PROPERTY JOURNAL

An A–Z of client care for APC

A thorough understanding of the client and its instruction as well as clear written records are fundamental to successfully achieving the mandatory Client care competency

Author:

  • Jen Lemen FRICS

29 May 2023

Photo of a building façade

How do you meet a client's requirements, define the brief for an instruction and build a good working relationship? These are questions APC candidates need to answer to achieve the mandatory competency of Client care.

Client care overlaps the Ethics, Rules of Conduct and professionalism competency, covering processes such as complying with anti-money-laundering legislation, checking for conflicts of interest and agreeing terms of engagement. But while these are essential to looking after clients, there is much more to the competency than that.

Anti-money laundering checks: under The Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) Regulations 2022, a surveyor must undertake checks on clients, which include requesting individuals' ID and proof of address or confirmation of a business's details with Companies House. Copies of this documentation must be kept for five years from the end of the business relationship or completion of the transaction. 

Brief: defining a clear client brief at the start of any instruction or project is essential, and it will be based on discussions with the client as well as desktop research. The brief should be recorded in writing and used to inform the agreed terms of engagement; it could include headings such as scope of work, required outputs, deadlines and reporting format. 

Conflict of interest: surveyors must also check they have no conflicts of interest before accepting client instructions. This includes confirming the client's identity, property ownership/tenure and whether they themselves have had previous relationships or involvement with any other related parties. If a conflict is identified, the surveyor needs to consider the current edition of RICS' Conflicts of interest professional standard and decide whether that conflict can be managed or the instruction needs to be declined. 

Database: keeping clear records of clients, instructions and important details is essential. An easy way to do this is using databases or client relationship management systems, although smaller firms could keep simpler records using password-protected spreadsheets.

Expressions of dissatisfaction: this is another term for complaints, which generally arise when client expectations or requirements are not met. A firm must have a written complaints handling procedure that meets RICS' minimum requirements, and which is referred to in the firm's terms of engagement. 

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Fees: agreeing fees is instrumental in client care. These should be proportionate to the work undertaken, and the surveyor should be able to justify how they are calculated. Fees come in many forms, including fixed percentages or hourly rates; they could also be performance-based, although not when the surveyor is acting as an expert witness at a third-party tribunal or in court. In any case, the fee base should be recorded in clear terms of engagement, as should the way that VAT, abortive fees – where the instruction is terminated prematurely – and disbursements are to be dealt with.

Guidance on complaints handling: RICS' Complaints handling, a document primarily aimed at residential surveyors and valuers, recommends that the surveyor checks the client is instructing the right level of survey or service and has a clear understanding of what will be provided. Generally, this can be satisfied by a pre-instruction telephone call. RICS also recommends that surveyors should understand any client complaints fully before they seek to resolve them. 

Head of regulation: if RICS receives a complaint about a firm or member, it will only investigate if this is in the public interest. It can then take disciplinary action to protect the public, with investigations taking up to six months. While there is no right of appeal against the decision, the complainant can ask the head of regulation to review the case; however, if the case is closed then the decision will remain final. Disciplinary action includes fixed penalty notices, regulatory compliance/consent orders, suspension and expulsion, depending on the facts and severity of the case in question.

Invitation to tender (ITT): an ITT is often issued to interested parties, and will include the details of the project or instruction. The invitation usually defines a standard format for tender returns and the mandatory requirements, such as deadlines and how to submit. Requirements are usually strictly worded and enforced, so a surveyor must review the ITT closely.

Jargon: surveyors should avoid jargon when advising or communicating with those who will not understand it, such as lay clients or members of the public. They should try to communicate complex issues in clear, simple terms and use visuals or photographs where necessary. Technical terminology could be used with more specialised clients, although prior knowledge and understanding should never be assumed.

Key performance indicators (KPIs): KPIs are an essential tool for managing work and clients. The indicators are typically agreed in the client brief, to make clear what is expected for good performance or success on the project; they may include meeting deadlines, reporting within given timeframes, or agreeing a certain percentage of settlements within budget. To be effective, KPIs need to be reviewed regularly and performance improved accordingly.

Letting and estate agents: both kinds of agent must register with HMRC for the purposes of preventing money laundering. They must also carry out anti-money laundering checks on each party to a transaction, whether the buyer and seller or the lessor and lessee, irrespective of who their client is.

Marketing: this is key to attracting clients and includes advertising, business generation, cross-selling, engagement and business awareness. Various channels can be used, including print media, press releases, social media, websites, in-person events and networking. In considering its marketing strategy, a firm should ensure it fits with its business plan, corporate objectives and target clientele.

'Surveyors should avoid jargon when advising or communicating with those who will not understand it, such as lay clients or members of the public'

No: a surveyor can say no to an instruction where they do not have the resources or time for the work, face a conflict of interest in providing advice, or do not have adequate skills, experience or competence. Surveyors turning work down can direct potential clients to RICS Find a Surveyor or recommend other suitable professionals who could advise them. 

Options: surveyors can present clients with a variety of options to resolve their problems or fulfil the instruction. This could include various service options or levels to suit a variety of budgets, or more than one way to address an issue. Surveyors should advise on the pros and cons of each option for example by using a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analysis, as covered in a previous article. An options appraisal could also form part of a client brief and help to define the direction that an instruction or project takes. 

Professional indemnity insurance (PII): it is mandatory for all RICS members and firms to be covered by appropriate PII. Before accepting new work, surveyors should check that the advice will be covered by their PII, and if in doubt the instruction should not be accepted.

Quality management system (QMS): many firms choose to use a QMS and comply with ISO 9001: 2015, which requires them to follow a clear process of planning, doing, acting and checking. A QMS is a set of interrelated policies, processes and procedures in the core areas that affect a firm's ability to meet a client's requirements. 

Rules of conduct: RICS' third Rule of Conduct requires members and firms to provide good-quality and diligent services. This includes giving a high standard of client care that encompasses all the key behaviours, processes and skills outlined in this article. 

Standard forms of consultant's appointment: RICS publishes a variety of such forms, covering a range of different construction project sizes; these can be used to agree terms with clients. 

'RICS' third Rule of Conduct requires members and firms to provide good-quality and diligent services'

Terms of engagement: every single client instruction must be formalised in writing, using terms of engagement. These set out the key terms agreed between the client and surveyor, in addition to limitations on liability and other caveats applying to the instruction. A surveyor should never rely on a verbal agreement, as this would not provide evidence of the instruction and scope of work in the case of a professional negligence claim.

Understanding the client: clients come in all shapes and sizes, from an individual lay client – such as a member of the public or a homeowner for a level 2 residential survey – all the way up to an advanced professional client such as a property director. Tailoring your care, reporting and communication strategy to the individual client is essential, which could involve the use of lay terms or technical language according to which is more appropriate.

Verbal advice: surveyors should always give advice in writing, and back up any conversations in writing, so there is a full audit trail. This could include notes or a recording of telephone conversations or accurate meeting minutes. In the event of a professional negligence claim, a clear audit trail kept on file can provide an evidenced defence.

Wordiness: surveyors should ensure that their client advice is clear, concise and simple. Overly wordy or verbose advice can lead to misunderstandings, dissatisfaction, complaints and claims. Surveyors are advised to read the Plain English Campaign's guides so they know how to keep client communications clear.

X-ray: although surveyors do not have x-ray vision, we still need to undertake a high level of client due diligence before accepting any instructions. This includes sufficient desktop research into the client's identify, property, tenure and ownership.

Yes: a surveyor cannot say yes to everything asked of them by a client. This means that a surveyor must ensure that they are sufficiently competent, knowledgeable, skilled and experienced to act and have no conflicts of interest. Agreed terms of engagement must be in place, and if a client requests further advice or services then additional terms should also be agreed. Should an instruction be outside a surveyor's competence, they need to be honest with the client: they could decline the instruction, agree to subcontract parts of it, or refer the client to another professional or service, although this could be cross-sold by the surveyor's firm without being a conflict of interest.

(si)Z(e): the size of a client's business is an important consideration in client care. A larger client organisation could require a more detailed communication and reporting strategy, given the multiple levels of approvals and key stakeholders involved. An individual homeowner client, meanwhile, may need a higher level of support, as residential transactions or disputes are often very emotional and personal. This often includes a follow-up telephone call after a report is issued to check the client understands it and to resolve any queries.

'Surveyors should always give advice in writing, and back up any conversations in writing, so there is a full audit trail'

Jen Lemen FRICS is co-founder of Property Elite
Contact Jen: Email

Related competencies include: Conflict avoidance, management and dispute resolution procedures

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