Online Reviews And The Commercial Imperative To Think Digital

You can compare the reviews of thousands of restaurants and the star rating of products on Amazon– yet there’s no standard way to compare the services of all UK law firms. Here, Bernadette Bennett, head of legal at Moneypenny shares why reviews are so valuable and how firms must avoid putting the cart before the horse.

To protect and grow client revenues and cater for the shifting demands of legal consumers – firms find themselves needing to put greater focus on the client experience. In a world where ‘shared experiences’ fill the internet – legal firms must acknowledge the power of the customer and their feedback – for the opportunities they create, and the risks they present.

Both the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Legal Services Board (LSB) are heavily invested in addressing this issue and looking at ways to empower consumers to engage with the market, help them make informed choices about the quality, cost and accessibility of providers and ensure easier access to legal services.

The drivers for this are almost certainly the shift in the way consumers expect to source a legal professional.  The prevalence of digital channels is in part responsible – helped by Covid driving us all online – and we now expect the same level of experience, accessibility and choice from our professional partners, as we do the big brands we buy from.  There’s less loyalty, more price sensitivity and greater choice from market disruptors – but limited comparative information on which legal consumers can make informed decisions.  

So why could greater use of online reviews be so important for the legal industry?

Reviews provide proof. They provide transparency of quality, capability, price and its people. Reviews take some of the ‘unknowns’ out of purchasing decisions and make us feel informed – as if we have the inside track.  They help us to compare, make an educated choice and put our trust in that decision.  Despite reviews being prevalent across almost every other sector, reticence about their widespread use abounds in law firms. Concerns about the damage negative (and even fake) reviews could have on reputation and revenue, the parity and nature of metrics, the costs involved with review, collation and display as well as the role of regulators and DCTs, are all widely discussed. The move to actively encouraging reviews will represent an important step-change for legal firms. It marks a shift from legal firms being seen as untouchable, to becoming accessible, accountable and client-orientated. 

Cart before the horse?

As the LSB and SRA grapple with the specifics of how to support online reviews – it raises a more pertinent question for legal firms. Could they allay their concerns if they started to put greater focus on the customer experience?

Research from Lexis Nexis tells us that 80% of legal firms think their client care is excellent, yet only 40% of clients agree which would suggest that online reviews would not be as favourable as firms think. Legal firms should concern themselves with how they deliver excellent customer care – and importantly, if and when things go wrong, how they provide restitution to deliver the best outcome for everyone. Reviews are merely a record of that experience. To focus solely on those is to put the cart before the horse.

Shifting the focus to customer care

Increasing the likelihood of positive reviews relies on understanding the customer journey – from the first telephone call or email right through to case resolution. By looking at each client touch point in turn, as well as the timescales involved with case management, it is possible to identify where service excels (and you’ll get praise) and where there are problems that might escalate to partner level complaints and bad reviews. 

SRA data from 2019/20 shows that delays (18%), failure to advise (13%) and excessive costs (12%) are the main sources of unhappy legal clients. Delays often manifest as waiting too long for a call back, insufficient proactive communication, lack of information and poor message taking – all issues which can be rectified easily when there is an appetite for improvement. Occupying the customers’ shoes will help legal firms to pre-empt the move to online reviews. Service quality is cited as one of the more ‘directly observable elements for customers by the LSB, so it will be commented on.

Accessibility is another holy grail the industry is searching for; the challenge is to ensure accessibility is geared to the client, rather than to the firm’s convenience. If clients need increasingly out-of-hours support, firms must follow suit and at present, 30% of firms don’t offer call handling outside of the 9-5. No one expects their solicitor to be available 247 – but extended opening hours, out-of hours-message taking and greater use of digital comms channels such as websites, social media and live chat provide an effective way to meet changing expectations around accessibility and availability, and to ‘get ahead’ with improved customer care.

Answering questions is integral to customer care and improving accessibility. Many client questions stem from a lack of understanding or familiarity with the procurement of legal services. Acknowledging this and building it into marketing activities can help to take the ‘scare’ out of buying decisions. FAQs on websites,  cost breakdowns, case studies, jargon busters and pop-up live chat windows to answer queries there and then, all achieve this goal and show customers that you are willing to help. If legal firms accept their role in educating and engaging the consumer, they have the potential to deliver much smoother and more positive client journeys.

Although much of the conversation about legal transparency is focused on pricing and quality – it can also be used to refer to brand authenticity and a firm’s willingness to be held to account. Negative reviews are what the industry fears but, when handled properly they needn’t be so damaging. Responding in a friendly human tone (rather than sounding like a formal corporation), showing that you are willing to make restitution and where you need to make improvements can bring balance to poor reviews. I recently spoke to conveyancing consultant and founder of CY Training Works Clare Yates, who summed this issue up perfectly. She said: “Clients have to wear it when they disappoint and be sure to improve on it for next time.”

Plaudits mean revenue

Reviews are intended to help people make more informed choices and therefore firms to win more work. So what happens when a prospective client acts on a positive review and reaches out – perhaps via email, a live chat function or google click to call? Quite simply, they must be met with an equally positive first impression – something that addressing the customer journey, accessibility, education and transparency will ensure. Anything less fails to capitalise fully on the power of a good review.

Whether the legal industry will proceed with digital comparison tools (DCTs) or a regulator-commissioned model won’t be known for some time yet, but legal firms can and should act now.    Those that interrogate their service levels and look at the client experience as a whole, especially how their people communicate and deliver client care, can get ahead and ensure that when reviews happen, they make a positive contribution to business development, revenue growth and brand reputation.

Bernadette Bennett is the head of Moneypenny’s 95-strong legal team, which is one of the leading outsourced communication provider’s largest and most in-demand departments.  Bernadette has overseen the onboarding of hundreds of law firms for outsourced switchboard and live chat services in recent years, including 70 of the Top 200 UK law firms. An industry expert, Bernadette’s intimate knowledge means she is able to quickly identify the unique needs of all law firms –  from sole practitioners to magic circle firms. 

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