What’s the difference between premises and space?

Picture this. You’re trying to help your friend find a place for his pottery business. You quickly have to learn another language: the one that property people speak to each other.

It turns out that the difference between space and premises is just the tone of voice. It’s not the done thing to ask about a space or a workshop. Not if you’re dealing with a collection of chartered surveyors and estate agents. Nope, it turns out that what you’re looking for is what’s inelegantly called a “light industrial unit”.

This is planning speak. (Neither can you tell them you’re looking for a shop. That’s a retail unit.) It also spreads to Google.

It turns out that if you search online for “workshop” you get links to arts centres and creative hubs where you’re allowed to draw things on your computer, but not actually make anything with your bare hands. Search for “light industrial unit” on the other hand, and it gets you straight to a selection of slightly worn out warehouses and factories in streets that have no pavements, on industrial estates where the only thing you can get for lunch is a burger. From a van.

So my friend sent an email about a light industrial unit to the agent. Nothing. So he sent an enquiry from their website, and one from the property search website. Nothing. Then he called them, and the receptionist said she’d have the agent call him back. Still nothing.

‘Perhaps’, his partner said, ‘You don’t sound stuffy enough. You’re too friendly, so they think you’re not professional. You don’t use that small business B2B talk that’s full of self-importance. What did you write to that last one?’

‘I wrote this,’ he said, ‘ “I’ve love to visit that little unit in Tanquerey House. I’m a potter, and my business is growing far too big for my shed. This one sounds right up my street. Would you give me a call and let me know a good time to meet up and have a look round?” ’

So we all had a look at their website.

“…Acquisition entails the identification of property on behalf of clients and providing advice on the terms of the proposed acquisition in relation to individual client’s business strategies, objectives and budgets. We are a market leader in terms of experience in advising occupiers in all aspects of relocation having successfully concluded several significant projects for clients over the years…”

Oh dear. Lots of nouns and showing off.

He decided that he’d rather not do business with people who sounded like that.

But is it us, or is it them? Their tone of voice is probably normal for 90% of people in the world of commercial property. But does that give them an excuse for disregarding four different approaches from someone who doesn’t speak their particular style of language? It’s lost them at least one client. How many more have they ignored?

We had a look at one of our favourite companies, Urban Splash. They take on huge old warehouses and factories, like Fort Dunlop in Birmingham, and convert them to offices, flats, hotels and workshops. They write like this:

Fort Dunlop is an architectural icon. A Birmingham landmark. A grade A office building providing 350,000 sq ft of inspirational commercial space ranging from 1,000 sq ft to 53,000 sq ft on seven floors. Fort Dunlop is the best office address for any size of business from small to regional or national headquarters.

We have kept all the best old bits of the building and poured new ideas into the shell. We’ve cut holes through the building providing a stunning atrium, planted a new green roof and bolted a new hotel onto the end.

That makes you want to move there, doesn’t it?

They don’t write about premises, they write about space. The two words have a completely different feel to them. One is boring and the other’s an opportunity.

It’s the same old story. You shut your customers out if you insist on using a tone of voice that excludes and mystifies the outside world – the world of new customers.

But this story does have a happy ending. It turns out that there’s a property company looking some business spaces for a housing association. They speak creative workshop space language as well as professional premises language. That’s all it took to win a new client.