It’s always good to discover you are right, particularly when you have largely been relying on common sense to prove a point. So to all those lawyers who said I didn’t know what I was talking about and that people weren’t interested in getting legal services online or at a supermarket I’d like to say ‘I told you so’.
This time I can give you facts, real facts about real consumers. Nearly seven out of ten people like the idea of finding legal services on the internet and a similar number of young adults fancy being able to get them from supermarket providers. Even more unsurprising was the finding that more than eight out of ten consumers are more likely to take legal advice if they are given an up-front fixed cost.
This not-quite-earth-shattering news comes from a survey commissioned by Compare Legal Costs, a legal price comparison website. Equally satisfying from my perspective was that fewer than four in ten people agreed that ‘solicitors are upstanding members of society’ and just over four in ten said solicitors were ‘arrogant’.
Having said that it can’t really be good that so many people still have a problem with lawyers. On the plus side, I am quite sure that the changes in the legal market will see their reputation improve among consumers as they have to get serious about offering real value for money and high-quality customer service as well as expert legal advice.
There is, however, a potential downside to all this consumer choice, although not the one many lawyers highlight. The danger is not so much that opening up the market will lead to sub-standard legal advice (although in some cases it might) but that consumers will be paralysed by choice.
Choice is, of course, a good thing. As proponents of choice will tell you, it promotes competition, improves quality and drives down cost. In the legal market it also means people are for the first time being offered a choice about how and when they access services as well as how much they pay for them. On the other hand is what American psychologist Barry Schwartz has called ‘the paradox of choice’.
His argument is that while ‘autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy’, having more choice than any other group of people have ever had before has not apparently made us any happier. In fact, quite possibly the reverse. Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more is not always better than less.
This is true across the whole range of choices we have to make every day, from the trivial (what to have for dinner, what flavour of jam to buy) to the fundamental (which school to send our child to, which mortgage to choose). And there is evidence it is making us miserable, particularly those of us who are ‘maximisers’, ie. people who are less likely to settle for second best.
As you can imagine, this has a significant impact on what consumers really want. You can argue about the specifics, for example whether price or service efficiency is more important, but what consumers really want is simplicity. Yes, they want a service that meets their needs, but beyond that they want the choice to be simple and they don’t want to have to spend hours making it.
And so we come to the ‘purchase funnel’. If you aren’t a marketing guru, and I include myself in that, the purchase funnel was invented in 1898 and suggests consumers go from ‘awareness to interest to desire to action, gradually reducing the number of options or brands they consider along the way’.
The funnel model has been used across many industries for decades, but consumers are now bombarded with so much information they are changing their shopping habits to deal with all the noise. Contemporary wisdom has it that brand loyalty is vanishing and the response of many companies has been to step up marketing messages in order to engage with and keep their consumers.
Marketing managers must have been dismayed to learn that consumers are overwhelmed by all this information. A survey of 7,000 consumers worldwide showed that a third of people continuously shop around, adding and dropping brands and constantly looking for alternatives; and a third abandon any sort of considered search and zero in on a single brand, not so much out of loyalty but as a response to an increasingly complicated choice process.
What may look like consumers exercising choice may in fact be them making no choice at all and apparent brand loyalty may be nothing of the sort, rather a ‘self-imposed simplification of the decision-making process’. What consumers are now doing is not making a funnel purchase, but a ‘tunnel purchase’ and often blinded by the tunnel vision that implies.
The researchers who ‘discovered’ the tunnel also found the single biggest thing companies can do to combat this problem is make the decision simple, by which they mean making it easy to get trustworthy information and find their way around any different purchase options.
What does this mean for providers of legal services, particularly when in many cases consumers are not only dealing with a multitude of choices, they are doing it for a product or service they probably know even less about than they do credit cards, food or mobile phones?
For a start, I am quite sure it doesn’t mean sticking to the one-size-fits-all approach that law firms offered in the past and some would quite like to keep offering. Equally it is worth noting, as the energy companies have found, that regulators (or in this case, the government) will not be afraid to intervene if the options become so overcomplicated consumers find themselves with the wrong tariff, product or service. Competition isn’t everything.
It does involve law firms, and their competitors, offering legal services people really want in a way they really want them. It also requires the front-line regulators to provide clear, impartial information and guidance to support consumers in making choices and the Legal Services Board to evaluate the collective effect of individual choices and ensure there is no negative impact on access to justice.
Whether you welcome or fear it, consumer choice is here to stay. How you respond is up to you.