Alex Yvonnou is an NNA Certified Notary Signing Agent and LCS certified as a Loan Closing Agent Specialist. He is a member of The Michigan Notary Network. Alex covers the Detroit, Michigan, area as well as Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties and has over 4,000 signings to his credit. He received his Bachelor of Business Administration in the field of Business Management.
Loan Signing Agent
Q: When did you start your notary business?
A: Four years ago.
Q: Why did you decide to become a notary?
A: Due to a back injury, I needed a career that allowed me some flexibility. I couldn't sit at a desk all day. I was looking to find something that I would enjoy, and I was determined to find a career that allowed me to control my own destiny.
Q: What was your first signing experience?
A: I was at a title company doing some marketing and trying to get a little exposure. Several employees were talking about a borrower who had been terrorizing everyone. People were seriously afraid of her. Three days later this company calls me to do a last minute signing. I pick up the package and sure enough, it's her. It was an hour drive to the borrower's house so I had a lot of time to work myself into a panic. I thought about telling her that it was my first signing, but I decided that I didn't want her to smell fear. So I gathered up all the fake confidence I could muster, and I strolled in like I'd been doing this all my life. She turned out to be all bark and no bite. The signing went smoothly, and afterwards she gave me a tour of her gorgeous house and showed me her classic car collection. To this day, she's still one of my favorite borrowers.
Q: Is your business full time or part time?
A: Full time.
Q: How many hours a week do you work?
A: It can vary wildly, anywhere from 30 to 70 hours per week. Even during a slow week, I'll put time into other things like marketing, organizing, or trying to expand my industry knowledge.
Q: Do you work with signing companies?
A: My marketing is geared more towards mortgage and title companies, but signing companies still find me. I have a few as regular clients. As long as they're willing to pay a reasonable fee and trust me to do the job without too much intervention, I'm happy to work with them.
Q: What percentage of your business is loan signings, legal, medical, other?
A: 95% of my business is from loan signings. I used to advertise general notary work, but it generated more inquiries then actual profits. My general notary work is done more as a courtesy for hospitals, nursing facilities, convalescence homes. I charge just enough to cover my time and expenses.
Q: Do you have a minimum fee?
A: Absolutely. Anything less than $75 for an overnight package just isn't reasonable (more if you're dealing directly with a title or mortgage company). As I've gained experience in this industry, I've really come to see the value that we provide. Taking out a mortgage is one of the most significant financial decisions a consumer makes. It can be stressful and a bit overwhelming for many people. We're usually the only face-to-face contact that the borrower has had, and as such we probably leave the greatest impression. If I can make it a comfortable process and allow the borrower to feel confident that they understand what they're signing, doesn't that have a significant worth?
Q: How have changes in the industry or economy affected you?
A: The people of Michigan have been hit hard by a slowdown in the housing market, a tough economic situation, and the worst unemployment rate in the country. Even the most seasoned veterans have seen their business slow down. I'm no exception. My business has dropped in the last two years. But I feel very fortunate to be able to still make a good living doing this.
Q: How do you overcome those challenges?
A: Obviously, you've got to use the down time to intensify your marketing campaign. I'm reworking my website, updating my profiles, developing some new marketing material, and networking with other quality agents in my area. I'm going back to what I did when I started this endeavor. I'm getting in front of as many companies as possible and making as many new contacts as possible. But most of all, I think it's important to remember how cyclical this industry can be. I try to look at the long-term picture.
Q: Do you have a business plan?
A: I don't know how you could be successful at this without one. It doesn't have to be anything formal. But you've got to determine what it is you're trying to accomplish and have a solid, well thought out, well researched plan on how you're going to achieve your goal.
Q: What percentage of your net income do you spend on advertising?
A: Only about 5%. Other than the top listing sites, I chose not to spend money on sites that pop up every week wanting me to list with them for a fee. If they're not getting traffic and no one has even heard of them, then I don't see how they're going to help my business. The Yellow Pages was a waste of money. No matter how much I've spent in the past, the majority of my business comes from my personal website. With a background in web design and search engine optimization, I've been able to design my own site and drive a lot of traffic to it.
Q: Where do you advertise?
A: Go Get Notary, Notary Rotary, Signingagent.com, Go Mobile Notary, Merchant Circle, my own site, DetroitNotary.com, and any free listings that I can find.
Q: How do you network?
A: First of all, I consider other signing agents in my area to be colleagues, not competition. I've helped several others get started in this industry, and I'm also fortunate to have several top-notch, well respected agents in my area such as Renee Kovacs and Dorothy Matsel. I've met some people through various forums, others that I've reached out to by email or phone, others that have reached out to me. I was recently offered the opportunity to join a wonderful group called The Michigan Notary Network. It's a group of experienced, exceptional, full-time Michigan signing agents joining together to promote and support each other. I believe in the philosophy that the sum is greater than its parts.
Q: What professional organizations do you belong to?
A: NNA, Notary Rotary, The Michigan Notary Network.
Q: What skills or traits are essential for a notary to succeed?
A: It's important to be well-rounded. Although it's not essential to absolutely excel at one particular thing, it takes a strong blend of organizational skills, self-motivation, patience, flexibility, marketing savvy, computer skills, common sense, and communication skills. If any one of those ingredients is missing, you're going to struggle to find and keep clients.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about a career as a notary?
A: One misconception is that we're JUST notaries. A professional signing agent does so much more than just stamp and sign. The ability to control the flow of a signing, head off issues before they arise, and handle questions and concerns in a confident, reassuring, yet impartial way is something that I think is really under appreciated by those who have never witnessed a signing being handled properly. I've had many loan officers sit in on signings. They are quite surprised when they see what's actually involved in conducting a smooth signing.
Another big misconception is that we make our own hours. I've heard it a hundred times. But if I want my companies to rely on me, then I have to be available whenever they needed me. I don't make my hours, they do.
Q: What advice would you give a brand new notary starting today?
A: First of all, listen to what the experienced notaries have to say. I've seen so many new notaries reject the advice of some very knowledgeable people because it wasn't what they wanted to hear or they didn't like the tone in which it was delivered. Put your ego aside and don't be thin-skinned. This is a tough time to start in this industry, so you're not going to like a lot of what you'll hear.
Secondly, have a marketing plan BEFORE you start. I'm continually surprised by how many people get their notary license, pass a certification class, and then don't know what to do next. They've signed up with two or three companies and don't understand why no one's beating down their door. Research your market conditions, know how many other signing agents are in your area, decide how you're going to get your name in front of a few hundred companies, and be prepared for the long haul. Success doesn't come instantly.
Q: What advice would you give notaries who want to take their business to the next level?
A: Distinguish yourself above the norm. Be available more than the next guy, dress better then everyone else, speak more professionally, pay attention to every little detail. Love what you do, be enthusiastic, and it will show.
Q: What was your most unusual or memorable signing experience?
A: I had a signing where the house was so cluttered, the borrower almost couldn't get the front door open. All the windows were blocked by piles of junk, and all the tables and chairs were buried. We proceeded down a narrow opening all the way to her dark, dingy basement where the only open table was situated. We sat down on the most disgusting couch I'd ever seen and I immediately felt hundreds of fleas jumping all over me. The borrower had a four-year-old grandson that was climbing on me like I was his personal jungle gym. She never tried to stop him. At one point when I wasn't looking, he pulled apart my quick stamp and spilled ink over several signed documents. I finally escaped after two hours happy to be out of there for good. The next day, the title company called to say the HUD had changed and would I go back out to have it signed? Fine I thought. It's just one document. When I sat down, the four-year-old saw me and came running. He had a popsicle in his hand. Of course when he got to me, the popsicle fell off the stick and plopped right onto the HUD. I saw it happening like it was in slow motion, but I just couldn't stop it in time.
Q: What books are tops on your recommended reading list?
A: I have the Signing Agent Certification book and the Michigan Notary Primer that I still use as a refresher. I feel it's important to have a better understanding of other parts of the process, so I've started reading the Michigan Principals of Real Estate book with an eye on eventually getting a real estate license. As others have said, Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is a must read. I've also recently re-read the "48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene. I usually spend at least one Saturday a month at the book store browsing through the latest motivational book. I take a lot of what I read with a grain of salt, but I can usually glean a few ideas and rev up the engine a little.
Alex, thanks so much for your time and thoughtful comments. I'm sure our readers will find your advice useful and try to emulate the example you've set.
For more about Alex Yvonnou, please visit his GGN website.