In Conversation: Howard Morgan

Howard Morgan

There are a wealth of leading figures in the property, investment, finance and charity sectors and we want to speak to them about their work. If you would like to feature in this series, or to suggest someone who might, please get in touch through our contact us page or let us know on twitter.

Why not take a lucky dip into our In Conversation archives and discover:
Daniel Moylan, Deputy Chairman of Transport for London
Liz Peace, Chief Executive at British Property Federation
Simon Painter, Partner at Bircham Dyson Bell

Today we speak with Howard Morgan, founder and MD of RealService.

Could you sum up RealService and your role as Founder and MD?
When I founded RealService in 1999, my vision was to create a specialist consulting business to help the property industry to become truly customer focused. I passionately believe that the property industry will be more successful if it treats its tenants as valued customers. The good news is that I’m no longer a lone voice!

Our research, training and management consultancy services enable our clients to secure lasting improvements in the 3 R’s of real estate – revenue, retention and reputation. There’s still a long way to go before my vision is truly realised, but I’m extremely proud of what we’ve achieved to date. I’m also very proud of the RealService Best Practice Group, a “not for profit” membership group which we founded in 2004 with the active support of the British Property Federation and encouragement of Land Securities, PRUPIM, SEGRO and British Land. It has created a forum where best practice can be shared and benchmarked. Today the group has more than 20 members including leading owners and property managers.

Could you tell us about your background?
It comes as a surprise to some people but I’m a property guy through and through. I studied estate management at University of Reading and trained as a Chartered Surveyor at St Quintin (now part of CBRE) in London and Leeds. I switched from the advisory to client side when I was just 25 by joining public property investment company, Lynton Holdings pslc, and was lucky to carry the bag from some inspirational people. Lynton was acquired by airports group, BAA plc in 1988 where I was very influenced by CEO, Sir John Egan’s passion for the customer service.

The origins of RealService can actually be traced back to a New York real estate seminar that I attended in 1993 and which was delivered by, my now good friend, Mike Lipsey. My light-bulb moment was when Mike told the packed room “You guys need to understand that you are not in the bricks and mortar industry any more, you are in the hospitality industry”. It still sends a shiver down my spine!

On my return to the UK, I was the architect of BAA plc’s ‘Property Challenge’ programme. This award-winning strategy was to grow the company’s commercial property business across BAA’s seven airports by treating tenants as valued customers. It was a strategy that resulted in a dramatic growth in business and endorsement from BAA’s regulator. After redundancy from BAA in 1998, RealService was born. The rest, as they say, is history.

You recently won RESI’s Dragons Den with your idea for ‘CheckYourLet.com’. Can you tell us more about it?
It has puzzled me for a while why it’s easier to find the name of a good place to stay in Timbuktu on TripAdvisor than it is to find the name of a good residential landlord in London. Why is the property sector so poor on transparency, when it has so much to gain? A visit to Washington DC in May brought ApartmentRatings.com to my attention and how this review website is rewriting the rules for customer feedback.

What interested me when creating my pitch for Dragons Den was whether I could get the big residential landlords in the UK to buy into the idea of a “Tripadvisor” for the property industry. The next stage is to conduct a full ‘scoping study’ to find out the extent to which the big resi landlords will actively support the project and to create a business plan to ensure the website  works as a profit-making enterprise.

What industry has the highest customer service levels, and why?
I think the cruise line industry has a lot to teach us in property. Just imagine an apartment block with 1,500 units which provides a full management and leasing service – concierge, full board catering, entertainment, casino, security and maintenance – for 3,000 residents and 1,500 staff. They are so good at turnaround that they move all 3,000 residents in on the same day that they move the previous residents out. And by the way, I forgot to mention that the apartment block moves 500 miles a day! If you haven’t tried it, I suggest you give it a go – you will be hooked.

When did you last enjoy excellent customer service?
My wife and I recently spent a weekend in the Cotswolds where we enjoyed the true spirit of hospitality at two different B&Bs. Both places shared the same magical ingredients: they made me feel welcome from the first point of contact until the last good-bye; they gave genuine greetings and gave the sense they would rather be providing great service than anything else; nice touches which showed the owners cared, like a little flask of sherry in your room as a night-cap; service that was customised to individual needs and beautifully presented facilities.

I could go on…. but under-pinning all this was a sense of pride and purpose – the spirit of hospitality. Don’t get me wrong – these are both commercial ventures charging £90 per night B&B – and not in it for the love alone. The fact that they are getting high occupancy rates throughout the year by providing the true spirit of hospitality is proof that it works.

What’s your biggest bug-bear when it comes to service?
I hate organisations that try to blame the customer for their own failings and recently experienced this at a top steak restaurant in Manchester. Suffice to say I won’t be going back.

What one tip would you give to businesses about improving customer service?
In my experience, too many organisations need a better understanding of how to handle customer feedback – even if on the face of it they seem eager to receive it. I hold to the STEW principle: S = say sorry for your disappointment; T = say thank you for the feedback; E = explain what you are going to do next; W = wow them with the resolution.

What does a typical day look like for you?
I try to divide my time equally between providing advice to clients, winning new clients and running the business. I’m fortunate to have a great support team which now allows me to spend more time out of the office and in particular I love helping groups of leasing and property management people to think differently. We have just launched two new training programmes for 2012, Performance Leasing and Performance Retention.

What are the main day-to-day challenges you face in your role?
The main day-to-day challenges are keeping one step ahead of our clients’ requirements and making sure that we continue to deliver research and consulting of the highest quality.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your role?
This has to be when clients give us great feedback and say things like “you have changed the way we think about the property industry”. I set out to make change happen and it’s great when it does.

Finally, do you have a favourite London landmark?
It’s probably the Lloyds of London Building. It’s a constant reminder that you can break the rules of conventional thinking and that the future doesn’t have to be the same as the past.

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