Customer Experience in the Property Transaction : Where are we now?

Where are we now and what will make the biggest difference? Our expert panel discuss the issues in question and what’s being done to make changes to benefit service providers and their customers: 

Automation and client portals – challenges and developments around customer experience – Lauren Stanley, Private Property solicitor, Thrings

Challenges and developments in customer experience generally centre around two things: price transparency and technological advancements (automated systems and client portals).

With the arrival of alternative business structures and online firms, we are seeing a rise in fixed low pricing and ‘no move no fee’ arrangements. This model naturally lends itself to focusing on volume and profit, to the detriment of service quality.

Generally, online firms that quote a fixed price will add on extras throughout the transaction. This tends to spark a ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to conveyancer fees and creates frustration among customers when the approach to pricing isn’t communicated at the start of the transaction.

The price transparency rules that came into force in November 2018 should go some way to addressing these problems and enhancing the customer experience – although the practical consequences are yet to play out.

At a minimum, the rules should allow customers to make an informed decision on the basis of costs and will make them aware of any referral fee arrangements. The rules do not, however, help the customer decide on the basis of a firm’s capabilities, processes and ability to provide an excellent service.

Expectations of service levels among consumers are only getting higher. With instant access to information becoming the norm in areas of the services sector, the pressure for conveyancing solicitors to meet consumer expectations is also high. Firms are reviewing their processes and procedures to better meet those expectations.

Automation in conveyancing has the potential to drive efficiencies by firms on both sides of the transaction. The important thing is to ensure these investments in technology are made to enhance client service, not just reduce costs and expert input. The quality of service and reassurance that come from working directly with qualified and experienced conveyancers is invaluable during, what is often, the most expensive transaction an individual or family will ever undertake.

More regulation and collaboration to raise standards – Katrine Sporle, Property Ombudsman

The primary focus of the Property Ombudsman is to ensure that consumers do not suffer detriment when receiving services from property agents – be they buying, selling, letting or managing agents.  All of these activities require mandatory redress when undertaken by a property agent.  We also provide redress services to search providers who have signed up with the Property Ombudsman on a voluntary basis.

I wish I could say, hand on heart, that all property agents set out to do the right thing.  Unfortunately, that would not be true, which is why TPO is a staunch supporter of the need for a Regulator and for mandatory professional qualifications.

On the other hand, I am also firmly of the view that the vast majority of property agents do want to do the right thing.  Mistakes occur because there are not clear enough standards and there is no modern digital property database on which to rely.

The industry is working hard to raise standards and TPO is entirely supportive of the moves to make properties not just market ready, but sale ready.  By that we mean that absolutely everything about a property is clearly available from the point a property is marketed – including the local search information that a planning permission has been granted for a chicken farm 250 yards away from the property, for example.

Accurate, reliable, relevant information is needed before a transactional decision is made by a prospective purchaser.  Everyone involved in the sector should collaborate to make that a reality.

Consumer portals would be a welcome addition, but not a substitution for managing client expectations – Eduardo Reyes, The Law Society Gazette

Lawyers already tell me about client expectations that they will communicate with them, update them and take instructions through a platform of their choice. Conveyancing solicitors are having to screen shot messages sent on instant messaging apps to provide the paper trail they need.

So, if we see a growth in online portals to manage transactions, to which clients can be steered, that will be a welcome change for lawyers, while providing the immediacy clients are expecting. The frustration for regulators though is going to be around price competition – when consumers fail to respond to price competition, and they frequently do ‘fail’ on this front, the assumption is that competition and the market is not working logically. In reality, consumers choose by location, service, recommendation – feel, even. Regulators in all fields are obtuse on this point, so expect more interference to try and make perfect competition ‘happen’.

Something to watch as any service becomes more automated or ‘moves online’, is that functions that were helpful to the process, in this case buying and selling property, tend to disappear. Think of online-only estate agents, who do the marketing of properties, but who have dispensed with roles such as ‘transaction progressors’. And if you have accessed a service or advice via a chatbot, you will know that getting to the thing you want takes much more of your time as a citizen, consumer or client. That extra time is robots giving us extra things to do. Clients want immediacy and access to information and advice – some technology we are seeing in professional services environments (such as information portals and automated searches) provides that, while other tech does the opposite. In doing so, the latter erodes trust.

A week might be a long time in politics, but a year in conveyancing passes in the twinkling of an eye….  Richard Hinton, The Conveyancing Map

How slowly the wheels turn! The Price & Transparency regulations were introduced in December 2018 to a conveyancing industry at best unconvinced of their benefits. This lack of conviction that seems to have been shared to an extent by the Law Society, has in my view, left the initiative struggling to achieve its aims.

The sponsors of price and service transparency long for a better-informed decision by clients but conveyancing practitioners have either metaphorically ticked what they see as a compliance box and moved on or have simply parked the issue.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is set to review the position shortly and this divergence between compliance and added value for clients will be apparent. The SRA’s own review of a sample of firms in June 2019 found that 25% of firms were fully compliant and a further 58% were partially compliant.

Our own survey of conveyancing specifically, found only 5% of firms provide a personalised online estimate of fees without the need to supply an email address – the preferred end game for the CMA. At the same time, only 9% of firms promote client reviews collected by an independent third party – another key indicator for the CMA.

These statistics illustrate starkly the dislocation between the two drivers of compliance and client value.

Nor is there any sign that firms are flocking to sign up with comparison sites – probably on the sensible premise that other than price, there’s nothing much to compare anyway, there are no agreed standards or metrics and should they sign up, then no doubt they’ll be charged for the privilege.

Moving this agenda forward, on anything other than an attritional, incremental basis needs a new alignment between the rule makers and the rule takers, and, I’d suggest, more proactive, enabling behaviour from the regulator community that gives the profession the tools and reference points it so desperately needs.

Until then, firms will profess correctly that they’ve done what has been asked of them and clients will be left with only a marginally better understanding of the purchasing decision they’ve made.

Greater transparency brings changes afoot for 2020 and beyond – Rob Hailstone CEO, Bold Legal Group

It’s likely that 2020 will be a slow burn for conveyancers. By that, I mean the year will begin relatively quietly with no new major changes or issues for conveyancers to deal with. However, that shouldn’t allow firms to get lulled into a false sense of security. There are a number of initiatives that are bubbling away under the surface and conveyancers need to keep a watchful eye on them for the impact on them and their clients. They include:

Providing pricing information on websites; Firms should be complying with the Transparency Rules introduced in December 2018. The SRA will be policing them more effectively from now on.

The proposals to educate and regulate estate agents; It will be interesting to see if this initiative results in some Estate Agency businesses becoming more involved in providing conveyancing services and its impact on the market and client service in the future.

A possible Referral Fee ban; Depending on what your referral fee view is, there is a concern on their impact on the current lack of transparency in the transaction and the need for consumer choice.

The emergence of Property Logbooks; Property Logbooks are coming, and not only will they benefit the consumer, they will also benefit the conveyancer.

Reservation Agreements; The Governments ‘proposed’ pilot, if approved, will take place this year. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) is commissioning behavioural insight research to help with the design of it, prior to a field trial. This research looks at issues such as how much money each party would have to commit and the circumstances under which they could withdraw from the transaction without losing it.  We are still watching with interest how it will evolve.

The provision of Up-Front Information; The old chestnut! Not quite a full HIP replacement but, in my opinion, getting close to it. It has been proven by some conveyancers and estate agency groups that the provision of Up-Front Information can take weeks off of the home buying and selling process.

On top of these, conveyancers will need to be aware of the upcoming April changes to Capital Gains Tax (CGT), get to grips with the new questions on the TA6, become aware of more sophisticated frauds and scams and as always, expect the unexpected.

The ongoing challenge of managing these issues while still keeping client experience at the forefront of your firm’s obligations will be enough to be going on with for now.

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