The eye of the beholder

People think more highly of solicitors than they do of bank managers and estate agents – according to the Law Society report, 'Client perceptions', prepared by the society's research and policy planning unit.

This is a report with attitude. A total of 1,630 people were questioned in a survey commissioned by the Law Society. The statistical analysis of their views covers the use, image and awareness of solicitors' services, the existing and potential market for clients and the way in which people perceive firms and the standards of service rendered.

The samples are divided

between those who have used a solicitor in the past five years and those who have not, and by gender, ethnic origin, social status and age band.

'Client perceptions' is basic reading for the commentaries alone: “Solicitors need to take steps to hold their share of the will-writing markets”. The results can then be mined for answers to such questions as: 'What services are ethnic minority clients most likely require?'; 'What age range is most likely to respond to an advertisement in Yellow Pages?'

Thirty-four per cent of all respondents have used a solicitor for private matters during the past five years. Seventeen per cent for conveyancing, eight per cent to make a will, four per cent with matrimonial problems, three per cent compensation for injuries and two per cent to deal with someone's estate (see adjacent graph).

Younger clients are definitely in the market; of the 115 people questioned in the 18-24 age band, one half claim to have used a solicitor in the previous five years. The heaviest users of legal services are in the 24-35 age group – nature's house buyers. Thereafter, use declines with age, but varies directly with social status.

Older people are more likely to have, and to stick with, their own lawyers; younger clients are shopping around. These potential clients for life are also the most mercurial.

They are shown to be the most selective, tend to have less confidence in their solicitor and are more critical of the service they receive. If you have a large, mobile, critical market then serious attention must be given to communications, services and policies for these clients.

The report estimates there are four million private clients transactions per year, of which nearly two million involve conveyancing.

On present count, solicitors handle 92 per cent of these transactions. In the 18-24 age group, 44 per cent chose a solicitor to do their conveyancing based on the recommendation of an estate agent, bank or building society.

This conduit of business is not long term. For those in this age group who have not used a solicitor within the last five years, 51 per cent would expect in future to have their conveyancing done by a 'home arranger', for example a bank or building society, and only one third by a solicitor. Think about the implications.

Over half the total survey respondents were women. Of observable trends, women are less likely to shop around between solicitors than men, are less sensitive to price, more loyal to their existing solicitor, far less disposed to use a lawyer's

office in their own locality, attach greater importance to telephone manner, and are far less likely to use a lawyer to resolve a dispute or motoring offence.

Only 5 per cent of women attached importance to the statement “the solicitor should be the same sex as myself”.

A similar question about ethnic origin also received a low importance rating, and only seven per cent of clients considered it very important to have a solicitor who was “young and up-to-date”.

Most people now expect a quote for the work to be done, rather than be given an hourly rate; 61 per cent of respondents would expect a full quote for conveyancing, either on first contact with their solicitor, or at the time of appointment. This rises to over 70 per cent in the case of will-writing.

People base their choice of conveyancing services on price and for those who had shopped around this was given as the major reason for choice. The second most important reason was the telephone manner of the firm contacted. When age 65-plus respondents shopped around for a solicitor, telephone manner was the only deciding factor. So, no “Hello I'm …how can I help yew…?”

For many customers, you can forget about the facilities or appearance of the offices; these rate low compared to the friendliness of the receptionist. This warmth ranks only second to the dress, appearance and punctuality of the solicitor. Dragons need not apply; defending the lair against clients might drive them away.

In hindsight, most people (60 to 75 per cent) are satisfied with the service that they received from their lawyer . For conveyancing, respondents rank their reasons functionally; 'Solicitor did what was asked' (28 per cent); 'Work done promptly' (25 per cent); 'Went smoothly' (19 per cent); 'Efficient' (15 per cent); 'I was kept informed' (15 per cent); 'Competent/did job well' (10 per cent). It seems those elements of service that allow clients to feel in control of the job are paramount. Knowledgeability, good advice and friendliness – all the things that may have got them the work in the first place – actually score very poorly.

For the 25 to 40 per cent who were not “very satisfied”, the principal reasons of dissatisfaction were; 'Took too long'; 'Had to chase'; 'Offhand'. Only 25 per cent of those who paid more than they expected questioned or complained. The others may have voted with their feet. When people are unhappy they tell others, not the relevant solicitor. If you are losing customers, only an independent survey can reveal why.

You can use this report as a peg to discuss how you should manage the firm to meet the needs of customers, rather than your own internal priorities. It will then serve its purpose of focusing on the prime goals of management – winning clients and keeping them.

What it cannot do is tell you what your own clients think of the services you provide and the way that you provide them. Even more salutary, what about your ex-clients? And the clients you would like to have? Before you can make effective policy, that is research you must arrange for yourselves.

A further point; looking at the clients alone does not describe the way in which legal services are now polarising between the local cost, volume providers gunning for your bread and butter work, and specialist firms reaching out to skim off the cream. Any strategy to get and keep profitable clients must therefore also address the gameplan of other firms in the marketplace.

Paul Watkinson is a business consultant who specialises in the marketing of services.