Posted by Jon Hepburn, a member of Legal Futures Associate CoreLegal 
In many industry sectors, comparison and review websites are one of the main channels through which a business can connect with its customers. Who hasn’t checked out reviews of a film, book or washing machine before typing in our card details and proceeding to the checkout? But, how relevant are they for people choosing a solicitor?
I appreciate there is a difference between, say, reviewing in a hotel for a night and commenting on the quality of legal advice. The former doesn’t generally have a huge impact on a client’s life. However, whilst comparison sites afford obvious opportunities for those selling products, restaurant covers or hotel rooms, there are also commercial benefits for service providers; and that includes law firms. Where the benefits lie is in the realms of reputation maximisation, compliance and responsiveness – something that has not gone unnoticed by industry bodies.
Comparison sites are not going away any time soon
The Legal Services Board, on the back of work done by its consumer panel, has been encouraging both regulators and professional bodies “to engage with comparison websites for the benefit of consumers”. With that in mind let’s look at the wider picture to put the legal services market in context.
A changing market means changing behaviour – purchasing motivations for FMCGs (fast-moving consumer goods, such as toiletries or food) or durable goods (eg, washing machines) are quite closely linked to the reputation of that item – or the company that sells it. In other words, personal experience and the word of mouth of others play a huge part in getting people to buy.
Where legal advice differs is that, in the past, people have automatically assumed a level of competence and, indeed, a certain level of service from a solicitor – and have generally gravitated towards their local provider in the same way they would register with their local doctor, see their local optician or open a bank account with their local bank.
However, over the past few years, society’s attitude towards service providers has shifted massively. With the development of the internet, the global market and social media, the world has become a smaller place, both physically and virtually. People are now no longer constrained by the ‘local’ label, even when it comes to professionals who provide a service.
What they are now looking for is who can provide the best service and the best value, not only in terms of price but also through visible examples of a good reputation, ie testimonials and recommendations.
As service providers, law firms now need to make sure that their reputation clearly matches their service and that this is good enough to attract new business as well as retain long-standing business from existing clients. This is especially true where services can be easily bought (and compared) online. So, how can law firms communicate this quickly and cost-effectively?
The rise and reach of the internet
As mentioned earlier there is a difference between trying to find the right legal adviser, the cheapest car insurance or a care home for an elderly relative – the information sought, importance of the service to name but two. But this is a task that has been made much easier thanks to comparison sites. They provide a short-cut to help people make a decision and can be divided into price-based comparison and review-based comparison – both of which contribute to the development of a reputation.
Price comparison sites are ubiquitous in car insurance and many other sectors and, along with fixed-price legal advice websites, are becoming more popular in the legal services sector. Law firms are often attracted to these sites by promises of new business but, unless your law firm is of a suitable size, structure and culture, competing on price alone can be a risky option.
When there is a lack of information on which to make an informed decision – particularly for an infrequent and often ‘distress’ purchase such as legal advice – recommendations, reviews and the reach of the internet have been a great help to the consumer. Indeed, the government is encouraging the empowerment of consumers in many service sectors, not just legal services, so it would be fair to say that review sites will become an even more prominent feature on the consumer landscape.
What difference does it make?
With alternative business structures now a reality, smaller law firms considering this strategic option will undoubtedly find that their value to others as an investment opportunity will depend on their ability to attract future business. The value of your firm’s goodwill is inextricably linked to the quality of your client database and your firm’s professional reputation.
Potential clients need reassurance and to know what they are buying. Hence the importance of recommendations and an informative profile of fee-earners your firm’s website. If you ride an old motorbike or like base-jumping, then let potential clients know by giving some information for them to engage with you.
Lastly, remember that 10 times as many people will share a bad experience with their followers than the one client or customer that shares a good experience.