Posted by Arlene Adams, founder and CEO of Legal Futures Associate Peppermint Technology 
Although many legal businesses claim to have introduced enlightened client-based practices, the existence of widespread poor satisfaction levels is arguably the sector’s Achilles heel, acting as a drag on performance in an era of fierce competition.
It is also the reason that everyone from consumer representatives to regulators of the profession can continue to chide the sector for harbouring outdated attitudes and being demonstrably out of tune with modern shoppers for goods and services.
In what appears to be a damning indictment, the UK Satisfaction Institute – which rates customer satisfaction across 13 sectors of the economy twice a year – has reported lower satisfaction and customer support scores in legal services than in all other sectors, with this dire finding worsening still in 2015.
Our latest research, How law firms measure up against other sectors , supports the Satisfaction Institute’s findings. Of the six sectors reviewed, the legal services sector emerged the weakest on client-facing issues, with the lowest scores on client satisfaction and customer support. This was coupled with evidence that law firms spend less on IT than other professional and financial services sectors, although lawyers do spend more than the all-industry UK average.
Legal services clients’ expectations have been raised by the performance of other sectors, notably retail. Arguably the genie of consumer assertiveness will never go back in the bottle and the only way legal professional service providers can be successful in future is to embrace the retail adage that ‘the customer is king’.
Drilling down further into the degree of maturity and sophistication of the client communication processes and systems used in the legal, accountancy and consultancy sectors, Peppermint’s researchers found wide variations within and between the sectors as to how they communicated and maintained relationships.
They found that a third of law firms had no mechanism for maintaining a regular relationships with clients once their legal matter had been completed. This was true for just over a quarter of accountants, but for only 13% of consultants.
Meanwhile, among these three sectors, law firms tended to have greater standardisation of processes and documents covering client communications – almost two-thirds of law firms as against fewer than half of accountancy and consultancy firms. Individual accountants in particular were far more likely than lawyers to maintain contact with clients.
In each sector, digital systems were used to maintain client records and databases in a majority of firms, although in almost half of law firms, client records remained paper based.
The range of responses given in the research was wide: from firms that were clearly determined to improve client communications to those which felt they could not afford the time to develop client relationships.
Among the latter group was one accountancy firm which said: “To be honest, once a piece of work is completed we are often too busy to maintain relationships.” Lawyer readers may recognise the sentiment.
Although the statistics suggest it is not a widely held view, many firms do indeed recognise the importance of good communications. Enlightened law firm responses to our questions included the one which said: “We have definitely become more client-focused. We have set up a new system to look at the customer journey, identify when and where they interact with us, and see if we can improve our communications with them when they come to us.”
Still another reported that the economic realities had forced it to adopt a changed approach to preserving the goodwill of existing clients: “There has been a clear plan in our firm to move closer to the clients. Our largest clients are using fewer law firms, so we have actively tried to develop closer ties with key clients to maintain a relationship.”
Despite the legal profession having had digital channels among its client communication tools for some considerable time, few law firms have yet to make the leap into online access to enable clients to track their cases or projects – the kind of DIY access that is absolutely commonplace now across the retail sector and which surveys find are increasingly desired by consumers.
Arguably this is misguided. Remote customer access will surely become the norm for all types of purchasing and interaction with suppliers of goods and services.
If you buy goods, such as retail items from Amazon, or send a parcel with DHL, you would expect to be able to track the progress of your package with a high degree of accuracy and at a time of your choosing. Banking services are highly accessible and even government services such as tax returns and passport or driving licence renewals increasingly come with online access as to progress.
But law firms are only just beginning to appreciate the advantages of secure online client access, not just in terms of customer satisfaction – with clients being ‘kept in the loop’ on the daily or weekly progress (or lack thereof) of their matter or project – but in terms of the economies of scale it can deliver. A one-line Internet update each day or week by a law firm can remove at a stroke multiple attempts to contact fee-earners, many of which inevitably are likely to lead to frustration and unhappy clients.
Online access to check and download documents, for example, is still relatively rare. Just 8.7% of law firms have these systems in place, compared to twice as many accountants. The use of mobile apps for client access purposes has hardly taken off either, and is also in use by just 10% or fewer in each of the three sectors.
Similarly, very few professional service firms have introduced 24/7 access for clients. Fewer than 10% across the three sectors examined in detail by Peppermint offered permanent access to a telephone helpline, although on this aspect of customer service law firms were ahead of accountants.
There is an argument from a consumer point of view that says customer feedback requests are becoming a tedious demand of modern life, with customer review and rating website requests proliferating to the extent of becoming almost part of the ‘digital junk’ to be negotiated as part of the price of enjoying a connected, online world. But from a business perspective, feedback is a priceless indicator for improving customer service.
According to the research, four in ten law firms conduct regular client feedback surveys, as against 52% of consultants and just 28% of accountants. However, a smaller percentage of all three sectors incorporated the results of the client feedback into their client records and an even smaller proportion used the feedback results to benchmark service performance over time. There’s no point collecting the feedback if you are not going to do much with it.
Yet law firms appeared to be ahead of the other sectors when it comes to social media monitoring. A significant minority of law firms (41%) claimed to monitor what their clients are saying on social media just ahead of consultants (39%), and well ahead of accountants (28%).
Give them what they want
An issue few firms have addressed up to now is one that earlier Peppermint research established unambiguously: that what clients really want, along with price certainty and quality, is ‘anytime service’, together with a large component of web-based self-service.
Several years on, most have failed to use this information to give themselves a competitive edge. Facilities that customers of retail services take for granted – and have done for a long time – are only a dream for virtually every client of a law firm. The assumption has to be that those firms which act first to meet consumers’ demands for self-service will reap dividends in customer approval and loyalty.
A full copy of the research findings can be obtained here .