Last week I read about lots of ‘new’ research that has discovered consumers are mystified by the legal world and are still put off lawyers by jargon, hidden costs, antiquated opening hours and poor customer service. Well knock me down with a feather.
The world is full of useless research. I am constantly amazed and slightly depressed at how some of our, apparently, best brains are preoccupied by why woodpeckers don’t get headaches or what makes a cookie crumble. Research has also revealed that teenagers who play computer games read less and do less homework, we all feel better at the weekend and, amazingly, performance-enhancing drugs enhance performance. Not so much research, more statement of the bleeding obvious.
Still, it is the job of academics to conduct research and I guess not all of them can cure cancer or explain how we can improve social mobility. There is also always the chance that in doing something seemingly pointless some bright spark will make an important discovery. On the other hand, market research is quite often written off as worthless, and it quite often is, not least because it is rarely about listening to the customer but as a justification for doing something an organisation was going to do anyway. And you don’t have to be a master of the dark arts of PR to know most statistics, if not ‘damn lies’, are certainly selective truths.
I say this as one who has, and sometimes still does, throw research statistics around with gay abandon. There is nothing more comforting than being able to validate your opinion with a few choice, carefully presented and meticulously gathered figures; no self-discerning press release should be without them. But let’s not get carried away with their significance. As the saying goes, statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.
None of this is to suggest that robust research, properly analysed and used genuinely to inform policy, isn’t valuable. In an area like the law, where some people will inevitably have to use a lawyer even if they don’t want to, it has been an important tool in attempting to persuade the profession that things have to change. Some, thank goodness, have even taken notice, recognising its in their own interest now other, more customer-focused businesses, can also deliver legal services.
But honestly, did the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) really need 18 months to find out what people want from their lawyer? It doesn’t take a genius, or even a market-research professional, to work out that ‘often this amounts to getting the right information, in the right format, at the right time’.
I am sure, at least I hope I am sure, that the SRA found out some slightly more nuanced information, particularly from disadvantaged or hard-to-reach groups of consumers. All the same, 18 months spent talking to people is 18 months not actually doing very much and the SRA’s had about five years to find out what customers want, although it could have just asked the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
And what is the outcome of all this ‘research’? A website to help consumers know what they need to know and when they need to know it. I am sure it will be a very good website, I am particularly looking forward to the ‘surveys, polls and quizzes’ it promises, but websites only go so far, and it won’t solve consumers’ confusion about legal services unless the root cause is tackled more robustly, ie the propensity of lawyers to confuse their clients in the first place.
A further indication of how far the SRA may still have to go were concerns expressed by board members that the website should not become a comparison site, a sort of TripAdvisor for legal services. This is exactly what it should be so that consumers cannot only get the information they need about lawyers but find a suitable one. Rather than preventing user comments and feedback on its own site, the SRA should be worried about the simplistic comparison sites that are inevitably springing up all over the web. Social media and the Internet are fundamentally changing consumer behaviour and expectations and it simply isn’t an option to carry on as you were.
As well as changing the way consumers research and purchase products and services, social media is having a radical impact on traditional market research. As consumers find there are easier, more immediate and more responsive ways to talk to organisations they will be less willing to take part in structured surveys.
Arguably, the sort of feedback and data gleaned this way will also be more valuable as it will be ‘in real time’ rather than ‘after the event’ when individuals may rationalise previous actions. In any case, behavioural experts now suggest there is no reliable link between attitudes and behaviours, which somewhat invalidates most traditional market research. If the SRA really wants to know what consumers think it will have to embrace genuine interaction.
To be fair, the regulator wasn’t the only organisation trumpeting research of dubious value last week. QualitySolicitors’ own research found that while lawyers ‘tend to be excellent’ at the technical bits of their job they often put people off because of their expense, jargon and lengthy response times. Strangely their response is to launch a new advertising campaign persuading the public to ‘love their lawyer’. Well, you can try anything once.