Welcome. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by the Rolling Stones is lyrically in a class of its own. My desert island track, drawing inspiration from one of my favourite all-time reads, ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhaíl Bulgakov. As the song’s narrator, Jagger recounts an insinuation into various historical cataclysms: the Crucifixion, the Inquisition and the then still-fresh assassination of the Kennedys. It’s a song that prompts listeners to ponder questions of how evil manifests in the world. A song expressing the confusion in the ‘perception’ of what is good and what is evil.
Perhaps the most notorious and controversial Stones song (as well as one of the greatest) ‘Sympathy’ was released when the Stones were increasingly flirting with a satanic public image of their own. For some, the song took the flirt to a full on consummation with the devil. They were ‘perceived’ to be devil worshippers. For others, it was just a philosophical and lyrical appreciation of the evil that all men are capable of, and the desire of all humans to do wrong when it benefits us.
Perception of lawyers as the devil?
As a marketer conducting law firm client research for many years, I’m all too aware that the public’s perception of lawyers isn’t fantastic. To some, lawyers are the devil’s ministry. To others, there is merely ambivalence. You see, whilst the public acknowledges the help and assurance provided by lawyers in navigating the legal system, they also recognise that there’s a darker, submerged side to the profession. They are uncertain how to tell a good lawyer from a bad one. They think of lawyers as being ‘greedy’, ‘expensive’, and ‘quick to make them feel intellectually inferior’. They feel lawyers misrepresent their experience and over-promise. Then of course there are the usual accusations of not being upfront about fees and opaque billing regimes.
Service quality is a huge area of complaint. I’ve often heard from clients that they think lawyers have taken too long to resolve matters. And there’s that all-too-common ‘they never returned my phone calls’ complaint. When I’ve raised these issues with partners as part of a research exercise, it pains me when I’m met with that vacuous, ‘red flag’ phrase: ‘our clients tell us all the time how good our service is!’ It just confirms there’s a problem. Like a lack of systematic client research. Or worse, that they completely disregard the most basic of clients needs. The phrase is often used as a defence mechanism. Which isn’t helpful to anyone’s cause.
Service quality is topical. It’s been brought to the fore by the ‘Tesco Law’ arrivals to the legal market, declaring ‘client’ and ‘service’ to be at their core. A lot is said in marketing jest. But ‘service quality’ is the hook on which their modernistic, disruptive headgear hangs, along with the accusation that traditional firms, with their antiquated partnership structures, cannot match a modern-day need, and are simply not capable of being ‘service excellent’.
The supermarket metaphor is suggestive that the legal game will ultimately be changed, when the uber-accessible super-brands – with their detailed data, loyalty-driven understanding of consumers and highly technological operations – will ultimately bring ‘service excellence’ to the table.
For me, as far as the retail metaphor goes, supermarkets and law firms operate at completely different ends of the service spectrum. Supermarkets have high tangibility and visibility of output. Their levels of inter-personal attentiveness is low. Service staff are not core service providers. Customers undertake transactions. Choice is high and the wider service environment is a key component. But legal services aren’t like that. They couldn’t be any more different.
But as regulatory change has enabled the entrance of new providers, the recession brings more demanding clients. Clients that have heightened perceptions of quality and that are less tolerant of shortfalls in service. And due to the ever-increasing numbers of lawyers in the market and often indistinguishable services, the balance of power has shifted in favour of the client. And clients know this.
So service quality is now more mission-critical than ever to the professional services’ cause. And it’s at this point I’ll declare (to which some of you will be surprised) that I am sympathetic to law firms. Because achieving service quality is not easy!
Service quality difficulties – the sympathy
We’ve all read the marketing textbooks. We know that the inseparability and variability of services impact the way clients receive services. We know production cannot be separated from consumption, and that the client is essentially ‘in the factory’, watching the production process all the way. We know that service consistency is subject to great variability because delivery is executed by ‘people’ and human behaviour is naturally difficult to predict and control. Personal performance by lawyers can vary by time of day/month/year, workload, experience, attitude, knowledge – amongst others. There are many opportunities for something to go wrong when the lawyer and client interact, when both parties experience and respond to the other’s mannerisms, attitude, competence, mood, dress, language and so on.
Then there is the issue with the definition of service quality. Service quality has been a conjectured, laboured discussion for many years, relentlessly expounded by stakeholders of various shades including academics, consultants and relevant schools of thought. None of which I will bore you with here. But what we are left with, in the services realm, is that service quality is determined by the individual user, and not by any objective or absolute measures of quality that we see evidenced in manufacturing or the mass production realm.
The intangibility of service delivery, because people cannot physically touch services but can only ‘perceive’ them in their minds, means that measuring the quality of service as a ‘perception’ of the service user is considered by the academics to be most relevant and appropriate:
“…the perceived quality of a given service will be the outcome of an evaluation process, where the consumer compares his expectations with the service he perceives he has received, i.e. he puts the perceived service against the expected service. The result of this process will be the perceived quality of the service.” (Gronroos, 1982)
Perception is therefore everything. Service quality becomes highly subjective and ultimately hinges on the individual and their perceptions. These in turn are based on sensory information, which may be incomplete or rapidly varying. Perceptions can be altered by personal motivations in ambiguous situations, resulting in clients perceiving what they ‘want’ to perceive. The quality of a service could be perceived by the client as ‘low’ – even though the service has been performed exactly to the technical criteria. And vice versa, being perceived highly when performance falls short.
Fundamentally, defining and improving quality in the service industry, as a whole, is a major challenge. But for law firms, I think there are added difficulties in creating and implementing a firm wide system for service quality.
Law firm client base – the varied nature of the beast
If we take ‘big law’ as an example – a firm’s client base often ranges from large corporate entities to individual private clients. At one end of the spectrum you have the panel-retaining, repeat-purchasing corporate clients with procurement expertise who understand the legal purchasing process. Often supported by in-house lawyers who have created legal spend evaluation systems based upon their own self-created service quality dimensions. At the other end, you have individual private clients with one-off transactions. Who have little-to-no understanding of the intangible legal process and are without any real expectation of what service levels they will receive.
Compounding this variation in client profile is a distinction between two different dimensions of client perception: one dealing with ‘output’ and the other dealing with ‘process’. The ‘technical dimensions’ are expectations which are concerned with service outcomes, the ultimate result for the client. Then there are the ‘functional dimensions’ covering the process of service delivery and the manner in which it is delivered, such as reliability, responsiveness, assurance and of course empathy. To some clients technical dimensions may be more important than the functional dimensions and vice versa.
For instance, in the case of the ‘experienced’ large corporate entity client, they have the ability to assess and judge quality indicators before they buy. They are more likely to judge service quality based upon the ‘technical dimensions’ with a focus on outcomes such as cost, time and delegation with indicators such as honesty, accessibility and competency. However, ‘functional dimensions’ dealing with the process of service delivery such as communication will also play some part, as experienced clients want the firm to clearly understand the wider business problem from their perspective.
Then you have private individuals. Clients who are more likely to judge service quality based upon the ‘functional dimensions’ – the process and manner of service delivery. Expectations largely in the process domain which rely on assurance, responsiveness, courtesy and empathy. As a credence good, and because of the client’s relative lack of knowledge of the legal process, the perception of risk is reasonably high. However, there are still ‘technical’ demands and expectations that the legal transaction is done accurately and competently.
Client perceptions are also dynamic. They change as the relationship between client and firm develops. Often, the more experience a client accumulates of buying legal services, the more their perceptions will shift from fact-based judgements to incorporate ‘softer’ factors. Over time, putting a stronger focus on the consequence or the technical dimensions of the service consumption.
Legal service process – out of the beast’s control
I’m afraid to say the expanse of variability facing law firms doesn’t stop with the client base. In a lot of cases the legal process itself can affect perceptions of service quality. This of course is largely out of the lawyers’ hands, the lawyer is merely a navigator. Perceptions and expectations of the client can vary throughout the lifetime of their interaction with their lawyer based upon the complexity or divergence of the legal process itself.
For instance, a large global law firm could provide hundreds of different service lines, all with varying degrees of complexity and divergence. Commercial litigation is more complex than conveyancing because it involves more functions and more steps. Conveyancing is more complex than will writing. Just as in engineering, the more moving parts there are, the more energy is lost and the higher the risk of breakdown. So the more complex the legal process, the greater the potential for breakdown in service quality, resulting in a lower perception.
Some legal services include a high level of executional latitude and divergence, with varying degrees of freedom allowed or inherent in a process step or sequence. Lawyers assimilate data, weigh up possibilities, reach conclusions and take action. Judgement, discretion and situational adaptation. In highly divergent service lines every performance of the process is unique. Again, the greater the number of steps and the greater the level of intricacy, the greater the potential for service quality breakdowns.
A law firm can also provide services of low divergence, services which are largely standardised such as conveyancing or low value personal injury. Standardisation can also have an effect on perception of service quality because labour may be divided and individual attentiveness could be perceived to be low.
Legal services can also be high in complexity and low in divergence. Take catastrophic personal injury or medical negligence. These services are a complex aggregation of service processes, but firms have standardised these processes through documentation and establishment of executional rules for every stage of the sequence, backed by IT case management software.
Legal services can also be low in complexity but high in divergence. Commercial advisory lawyers render the service usually in one step, through talking and advising. These services are infinitely divergent, however, because each client receiving the advice is different – execution is usually unique and unlike any other occasion. Such services do not consist of orderly, mechanical procedures, but of unique performances. Services that involve interpretative skills, artistic crafting or highly individualised execution.
Put simply, the wide range of legal processes is amplifying the inconsistencies in what could be deemed to be ‘service quality’.
In an interview, Jagger said [on the topic of devil worshipping], “I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only one song. People seemed to embrace the image so readily”. This image was compounded by the unfortunate death of Meredith Hunter, who was killed at the Altamont Free Concert whilst watching The Stones – with the popular ‘misconception’ that the tragic murder took place during “Sympathy for the Devil” when it fact it was “Under my Thumb”.
Human perception is a difficult concept to understand. Because quality in the service arena is driven ultimately by the individual perceptions of service users, it’s extremely difficult to render successful outcomes all of the time. It’s extremely difficult for a law firm to build service quality universally right across the firm. And this is why it’s extremely difficult for firms to build a long term ‘reputation’ for service quality. Not only is service quality defined by shifting human perceptions based upon their own experiences of purchasing legal services, but it’s also defined by the complexities and divergence of the legal process itself. Law firms are a swirling mass of varying needs and expectations.
Unfortunately, lawyers are their own competition. Sometimes it’s the very simple things they get wrong with clients. Not returning phone calls, being slow or unresponsive and not showing empathy. Billing and transparent fees are currently a trending topic. In this area, lawyers are the devil incarnate. Lawyers will argue it’s just ‘perception’ and without any real substance. Lawyers will argue they are ethical, responsible and always champion the client’s cause. But this is just another ‘perception’. Lawyers like to ‘perceive’ themselves as animals of ethics. And they are single-minded in their perception of themselves as being reputable. Of being utmost professional and technically competent. But in a lot of cases this renders clients’ needs, expectations and perceptions as secondary to the lawyer’s perception of their own professional obligations. Which they do at their own peril. It’s essential to understand from the client what’s important to them.
It’s a chaotic condition, but not insurmountable. Law firms can take action to apply order to the chaos – which I’ll tackle in detail in a follow up blog.
For now, I’ll sign off by saying that whatever the perception of lawyers, there is much validity in firms having a focus on service performance. From the firm’s perspective, good service quality retains clients, attracts new ones, enhances positive corporate image, drives positive word-of-mouth recommendation and of course will guarantee survival and profitability. And in terms of public perception, this can only be improved where firms demonstrate their ability to provide quality service.
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