Streets Ahead (first published in Property in Practice by The Law Society)

As times are tough in the conveyancing market, Sue Bramall shares her 12 steps to success for a law firm that wants to stand out from the competition and win clients.

BER_234_Property_in_Practice_mag.JPGThe RICS UK Residential Market Survey for March 2018 confirmed that demand for housing was continuing to slip, a problem which is compounded by the lack of fresh stock coming on to the market so that “average stock levels on estate agents’ books remain within a whisker of an all-time low”. Their chief economist, Simon Rubinsohn, concluded that: ‘The latest RICS results provide little encouragement that the fall in housing market activity is likely to be reversed any time soon.’

In a flat market, there is a shift of buying power to the customer who will shop around more in regard to service as well as price and vote with their feet.  While millennials expect everything to be done online, gone are the days when solicitors could rely on client loyalty from one generation to another for all of a family’s legal needs.

With such grim prospects ahead, how can your firm ensure that it maintains its share of a dwindling market? 

Law firm marketing expert Sue Bramall urges conveyancers to take time to dust off their marketing plans to ensure that they outperform their competitors in the tough times.

Hopefully at this point you are not thinking ‘What marketing plan?’

“When firms are busy, it is tempting to just roll forward the previous marketing plan without much fresh thinking, but ‘more of the same’ will not deliver the same in a tough market,” says Sue.

Swot up on your SWOT

With huge changes and challenges in the property market, it is worth starting with a clean sheet of paper and revisiting your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). 

Grasp the nettle and ask colleagues, estate agents and IFAs what they think about your firm, how your service compares and how they see you as differing from your competition. 

Document your SWOT analysis and share this with your team to determine how you can:

  • highlight your strengths in the market;
  • address any weaknesses
  • capitalise on the opportunities; and
  • mitigate those threats.

Do you have a clear vision?  The next generation conveyancers are looking towards ‘a world where homes can be bought and sold via clicks on a smartphone’ and are working towards reducing the average time for a house purchase from 16 weeks to 10 weeks or even six weeks. How does your vision compare?

Set out a SMART action plan

A marketing plan does not need to be a lengthy tome – a simple spreadsheet will usually suffice, with months along the top, actions down the left side and the name of the person who will be responsible in each cell.  This makes it easy to see who should be doing what each month, and it easy to tick off completed tasks (or roll forward).  Display this on the wall for everyone to see and monitor progress in team meetings.

If you decide not to pay referral fees, then you will need to attract work in other ways.

Far and away the most effective is to develop strong personal relationships with the staff of your local estate agencies and ensure that they are happy.  Dropping in to deliver a document and passing the time of day will ensure that you are front-of-mind, just as long as your service is as good as you promise it will be.  Remember that agents do not want to risk their reputation by referring a solicitor who does a bad job or upsets their customer.

The head of department should also plan to ensure that you have some sort of meaningful interaction with each estate agent on a regular basis to keep your finger on the pulse of their satisfaction levels and get feedback on your team.

One head of department recently described to me how long it had taken to rebuild business after a particular member of staff had damaged their reputation, and how she now sought feedback more frequently to prevent this happening again.

Do you need a new brochure or other marketing materials?  Plan this in.  Have you been dragging your heels on social media?  Agree an action plan and timeframes, then decide whether you can manage this internally or need to outsource. 

Does your section of the website need an overhaul?

When was the last time that you reviewed the residential conveyancing pages on your website?  When did you last review the target keywords for search engine optimisation, and their performance?

Take time out to look at your competitors’ websites and their social media.  What do you need to do to stand out as the best?  Every year you should plan to refresh the following pages:

  • main landing pages;
  • service pages for specific matter types; and
  • team profiles.

Lots of websites fail to go into enough detail with pages for each matter type, lumping everything together in one page for residential conveyancing.  This fails to take into account the fact that the first-time-buyer will be looking for very different information to the client who is thinking of remortgaging or equity release.

Your marketing plan should include the production of fresh news or blogs, with at least one or two per month.  Blogging will help you to achieve high search results organically, but this can require a significant effort and good writing skills.  If you do not have the skills or capacity within your team, you can look at options for outsourcing.

Alternatively, you may look at pay-per-click advertising. While this yields quicker results and can be useful for hard-to-reach keywords, enquiries evaporate once you stop paying.

With organic content, it takes longer to achieve a top position, but once there it is less costly to maintain that position.

Argue for resources

The conveyancing department plays a critical role in any law firm which deserves to be recognised.  It is to this team that first-time-buyers usually get their earliest taste of buying legal services.  With a good experience, they are more likely to return when they move again, wish to make a will or a prenup, get divorced or start a business.

However, the residential conveyancing department can sometimes be the poor relation when it comes to getting their share of the marketing budget.  Perhaps margins are seen by fellow partners as comparatively low and so not seen as justifying a great deal of investment.

Simon McCrum, former managing partner of Darbys and now a consultant to law firms, emphasises how it is not matter 001 where you make a profit, but it is on those matters that come afterwards.  So, failing to delight clients on their first instruction could mean you lose them forever, you might never get to matter 007.

Ensure that you are easy to do business with

As part of the market review, you need to assess whether you are offering clients enough ways to make an enquiry. This should not be about what suits you or how your team prefers to work, but how the customer wants to interact.

A survey by InfoTrack into Home Moving in the Age of the Consumer, published in February,  reported that 59% of movers made the effort to get two or more competitive quotes, and that only 23 per cent of respondents had used their conveyancer before. 

The option for online conveyancing was the main reason for 8% of all respondents, but when focusing on the 18-24 age group, this figure rose to 23 per cent.

How easy are you to do business with online?  Can the young couple who see their dream home at 11.00am on Saturday get a quote for conveyancing costs before Monday morning?

Some conveyancers are reluctant to embrace online tools, explaining that they prefer to speak to people personally.  But if the customer wishes to get a quote out of office hours – and they do so at the weekend with another firm – it is unlikely that they will be picking up the phone to you on Monday morning.

Review your enquiry handling processes

There is no point in spending money on marketing or referral fees to generate enquiries which are then lost due to poor enquiry handling.

Some firms have a dedicated person or team for handling new client enquiries.  They have been specially trained, have efficient processes for taking and recording information, providing quotations and following up.

In other firms, the job of handling enquiries is passed around like a hot potato to people who have had little training, get little encouragement (as this takes time away from billing) and their lack of enthusiasm sounds loud and clear on the telephone.  Home movers (like many of us) are impatient and if they do not get a response in a timely manner they will simply try the next firm on their list.

Explain the value you add

According to the InfoTrack research, only 12 per cent of consumers chose their conveyancer because they were ‘the least expensive’.  Reputation and recommendation accounted for the lion’s share of reasons.

It is important to understand that there can be a big difference between cost (the amount you spend to provide the service); the price (the financial reward to your firm) and the value (what your customer believes the service is worth to them).

There are growing pressures for transparency in pricing from the Competition & Markets Authority Review.  Some critics seem to think that this requires firms to publish a price list, but a well-presented quotation should leave customers in no doubt regarding the final bill that they can expect to receive. 

‘Unexpected costs’ were cited as a source of frustration by 18 per cent of respondents to InfoTrack survey. None of us like surprises, such as all the extras that are added to the cost when booking a flight.  Why should it be any different for conveyancing?

What do your quotes look like?  Do they impress?  Do they convey the value that you will bring to the transaction? Do they explain the process? Do they highlight how you safeguard their interests? Do they link to more information, such as Frequently Asked Questions?

Having seen numerous conveyancing quotes over the years, there is a huge spectrum ranging from the two-line email with no real detail (or enthusiasm) to the detailed quote with accompanying information. One gives me confidence in the firm, the slap dash response gives me the impression of a slap dash firm.

Follow up, follow up, follow up

Just because you do not get an immediate instruction, this does not mean that the potential client has instructed another solicitor.  They may just be busy, they may not be in a position to proceed, other things may be happening in their life.

Even if they do instruct someone else, try to establish a good rapport.  They may receive poor service from the alternative provider and revert to you next time they move.

Review your service standards

It was back in 2012, that the Legal Ombudsman published Losing the Plot with its examination of residential conveyancing complaints and their causes, highlighting the importance of clear and regular communications.

However, according to the Infotrack survey, only 34% of respondents were satisfied with the level of communication that they received from their solicitor, leaving two-thirds unsatisfied.

There are endless blog comments on the Law Society Gazette website about what good work conveyancers do in difficult conditions for little return, but sadly these carry no weight with clients for whom perception is reality. 

Clients judge their experience, not the inputs. When you take your car in for a service, do you wonder how well trained the mechanic is, whether the they are using the latest tools, if the garage is regulated, and by which regulator?  Or are you simply concerned that the car runs smoothly, it is ready on time and the bill is no greater than you expected it to be?

One of the biggest unmet needs for conveyancing clients is information. 

50 per cent of customers would like more information about the home-moving process.  Rather than drafting a lengthy narrative description – a simple flow chart can make the process so much easier to follow.

Less than a fifth of respondents (17%) received a weekly update – is this such an unreasonable expectation?

Neither of these activities are particularly costly or complex, but can make a big difference to satisfaction levels.

Embrace the challenges

InfoTrack reported a 16 per cent shift of conveyancing work away from solicitors in the last ten years.

While family loyalty is in decline, interestingly firms that have connected digitally with the millennial generation are in the strongest position to maintain contact and advise those clients when they next need legal advice.

Can you think of any reason that this trend might be reversed?

Rob Hailstone, a former conveyancer and founder of the Bold Group also reminds firms that “The government is looking at ways to improve the process of buying and selling homes, and so you need to follow these developments and engage and partake in the discussions where you can to keep your future in your hands.’

Measure and manage

As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed.  Mystery shopping is a tool that has long been used by service businesses to measure their own customer service levels and see how they compare with those of their competitors.  Done property it tests numerous performance standards, all of which add up to increasing your chances of converting an enquiry into a paying client and ensuring they are delighted, not just satisfied, with the service they experience.

Simply calling your competitors to get an idea of how your prices compare is not ‘mystery shopping’ as there is no assessment of human rapport, enthusiasm, efficiency, how the quote was presented, how value was explained, how good the follow up was – if there was any.

Staff are human (well for the time being) and so have good days and bad days.  Processes are not always adhered to and there may be technical malfunctions.  Testing your services regularly will ensure that standards do not slip.  You need to identify any problems and address them promptly before your reputation takes a hit and referrals take a dip.

Test, review, train and coach

It takes time and effort to improve processes and embed new behaviours.  Staff are naturally resistant to change, and so you will need to request budget to support training and coaching and mystery shopping if you really want to delight your clients, develop and preserve a stellar reputation and get into a position to thrive rather than merely survive.

In his classic business book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, Jim Collins starts by saying that:

‘Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don't have great government, principally because we have good government. …’

Could your firm’s conveyancing service be so good that you don’t need to make the leap to provide a great service?

Will be being ‘good enough’ be enough?

 You can read the full article in The Law Society's Property in Practice by clicking here.

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