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Customers want communication

March 7th, 2012 | Posted by Melissa in Blog

This week the Legal Ombudsman’s report on complaints made a point of highlighting customer concerns about the transparency of costs.

Many felt charges and fees were not clear, or higher than expected.

There is something to be said for the Ombudsman’s point that lawyers need to treat clients as customers.

However, there is a spectrum on this. Consumers of legal services are not like consumers of supermarket goods, or the latest fashion. Those customers go to the shops with a clear idea of what they want. Often, with legal services, the customer (let’s call them that to keep LeO happy) doesn’t necessarily know what they want or need.

Take will writing. A customer decides they want a will, maybe even shops around and gets an idea of price. However, once they have chosen their solicitor it emerges that they in fact have a very complex estate which requires considerably more work from their solicitor and therefore the cost is more than the customer expected. Does this make the solicitor bad at customer care?

At the other end of the spectrum, clearly some solicitors have failed to explain that the more complex the work, the more money it will cost, and in those cases there is a clear communication breakdown, which no customer or client of any service should put up with.

It is perhaps this inability to clearly price-label the services of a law firm that has led to few firms and few consumers using comparison websites for legal services, as the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s recent study found. However, I don’t buy the LSCP’s line that alternative business structures (ABSs) will change all of that. It will be equally possible for an ABS to hand a bill to a customer which is higher than the customer expected.

There is clearly a middle ground in the customer-lawyer spectrum on pricing. I am not convinced that price – the lowest price – is the most important factor when people choose a lawyer. Many will act on a recommendation, seek accreditations or even base it on a previous experience. However, solicitors shouldn’t bank on that. There still needs to be a clearly communicated message on pricing.

If a firm is not going to offer a fixed fee “no matter what” approach, clearly explaining not only the possible change in the price from the outset, but also highlighting your firm’s qualities, will go a long way. Transparency on price is an opportunity for a firm to clearly spell out why they charge a particular fee structure – because they are good at what they do – and their brand deserves it.

Customers appreciate honesty on pricing, and resent being kept in the dark, as LeO’s report shows. The concept of a client goes well beyond simply relying on professional advice. Do you want your business to work because you attract consumers who buy because you happen to have the good or service they need, or do you want to attract someone who relies on your professional advice and guidance? Or is it both?

Legal consumers are sophisticated. They have complex needs and not a shopping list… one thing is for sure: full and open communication is priceless.

Read Adam Sampson’s comment piece in the Guardian

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