I attended a forum in London a couple of weeks ago, which for the first time brought estate agents and conveyancers together on one platform to talk through how they could work better together for the benefit of their lay customers (or clients, as conveyancers like to call them).
Just to say that this was the first time is worthy of stopping and taking stock. Can it really be the first time that agents and conveyancers have been prepared to meet and discuss working together smarter? If it was, then that in itself is a shocking indictment of how isolated we (conveyancers and agents) are and how we really need to lift the silo lid and talk to the other stakeholders in the process.
Whether or not it was the first time, the day certainly had an aura of breaking new ground and all those attending certainly came away with the feeling that there was something there to explore and develop which could really help everyone in the home moving process.
So, what are we talking about here?
There can't be an agent in the country who doesn't regularly speak to their sellers or buyers conveyancers…
Conveyancers worth their salt have case management systems which can provide all sorts of reports to agents…
Both the agents and the conveyancers will regularly speak to their customers (clients) and provide updates…
All that sounds great and certainly is better than nothing, but why is it then that there seems to be a large degree of antipathy, bordering on antagonism, between members of these two admirable professions? And why do the lay customer sometimes (often) feel caught in the middle of two opposing professionals each advising and updating them on the progress, or more often the lack of progress, on their particular case.
In the view of the forum, and this is certainly backed up by my own experience of 40 years of residential conveyancing, was that unfortunately the two professions - even though they are both acting in the interests of their customer - actually distrust each other. They are therefore too guarded in what they say and, more often than not, they look to fob the other off (and here I am talking about the conveyancers).
All too often the lay customer is caught between two stools - not sure who to trust and that not only creates uneasiness, but adds substantially to the stress levels already at a high because of the nature of the transaction
How on earth did we get to this? How do we have to convene a forum to get estate agents and conveyancers together to talk to each other?
The answer in my view lies in the very nature and essence of the two contrasting roles - they are radically different and that results in our having to rub together in an uneasy alliance.
Let me elaborate…
Solicitors (until 1985 there were only solicitors) have always considered themselves a profession and not a trade. The essential difference between the two philosophies is that professionals make money almost accidentally from their duty to their clients which overrides any personal interests.
At law school, the interest of the client (and we always refer to the lay person as a client and not a customer) is paramount over and above anything else. We are strongly discouraged to take on anything or anyone where we could be faced with a conflict of interest and we have a robust regulator who will take a very dim view if we are not transparently shown to be acting in the best interests of our client.
Estate agents are also, of course, an honourable profession and, whilst their duty is of course to the seller, they also deal with buyers. Their overriding role is to get the best price for their seller and they are able to interact with all the stakeholders up and down the chain to progress the transaction to a conclusion.
Whilst, if they were asked, I suspect they would still view themselves as a profession, I think many more of them refer to the lay public as their customers and not their clients . And there, I believe, lies the fundamental, philosophical difference between conveyancers and estate agents - in general terms, the agents have moved with the times and left the conveyancers (in the main) behind.
So - how and why should this affect one profession’s view of the other?
Solicitors, it has to be said, like to be left alone to do their important job. They have a list of urgent cases on their task list for the day and some of those cases require some quiet time and concentration. Then they have the more urgent cases which need to be dealt with that day (exchanges required/completions) and then they have the immediate requests for some priority action which crop up on the day.
What they don't like is their rhythm for the day interrupted to have to deal with third party requests for updates, which require them to take their attention off their urgent file and review another. If they have a case management system, they can probably deal with a simple request (is the local search back?) swiftly and move on. If the request is more complex, such as why is there a delay and that involves a more comprehensive review, this will take their attention off the urgent file on their desk and interrupt their day.
This is when it can get tetchy. There are two kinds of conveyancer. One is the traditional back-end technician - good at their job but not good at communication. The other (more rare) is a conveyancer who is very good with clients and introducers, but not so technically gifted. It is uncommon to have both of those qualities combined. The majority of conveyancers fall into the first category and, when they come up against a sales progressor of an agent doing exactly what they should be doing (chasing up the solicitors and finding out what is holding up the transaction), that is when there can be conflict.
A busy conveyancer with too many files on their desk (the norm these days), without the necessary customer skills, will not appreciate these calls and they will either not take them or fob them off - hoping they are dealing with an inexperienced sales progressor.
So, there you have it . The conflict arises when a customer-facing estate agent comes up against an overworked, non-customer-facing conveyancer and the lay client gets stuck in the middle.
It is absolutely true that despite this, the two professions get on - they have to. It is also true that with 1m+ transactions completing every year, the home moving industry works. It is also true, however, that the experience of the lay customer is generally not good and they come away from the home moving experience with a resolution never to move home again
How sad, that something as exciting as moving into your new dream home should so often be marred by the stress of the transaction itself that you never want to repeat it.
So back to agents and conveyancers, then. How do we get them to talk to each other, to trust one another, even to love one another?
What conveyancers need to do is to understand and empathise with agents. They should make time to speak to agents. They should be proactive and provide updates to agents before they make the call themselves. They should see themselves as part of an overall customer team to work together to make the transaction happen. And if they do something wrong, they should “fess” up to it .
My experience of the estate agency market is that the vast majority of agents are hard-working folk who are trying to do their best for their customers. They are not unreasonable and appreciate that conveyancers have got a job to do. What they do not appreciate is conveyancers not taking their calls or fobbing them off.
It's really not that difficult. Agents and conveyancers just need to talk to each other, to collaborate together. Is that so hard to do?
*Eddie Goldsmith is the founder of YouConvey, which aims to offer collaborative conveyancing for 21st century customers. He is also a former chairman of the Conveyancing Associaton