The world to come?
Understanding the differences between clients and customers is important and should underpin all that you do, explains Steve Billot
I recently accepted an invitation to attend a meeting hosted by the Legal Services Board to discuss its paper ‘A vision for legislative reform of the regulatory framework for legal services in England and Wales’. It is not a catchy title and its 46 pages of finely honed words may put many off reading it. However, having had the benefit of attending the meeting, it has profound implications, so it is not a document you should ignore – even if you do have to read it over the festive period.
A distinguished panel including Sir Michael Pitt, chairman of the LSB, and Christina Blacklaws, the deputy vice president of the Law Society, made opening observations and then invited the audience to put forward points and to discuss the paper. The most telling statements came from Sir Michael, who made it clear the LSB sees its role as a champion of the ‘consumers’ of legal services. No mention of clients anywhere and the chairman’s forward states that ‘Consumers are still not driving competition by shopping around’. Sir Michael added that the LSB would like to see more use of comparison websites to allow consumers to find legal advice.
We all know the modern world allows much more sophisticated routes to seeking advice so this is something that cannot be avoided. However, the idea that looking for what can be complex and very personal advice can generically be provided by a website search is challenging.
Furthermore, the paper goes on to look at the regulation of services. It suggests a single independent regulator and, beyond that, that regulation is by activity and for the providers of the services (the firms) and not the individuals. Is this the end of regulated solicitors and barristers? All very challenging suggestions for an already threatened legal sector.
The Law Society’s view was that there is already too much going on – Brexit et al – so we do not have time to be distracted by theoretical and fundamental changes such as this. I can see its point but the LSB’s view was that it does not think the system is working and so needs reform; now is as good as any time to start the discussion.
As with so many of these suggestions, I am sure the discussion will go on for months and years to come, but the real issue is the underlying concept that the profession is now being driven towards consumers.
Client or consumer?
For years, I have been discussing with firms that they have clients and customers. A client comes to you with a problem, asks for help, recognises your professionalism and skills, takes your advice, and pays you well in recognition of the assistance you provided.
A customer starts off by asking ‘How much?’ They want a service for a price and are expecting you to do what you say you will, on time, and they will sue if you get it wrong. They are transactional relationships, although if you can impress them they may come back for more. Understanding the differences between clients and customers is important and should underpin your business model, pricing, and marketing.
The clear message from the LSB cannot be ignored. It believes there has to be more and easier access to legal services and it has set a ball rolling that will be difficult to stop. The profession is good at resisting change and arguing the status quo is just fine. However, the government no longer seems to like you and society no longer holds you in the esteem it once did, so you have fewer places to hide. Change is inevitable and it is just a question of how fast it comes. If you are over 50 reading this, you may hope to avoid the need to adapt but the next generation cannot.
So, is everyone to become a consumer? I hope not, as this would truly see the dumbing down of services to the lowest level required, but those who look to the future will see they need to be a part of an organisation that will be resilient in the face of change and can work for clients and consumers alike.
Steve Billot is strategic consultant at Symphony Legal