Nick Kozak for the Toronto Star
Case Studies

Toronto travelling notary embattled by price war, traffic, travel times and misinformed customers

Vital Stats
Contact:
416-274-4473, www.notarytorontomobile.com
Offering:
Notary Public, Commissioner of Oaths and Lawyer offering mobile services 24/7 anywhere in the GTA
Years active:
9

Despite a favourable industry reputation and high-quality service, Rula B. Morcos is struggling against large new competitors trying to price her out of her travelling notary business.

“My competitors are slashing prices and killing the market,”  says Morcos. “There are guys out there charging $15 for a notarization, and in many cases, not following the processes and protocols required under law.”

Morcos has operated her part-time mobile notary public and commissioner of oaths business in the GTA since 2003. She’s a lawyer and public officer authorized to serve the public in non-contentious matters dealing with estates, deeds, powers-of-attorney and international business. This means Morcos’ main job is administering oaths and affirmations, taking affidavits, and witnessing and authenticating documents.

To stand out in a market rife with fierce competition ― Morcos claims her direct competitor count recently reached 25 ― her business focuses on two key customer benefits: on-demand service and competitive rates.

“I offer late-night appointments, evening appointments, holiday appointments, early morning appointments, weekend appointments and emergency appointments,” says Morcos. “Whenever and wherever a customer needs us, generally I’ll be able to assist.”

Notary services are often needed at all hours of the day and night.

“I got a call from a woman who had a death in her family in South America,” recalls Morcos. “She immediately needed to fly out of Toronto and wanted to take her child with her, but needed the child’s father to sign a consent letter authorizing her to do so.”

The business’ second benefit is competitive pricing. Morcos charges $37 plus tax for a typical notarization. But market conditions have forced these rates down to $35 including tax, depending on availability and time of booking ― even though Morcos’ travel costs remain fixed.

And, despite the price drop, Morcos says customers regularly present her with a competitor’s quote – which is usually lower.

This is because the scale of Morcos’ competition is daunting, with some larger market players owning more than 100 walk-in locations across Canada. Prices can range from $9 to $59 per notarization, depending on location and the number of documents being notarized. So, even if Morcos differentiates herself with home visits, her customers don’t have to travel far for the services of cut-rate competitors.

And, says Morcos, customers often don’t understand what they’re paying for or how complex notary services can be.

“We charge by the signature, not the document,” she says. “Some documents can require five signatures notarized in triplicate – which requires additional work.”

What a customer might think is one document warranting a $37 notarization fee may actually involve 15 signatures and a cost of almost $200. Naturally, clients unfamiliar with these processes and pricing structures may become upset and go elsewhere.

“Some people think it’s just a one minute, one signature job,” says Morcos. “And that’s definitely not the case if the job is to be properly executed.”

The combination of these factors make a very volatile marketplace for notary services, which means Morcos’ business is constantly forced to attract new customers. To supply that fresh stream of prospective clients, Morcos invests in Google search engine keywords, her website, online advertisements, print advertisements and referrals.

Morcos believes the investments will help re-establish her business, returning it to its pre-price war status. She says the key is finding more customers needing large-scale, repeat work. Her ideal client is a business that deals with mortgages and real estate transactions at a high enough volume to generate $500 to $1,500 per week.

There’s room to grow. At the moment, 80 to 90 per cent of revenue comes from new, ad hoc clients who don’t require long-term service.

“Legal services are increasingly more competitive and subject to pricing pressures,” says Albert Luk, a lawyer with the firm Devry Smith Frank LLP in Toronto. “In this uncertain economy, there has been a race to the bottom on certain types of legal services.”

While it may not give Morcos much immediate comfort, Luk believes these changes in the marketplace are a wake-up call for the legal profession.

“Pricing pressures force the industry to explain why it is charging what it is charging, the value it is providing over a competitor and to be generally innovative and responsive to changing market demands,” he says.

Despite these challenges, Morcos remains optimistic about the future of her business.

“I really want to build this business up, hire staff, and invest in better online marketing,” she says.

But first, she’ll need to figure out how to increase her volume and turn a profit amidst rampant price deflation.

“I need to be paid what the work is worth,” she says.

EXPERT VIEWS

As Interviewed by: Tom Henheffer

There's a low barrier to entry in this market and a lot of competition, which makes the business price sensitive. With Morcos spending a lot of her time travelling from Burlington to Whitby, she's not able to focus on work that will generate income. Plus, as someone with a law degree, she’s simply overqualified for this type of work. There are other options that Morcos could consider. The first is to offer very specialized legal services, such as dealing with condo purchases near the waterfront. If she builds relationships with developers, real estate agents and mortgage specialists to establish herself as the legal expert in the field, Morcos could have a very lucrative practice. The second option would be to offer very general legal services at an attractive hourly rate, say $150/hour, to undercut bigger firms. For example, if someone would like a will or is getting divorced, they can turn to her first. She won't be earning $450 an hour, but she'll be in a less competitive and price sensitive market that may lead to greater success.

by Peter Conrod - RBC

I like the fact that Morcos is on-demand. People have busy lives and being able to accommodate clients is a real value proposition. There are opportunities to improve her website that will get her name out to more potential customers. People are searching for notaries online as they need their services, which means Morcos has to have great SEO so she can appear at the top of those queries. And, if she’s competing against lower rates, she can use her website to showcase her value differentiation and specialties, and establish herself as the premium option. Adding some testimonials to the website could really help with this, and also give her SEO a boost. Finally, if she’s constantly on the road, a tablet and mobile broadband may be really useful. Morcos can use them to work from anywhere, make sure she’s always connected and increase her efficiencies so she can reach more clients as they need her services. This can lead to increased revenues, help grow the business and put her in a stronger place to compete against those larger companies.

by Tisha Rattos - Rogers

Notary services, when they’re little more than stamping a piece of paper, have become commoditized and price-sensitive. So Morcos needs to focus on one of two options to make her business more successful. She can compete in that commodity sphere, but this will require her revving up to achieve serious economies of scale, designing a basic service that is standardised and scalable, finding cash to hire employees and generating enough business to make money charging next to nothing for basic services. A more viable option may be to stay small and specialised. Forget about crisscrossing the town for $35 to stamp someone’s passport application. Instead Morcos should focus on businesses that frequently need notary services for complicated work and provide to them a unique service that meets their unique needs -- something that has the potential to actually generate a real income. The trick will be finding these businesses, figuring out exactly what makes things complicated for them, and creating an offering that makes their lives easy. If Morcos does this her services will be much more profitable and fairly easy to sell.

by Theo Peredis - York U

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