In a rising market, the expectations placed on conveyancers, from not only clients, but also lenders, estate agents and mortgage brokers, can put a real strain on conveyancing practice. Paul Coombes explains how you can manage expectations and stay ahead
So the housing market has bounced back. Property transactions are moving again and prices are rising in most areas of the country. While the media seems to take perverse pleasure in printing contradictory stories on a regular basis, there is no denying the market is busy. I talk to law firms every day and business is brisk, confidence is up. Good news perhaps for conveyancers, but not necessarily for consumers, as it seems that conveyancing-related complaints seem to be on the rise again as the market recovers.
In 2012-13, 17.5% of complaints to the Legal Ombudsman were about residential conveyancing. This was the second highest area of law, behind family, whose top placing can perhaps be explained due to the contentious and emotive nature of such disputes, which is more likely to give rise to unhappy clients.
In this article, I suggest that conveyancers need to find an appropriate response to successfully meet the rising expectations of an increasingly sophisticated consumer market, and I offer some top tips for how your firm can keep clients on-side throughout the conveyance, and even beyond. I also discuss how you can successfully manage the sometimes difficult relationships with other stakeholders in the process – lenders, mortgage brokers and estate agents – to work to your competitive advantage.
Managing client expectations
The rise in consumer empowerment that has taken place during the last decade or so and the ‘on-demand’ nature of our consumerist society have conspired to make meeting client expectations and delivering client satisfaction one of the toughest challenges for today’s law firm. In the face of consumers who want it all, want it now, and at the right price, and who now have social media at their disposal to vent their dissatisfaction with client service, conveyancers cannot afford to be complacent.
Below, I offer a number of steps conveyancers can take to manage client expectations.
The cornerstone of all good marketing is: exceed clients’ expectations and they will not only come back to you, but also become your greatest advocates
It is important that certain things should be discussed in clear terms with the client from the outset: the method and frequency of communication with the client (for more on this, see below); the amount of professional fees involved (assuming you are working on a fixed fee, you need to be clear about what this covers) and all disbursements; and, most importantly, what additional work could arise. Having a documented procedure in place that captures all this information will not only help you manage expectations, but also differentiate you from your competitors.
Handle enquiries with care
Now that the market has picked up, don’t fall into the trap that many firms do of underestimating the importance of enquiry handling and conversion, and making it a low priority. Don’t just think about the conveyance as a one-off ‘sale’ opportunity. A house purchase is most people’s first interaction with a lawyer, so a positive first impression and the subsequent experience could be securing a ‘client for life’ for your law firm.
When did you last carry out a mystery shop on your firm or your competitor? Try it today and ask yourself whether the person on the other end of the phone sounds like they care about you and your personal matter. In the forefront of the client’s mind, they are not buying your conveyancing service; they are (usually) buying their home, which for many is a stressful and emotive issue. If the people in your firm do not have the soft skills to demonstrate a genuine interest in the client and build a rapport, consider investing in training, or outsource the handling of initial enquiries to an outside company.
Don’t assume that all clients want the cheapest price
There’s only ever one cheapest price; we’d all shop at one supermarket if that was the only factor in our decision-making. If you feel that the client is very focused on price, ask them whether they are comparing your charges like-for-like with other conveyancing firms, and give examples of additional charges that they may have overlooked elsewhere (such as acting for lenders). But, by the same token, be ready to demonstrate that you do offer value for money.
Sell your experience, local knowledge and the quality of your service
There are two elements to consider here: selling the firm and selling yourself. Identify the features and benefits of using your firm. An easy way to split a feature from a benefit is to use the ‘which means that’ phrase. For example: “We are a Lexcel-accredited practice [feature], which means that we provide clear upfront pricing, always advise you in your best interests and will keep you informed throughout the purchase process [benefit].”
Explain the process
Clients want to know what happens next. If you can give them an overview of the process when handling an initial enquiry, not only will they have a better understanding of the work you’ll be doing for them, but you will also gain credibility and secure the instruction.
Discuss timescales clearly
One of the biggest areas of complaint to the Legal Ombudsman around residential conveyancing in 2012-13 was ‘delay’ (8.4%). Indeed, managing a client’s expectations in relation to the time involved in completing a property transaction is possibly the most difficult and problematic aspect of the process.
This can often be made worse by intermediaries telling clients that completion should take four weeks on average. Be careful not to contradict the estate agent or broker outright, as this does neither party any favours; instead, you could say that in some transactions, a four-week turnaround is realistic, but usually only in the case of a cash buyer and no onward chain. Then you can give a more realistic timeframe and explanation of the factors that will affect it – both those you can control and those you can’t. While it may not be what an eager buyer wants to hear, avoid the temptation to sugar the pill with ‘mights’ and ‘maybes’ that just risk skewing expectations again.
Keep in touch – and in the appropriate way
This is another potentially sensitive subject for clients: 6.9% of complaints to the Legal Ombudsman in 2012-13 related to ‘failure to keep informed’ on the part of the conveyancer. It is vital that you ask the client how they would like to be kept informed on how the transaction is progressing, and agree how often you’ll make contact even if there’s nothing to update.
This should be part of your enquiry handling process, but also needs to be repeated once you have secured the instruction. What communication options can you give clients – email, phone, text, web tracking? Make an effort to find out their preferred method, and don’t assume everyone is reliant on the internet and email. Wherever possible, offer to update the client via their preferred channel. Make sure you stick to what was agreed, even if there is no news to report. If the client begins to lose faith in you, you can expect their call volume to increase as they become more anxious to hear the transaction is still on track. A short, regular communication can do wonders here. It won’t work for everyone, but will certainly appease a large proportion of your clients, who may feel a little restless and in limbo if they are not being updated as much as they would like. If a client is phoning you every day, it’s reasonable to explain to them that your fixed fee did not include daily updates when there was nothing to tell them, as you will have already discussed this in the initial enquiry.
Follow up on enquiries
Sales is still a dirty word in the legal sector, but whether we like it or not, as lawyers we are all selling something. Don’t give a client a quote and ask them to come back to you if they’d like to proceed. If you’ve done a good job building rapport and quickly establishing their needs, then they’ll welcome you moving it forward. A business-like (but non-aggressive) manner can also instil confidence that the conveyancing transaction will be carried out in a similarly efficient and timely manner.
Managing lender expectations
Around 25% of claims against solicitors in the last four years have come from lenders, yet many firms have yet to ensure that they have processes in place to mitigate these risks. In my personal experience, the use of online anti-money laundering checks in smaller conveyancing practices is still limited, and often confined to circumstances where the client isn’t being seen face to face. The traditional ‘two forms of ID’ is the only form of vetting that takes place, though I doubt very many conveyancers have been trained to identify a fraudulent passport. This is a relatively straightforward process to implement – it’s low-cost and ticks compliance boxes across all standards.
Individual lender requirements, as set out in part II of the Council of Mortgage Lenders’ CML Handbook, also account for a number of high-value claims, and it is therefore important to be aware of any changes that take place. Nine lenders made changes to their part II requirements in September 2014 alone. Online tools such as JET can be used to check any lender changes within a given date range, reducing the chances of a conveyancer missing a vital change in requirements before completion takes place.
Managing estate agent and mortgage broker expectations
Whatever your view of estate agents and mortgage brokers, they can have a significant influence on a client’s decision to instruct you. Communication is key to managing their expectations and keeping them on side. Running an in-house training course for local estate agents on the conveyancing process is a great way to build relationships, and gives them a greater understanding of what’s involved at each stage. I’ve heard solicitors complain many times that estate agents just don’t understand or appreciate the conveyancing process, so take the opportunity to tell them. It’s also interesting to hear heated conversations between conveyancers and estate agents that have never met before when dealing with remote clients. Meeting people face to face immediately lessens chances of irate calls from either side: there is the opportunity to build rapport, and it may lead to further work.
Increased collaboration with these stakeholders can bring additional benefits to all concerned. For years, conveyancers and agents have formed local panels, but the technology and systems now in place can take things that much further. Instant quotation tools are being rolled out by law firms to estate agents, allowing agents to give transparent conveyancing quotes to customers via a tablet or smartphone, even as early on as a viewing. Such proactive, professional behaviour will make a good first impression. Further, should a sale be made, the buyer’s details and the matter opening can be immediately relayed back into the conveyance’s system quickly and accurately, which should help keep intermediaries on your side.
How compliance can help
The burden of compliance in residential property law and its impact on professional indemnity insurance show no signs of decreasing. If your firm has Conveyancing Quality Scheme accreditation, it will have agreed to document all conveyancing enquiries. Consider whether are you meeting the standard currently, and if your process would stand up to an audit. This is a good example of where compliance can bring an immediate commercial benefit to any practice. All firms should have a process in place to monitor enquiries across the practice, not only to fulfil compliance requirements, but also to produce vital management information on the source of work, number of enquiries and conversion rate.
Then there’s the conveyance itself. The transaction is seemingly fraught with more risk every week, thanks to a more complex environmental picture, greater consumer awareness and general increased litigiousness. Increasingly, firms are having to undertake a wider range of searches than ever before, driven by both compliance needs and client demands. Energy, flood and planning reports are now ordered on all properties by firms in some areas of the country, yet others bury optional searches deep within their client care packs, only referencing them when a client asks why they weren’t informed about a nearby planning application. That’s a potentially massive due diligence failure. Firms ordering searches without using a system with a postcode-based hazard checker are exposing themselves to unnecessary risks. These systems can help manage the expectations of your clients, and ensure they understand what the standard searches cover and what additional searches can be carried out if they wish. It’s all about honesty, transparency and integrity – consumers respect those values and they should be at the heart of any business.
There’s still a competitive advantage to be gained across the areas I have discussed. The challenge for law firms now is to move beyond simply meeting client expectations, to ‘super-pleasing’ clients. This concept was first introduced by David Maister, author of Managing The Professional Service Firm (Free Press, 2003) – which is well worth a read – but it essentially comes back to the cornerstone of all good marketing: exceed clients’ expectations and they will not only come back to you, but also become your greatest advocates.