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A matter of trust and reputation

Research reveals the extent to which client satisfaction is critical to the true success of a firm and the part technology can play in facilitating this, as LawNet’s Helen Hamilton-Shaw explains

17 October 2019

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Reputation and trust are the most important factors in choosing a law firm; and clients are more likely to focus on how charging is calculated and how they will be updated on costs than the price quoted.

These are the findings of the biggest ever research project undertaken into client expectation and experience in the UK’s legal sector, drawing on more than 70,000 satisfaction surveys and 5,000 anonymous experience reviews.

The research was undertaken as part of the ISO 9001-audited LawNet Excellence Mark.

The responses showed just 4 per cent of new business is won on price. Two-thirds of new business is generated through reputation and trust – comprised of 30 per cent from existing clients; 19 per cent by recommendation; and 17 per cent because of the people in, or the character of, the firm.

This aligns with national and international consumer-facing analysis: the Institute of Customer Experience reports that trust and increased personalisation are the defining characteristics of a great consumer experience.

Statistics from global data analytics giant Nielsen shows people are four times more likely to buy when referred by a friend, and 84 per cent value recommendations from people they know above all else.

It’s clear that expectations are evolving fast, raising the risk of a widening gap between business performance and client expectations – making it crucial for firms to continually monitor, analyse and innovate to keep pace.

Striving for excellence and continual improvement in this area needs to be embedded in the firm’s culture, reflected in its values and objectives and demonstrated by the leadership.

From there, it must be communicated clearly and consistently to fee earners, management and support staff so each person is encouraged to take ownership.

Measurement is vital, as with any outcomes-focused activity; and no single metric can tell the whole story.

Rather, you need to consider the building blocks that comprise a positive experience. Satisfaction, engagement, loyalty and effort can all be used to drive real performance improvements through process and people.

Client experience reviews

Within LawNet, the Excellence Mark is the measure by which client service is audited across our network, with independently conducted research used to guide improvements, training and future development in member firms.

Regular client experience reviews are a requirement. Independent researchers act as potential clients to interact with firms – by telephone, unscheduled walk-in, web contact, live chat, bots and out-of-hours routes.

Samples are taken across different departments throughout the year. Client feedback is captured through online questionnaires and delivered independently through an online portal, measuring strengths and weaknesses; fee-earner performance and overall satisfaction levels.

Performance is benchmarked against fellow LawNet members and other firms taking part nationally. Firms receive one-to-one feedback and in practice training to respond to findings.

After six years of the programme, we have clear evidence that this process of measurement and support can drive significant performance improvements in firms.

At a headline level, overall satisfaction recorded across all firms in 2012 to 2013 came in at 89 per cent.

This was a strong result, but targeted action by our firms has helped push this to 97 per cent –which is significantly higher than the sector as a whole, where 84 per cent of consumers are satisfied, according to Legal Services Consumer Panel’s 2018 tracker survey.

In the anonymously conducted experience reviews, overall performance by LawNet firms increased by 15 per cent from 2013 to 2019.

This now stands at 67 per cent compared with 58 per cent across the rest of the sector (according to research into the legal sector client journey by Insight6).

Charging systems 

It is necessary to drill down into some of the key influencing factors in choosing a firm. Let’s start by looking at how firms explain their charging.

According to recent Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) research, 95 per cent of lawyers think they explain the charging system clearly at the outset, but our research shows only 70 per cent of clients agree.

And while many lawyers see negotiating as part of their core skill set, there is often a skills gap when it comes to conversations about costs with clients.

Similarly, Law Society research suggests buyers cannot differentiate between firms, yet only 28 per cent of firms in Insight6’s national benchmarked survey explain why a client should choose them, thus ignoring one of the most important factors in the buying decision.

Our research reveals that once work has started, clients ascribe the most value to regular communication, timeliness and being kept up-to-date on costs.

This highlights the need for firms to be client-focused and client-responsive throughout the matter, not just at the start and the end.

The various touchpoints along the way, whether online, in person or through other means, offer many opportunities to learn for the future.

This approach is driving improvements for LawNet member firm Lamb Brooks in Basingstoke.

Recognising that its most significant asset is happy clients who return, recommend and refer others, the firm promises to be with clients every step of the way.

A programme of regular contact ensures clients have a route to raise issues, which are then tackled immediately. The results are impressive: 70 per cent of new business comes from recommendations or existing clients; and overall customer satisfaction is at 99 per cent.

This holistic approach to the client journey also enables Lamb Brooks to identify and resolve problems before they escalate and cause reputational damage, which is increasingly important with the rise of online reviews and social media comments.

Where word of mouth was previously limited to those people known to a client, new online channels have limitless audience reach.

According to research by marketing specialist BrightLocal, 92 per cent of consumers now read online reviews as part of their buying journey and it is vital to engage with new opportunities like this to avoid being left behind.

That’s why we have integrated our benchmarking survey process with the Review Solicitors website and encourage clients to leave online reviews.

Firms are supported in developing the techniques to make the most of positive feedback and effectively manage any criticism.

This structured approach has seen member firms at the vanguard in embracing online reviews, securing themselves a dominant position in the rankings on the Review Solicitors website.

Portsmouth-based member firm Biscoes demonstrates the positive impact of such tactical engagement, using online channels as a key component of business development to build awareness of its reputation for quality service.

The firm publishes testimonials from satisfied clients and high-profile cases through its website, Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as on Review Solicitors.

Turnover has increased by 32 per cent in the last financial year with 80 per cent of new business sourced from client referrals.

We also see our member firms using digital transformation to address customer demands and improve communication at each stage. One firm, for instance, adopts a multi-channel approach with a variety of apps keeping clients up-to-speed with case progress, along with an online live chat function.

Other firms are evaluating the potential of new technological developments such as robotic process automation (RPA), bots and other artificial intelligence (AI) innovations that can improve client experience and service delivery.

But while technology may ease and automate some interactions, it’s equally important to ensure that resources and policies are in place for fee earners and support staff to respond to client contact and queries with a personal touch.

A culture focused on employee engagement supported by a joined-up learning programme is critical to ensure the business is always moving forward and exceeding client expectations.

Looking at how this translates at individual firm level, member firm VWV has made growth through service excellence the cornerstone of its business strategy across its offices in London, Watford, Bristol and Birmingham.

Measured by milestones in the firm’s business plans, client care is a key deliverable and an appraised set of objectives and training requirement for every member of staff.

A director of client relations sits on the board and ensures business strategy is always aligned with championing the client’s perspective, with client feedback driving staff training and processes.

As a result, 82 per cent of VWV’s instructions in the last year came from existing clients; 99 per cent of clients say the firm provides high quality advice; and 100 per cent of clients say they are happy to recommend the firm.

This success has been achieved through a deliberate cultural shift within the firm. Culture fuels change, and organisations that prioritise continuous improvement, skills development and employee engagement in this way will be the ones reaping the rewards.

For the legal sector, quality of advice and professional expertise should be a given. Tension may linger between the way lawyers have traditionally practised, and the client being placed at the heart of every process – with staff responsive throughout the day.

But those firms who overcome this tension to deliver a truly client-centric approach can set themselves apart.

Helen Hamilton-Shaw is member engagement and strategy director at LawNet LawNet’s publication, Creating the Experience: Where client, staff and service intersect, is available as a white paper on request at lawnet.co.uk

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