Bill Svoboda, co-founder of title software solutions provider CloseSimple, takes a deep dive into how the title industry has adapted to meet consumer needs during the pandemic.
Historically, the title industry has taken a backseat in the consumer’s mind to real estate agents and mortgage loan officers because the title professionals are often the silent partners that push the deal past the finish line.
However, with the emergence of COVID-19, a surge of refinances, consumers fleeing the city for the suburbs or country, and a growing demand for safe, non-touch closing processes, title companies have had the opportunity to move to the forefront while improving the closing experience for all parties.
And, although there’s still room to grow for the title industry (like for all parties in the real estate transaction), there has been a significant increase in substantial, customer-facing innovation in the last six months than there had been in the last five to 10 years.
In fact, Brooks Yeager — president of RamQuest, one of the title industry’s largest title production software companies, and also president of Pavaso, an industry-leading remote online notary company — described the past few months as “trial by fire.”
“For years, the technology has been available to facilitate a digital closing,” Yeager said. “But, with the emergence of COVID-19, we saw a massive spike in people trying to adopt digital solutions.”
However, not every state was able to legally accommodate a fully digital closing experience with remote online notary. Furthermore, cooperation from lenders is still required, and both real estate professionals and consumers must be educated on the process.
As such, title companies have been left to innovate on their own and experiment with new technologies and processes to get through this pandemic. In doing so, three trends have emerged that are expected to have a massive influence on the title and escrow industry for years to come.
1. Empathy for the Customer & Revived Emphasis on the Experience
Cindy Koebele runs a successful title company in the suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. For the past 13 years, she has proven to be one of the most progressive-thinking owners in the title industry due to her emphasis on the customer and the closing experience.
For instance, a typical, pre-COVID closing at TitleSmart featured spacious, well-lit closing conference rooms with plenty of snacks, amenities and, of course, a photo station to make the closing memorable.
However, once COVID-19 hit, everything needed to change. Koebele’s business was deemed essential and, with a renewed emphasis on the customer and creating a safe, but still efficient, closing experience, Cindy put herself in her customers’ shoes and began to rethink the closing experience.
“Our closing solution is customized to what the customer feels comfortable with,” Koebele said. “The degree of social distancing, the amount of protective gear they wear, meeting, inside or outside, it all depends on them.”
So, realizing that customers would require a touch-free environment, she built light-weight, plexiglass stations that could be arranged in such a way that, if the customer so desired, they could wrap around the client to provide an even stronger sense of safety from germs.
In Koebele’s words, this was an important feature because it was “about them, not us.” The stations also included a slot through which documents could be passed (by employees who wore gloves) with a TitleSmart sticker on the glass so any pictures for social media would feature the TitleSmart brand.
Koebele also instituted a car-hop signing experience, pre-packaged snacks and individual trinket bags — full of TitleSmart-branded gifts, like its famous pizza cutter or candles — that customers could take with them. She even placed her company’s Christmas tree in the front of her office, hanging free masks and hand sanitizer for any customer to take.
Beyond the physical changes to the closing experience, Koebele and other title companies have also been shifting to a more digital closing experience. But, as Yeager mentioned, states and lenders primarily control how quickly the process can move to a completely digital experience.
The result is that many title companies are now offering a partial digital closing experience, while aggressively pushing state governments and mortgage companies for the ability to give customers access to this type of closing because, according to Koebele, “customers want it to be fully online, so we want to give it to them!”
2. Shift in the Workplace & Closing Table
Depending on the state you’re located in, the closing table may look very different, but if you close at the table in a title or escrow company’s office, you’re sure to notice changes.
According to Baron Buss, executive vice president of WFG’s National, Southwest & Western Agency Operations, more than 90% of his workforce is now working from home.
“Some functions must be done in office,” he said. “Clearly, consumer and employee safety and wellness are paramount. Our company quickly implemented sound safety procedures, including a remote workforce. Given the challenges presented by the health crisis — and a majority of our employees working from home — we experienced an unexpected increase in overall productivity and a reduction in production costs.”
Buss oversees several Agency components for WFG National Title Insurance Company. Working with numerous title companies, he’s noticed this trend across the country — in the title industry, as well as related industries.
In an industry where closing at the table was the norm for as long as most people can remember, both technology and the pandemic are opening the door for a new alternative. No one is sure if there will ever be a 100% shift from the office and closing room/table to digital. But, everyone is confident that working from home is here to stay for a significant number of jobs in the title and escrow industry.
Meanwhile, Andrew Acker has a unique view of how this industry works from his vantage point within the operations of a title company and through his interactions with executives around the country. He’s the chief operating officer for D. Bello and Associates, an industry-leading outsourcing company that helps streamline the internal operations of title companies around the country.
“This industry is resilient, and as soon as COVID-19 hit, there was a realization that changes were required to get all the work done,” Acker said. “Whether legislatively or operationally, the industry pushed to help keep work going. The biggest trend is recognizing the need for action.”
When business is going well, it can be easy to get comfortable and avoid innovation because it’s easy to simply go through the motions. So, in Acker’s opinion, the pandemic has highlighted the need to continue innovating and rethinking how work could be done.
“The most important thing that’s changed is the removal of excuses,” he said. “Software we weren’t sure of or infrastructure investment we were putting off are now becoming necessary in a remote environment. In order to get the work done, we’re having to embrace new ways of doing it that, before, would have been overlooked or disregarded.”
As a result, not only is the closing experience changing, but so is the location of the work to facilitate the closing. And, even the software is changing.
3. Emphasis on Communication
Wayne Stanley runs Bowe Digital, the title and escrow industry’s top digital marketing and branding agency. Connected to the who’s who of title and escrow, he’s the one that everyone turns to for help getting through today and planning for tomorrow.
“Pre-COVID, most title companies saw themselves as ancillary pieces to the closing process,” Stanley said, “because real estate professionals didn’t allow them to be up front. But, amidst a global pandemic, the title company is the one holding the keys and taking their place front and center as they orchestrate a safe closing experience.”
But being front and center does not come without a shift in how title and escrow companies communicate pre- and post-closing. For example, with CDC requirements for face masks and the number of people within a business, among other things, title companies have been forced to communicate like never before.
Suddenly, title companies have been pushed to the forefront — needing social media strategies, updated websites, up-to-date Google My Business pages with accurate information, and even the ability to send and receive text messages when a consumer arrives for the closing.
Consequently, the top request Stanley and his team have received in the last five months has been title companies wanting to develop and execute a communication plan to meet the requirements of this new normal. With that comes long-range planning — although long range in a COVID world might only be for the next four or five months.
It’s easy to focus on what this means for title companies, but the real question is what it means for consumers. As in any industry, the consumer always wins. Technology, innovation and even a worldwide pandemic all mean that the consumer ultimately wins.
Title and escrow companies with a focus on the consumer and creating a positive experience will outlast even a worldwide pandemic because, as we’ve seen, not even COVID-19 can stop people from buying and selling houses.
The only question is, which title company will they choose for closing?
Bill Svoboda is the co-founder of CloseSimple, a software solution that helps title companies communicate with consumers, real estate agents and lenders during the closing process. Bill is also a passionate speaker on the topics of entrepreneurism, customer engagement, growth strategies and delivering six-star customer care in a five-star world.