The Return to 'Normalcy'

Christopher Abbinante is co-chief operating officer, executive vice president and division four manager for title operations for Fidelity National Financial Inc. Division four includes CTIC, FNTIC and TT operations. An industry expert in title operations, Chris has more than 30 years of industry experience, including roles as senior vice president and Eastern division manager for Chicago Title and general counsel for the Central division.

Driven by the refinancing boom, the real estate industry has carried the overall economy for the past several years. The refi market that accounted for 60% of the mortgage lending volume at one point is now down to around 40%. On the other hand, resale and new home sale volumes remain strong - creating an interesting phenomenon. Volume alone doesn't account for success; it's the mix of the business and the quality of the business that drives long-term survival. As this cyclical industry takes yet another turn, servicers must have a plan for reducing costs in response to constricting volume, yet still maintain a quality product and most importantly - service.

Having more alternatives makes consumers much more demanding - regarding quality as well as price. While more alternatives are great for consumers, this environment can be difficult for businesses. If a customer is dissatisfied there is often little or no opportunity for communication, and the consumer simply goes elsewhere.

Service is critical to any industry today. The products that we offer can be imitated to some extent by alternative providers. We are distinguished from these alternatives by two things, 1) a comprehensive understanding of the complexities of real estate transactions, and 2) the ability to back our products with a superior service-minded organization. When it comes to service, the dual-edged sword we face in delivering on this is technology - specifically automation.

Automation via technology can seemingly distance a customer, yet when applied appropriately it is our greatest asset in promoting service. For example, one of the biggest complaints that exists in the industry is the inability to obtain a closing at the desired date and time. At the end of a month, the hundreds and hundreds of closing requests received by an operation make it almost physically impossible for any company to accommodate every request. And arranging the logistics requires significant man hours both internally and for customers. To resolve this, at one of our Chicago Title operations, we've implemented an automated scheduling for closings. Customers can now schedule a closing via an automated system. By making this information easily accessible for the customer, our representatives are more available to service the unusual requests, ultimately keeping them closer to our customers.

By staying close to customers we can understand their needs, and therefore deliver on service. In conjunction with this, servicers should constantly be working to improve product quality. If you can measure it, you can improve it. At Fidelity National Financial, we measure the number of new opened orders, the number of files that are actually closing, the cost to produce a file, personnel costs, turnaround times, profit retention and much more. We conduct year-over-year analysis, stacking results against projections, with each operation competing against itself, setting its own benchmarks. We know where we finished last year, and we know where we finished the year prior. On a monthly basis, we look at all of these measures and try to determine if we are doing the things we need to do to meet expectations and remain competitive. This is how we do more with less and maintain competitive pricing, which in turn promotes customer retention by delivering quality products with quality service.

But all of this effort is to no avail if the value proposition of our business is unclear.

As a whole, our industry can do a better job of understanding, promoting and delivering our value proposition. We need to promote an understanding of what title insurance really provides - not just transaction facilitation, but protection and risk management for our customers. Amid a growing wave of fraud, title services and policies are more valuable than ever. Title products and services protect our customers - but like any product of value, this protection cannot be provided for free.

Operations must find a way to compete on service, while offering a price that matches what's being delivered. The first step is to determine the exact audience being serviced, then to gauge what's needed to safeguard the real estate investments for that audience.

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