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“The silver bullet of progression problems is here – oh hang on …”

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After the summer, when the property market got back to normal (or as Daily Mail readers were told, “has catastrophically collapsed with dire consequences” ) concerns about the house buying and selling process were knocked off the top of the LinkedIn whinge list.

Which is surprising, given that a more normal level of transactions should result in more people focussing on this.  In particular, the problems of sales progression are so significant that companies have setup to offer “progression services” ( which roughly translates to “nagging and blaming services” ) that promise to address this.  Which is nice.

They, and various Proptech offerings promote the concept that if everyone involved in a deal could access and automatically update the same checklist, this would solve this knotty progression problem.  We’d exchange properties in six weeks and life would be fabulous.

Sadly, this flawed thinking is based on misunderstandings of the process, which does mean that we’re going to be stuck with 22 week exchanges for the foreseeable future.

Which is not quite so nice.

The fundamental flaw

The idea of a common, shared checklist that is updated automatically makes total sense, but currently, this faces some serious obstacles.

The fundamental problem is most law firms don’t have a consistent set of checklists.  We know this because one of our favourite interview questions is “Does your company have a consistent set of checklists?” as well as the equally impossible question “How do you manage pre-contract enquiries?”  Both are followed by embarrassed silences.

Although the more enterprising candidates proudly explain how they print out their personal lists and staple them to the cover of their file, this 1980’s approach does not lend itself to an integrated technology solution.

Even where people do have systems, most have no built-in checklists, which are then knocked up by enterprising inhouse software developers who then proceed to fail to get them to talk to external applications.

The really tricksy issues

Concerns about a lack of co-ordinating systems are a sunny afternoon stroll in Vicky Park compared to the other issues involved with the automatic updating of a common checklist.

Contrary to most proptech marketing materials, checklists don’t solve progression problems.  They show which basic steps have been taken, but these are just historic flags whose primary value is to identify scapegoats to be blamed for delays in the process.  Which actually causes friction rather than accelerating the joyous onward march towards the holy grail of collaborative conveyancing.

Checklists can also generate misinterpretations.  For example, we share ours with clients, agents and brokers and have been asked for a tickbox to show when searches are returned.   We know that showing this by default will cause more problems.  Although our search provider gives expected return dates, these can be missed, but also, searches may be wrong and they will need to be interpreted and enquiries raised.  We could automatically set a flag but clients and agents would naturally ask “the searches are back, so we’re good to go” and we’d have to spend time explaining why this actually wasn’t the case.

Similar issues arise if we were to automatically flag when we receive replies to enquiries.  If we did, clients and agents would naturally ask, “we’ve got replies to enquiries, so we’re good to go”.  However, there is a fundamental difference between “replies” and “answers”.  The most common “reply” we get is “replies to follow” and many require more questioning – we rarely receive replies that contain full answers the first time.

Mortgage offers provide even greater scope for problems.  We could automatically flag when an offer lands in our system, but our clients and agents would no doubt again ask “we’ve got the mortgage offer, so we’re good to go”.  There are numerous reasons for a mortgage to require re-issuing; the wrong amount, wrong property or just spelling our client’s name “Pholip” because the “O” key is SO awfully close to the “I” key.

What information IS going to help the process?

Attempting to share checklists that are updated using basic automation does not work for complex processes such as house sale and purchases.  We are not yet at a point where machines have access to the information needed to make informed decisions about setting checklists – humans currently must audit and interpret that information.

However, if we are to reduce friction in the progression process, we must find a way to expose and process the information behind the checklists – the enquiries that need to be raised and the answers that are received.  To achieve this, we need to capture the underlying data about the property itself, and information contained in leases, the contents of management information packs and title documents.

This is achievable but needs both investment in smart interpretive technology and the means with which to share it appropriately with all parties involved.

When even the most savvy law firms are still emailing Excel spreadsheets containing checklists, this happy ever after seems an awfully long way off.

The silver bullet of sales progression problems is here – oh hang on…