panic and a lot of rumours about what was going to happen,” Jonathan recalls.
“Our aim was to slow things down and only relay the correct information. We knew we needed the right information from the right sources to provide timely, accurate and appropriate advice to our clients.”
That was no small challenge in mid-March when social media was running hot, government messaging was changing by the hour and the scope of the crisis unfolding felt overwhelming.
Paula and Jonathan geared up to become incredibly proactive about their communication, using tools like video, email campaigns, their own social media, and good old-fashioned phone calls.
They only sourced credible and confirmed information from the Federal and State Governments along with the REIWA and DIMRS (Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety). It was then dissected carefully before being disseminated to their clients.
The question at the forefront of their minds was: “how will this directly impact our customers” – how will it affect landlords, tenants, vendors and buyers, and what exactly do they need to know?
Confident and empowered
In addition to proactive communication, Paula explains staff training also took on a whole new impetus.
“We were coaching on the job, hour by hour, day by day,” she says. “It was imperative that our customer service was not affected. We were literally sitting beside staff as they were making phone calls to ensure they felt confident and empowered.”
When staff began working from home, Paula and Jonathan upped the ante with virtual meetings and regular check-ins. Critically they reassured their staff it was OK not to have all the answers.
“We urged them to admit if they didn’t know the answer, but to assure the client they would find out and get back to them,” Paula says.
Collectively, they also worked as a team to identify common questions and create responses.
In the interim, Paul and Jonathan’s focus also became supporting their team, while ensuring the public was aware Realmark Whitfords was still very much open for business.
“We phoned the team daily to see how they were and encouraged salespeople to make sure they were active on social media, so people knew they were still available. We closed the office to the public but as much as possible stuck to the usual routine,” Jonathan says.
The rent challenge
One of the biggest questions became handling the issue of rent reductions. While many tenants were keen to do the right thing, Paula and Jonathan said Federal Government messaging regarding rent negotiations with landlords and a moratorium on evictions created confusion for some.
To respond, Realmark Whitfords developed a formal application process for rent reductions.
“It was about maintaining the fine balance between tenant care, protecting the landlord’s return on investment and safeguarding the business for the future,” Jonathan says.
Later, when the WA Government released a rent relief package making up to $2000 available to tenants in distress, the Realmark Whitfords’ team quickly disseminated that information to affected tenants and landlords and assisted tenants through the application process.
“We tried to help them as much as possible,” Paula says.
Using the tools available
Within the business, Paula and Jonathan resisted the urge to adopt new technology, and instead used the tools available to them to better effect.
“We didn’t feel it was appropriate to adopt anything new,” Paula says.
Their existing virtual tours software became a mainstay, documents were signed online using DocuSign, and tenants were asked to conduct their own routine inspections and submit associated images.
“Often it was about creating procedure before policy,” Paula notes.
Where to from here
As Paula and Jonathan look to the future, they note many of these strategies will stay with the business. Reflecting on lessons learned and what they’ll take away from Covid-19, they say it’s likely the industry as a whole will see more people working remotely.
“It’s now been proven we can all achieve with less requirement for physical meetings, and obviously there’s less of a requirement for physical document signing,” Jonathan says.
Meanwhile, they are “cautiously optimistic” about the general outlook for the property market in WA.
“We’ve had opens and auctions back for two weeks now and for us the numbers are pretty good. Home opens have been busy, and we had a lot of transactions last week,” Jonathan says.
Personally, they are also proud of their team and the way they performed together under pressure.
“There were no benchmarks for Covid-19,” Paula says. “We just did the best we could. We appreciated very early on that as a business we would be measured in the future by our Covid-19 response.
“We’re proud of how things went and continue to go and there was something motivating and very inspiring about witnessing everyone in it together.”