Mind the Gap –

 In Practice Management

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The lawyer’s perception of what the client wants is very different to what the customer actually wants…..

Solicitors are intelligent human beings who are consumers themselves so why when faced with the same evidence over and over again of what the consumer of legal services wants from its providers do we simply complain that they ‘don’t understand’ and state that the solicitors’ brand ‘is better than our competitors’ so choose us?

Is there a gap?

The Law Society, in an effort to focus its efforts in helping members compete in the new world of legal service delivery, held an interesting conference on 3 February 2011 called ‘Bridging the Gap’ at which different speakers spoke about the solicitors’ brand and about the consumer’s choice.

For many years the outcome of numerous surveys and studies has identified that consumers assume that those providing legal services are technically competent and are subject to a high level of regulation so it is not possible for them to make comparisons which differentiate a ‘good’ lawyer from a ‘bad’ lawyer. 80% of consumers would not know the difference.

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Instead they make choices based on service. Consumers highly rate the following service features:

  • Empathy
  • Efficient processes
  • Achieving outcomes
  • Clarity & de-mystification
  • Proactive use of legal knowledge
  • Professional presentation

Because there are so many law firms in England & Wales (about 10,000) it is hardly surprising that 60% of the public cannot name a single firm.

Ask yourself, does the solicitors’ brand as we understand it help address any of the above? How does it make us stand out for the consumer looking for a particular legal service if any major advertising is about the profession’s brand or about your firm as opposed to the services you offer, the skills you have; the people who would serve the customer and how they will deliver that service?

The Quality-Gap Model

As long ago as 1985 Parasuraman designed a model which is a tool to help determine where the source of the gap between client expectations is and our perception of what is the reality of the situation.

  1. Gap 1 is the gap between our perceptions of what the client expects and the expected service which the client anticipates from the marketplace, which might have arisen through word of mouth communication with a member of staff or a referrer; what competitors might have said; from past experience of using our services and based on their own unique needs.
  2. Gap 2 is the gap between our perception of what we think the client expects and how we translate that thought into the way we design our service delivery systems.
  3. Gap 3 is the gap between our designed systems and the actual delivery system.
  4. Gap 4 is the gap between the reality of our delivery system and what we actually say it is to clients.
  5. Gap 5 is the gap between how we perceive we have done and the expectations which the client had at the start.

Each of these gaps present major hurdles in every firm’s attempt at delivering services which consumers will want and perceive to be of high quality.

David Maister in Chapter 7 of “Managing the Professional Service Firm” expresses it succinctly:


The danger for solicitors is to only talk to ourselves about this issue. We need to look outwards – talk to clients; potential clients and past clients in order to avoid getting better and better at doing the wrong thing!

Building the bridge

Problems outside our own world are often easier to solve because to some extent we are not imbued with the politics or culture of those whose job it is to sort out the mess. For example, on the national stage it is easy to say it is madness to simply fill in pot holes and repair bridges if you do nothing to stop the rivers flooding or you continue to build roads and houses which act as a dam for flood planes. What is required is a different bridge located in a different place and different investment to that provided.

If we asked some friends in other industries or professions what they would expect from someone providing the various services your firm offers this might be a start. Listen and don’t argue with them. Without external input it is much too tempting to assume you have to do things cheaper and just strip out complexity without thinking about how often a particular problem might arise and the system would have to be robust enough to cope.

For example, I am sure our esteemed bankers thought they had to reduce the cost of private banking services so they stripped local branches of the responsibility for dealing with customer enquiries and foisted foreign call centres on us all. They forgot the cultural differences and the need to have a trusted relationship with their customers.

Altering the processes is not the only way to improve services there has to be at the heart of service delivery a people based response. We have to look for where in any process people need people and allow space for those relationships to develop.

Yes we need excellent IT but we also have to examine what drives people’s current behaviour in the system at present and how we want that to change, if the use of IT is to not only improve the technical delivery of the process but also reduce risk and act as an enabler to building relationships, not act as a destroyer of them. If we listen to what staff need from a system too and encourage them to be involved in its design it might not be a threat particularly if they understand the risks involved in using it and in not using it.

For example, the mechanisation of a production line will undoubtedly speed up the creation of units of product but it may also make it more likely that accidents might occur because electricity is involved and people are interacting with machines. Hence, safety devices are installed the use of which is to prevent injury but it also slows down the speed at which operators can work. If we only pay them on a unit production basis and do not explain the reasons for the safety devices it is natural that people will find ways of overriding the safety net in order to increase unit production and so their remuneration.

Jonathan Gulliford of Co-operative Legal Services was right when he warned us at the Conference that to improve the delivery of services you must first of all understand what affects the profitability of your business and how to improve the cost of running your business to increase profitability.

Then you can ask yourself whether profitability can be improved by changing the structure of your business.

And then you examine how to make these changes to the structures and processes given the culture of your business and its internal politics.

Personally I would say from experience that learning what drives the profitability of your business is not difficult and you can all do it with some effort. The hard part is changing the culture. Do you all want to improve enough to get out of thinking like a solicitor and into being an entrepreneur?

Practice points

My overwhelming thought from the day was that we each need to take responsibility for our own learning and stop expecting the Law Society to help us individually. It can do no more than provide services and tell us about them it cannot make us use them.

For example in my breakout group there was a strong demand for the Society to provide compulsory client care training so that it could be ‘ticked off’ as done!

The courses are there; the books are all on Amazon; the free stuff is legion and the Law Society provides support through the Risk & Compliance so why do we need the stick of a ‘rule’ or ‘requirement’ that we must spend 1 hour CPD attending a client care course each year?

Come on people, learn how to make yourself available to potential clients; improve your bonhomie and empathy and let clients know how important they are to you. Just never stop learning!

© Gill Steel LawSkills Ltd

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