Why professionals must join the online conversation
by Helen Hamilton-Shaw, LawNet's Member Engagement & Strategy Director
Originally published in PM Magazine
Digital transformation has taken a quantum leap forward during lockdown and the professions must embrace all aspects of online client interaction in the new normal
The past year of lockdown has driven exceptional digital transformation in every aspect of our day-to-day lives and in how we work with clients to deliver services.
From the outset, we saw firms in our member network embracing a major shift to digital activity, boosting the volume of online content and marketing as they seized the initiative to connect more, not less, with clients. As clients showed they were open to innovation, firms explored new opportunities. We saw network members introduce the necessary technology to create their own videos and deliver webinars, identifying team members with the best media skills to front such content. Others looked for collaborative approaches to get in front of the target audience in a noisy digital space, such as teaming up with charity partners to host webinars for their supporters.
While our members are law firms, we have seen the race to digital playing out across all sectors. For those involved in business development, this quantum shift to digital has resulted in every touchpoint on the client journey being reviewed.
It has also highlighted the vital importance of taking a strategic approach to online reviews and comments. Whereas word of mouth was previously limited to those people known to a client, online channels today have limitless audience reach, and research  shows that over 90% of consumers reference online reviews as part of their buying journey.
If this online aspect of the customer experience is not a priority in your current marketing mix, I would challenge you to look at your own behaviour. When did you last book a hotel without first reading reviews from previous guests, or check out the user experience with a washing machine before committing your cash to the purchase?
Now turn to your role as a service provider and consider the journey your potential clients may be taking. What information would they find about you in the public domain, if they were to cast around looking for a lawyer, accountant, or surveyor? Because when it comes to buying professional services, the journey a client takes to reach us is unlikely to be very different to that of finding a hotelier or restaurateur. It may have taken longer for online reviews and social media commentary on our expertise and service to become commonplace, but it has arrived and is here to stay.
Take this quote from academic research a decade ago into online reviews and try removing the word holidays and replacing with your scope of service. “Holidays are intangible products that are produced and consumed concurrently and therefore difficult to evaluate prior to their consumption.”
Or as the Competition & Markets Authority’s research describes it: “Online reviews appear to be read for one-off purchases, ‘experience’ goods (goods that the consumer cannot easily assess for quality before they buy) and/or more expensive goods or services… we estimate that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews.”
And this online conversation is not just about consumer-facing services. While a home-buyer may turn to general review sites such as Google or Feefo, a corporate client is equally likely to be picking up comments on LinkedIn, and both may be turning to industry-specific sites such as ReviewSolicitors or AllAgents.
Certainly, online reviews have been hitting more headlines lately. In February, the Solicitors Regulation Authority launched a pilot looking at quality indicators and whether review sites have a role to play. The pilot will involve conveyancing and employment law services and as Anna Bradley, chair of the SRA Board explained: “…we all take online reviews for granted in other sectors; routinely checking things like the star rating of an electricity or broadband service provider. So why not for a solicitor…? Giving clients the opportunity to feed back their views and say to others that the firm they used is worth their custom is the closest digital equivalent of 'word of mouth'.”
Similarly, ICAEW, the accountancy body, has issued guidance to help members engage effectively with online reviews about their practice, citing the growing importance of such reviews in the buying journey.
But, of course, not all reviews are positive. In January, we saw the outcome of the defamation action  by law firm Summerfield Browne after a client left a negative review on Trustpilot saying: ‘a total waste of money another scam solicitor’ [sic]. The firm was awarded £25,000 in damages and the court ordered that the defamatory review be removed.
The firm described a ‘measurable decline’ in the number of enquiries in the weeks following the publication of the review, but Trustpilot said it had never been contacted by Summerfield Browne, nor had the review been flagged using its complaints process for reporting issues. This demonstrates why it is so important to be strategic and proactive in dealing with online commentary, rather than firefighting later.
Today, every firm, whatever the size, and whether for corporate or consumer-facing work, is likely to find themselves checked out via their reviews and social media comments. Importantly, even where they do not actively opt in and embrace the process, they cannot stop clients from speaking out.
The importance of managing electronic word of mouth has been a cornerstone of our holistic client excellence strategy for our member firms over many years.
Back in 2013 we launched our audited Excellence Mark because we saw client-focused service as the most important way our law firm members could add value and differentiate themselves, whilst retaining their independence, individual identity, and brand.
This is even more important in the current situation where the future is uncertain and client relationships forced to re-shape themselves. Strategically, it would be hard to disagree with international research and advisory firm Forrester , who say prioritisation of client experience to create and sustain loyalty will be more vital than ever this year. Forrester also point to the crucial role research can play - both quantitative and qualitative – to understand behaviour and guide future responses.
After eight years of independent monitoring, our firms have a huge bank of such data to draw on. As part of our mandatory ISO9001 LawNet Quality Standard, around 80,000 client satisfaction surveys have been completed and almost 6,000 customer experience (CX) reviews, where independent researchers pose as potential clients. They test how firms perform in a variety of circumstances from walk-in, online and telephone enquiries, through to their performance at external events or their website live chat. Alongside, the end-of-matter client satisfaction survey process is conducted through an independent portal, which generates statistical data for firms to benchmark performance within their firm, across the network and against other non-member firms. It also incorporates an integrated link to enable clients to self-publish an online review as they complete the survey.
Firms receive one-to-one feedback and in-house training to help them respond to findings and develop sector-leading experiences. The online client reviews, survey feedback, CX researcher reports and audio recordings combine to create a picture of the different stages of the client journey, helping firms to understand the client perspective and identify areas for improvement. Whether these are in pursuit of firm-wide changes or to identify individual skills development needs, it’s about helping everyone to deliver a consistently great experience.
Our evidence shows this approach generates significant performance improvements, with client satisfaction in our member firms now standing at 97% , compared with the sector overall, where 84% of consumers are satisfied . We see the greatest performance improvements when firms are listening to clients at every stage and learning from them.
It was as part of this holistic approach that we integrated a link to the ReviewSolicitors site back in 2016. This early adoption, with clients actively encouraged to leave reviews and firms supported in developing techniques to make the most of positive feedback and manage any criticism effectively, has seen our network member firms dominate the rankings.
Beyond rankings, positive reviews can be an important resource in spreading the word across other channels. As Alex Mackie, commercial director of LawNet member Tozers LLP, with three offices in Devon explains: “We are focused on maintaining the volume of reviews and currently  top the rankings nationally, which is valuable in winning new business, but equally important is how we use the reviews to create testimonials for our social media feeds. In lockdown it was a valuable way of demonstrating we were open for business and progressing matters for clients.”
Online reviews can be both a customer loyalty metric and a valuable consumer-facing marketing tool. They are the public version of your Net Promoter Score, where the statistical likelihood of a client recommending your firm to others is translated into active engagement of the client in making that recommendation for you.
While the routes may have changed in recent years, from the golf club or business meeting to the online review sites and forum postings, referral remains one of the most important drivers of new instructions, as evidenced by our own research and that of other professional sector bodies. Reaching potential clients with positive endorsements at the start of their buying journey should be our priority.
Quick tips for keeping on top of online reviews:
- Have a written policy setting out how to handle negative and positive reviews
- Make it clear whose responsibility it is to monitor reviews
- Make sure response staff are trained and equipped to stay on-message
- Respond promptly where it is needed
- Be personal and avoid cut-and-paste replies
- Admit mistakes, but correct inaccuracies
- Work to resolve problems but make the conversation private
- Use positive reviews as a marketing resource
LawNet’s publication TARGETING EXCEPTIONAL EXPERIENCES: clients | employees | service covering the research and learning is available as a White Paper here.
 Litvin, Goldsmith, & Pan, 2008; Papathanassis & Knolle, 2011
 Summerfield Browne Ltd v Waymouth  EWHC 85 (QB) (18 January 2021) https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2021/85.html
 LawNet Excellence Mark research 2013-2020: https://www.lawnet.co.uk/membership-benefits/practice-support/client-experience-white-paper-2019/
 Legal Services Consumer Panel, March 2020: https://www.legalservicesconsumerpanel.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2020-03-19-Consumer-Impact-report-Working-FINAL-DRAFT.pdf
 ReviewSolicitors March 2021