As part of our Mentorber Series to support students and mentees experienced Chartered Building Surveyor and technical trainer, John Wheatley, explains why verbal reporting is so important for clients and our reputation as surveyors.
Discussions between surveyors and their clients are invaluable. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate how seriously you take the client’s interests, and how thoroughly you’ve undertaken the inspection. These interactions can be the most direct form of marketing you can get, as well as the best protection against future misunderstandings and complaints.
A sympathetic and professional practitioner will almost certainly be recommended to friends, family, and colleagues, while the distant, aloof, and incomprehensible may well be in the firing line if problems arise.
Key skill for surveyors
Verbal reporting is therefore a key skill for surveyors. Despite this, there is little available guidance on the subject.
While experienced practitioners will have developed their own styles and approaches over the years, training exercises with newer entrants to the profession, do however suggest that it’s one of the trickier skills for people to master. Many trainees struggle to verbalise the range of issues that typically concern clients and to respond appropriately to commonly asked questions.
What’s required of surveyors?
While the agreed terms and conditions should outline the requirements for the level of service and report being undertaken, this is often vague when it comes to verbal reporting.
A good starting point is the RICS guidance note “Surveys of residential property” 3rd edition May 2016 reissue. This offers guidance on the benchmarking standards for survey products and references level one, two and three surveys.
Most practitioners are familiar with the RICS level one survey, “RICS Condition Report”, level two survey “RICS HomeBuyer Report” and level three survey “RICS Building Survey”. The practice notes and professional statements set the required standards, but those covering the Condition Report and the HomeBuyer Report don’t specify requirements for post inspection verbal reports.
The Building Survey standards require surveyors to do their best to make clients aware that they can discuss the report after it is produced, as well as discuss it before it happens. This could be understood to imply that there is no expectation that a verbal report will necessarily be given, certainly for level one and two reports but that we’re there if needed at level three.
More communication needed
However, the guidance note does suggest more is required. Section 7, ‘post report delivery and managing client expectations’ suggests that: “many clients will want to discuss what could be the largest purchase of their lives. Consequently, surveyors should set aside adequate time to do this”.
This appears to cover all three levels of survey and to imply an element of verbal reporting is anticipated. Either way, most practitioners know that surveys should involve some verbal reporting, and that clients expect it from their professional advisers.
Key advice for discussions
The guidance note suggests that these discussions are likely to take place after the report is delivered. Three key points of advice are also given:
• The status of the conversation should clearly be explained at the beginning of the conversation.
• Verbal advice should not extend beyond the written terms and conditions.
• The conversation should be recorded in writing and attached to the file notes for storage.
Before or after the report?
Whether the post-inspection verbal report is given before or after the written report has been seen by the client, is up for debate. Either way, the guidance notes say that before confirming instructions, surveyors have a responsibility to ensure the client is choosing the most appropriate survey and understands the key elements of the service. This also allows the surveyor to understand the client, their particular concerns and how they intend to use the property.
RICS guidance comes with explanatory sheets outlining the service as well as the Home Surveys Information Sheet (HSIS). For level one and two surveys, it is accepted that these tasks may be undertaken by suitably knowledgeable and trained support staff, but at level three direct communication between the surveyor and the client would be most appropriate.
As a sole practitioner for most of my surveying life, I preferred to give a verbal report before writing the report. Many more will, I suspect, be more used to undertaking these after delivery of the report, as indeed the guidance notes infer. I’m certainly aware of practitioners that prefer to talk to the customer before the inspection; carry out the inspection; produce the report and then phone the customer to discuss any concerns they may have. No doubt there are many variants on this approach out there. I find that giving the client a flavour of the report before they go through the whole thing is best. I have varied this when initial discussions suggest, for example, a trickier than average client.
Personalising the report
Discussions at an early stage give the surveyor an understanding of how much a particular issue is bothering a client. If surveyors have this information before writing the report, then there is an opportunity to personalise it with an added focus on those issues. This makes it easier to produce a more bespoke report. Referencing a point of discussion will make a client feel valued at all report levels.
Rarely, the client may decide not to proceed after hearing the verbal report. You may therefore have gained them valuable time in pursuing other options and possibly avoiding additional costs.
Chatting before the report is written and read can bring its own problems. It could distract from key points in the report, and potentially suggest that those issues not specifically discussed are of little importance. It also tends to be more time consuming at the outset, although in my view can certainly save time later.
While some may feel that the client may be on the back foot if they haven’t had time to read and digest the whole report, this can be mitigated by offering follow on discussions if necessary. In my view, this is an important part of providing a quality service.
I believe this approach shows surveyors as professional and proactive.
Tips for better verbal reporting
Here are some tips for better verbal reporting. These are typically highlighted to trainees undertaking verbal reports for the first time:
Before you pick up the phone
1. Run through your notes and give yourself time for reflective thought on the property.
2. Make a list of key points you want to discuss with the client.
3. Consider whether you are able to provide a verbal report at this stage. For instance, you may not yet have made all your enquiries of the agent, or the location, your thoughts on value may not yet have crystallised. In this case, you may have to resist pressure from the client to call them asap. Remember that what you say first will probably stick in the client’s mind and could be difficult to dislodge.
4. Care must be taken when meeting clients at the property. There is a big advantage in talking face-to-face but could also be caught on the hop when thoughts aren’t yet fully formed. Many surveyors avoid this, but for level three reports I’ve found it really helps clients put your comments in perspective. It is absolutely crucial to stress that the written report takes precedence.
5. Check the instructions to ensure that no additional services beyond the standard terms have been agreed.
This should have been done before your inspection, but double check.
Your opening shots
1. Check your contact numbers, confirm that who you are talking to is your client. Numbers for vendors and clients can get confused, and there have been instances where verbal reports have accidentally been given to the vendor! (not good, a schoolboy error, I really should have known better!)
2. Introduce yourself, be friendly and check that now is a good time to talk.
3. Give a rough estimate of how long you anticipate the conversation taking.
4. Explain at the outset that the purpose of the call is to give an overview and that it will be limited to the main issues and concerns. Explain that the details will be confirmed in a written report and that this takes precedence.
5. Give an estimate of when they can reasonably expect to receive the report.
6. Explain that you are required to confine your comments to the terms and conditions of the service that you are undertaking (i.e. Condition Report, Homebuyers Report, Building Survey etc.).
7. Be confident and speak with authority.
1. Open with something positive if possible. Your client could be anxious about what you’re about to deliver. Inevitably most of a surveyor’s focus tends to be negative. If there is a feature of the property that your clients particularly like, this should be respected. However, if you have serious concerns about the wisdom of continuing to purchase, you need to be careful not to tell them what they want to hear, but rather you must focus on the message you need to get across.
2. Explain the structure of the call. This should help avoid the client jumping in and taking you off at a tangent. You don’t need to go into detail about the materials and construction, as these are in the written report.
3. Be clear on whether further reports will be advised. Explain that as surveyors we can’t undertake tests, and that unless recent certificates are available, further reports are always recommended.
4. Your client will nearly always want to know your view on value and will often ask whether they should be negotiating on the sale price for certain items. If your valuation hasn’t been finalised, you need to explain this and don’t be drawn in further. Explain the report will give a market value that reflects the apparent condition from a visual inspection at the time of inspection, but that this could change once any further investigations recommended in the report have been commissioned or estimates obtained and that certain issues may only come to light once the property is vacated. Explain that we don’t get involved in negotiations.
5. You will get asked: “would you buy it?” countless times. The answer has to be: “I’m afraid I can’t answer that”. As the interpretation of concerns or defects is inevitably subjective, it’s a question that you must politely duck.
6. Don’t discuss the likely costs of repairs unless this has been agreed as an additional service. Explain that obtaining quotes for all works prior to a commitment to purchase is advised.
7. Don’t discuss alterations or extensions proposed by the client unless additional terms have been agreed. Explain that this advice is beyond the terms of reference and where they can go for further advice. This could include a local building surveyor or architect, the local authority or the Planning Portal web site etc.
8. Avoid discussing condition ratings if you haven’t yet dictated the report.
9. Avoid recommending contractors for works, although you can point them towards certain federations. For example, the Property Care Association, Wood Protection Association, HETAS, Gas Safe, NICEIC, ECA, OFTEC, among others.
10. Finish by explaining that when they have read the report, they are welcome to give you a ring to discuss any further concerns.
Crucially, make a record of your conversation. Use your checklist to keep on track, but also record any additional items discussed and attach these to your site notes for subsequent filing. Remember duties and liabilities apply to verbal advice as well as written.
Client needs and expectations vary. The written reports we produce tend towards a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. A scan of review sites and blogs suggest that many clients regard these kinds of reports as confusing, overly defensive and of little genuine use to them.
Verbal reporting is a key opportunity to ensure the service we give is of real value to that individual client and to enhance our reputations as professionals.