I have spent the last 20 years working within the conveyancing business, alongside estate agents and I can’t help feeling a sense of deja vu.
The two industries are actually very similar in lots of ways, not least the new self-proclaimed revolutionaries that we have seen enter the market on both sides in the form of bulk conveyancing providers and online estate agents.
It can’t be denied that both entrants have disrupted their respective markets but is it for the better and more importantly is it what the public want?
In terms of evolution the conveyancing market is probably slightly ahead of the estate agency market (I know what you are thinking, but bear with me!) and there are lessons that we have learned which may help.
The bulk conveyancing ‘revolution’ really started about 15 years ago. Up until this point the market was largely provincial with local law firms all knowing/disliking each other but each with a sustainable client base and a local reputation based upon the service they provided and the people they employed.
Then the bulk providers rolled into town, each with their expensive marketing campaigns and an army of BDMs with the promise of referral fees to local agents, online case-tracking, fixed fees, and no sale no fee.
They quickly got the attention of their target clients and their opposing law firms were forced to make a decision as to whether to join them or fight back.
Unfortunately the fight back was a little misguided as many chose to take their battle to the trade press instead of the public.
Senior Partners would spend many a night penning very strongly worded letters to the trade press about the inferior service standards of these larger conveyancing providers and how they were bringing the industry into disrepute.
Others would waste their time in trying to oust the competition from the market by constantly challenging the Law Society to amend and uphold the Referral Code at the time, which would have prevented the payment of commission to estate agents.
However, the force was soon too big to stop and the bulk providers continued to steal/buy market share.
Despite their early initiatives, over the years bulk conveyancers have, rather lazily, reverted to compete on price (higher referral fees for agents and lower fees for the solicitors).
This evoked a price war within the industry and inevitably service standards have been in steady decline ever since.
You can’t blame the public for going with the cheapest option. In the absence of any real differentiators people will opt for the cheapest and so the key is always to offer something different and be prepared to compete on service.
It is true that many of these bulk providers have gone on to become big businesses but mostly with the help of outside investment.
The problem is that with outside investment comes the pressure to increase profitability and whilst they once started life as a service provider many have become obsessed by volume and market-share at the expense of the very service they are supposed to be providing.
There have been some good developments to come from these businesses over the years and there is no doubt that the industry has evolved more quickly as a result of their disruption.
However, I do question whether any of these price-driven, bulk conveyancers will ever achieve the dominance they so crave and their investors so demand.
The reason I say this is because to provide a good service you need good people and as long as you compete on price alone you will never be able to attract or retain the best staff.
Conveyancing, like estate agency, is a service and you will never be able to negate or automate the overwhelming human factors involved in this process.
There is hope. I have worked with conveyancing sales teams for many years and whereas five years ago the most common objection was price, more recently I am heartened to hear clients now asking if the conveyancer is experienced/qualified or not and if they will deal with an individual as opposed to a team.
This is because we have now seen a whole generation of movers experience bulk conveyancers and many have realized, with the benefit of hindsight, that the cheapest option is not always the best when it comes to something as stressful as moving house.
Similarly, many agents that have been enticed into selling the services of these bulk conveyancers are now desperately looking for a more quality-focused partner to meet their client’s changing needs.
It has been a long and turbulent journey but, once again, there is a growing demand and appreciation for experienced and qualified solicitors in the same way there will be a demand for good experienced estate agents after people have experienced these price-focused models.
The question is can you afford to wait for your market to come back to you or are you going to learn from the conveyancing industry and fight back now?
*Carl Brignell is a Director at Elite Panel Management, providing quality-focused conveyancing solutions