009 SME Surveyor Business Stories with Mark O’Halloran

Marion caught up with Mark O’Halloran, the owner of Nuven Surveyors, an independent firm of Chartered Surveyors founded in 2016, which is operating in Horsham, West Sussex and surrounding areas. They are a small team of five, all working from home. He shares his story of becoming a surveyor, how he manages to keep the work going while being at home with three-year old twins, as well as how things are changing in the surveying business.

Why Your Career Before Surveying Can Shape Your Career

“From an early age I wanted to get into restoration and I was quite keen on art,” Mark begins. “Originally I was going to do an architecture course at university, but the length of the course wasn’t for me, so I just went down the general practice route. While at university, I had a carpet cleaning business, and I funded my studies through the business. As soon as I got qualified, I was trying to learn as much as I could from different people and different firms, and then I just realized I needed to get out there and do it on my own. Because that’s what I enjoy doing, starting businesses and growing organically.”

Although it was a carpet cleaning business, Mark learned many business skills that he was able to bring into his career as a surveyor.

Juggling Family Life During the Coronavirus

Like many of us, Mark is geared up to work from home, but there are big challenges in finding a quiet space for work, with three-year old twin daughters being at home all the time.

“We needed to make a new timetable and take turns in order to find those two or three hours in a day when you can really focus and write. What we struggle with is trying to do a job here and there whilst looking after the kids and giving them attention that they crave. So it was very difficult at the beginning, but when you realise that you’re not the only one that’s doing all this, you don’t have to be so hard on yourself,” says Mark about his work and parenting experience during the lockdown.

What Can Happen Next In the Surveying Business

“I think we will need to keep social distancing certainly to the end of the year. In our work that means always keeping the two meter distance, or being in a separate room to the vendors, and trying to get windows and doors open to minimize contact during the surveys,” Mark explains. “It’s all about balance and risks. There are desktop valuations as well, but there’s always going to be a property that will need an inspection. I’m lucky that I haven’t got a big team. It’s a horrible responsibility to have to be looking not only after yourself, but other people as well.

And the government has been fantastic, to be fair. I just think that the owners of limited companies can be treated a little bit more like self-employed, to be able to continue working from home and receive some income support that way. But it’s a balance between falling on yourself to get that work or furloughing yourself to get that extra income,” Mark concludes.

The Importance of Providing an Aftercare Service

It is not easy to establish yourself as a surveyor on a local level. Surveyors need to get known for what they do and establish a good reputation, usually by word of mouth referrals. Mark explains how they do it in his company.

“We focus on turnaround time, and also effectively communicating our survey. For example, if someone is very concerned with the purchase, we offer a walk around service with them to put it into perspective. For someone who’s never bought a house before, reading a report can feel like things are going to fall down. But if you do a video tour with them and explain each part of the report, that service gives an extra added value. That’s why some agents or solicitors rather choose us, because we’re more practical and we’re taking low volumes of work. A lot of our service is aftercare service, as opposed to just the written report.”

Ultimately, what customers want is not to tell them whether to buy a property or not, but just to feel reassured enough to make an informed decision themselves.

Integrating Technology on Survey Inspections And Avoiding Claims

Mark is also considering rewriting reports in a new form, which would be less technical and more accessible to customers. Another new line of business could be using technology such as drones to survey properties. However, there are challenges in protecting the terms of services this way.

“I’ve just done a survey for someone who owns a drone company, and he was at the vacant property with me, taking images that he sent to me afterwards. Instantly, it sparked that there’s another business right there. I imagine it will be on either very older properties, difficult properties to access, for overseas investors, or for people that are quite wealthy and would pay extra to zoom in on every corner.

Coming out of the lockdown, we will certainly need to change some of our routines when inspecting properties, and that’s where technology can help. However, when you divert from your routine, that’s when claims typically happen,” Mark continues. “If you keep coming back to your routine, and make sure you’ve got all your checks and balances in, that’s when you’re less likely to have a claim. But a lot of us will have to rethink what our routines look like now, because if you are being less tactile in the property, obeying social distancing, how are you going to be covered in your terms? And will it be argued that you should have gone further? It’ll be really interesting to see what happens.”

Using technology, however, cannot replace actual interaction with the customer, because the thing that customers really want is a piece of you as a surveyor, a human to human contact.

“You’ve also got to think about how easy it is for a customer to get what they need from the service you’re providing. Quite frankly, it would be pretty boring to just watch a GoPro video. There’s got to be a balance between what you think would be easy for you to do, but then also looking at it from their point of view. So maybe a middle way to start with, instead of doing actual physical walk around with them, is to have a video call and let them lead. What are you concerned about? What area of the property do you want me to go in and talk to you about?”

That’s also a great way for us surveyors to get confident talking to cameras, because it seems like our work is going to have to change and adjust to the new circumstances that we are all living through.

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