Tag Archives: consumers

In praise of QualitySolicitors

QualitySolicitors, the firm everyone loves to hate, has admitted it ‘grew too quickly’. I can hear the crowing as I type, lots of ‘I told you so’ and ‘it was only a matter of time’. The pink chickens have, many would like to believe, definitely come home to roost, leaving QS looking decidedly forlorn and ready for plucking.

I suspect not quite. For a start, their not-so-new boss, Eddie Ross, seems to know his onions. He certainly knows a lot more about branding than any of the naysayers who have leant their (mostly anonymous) pearls of wisdom to the comments on the Law Gazette’s interview with him this week. And he does a good job of getting to the pIoint ‘It is not about turning you into super-rich lawyers. It is about offering a better service than your competitors next door’.

QS did grow too far too fast and promised too much too soon. However, it is arguable that if it hadn’t we wouldn’t even be talking about it because it would have disappeared without a trace before you could say ‘Amanda Holden’. Nothing like putting a few people’s noses out of joint if you want to make a bigger splash than you deserve.

I don’t like the pink, I’m not mad about the name, and I thought urging us to love lawyers was definitely a step to far. But I liked the ‘Hard Road to Travel’ advert, even though it was probably something The Law Society should have made rather than QS. Being all John Lewis about legal services will really only work if, well, if you are John Lewis, but there’s no shame in trying. I’m quite sure nothing bad could ever happen in John Lewis, which strikes me as rather a good feeling for a law firm to emulate.

I was never quite sure whether people were disparaging about the now defunct WH Smith tie-up because they hated the idea or just the fact it was with a chain of shops that have been selling DIY will packs for decades. I still don’t see what is wrong with the idea of having legal information and advice available in shopping centres, even if having fixed points in a glorified newsagents is not the best way to do it.

These assumed failures do not mean the whole QS venture was all mouth and no trousers. It may not have invented Saturday opening or the concept of fixed fees, but QS helped to normalise them in a sector where for too long services had been offered for the convenience of the professionals rather than those paying their salaries, the customers.

The recent launch of its online customer platform may not be a headline grabber, but it should help member firms to do what QS set out to do in the first place, make legal services more convenient, approachable and affordable for whole swathes of consumers who are put off by the high costs and labour intensive nature that still pervades much of the legal market.

Equally, with the likes of Irwin Mitchell and Slater & Gordon continuing to pursue world domination (and who would bet against them?) QS is an alternative for good local firms to compete, keeping their own identity but taking advantage of the opportunities, including branding, that QS provides.

QualitySolicitors would not be the first trailblazer to make the running then shuffle back quietly into the pack. Anyone else looking to make a splash in this market should thank QS for taking all the flack while they could quietly go about their business.

It is also worth remembering that it is only by getting things wrong that you learn how to get them right (although this does not, apparently, apply to the current ‘Lord’ Chancellor). Which suggests that even if QS is not getting any bigger just now, it’s probably getting better. Shame the same can’t be said for everyone.

Valuable research, or statement of the bleeding obvious?

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.

An empowered choice, or no choice at all?

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.