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Price transparency in the legal sector – are comparison websites the answer?

5 MINS

Andy Cullwick, head of marketing, May 22, 2019

Our Head of Marketing, Andy Cullwick, was recently invited by accountants Armstrong Watson to present at their regular legal sector breakfast briefings on the role of comparison websites in the sector. In this article, Andy gives us an overview of his presentation and asks whether legal services comparison websites will ever take off?

Comparison websites typically conjure up images of opera singers or meerkats. Covering everything from insurance to utilities, through to hotels and durable goods, you can find almost anything through a comparison website these days.

It is estimated the four largest aggregators in the UK have a combined annual revenue of £800 million and it is growing at an average of 15% each year. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority estimate that 85% of consumers have used such a site.

Comparison sites can broadly be categorised into four areas, namely:

  • Directories: listings of providers who may pay a basic fee to be listed or a larger fee for an enhanced listing.
  • Feedback: allowing previous clients to provide feedback on their experience for others to read and often incorporate a scoring mechanism such as a star rating.
  • Referral: collecting basic information about the consumer needs and passes the lead on to one or more providers.
  • Price comparison: allowing consumers to instantly compare and make a choice between subscribing providers against defined criteria such as price.

 

Yet one area of the market where comparison sites haven’t quite taken off is in legal services.

A 2012 Legal Services Board (LSB) report examined the benefits of comparison websites in the legal sector having mystery shopped 16 sites. Of those, only five remain today; AgentQuote.co.uk, Contact Law, Conveyancing Store, Unbiased and Solicitor.info.

Why are comparison websites not already a key feature of the legal sector?

There’s a range of reasons why comparison sites in legal services haven’t enjoyed quite the same success as areas such as utilities or insurance. The main reason being that the provision of legal services isn’t generally commoditised, and as a result, the market hasn’t embraced the idea.

Perhaps only conveyancing and maybe some aspects of will writing are exceptions, hence why some of the more recognised brands such as moneysupermarket.com and uSwitch now feature such services.

Further, the 2012 LSB report concluded that comparison websites in legal services were simply not a good fit because of the fragmented market and the infrequency of purchases by consumers.

Data from the Legal Services Consumer Panel 2018 Tracker Survey also shows that very few consumers shop around when buying legal services, with just over one in four doing so. Yet, this changes depending on the age of the consumer, with 38% of 25 to 34-year-olds shopping around compared to just 23% of over 55’s.

With inherently tech-savvy younger clients leading to a better-informed consumer, price is becoming a more meaningful differentiating factor. Yet juxtapose this with the latest LexisNexis Bellwether Discussion Paper The Changing Face of Law where three quarters of solicitors report feeling compromised by an increasing customer focus on price over quality. Naturally the profession is concerned about a race to the bottom.

When it comes to review and feedback sites, I have picked up a real concern amongst lawyers that they only attract negative comments from unhappy clients. A perception no doubt perpetuated by solicitorsfromhell.co.uk which ended up been shut down. However, research in 2011 by Consumer Focus – ‘Unleashing the new consumer power’ – shows that 50% of online reviews are positive compared to 35% that are negative. And in many cases negative reviews lead to improvements in service. At First4Lawyers, we use these reviews in a positive way, promoting high standards and in the rare circumstance where we may have fallen short, immediately taking corrective action.

Are comparison websites a good thing for legal services customers?

Certainly, regulators want to see more choice and greater transparency from providers. And comparison sites seem to be a good way of achieving this. For consumers, not only would they provide greater choice, but they present an opportunity to increase consumer understanding of the services offered, something that the Legal Beagles site does well, and in turn can make the law seem more accessible.  

What type of comparison website would work well in the legal sector?

For these sites to truly take off, I think something that combines the best bits, so a mix of directory listings, reviews, lead generation and price.

Comparison websites are intermediaries between providers and consumers and have to balance the interests of both sides. They need to be structured in such a way that will encourage providers to participate, whilst maintaining consumer confidence in order to maintain a flow of traffic.

As such the ideal legal comparison website will enable consumers to garner enough information about a legal matter and potential law firm to give them the trust and assurances that they are making the right choice, rather than just looking at price alone.

We know that ‘instant pricing’ is always going to be a challenge. Yet recognising that an instant quote function isn’t practical but knowing that you still need to help the consumer find a price, the ideal system should prompt specific questions based on the legal matter required to gain enough information to provide an indicative price.

Ideally, a consumer will receive multiple quotes depending on their search criteria and through the platform they will be able to compare and contrast the different offers based on price, company information and reviews. An open platform with multiple quotes should hopefully encourage speed of response and better engagement rather than just delivering referrals or providing contact information.

In essence, like all of your marketing you’re warming up the client, making it easy for them to approach a law firm and saving the law firm time by giving them more tangible enquiries.

The reality is that comparison websites are a potential revenue stream, and even though they’re unlikely to take off in the way that we have seen in the financial services and utilities arenas, legal services providers must recognise that consumers want to access support on an initial fee-free basis and to quickly know how much it is going to cost them.