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Are We Really a Service Industry?

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November/December 2002 - Volume 81, Number 6

by Charles H. Foster, Jr.

When you call LandAmerica Financial Group’s shared resources center in Richmond, VA, you are greeted warmly by Joyce or Sylvia, who then connects you quickly and courteously to your party. A cost-savings plan would have replaced their friendly voices and efficient service with an impersonal automated system. We quickly nixed that idea.

Why? Because while our business has long been typecast as a product industry (title insurance), it’s an industry where the true value perceived by the customer is a service experience. Callers need to hear a real person, not an automaton. We are people helping people close a real estate transaction successfully.

That’s where the concept of service has gone a bit awry in our industry of late. While we tout our customer service, process still seems to outmuscle people. Look at any title insurance provider’s Web site, and it undoubtedly touts customer service. The words may differ—"our lifeblood is customer satisfaction," "we provide exceptional customer service," "our employees’ reviews are based on how they have ‘delighted’ the customer," and "our primary objective is to satisfy the customer"—but the sentiment is the same.

Despite the best efforts of our industry to satisfy the needs of our customers, are we really equipping them to best satisfy their customers? A recent survey commissioned by LandAmerica revealed that homebuyers—the end consumers—are still finding the closing process confusing. Over one-third (36% percent) experience closing delays, and 42% say they are concerned with the title insurance process. [See figure I.]

So the question is: How can we better enable our customers—real estate agents, brokers, and lenders—to make their customers happy?

You know the typical real estate consumer—whether a young couple purchasing a first home or a small-business owner buying a new site— doesn’t usually deal with the title insurer firsthand, unless, perhaps, the closing occurs at the title insurer’s office. Instead, the buyer works through a real estate agent or a broker, a builder or a lawyer, and it’s how well they deliver service that determines these buyers satisfaction. To these buyers, title insurers deliver a product, not a service. (And as marketing guru Harry Beckwith likes to say, "Products are used, services are experienced.")

Perhaps this distinction explains why we always have been a bit defensive about our product. Even today, as ALTA® successfully crusades against alternative title-insurance products like those of Radian Guaranty, we see this defensiveness creep into our mind-set.

Our customers are brokers, agents, builders, lawyers, and anyone who works with the end consumer: the real estate buyer and seller. For the title insurers to shine, we must deliver crackerjack service to our customers, who then win kudos from their customers. The most successful title insurers are not merely vendors of products and services but also innovators whose exemplary service provides business solutions and creative ways to enhance the customer relationship. Serve the relationship well and the relationship will endure. Make your customers successful with their customers, and your customers will return.

The title insurance industry, to be sure, grew and prospered on the strength of customer service. Those were the days when competition in a community consisted of a few locally operated companies whose owners were golfing buddies. We communicated by phone and mail - not e-mail. Fragmented property laws, customs and practices prevailed around the country East of the Mississippi, and most of the title evidence was in the form of abstracts. West of the mighty river, things were different. In California the product usually was a guarantee of some sort, so local folks understood those critical differences.

Also, in those days, title companies examined the same documents ad nauseam—at least three times. We didn’t make many mistakes that way, but our delivery time was however long it took. It often took a month to deliver the initial report. Employees were friendly and worked hard, but speed of delivery wasn’t their top priority. No wonder people buying or refinancing a property fretted so often, especially when mortgage rates dipped and applications exploded.

But those days are gone, transformed by technology, industry consolidation, and new and powerful nonindustry competitors, like Microsoft and Intuit. These factors triggered an explosion of information accessibility for consumers and the emergence of large national title insurers. Recently Communication Intelligence Corporation facilitated the first biometrically signed real estate transaction, signaling another major industry shift to paperless transactions. However, the implications of the technological advances are still defining who we are and what we do. While we’ve spent millions as an industry on technology—work-flow patterns, the Internet, data mining, telephony, and imaging—little effort has been devoted to creating a flexible delivery system geared to each specific customer.

For instance, while technology has helped us consolidate back-office systems and develop integrated operating centers that save costs, has it also made our employees feel divorced from the customer? Do the mailroom clerk, the copy-room manager, and the IT technician really think constantly about customer service? Indeed, has technology actually sparked brand switching?

Richard McKenna, a high-tech marketing pioneer and author of Total Access, believes technology can promote brand loyalty. He calls it "persistent presence." It’s a customer’s consistent experience with your company at any time or place. It involves getting people to use your service and product without thinking about them. That’s certainly become true with the ATM machine. And it explains why McDonald’s and Starbucks have located their outlets to fit their customers’ daily patterns.

If ours is a service industry rather than a product-focused one, as I believe it is, the mission of all employees should be to develop a persistent presence based on customer service and satisfaction. At LandAmerica we’re working to do just that—to convince customers that being large doesn’t translate into impersonal service. When our customers—the brokers, lawyers, and agents who directly serve the buyers—call, they know immediately that they are royalty to us.

Ours is a business of people and relationship management, and exemplary service requires the human touch. That’s why you’ll continue to hear the pleasant voice of Joyce or Sylvia when you call our shared resources center. Often such service simply takes a simple shift in attitude, and we are nurturing that service mentality throughout LandAmerica. We want to ensure, for instance, that we answer our phones so that it really means something to the person on the other end. We’re even answering our e-mails differently. One colleague, for instance, now ends hers with "How can I help you?" before signing her name. I’m signing "Charlie" more frequently.

Quality service brands an organization—like it does Nordstrom’s and the Ritz Carlton hotels, among others. In Richmond, it’s a local grocery chain that exemplifies service. If you’ve forgotten your money, there’s never a question asked; the clerks expect you’ll be right back to pay for your groceries. Baggers walk you to the car even if you’ve just a single bag. These grocery stores aren’t necessarily the lowest price markets in town, but you know you’re number one when you shop there.

Employees, starting at the top with the CEO, must work hard to develop a total customer-service mind-set. Each of us, without thinking, must ask: What am I doing today to make it easier for our customers to get something they need to get their work done? We must accept that when the phone rings and we answer, we own that call; if it’s a customer on the line, we are the ones responsible for ensuring that the customer’s needs are met. This attitude must inculcate our organization, whether an employee works in accounting, claims, underwriting, the production center, or deals with our customers on the frontline.

This can be a big cultural change with regard to internal customer service. Just having a CEO talk about our customers leaves an indelible impression, and within my own organization I’ve begun communicating more on a wide-scale basis, with broadcasts to employees and e-mail messages. But it is also important to remember that an electronic message is not enough. There is a people element that must not be forgotten. The Heart of Change, a book written by Harvard’s John Kotter and Deloitte Consulting’s Dan Cohen, tells us that communication must be heartfelt, sincere, and simple, not "technocratic." Beyond the benefits that will have among employees, the sales force will replicate that personal element with its customers.

We’re starting fresh training programs to ingrain everyone in the tenets of quality service. We’re developing metrics to measure—and reward—exceptional customer service. We’re investing in technology that will allow our customers at any time to order title insurance documents from us online and to check on the status of their orders. They can see instantly, for instance, if the property survey has been done, or the appraisal, or any item on a typical checklist of closing documents. Our tests in five markets indicate that our customers think such an online portal, or intranet, works well.

We want our customers to know we will go above and beyond traditional service standards to meet their needs. That explains why during this summer’s devastating forest fires in Arizona, which nearly enveloped the small community of Show Low, we retrieved valuable records there and transferred them to another computer system to keep operations intact and our customers pleased.

The old tenets haven’t disappeared. Customer service and personal relationships, the quality of the product, a reasonable (but not necessarily the lowest) price, and ethical conduct remain the basis to success.

Ours, indeed, is a service industry. You should expect that we are pleasant, prompt, and professional. Period. After all, customer service determines customer satisfaction.

Charles H. Foster, Jr., is chairman and chief executive officer of LandAmerica Financial Group, Inc. and served as ALTA® president from 1999-2000. He can be reached at 800-267-8000.

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