Phil Harris is one of Australia’s pinnacle sales agents and an inspiring business leader. Sarah Bell sat down with Phil in his hometown of Adelaide to capture his perspective on the state of the property profession as we head into 2017.
Phil, consumers have the power to fire everyone in a business from the CEO down if they don’t get what they want. What does a vendor or landlord want in 2017?
I think the consumer for 2017 actually hasn’t changed a whole lot. It’s just that now they’ve got a platform and a voice they are really speaking out. We’re used to saying ‘customers want transparency, they want honesty, they want lightning speed’. Whereas before they didn’t get much of a platform, now there’s social media everybody’s so connected. Now the consumer is actually making a song and dance if they don’t get that. I think the big shift is now you actually do have to deliver upon it. The shift is the consumer now gets what they want.
Is keeping up with consumer expectations the biggest challenge facing agents and agencies?
From what I see, the biggest challenge facing the industry is the migration from being a typical real estate office, husband and wife running a corner store-style operation, to now being forced to provide a really high level of customer service – a value-added proposition.
Do you think that the disparity between the modern agents and the old school is becoming more obvious to consumers?
The great divide is getting bigger and bigger, between the agencies that do it [customer service] really well versus the ones that don’t and are struggling. It’s getting harder and harder to operate that traditional real estate model.
How can an agency make the leap and start to stand out above their competitors?
You’ve got to make a decision: am I all in? If you’re not all in it’s really, really hard now. You need to come to work every day and look at how you can reinvent every single part of your business. How do you make it faster? How do you make it more streamlined? How do you provide better value? How do you provide better customer service?
If you’re just in that traditional model of ‘I’m just coming to work today to concentrate on today’s listing and today’s sale and today’s management’, you’re not going to survive.
So are we really looking at a relentless march of continuous improvement, Phil?
A business needs to be in permanent beta phase.
I look at Harris and we have some pretty strong verticals across our business, or departments I should say. There’s strong business planning across all of those platforms where our business planners are very accountability-based and very project-based.
Projects address the practicality of how ideas become action, don’t they?
We address them in big threes. We now have big three projects that need to be completed for the quarter, and then three big projects that span the year in each department. We’re getting together on a management level on a weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual basis to review the projects. It takes the focus off improvement as such and places it more on completing projects. Then, naturally, just by completing the projects we’re a better real estate company than we were the month before, because we’ve completed three projects across the month.
Projects are the tactic for you that turn your strategy into action.
Correct. Like you, I go to lots of conferences and I get lots of great ideas, but everybody in the room gets the great ideas. How can you actually get them into the business? It’s more about empowering the people [in our business] to become implementers.
Empowerment is crucial to get someone performing in your organisation. What would you say about how to be successful to a younger Phil Harris starting out today?
Part of me says that I wouldn’t want to be stuck as an agent today, because it’s tough. Then I would say, ‘Look at the opportunities’. It’s what you want to subscribe to. I think there’s great opportunity [for those] starting out today, because the reality is that, while there are a lot of real estate agents out there, there’s still plenty of room for really good agents and there’s still a hole in the market for great operators.
What could you have done to fast-track your success?
I would have got a lot more focused on learning in my first six months, in getting really schooled up and educated. The typical integration to real estate as an agent is, ‘You got your licence, now go out there and knock on some doors’. I would do it the other way around: get really skilled up, then hit the pavement.
Also, learn. Just learn, learn, learn, learn, learn. Be a product knowledge champion before you go out there. Be good at getting stuff done.
How do you define success these days and has your understanding of what success is changed throughout your career?
I think I look at things a little more realistically now. To me, ultimately, success without meaning and fulfilment is failure. I probably learned in the last few years that it [success] is completely at an individual level.
I think one of the biggest traps of our industry is that it’s such a short-term industry. With the proliferation of social media, where everyone loves to put everything, every day, every listing online, [it’s] almost like they are compelled to because of what their competitor is doing, or whatever. Not to say I’m too esoteric about it but, ultimately, if your purpose is connected with excellence, serving other people, if that genuinely fulfils you then the numbers should generally take care of themselves.
That approach would help ride out some of the down cycles too, Phil?
If we were to have a bad month, I don’t want to go home and be depressed, because I’m still the same person… It’s a very difficult thing [but] it’s a trainable thing. You need to learn to connect with other things that are more important than numbers, I think.
What are you and the team at Harris doing to have your best year in 2017?
We’re firm believers that inoculation to disruption is education. We want to out-learn our competition.
We need to be an obsessive customer service-focused business. Our competition isn’t just real estate agents now; we’re being compared to tech companies and retailers with online shopping platforms.
Understand that you have little control over the market, but you have control over your skill set. A great agent is going to stand out in any marketplace.