Recent years have seen the balance of power shift rapidly away from organisations and into the hands of the consumer. And to find clear evidence of this we need look no further than the world of real estate.
In years past, real estate agents enjoyed a position of power over both the buyer and the seller. The agent’s office windows displayed various enhanced photos of properties. Agents had preferential pricing agreements for print advertising. Add their all-powerful rolodex of potential buyers, their local knowledge and their understanding of regulatory requirements, and real estate agents were a truly indispensable part of the property transaction.
Having worked extensively with many real estate agents and agency groups, I have seen firsthand how significantly things are changing – and it’s only just begun.
For the seller, online listings websites have made an agent’s window displays and ads largely irrelevant. The comparable sales figures and historical records required to make property valuations are also now easily accessible to everyone. Direct paths to the market are easily accessible with services in Australia, for example, such as buyMyplace.com.au allowing owners to list their properties for a fee of just $650. Around the world, the same trend is gathering momentum. In the United States, around 20 per cent of homes are sold without an agent and in Canada it’s as high as 30 per cent.
For the buyer, searching for properties and making informed decisions is now done on data-rich apps and online tours rather than by browsing window displays or open homes. The buyer is empowered in negotiations with access to detailed information on the property. Apps like Snaploader are streamlining the physical house-hunting experience too, applying visual recognition technology to a photograph of a house for sale to immediately retrieve photos, viewing and auction times, the status of the listing and a 3D image of its internal structure.
Regardless of the industry, the age of empowerment is here, and it is a result of three things:
1. More information
Conventional wisdom tells us that knowledge is power, and perhaps nothing has increased our knowledge more than our smartphones. The average person today is merely a few taps or swipes away from more information than entire nations possessed a few decades ago.
We need look no further than the world of retail to see how smartphones have tipped the power balance in favour of the consumer. 81 per cent of consumers today will have researched a product online before entering the store. The consumer will likely know more about a product’s features and price comparability than the store assistant they are speaking to.
Similarly, the power dynamic of the online shopping world is transforming with emerging features such as Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, which advises customers of the best price among similar products across dozens of major retailers when they are looking at a product online. The negotiating power and the freedom of choice are in the hands of the consumer.
Professionals such as doctors, accountants, lawyers and financial planners cannot hide behind the guise of their specialised professional knowledge as they once did. The client today has access to more information than ever before and is empowered as a result.
2. Greater options
In their book How Companies Win, authors Rick Kash and David Calhoun suggest that the twentieth-century model for business success was built on protecting and controlling distribution channels. Moving forward, this protectionist approach will simply no longer work. The days of controlling individuals by restricting options are over.
In the same way that direct-to-market platforms are changing the game for real estate agents, the age of ‘disintermediation’ means that consumers have the option to deal directly with service providers by circumventing the established channels of old.
Take travel agents for instance. Almost half of the respondents in a recent study indicated that when researching a trip online, they prefer purchasing travel services such as accommodation, flights or tours directly from the supplier rather than through a travel agent.
The age of empowered individuals means product and service providers can no longer simply be gatekeepers standing between suppliers and end users. On the contrary, middlemen must be adding real value in the distribution process if they hope to remain indispensable rather than become irrelevant.
3. A louder voice
There was a time when an individual’s voice only travelled so far. The customer’s word of mouth was dwarfed by the clout and reach of an organisation’s marketing budget.
Today, online review sites and social media have thoroughly turned the tables. In 2014, Tony and Jan Jenkinson checked out of the Broadway Hotel in England and promptly posted a review on TripAdvisor describing the hotel as ‘rotten’ and ‘stinking’. When they later discovered a £100 charge on their credit card from the Broadway Hotel, they were shocked to discover that it was company policy to charge for negative reviews. Public outrage pressured the hotel to eventually refund the money and scrap the policy.
Broadway Hotel’s behaviour revealed a mindset dangerously out of step with the modern age: the belief that businesses can control their brand. Ninety per cent of consumers trust peer reviews while only 14 per cent trust advertisements. In other words, what you say about yourself and your products matters less than it ever has before. In contrast, what your customers say about you speaks volumes.
Never before has the story of David and Goliath sounded so realistic in the world of business. Regardless of which of these three sources of empowerment you consider, the bottom line is that individuals will have a degree of power in the years to come that will tip the scales in their favour and redefine entire industries. Businesses that have based their value proposition on a twentieth-century model of restricting access and information will disappear rapidly and a new age of transparency will be ushered in.
How is your business responding to the emerging age of empowerment?
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.
 King, M. 2015, ‘Real Estate Agents Are On The Endangered List’, The Advocate, 11 September.
 Courtenay, A. 2015, ‘Start-up invents Shazam for property’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July.
 Morrison, K. 2014, ‘81 per cent of Shoppers Conduct Online Research Before Buying’, Adweek, 28 November.
 Perez, S. 2017, ‘Cortana Can Now Do Price Comparisons When You’re Shopping Online’, TechCrunch, 9 June.
 Kash, R. & Calhoun, D. 2010, How Companies Win, HarperCollins, New York, pp. 2–3.
 Perry, K. 2014, ‘Hotel guests ‘fined’ for leaving bad review on TripAdvisor’, The Telegraph, 18 November.
 2013, ‘It’s (Almost) All About Me’, Deloitte Australia, July.