Consumers aren’t voting with their feet yet

Elisabeth DaviesAs consumers, we’re always being told to move to a cheaper energy tariff, switch to a better interest rate or change our internet provider. A whole industry of pundits and comparison websites has sprung up to help us do this. But it seems this message isn’t getting through when it comes to buying legal services. Only 22% of people shop around and just 1% use a comparison website when looking for a lawyer. Most of us rely on a recommendation or go back to the firm we used the last time.

But does it matter that legal services consumers aren’t voting with their feet? The research evidence suggests that it actually does: around 80% of consumers are satisfied with levels of customer service, but this rises to almost 90% among those who shop around. So it pays consumers to look around and see what’s on offer.

Last week the Panel published a report about how consumers choose and use legal services. This provides some early thinking about how regulators can help consumers to play a more active, empowered role in the legal services market; in other words on how regulators can help consumers vote with their feet.

I’m planning to take along a copy of our report to a meeting I’m having tomorrow with officials at the Ministry of Justice as they start work on the post-legislative review of the Legal Services Act. Getting consumers to vote with their feet is arguably one of the key success criteria of the reforms. Much attention has understandably been on allowing new entrants into the market, but this will mean little if consumers don’t respond when they’re offered something better than they’ve had before. Only when consumers do their bit, by rewarding those firms offering the best services and penalising the poor performers, will the vision of the Act be delivered in practice.

Much comes down to information. What comes out all too clearly from the research is that consumers aren’t using their buying power because the information they need is spread across different websites when instead it needs to be joined up in one place. If I want to research a lawyer’s track record, one website will tell me about their disciplinary record, another about any ombudsman complaints and a different one again about positive features such as membership of accreditation schemes. Comparing on price isn’t easy either because law firms quote in different ways, while some include disbursements in their quote but others don’t etc. And there just aren’t the comparison tools that help us to filter all the information that’s out there.

Is it any wonder then, that many consumers stick with what they know or stick a pin in the phonebook? When consumers are left in the dark they’re unlikely to vote with their feet. Let’s take off the blindfold and help consumers do their bit.