The 1995 Robson Rhodes survey highlighted the decline in the legal market's satisfaction with its suppliers, a theme echoed since by many people involved in the industry. But what is the root of the problem and what can be done about it?
The main area of dissatisfaction identified in the report is quality of service. In late 1995 Axxia Systems commissioned an in-depth survey of its own user base and the results of this survey backed up the Robson Rhodes report.
There were fewer reported problems with the product themselves and fewer complaints about price, but Axxia users did highlight areas where they wanted improvements in service.
This issue does not only affect suppliers of IT systems, it also affects the administrative structure of every law firm. The Axxia survey failed to find a firm reason for this dissatisfaction, but the issue has to be addressed by suppliers as well as customers' administrative staff.
Greater pressure has been brought to bear on all administrative departments as firms struggle to become more efficient and more competitive in today's business climate.
This has led to an increased demand for information from practice management systems and an increase in the direct use of software by fee earners and partners. This in turn has put pressure on the firm's administrative staff and the suppliers.
To improve satisfaction with the service offered, I believe suppliers must work together with their customers. The Axxia survey revealed that users not only wanted faster response times, but better logging systems and more communication from better trained staff. So training and logistics are the areas that have to be concentrated on, and this applies to the firms as much as the suppliers.
A practice must ensure that all users, particularly fee earners, are adequately trained to use the system. Given the pressures of work on fee earners, this means being imaginative and flexible about training. Short bursts of training just before the system is going to be used is ideal, but it will be largely governed by fee earner availability. Training could be carried out at lunch time or in the evening because fee earners cannot usually afford to take out whole days at a time.
But it is not just fee earners who need to be trained. To respond to partners' demand for more management information from the database, support staff must have greater in-depth knowledge of the data and how to extract and present it. There is a wide variety of tools available which will talk to a modern open relational database but the techniques have to be learned and mastered.
These issues must be tackled by the customer and the supplier in tandem. The quickest way to chaos in the relationship between firm and supplier is to let fee earners loose on a system with no training and allow them to contact the supplier directly for support.
The firm's administrators will have no first-hand knowledge of the problems and so will not be able to gain any experience of their own system trying to resolve them. The firm will then have to set up a problem logging system channelled through specific members of the administrative team who will then co-ordinate communication with the supplier.
With well trained users and a logistics set-up which allows good communication between users, administrators and the supplier, the system should work well.
However, the increased reliance on practice management systems, including case management, highlights the area of disaster recovery where a disaster can occur simply because the system goes down.
As computer systems become more reliable and the breakdowns less frequent it is all the more important to test recovery procedures regularly to keep them up to date with the systems in use.
Axxia is also tackling its end of the problem. It has put more people on support and is keeping its support desk open until 8pm. It is also looking closely at its logging systems so it can monitor workload by client in order to spot when a customer is heading for difficulties before they do.
The company is also trying to talk more to its customers. It is encouraging regional user groups as well as a national user group. It will be repeating its customer survey annually to monitor progress.