Andrew Stenning of Searches UK speaks to Today’s Conveyancer on takeovers, cybercrime and caricatures

Searches UK more than caught the eye at Legalex down in London earlier this month, bringing in a caricature artist to sketch visitors to their stand, as well as displaying other framed works of art. Jane Common asked Managing Director Andrew Stenning why, according to Searches UK, every single transaction is a masterpiece.

This stand is brilliant Andrew!

“Yes, we try and make it different so we stand out. Last year we had a Ferrari at Legalex and this year we’ve gone a bit arty. All the paintings are linked to the various products we sell so we’re taking people on an artistic journey through the conveyancing process – there’s the hard hat and the mining, for example. And my Dad painted the Searches UK logo for the event!
“The point we’re making, I suppose, with the artists drawing people is that we offer a personal service – that we really see our clients as individuals and understand their needs. Lots of clients have been over for a chat today – and had caricatures done, yes. And people from other search companies have stopped by too – we all get on pretty well together.”

How did you start out in the search market?

“I left school when I was 16 and went straight into an estate agency six days a week on a YTS scheme. I enjoyed being an agent – I certainly miss nosing round properties and have to make do with Kirstie and Phil on the telly now. Then I worked at a conveyancing firm as practice manager. So I saw both sides. When I was an agent I’d grumble: ‘Why are these lawyers taking so long?’ Then when I worked at the law firm I could see that often the agents were being a bit harsh.

“Obviously searches were a big part of my job at the law practice and I thought: I could do this better – make the process quicker and easier. So, in 2008, I put my money where my mouth was and set up Searches UK. It was a gamble – I left my job and took a chance. But it paid off. And I love it.”

What’s the company ethos?

“Customer service is key – we know that one size doesn’t fit all our clients. So we’re flexible and we work how our clients ask us to work. A search is a search and there are loads of companies to choose from so the way we stand out in the market is by delivering unbeatable service.

“With us, clients can pick up the phone and tell us a particular search is urgent or ask us to push something through and we’ll help every time. We know our clients – we always send birthday cards. And the majority recommend us to their peers and, when they leave a practice and start somewhere new, take us with them. And that’s lovely.”

What’s your market share?

“Various figures are bandied around. We know we’re growing but it’s not all about market share for us. We could have 50% but if I didn’t feel our service merited that I’d be worried. It’s not about being the biggest – it’s about being the best and doing a good, thorough job for our clients.

“That’s why, while we want to grow, we want to keep the service levels too – so it’s about growth in moderation. There’s no point in taking on loads of new clients and then not having time to look after them properly. If we lose the edge that makes us different what’s the point?

“So we’re slightly overstaffed and that’s the way I’ve always operated – when we take new clients on, which we’re doing all the time, our service levels won’t drop as there are people in place to cope.”

You were taken over by Fitzalan Partners in January 2016. How has that changed things?

“On a day to day basis, hardly at all – the board at Fitzalan wanted to work with us because they liked what we were doing and appreciated our ethos. So they have pretty much left us to get on with it. Obviously being part of a group gives us access to a lot more resources – in terms of HR and IT support, for example – but my day to day role is pretty much the same. It’s all good.”

I get the impression that you’re one of those bosses who’s happy to pitch in and do the donkey work?

“Definitely, I love getting stuck in. We have eighteen staff at our offices in Hove and four salespeople on the road and we’re a close-knit team – we’re friends. My colleagues are brilliant – they are committed to helping our clients. This isn’t a nine to five job and we’ll all work until it’s done. And a lot of that is because, at the end of the day, we’re working for a house buyer who is so excited about moving into their dream home. It’s easy to get bogged down in the process and forget about the fact that for them we’re arranging one of the most important days of their lives. So we made a video called Dream Homes as part of our 2016 marketing material to promote that aspect of what we do.”

How do you think the market is faring at the moment?

“The property market will always be up and down – in a state of constant ebb and flow. At the moment it’s fairly healthy, growing steadily at a pace that’s manageable. Help to Buy is a positive step.”

What are the big current issues in conveyancing, in your opinion?

“Cybercrime is worrying so we’re having a big push on Lawyer Checker at the moment and doing promotion around that in terms of helping our clients protect their customers. It’s a fantastic product.

“Email hacking – that’s frightening too. I’ve received emails that look as if I’ve sent them! This sort of thing is always going to be tough on solicitors because the buck stops with them. But I think the banks need to step up their game and do more to help as well.”

And what are you currently focussing on at Searches UK?

“Internally, we’re working on our environmental policy – it’s important to us to be green. So we’re cutting back on paper in our marketing material and focusing more on emails. And we’re mindful of our carbon footprint, arranging several meetings in one town rather than travelling a long distance just for one conversation and holding events where clients can visit us.

“Searches wise we’re doing a lot of work with a company called Terrafirma, which specialises in mining searches. Sink holes, which can be caused by historic mining in an area, are becoming an issue that’s likely to grow worse over the coming years – the problem came with how holes were filled when mines closed down. They were putting trees in to fill them, but over 100 years trees will rot, wood pulp and the ground become insecure. A few sink holes open up every week in the UK now so it’s a problem we should all be aware of.”

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