Branding and quality – what is 5-star service?

There’s a debate raging on the Lawyer’s pages about whether QualitySolicitors will seize market share for its members through a national network of firms signing up to its franchise. Firms that join the network get clients through qualitysolicitors website, they get to call themselves QualitySolicitors [Richard Moorhead and Co] and they get the benefit of (one suspects considerable) marketing. On one level this kind of thing is probably the way of the future and we should all get used to it. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for firms that sign up and also some admiration for QS in seizing the initiative (as well as designing a very pretty site).  There’s is one of a number of interesting approaches to protecting the interests of existing firms whilst seeking to seize the advantage of a collective national identity.

Whilst many of those on the lawyer pages want to comment on the perceived merits of the name, it is the underlying shift in influence on legal services that is more important. The most astute comment (for me) on the Lawyer site is this one from Richard Atkinson:

“The discussion about their choice of name totally misses the point in my view. They could be called pretty much anything (and I’m with the posters above – I don’t like ‘QualitySolicitors’ particularly) but if there’s enough branches to make them visible across the country they’ll undoubtedly have a huge impact. The market is so fragmented and the general public so lost when it comes to choosing a law firm that a single, national, recognisable brand (whatever it is) with branches in most towns and cities will be hugely attractive to consumers in my view. I think it will take them longer than they think to achieve the kind of recognition they desire, but this will be a major player in years to come in the legal market.”

There has to be a lot in this comment. Branding may well work either nationally or regionally as a commercial strategy. The public interest question, though, is rather different from the branding question. The public interest question is whether such networks promote price competition and promote quality. On that there has to be more doubt and that doubt may yet be relevant to the success of the brand. At the moment, the quality claims made by the franchise’s site are both modest (in their specifics) and yet hyperbolic in their atmospherics. For instance in their ‘promise to you’ section they claim

“QualitySolicitors do things differently to typical law firms. We don’t just say that we look after you, we do it. We don’t just promise to be “client focused”, we make real promises about the things that really matter to you. So relax, safe in the knowledge that with QualitySolicitors you’ll be getting a 5-star service throughout your legal matter.”

What, for instance, does a five star service mean? The specific promises are rather more mundane:

  • no hidden costs is something which the SRAs rules should guarantee anyway.
  • Direct lawyer contact. Well this is something which is likely to be provided by most firms, particularly if one begins to wonder what that means: does it mean solicitor? I’ll venture to suggest not or at least not that the client will wholly or mainly be dealing through a solicitor (say in meetings or on the telephone). It may simply mean there will be direct contact with a fee earner responsible for (all or part) of the client’s case and that the fee-earner might be a paralegal or a solicitor. I have no problem with that position, if that is indeed the position, but I wonder if
  • Free consultations (not exactly an innovation but something it is useful to remind the client of)
  • Same day response (this may be a distinguishing feature compared to most, or at least some firms, but one is tempted to ask – always, will there always be a same day response? and what is meant by a response? Well let’s hope so).

None of these specifics suggest to me five-star service. They specify the basic characteristics of a decent service but they do not represent a comprehensive definition of excellence. What would be more interesting is to know how QS selects it firms and tests the quality of their firms. Does service simply mean customer care or does it mean technical ability?  Is it simply the ability and willingness to meet the service standards implied in the four bullet points above or something more?

Time will tell (or perhaps QS will get in touch and tell me). I suspect that if there are competitor networks they will be pushed towards fixed costs rather than simply transparent costs. An interesting issue will be whether such networks act as price cartels or whether there is competition between members (and/or other networks) on price. I also suspect that simple transparency will not be enough. Any large provider (or network) of legal services that can deliver the bulk of its services via fixed costs stands to gain significant first mover advantage.

The most interesting issue for me is what will happen on quality. There is no indication (that I can see) of how QS ensures that clients help them choose the firms that join their network. Research on client views tends to suggest that clients pretty uniformly rate their firms as high. Put another way, a consumer satisfaction test is not a very discriminating test of a firm’s quality. Firms have to satisfy their clients of course but most manage it pretty well and so would be likely to pass any client satisfaction test. Technical quality is rather different. It is perfectly possible for a client to receive poor quality legal work and yet finish their case satisfied with their lawyer.

It might be argued that a concern for technical quality is a concern that should be expressed to the SRA. That’s not an argument that holds much water. QS say this, “We don’t just say that we look after you, we do it.” For me that means they guarantee technical quality.  Well the key issue is: how? How do they know? A brand that sells itself as providing five star quality is likely to invite scrutiny and, fairly or unfairly, a share of bad news. This is a weakness of the franchise model: are firms committed enough to each other to deliver genuinely higher quality, is the network strong enough in its vetting and policing requirements to guarantee it, and will anyone be checking them out on quality and service? We’ll see.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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6 Responses to Branding and quality – what is 5-star service?

  1. Stephen G Anderson says:

    Developing a successful national franchise model and brand was something Eversheds tried to do in the late 90s wasn’t it? There’s clearly a market for a national brand of lawyers, but what that market is I wouldn’t like to guess. It could be the Travelodge end of the market where there will be stiff competition – they won’t be the only national player for long, surely – it is unlikely to be the Hilton end. Smaller struggling firms will be attracted to the QS marketing clout. Whether they have the staff to deliver consistently is another matter.

    I agree with you Richard. Nothing identifies what QS’s five star service is. I suspect that the service will end up being more like three star – and there’s nothing wrong with that – because that’s what most people who will be attracted to the brand will be willing to pay for.

  2. Craig Holt says:

    Dear Richard,

    Many thanks for an interesting discussion piece on our organisation.

    QualitySolicitors is at a very embryonic stage in terms of its offering to the public. Our initial focus has been on providing a recognisable name through expanding our numbers of branded firms and an increasing marketing campaign; including primetime terrestrial TV.

    As you correctly identify however, being a ‘recognised’ name is only the start for us. Our aim is to innovate and provide a level of service as yet unseen in the legal market. Our branded firms are hugely committed to this and we have met regularly in the recent months in order to develop this element of the brand. Across a range of areas key to the public QualitySolicitors will be offering a ‘market-leading’ service; fees structures (greater use of fixed fees), opening hours, accessibility etc. Of course, until we ‘launch’ such services the detail necessarily has to remain confidential but I am certain they will have a significant impact upon the market.

    In terms of whether we look at technical quality or service quality – the short answer is both. Our firms are almost universally Lexcel accredited and highly ranked in legal directories for their particular excellence in their practice areas. There are, however, a number of firms who have achieved such a position in each location – it is then their approach to “service” that becomes the determining factor. This is where the reliance upon client feedback comes in. Whilst typically positive (but not unfailingly so) client feedback actually reveals a lot about a firm’s attitude towards their clients. We don’t simply rely upon questionnaires but actually undertake extensive client interviews prior to accepting a firm. We want firms to join us who we know will match our ethos of transforming the client experience of legal services. The detail of what this means will come in time, for now the key lies in selecting those firms who will be able to deliver in this area. I am confident we have chosen well.

    Finally, to answer Stephen’s point above. Our target market is, in fact, the more discerning client. The “John Lewis/M&S” demographic who will appreciate the exceptional service they receive from QS branded firms and who are willing to pay a fair and reasonable fee for the same. It is this service element where so many firms in the legal market fall down and perpetuate the negative perceptions and jokes about lawyers. It is by addressing these prevalent failings in the market that we will build the QS brand, not just to be recognised per se but to be recognised as standing for a quality service.

    Best wishes,

    Craig

    Craig Holt
    Chief Executive
    QualitySolicitors

  3. Richard Moorhead says:

    V interesting. Thanks Craig. Understand the position re: confidentiality.

    Lexcel I am luke warm about: a process measure of management not about technical quality, though good management is of course a start. Has anyone ever failed a Lexcel audit though, I wonder? That’s a real question – I have no idea.

    Whether expert directories are a good indicator of quality, I’d be interested to know. Potential for gaming that, though I would recognise that on the whole the professions do have some respect for those as an indicators of quality (though for how long if network members get to comment on who is ‘best in their field’ and can ‘big up’ fellow network members). I don’t think they’ve ever been robustly tested, but that’s not to say they aren’t a useful starting point.

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