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1 Applying the comparison web site model to legal services September 2011 supporting solicitors

2 Applying the comparison web site model to legal services September 2011 Content List of tables and figures Introduction Background to the research A need to reconsider the solicitor-client relationship A price comparison web site for legal services? 5 2. e-business and the rise of the infomediary The marketplace New sources of information The infomediary Measuring e-service quality Purchasing decisions From professional discourse to consumer narrative Sharing and caring 12 (i) The Recommendation Agent 13 (ii) The Comparison Matrix Price comparison web sites Comparing price Comparing products and services Price and other comparison web sites for legal services The commoditisation of legal services? The feasibility of the price comparison, instant fixed-fee approach to legal services A menu of prices? The price/perceived-quality relationship Non-price factors in the perception of price/perceived quality 33 A fundamental flaw? 34 1

3 7. What does all this mean for solicitors? Firms' technological infrastructure What does all this mean for consumers? Other technological steps forward: Twitter, Bid4Fees, MinuteBox Twitter Bid4fees MinuteBox Predictions for Conclusion 43 References 45 Appendix 1: WebQual instrument to measure e-service quality 50 Appendix 2: Prominent legal blogs 51 2

4 Tables and Figures Table 1 Scale items used to measure e-service quality 08 Table 2 Dynamics of interaction in the professional-consumer relationship 10 Table 3 Pros/cons of the price comparison web site model for solicitors 36 Table 4 Pros/cons of the price comparison web site model for consumers 38 Figure 1 Proportionate dynamics in professional-consumer interaction 11 Figure 2 Stages in the purchase process 14 3

5 1. Introduction 1.1 Background to the research The initial driver for this report was the growing speculation around the use of the comparison web site models for legal services, following the launch of Wigster in November Further, the fact that the role of price comparison and customer review websites are set to come under scrutiny from the Legal Services Board (LSB). Considering the applicability of the model brought into discussion a range of other factors including the shape of the electronic marketplace, online service pricing strategies, the ability of solicitors to provide instant fixed-fee quotes and the relationship between price and perceptions of quality. This report is an attempt to begin to unpack these areas and does not pretend to offer a complete or definitive review. Rather, the intention is to raise questions and identify areas of interest for future exploration and, where appropriate, empirical research. Current trends like globalisation, digitisation and the rise of electronic media have changed both the scope and the modality of human interaction and communication. According to Grewal et al (2003) conventional models of business and consumer behaviour from even a decade ago, as well as traditional organisational structures of firms and industry, are no longer sustainable in the electronic age (p.391). This raises questions not only around what a successful business model looks like in the electronic age, but also what this might mean for the traditional law firm model in an evolving e-landscape. The Legal Service Board s YouGov consumer survey (2010) confirmed the importance of the Internet when choosing a solicitor. In a survey of 2,266 adults the research found that whilst recommendations from friends, relatives, and colleagues were by far the most important method of choosing a solicitor, web search engines and online resources were deemed the next most important channel. Alongside general search engines such as Google, the YouGov research points to a clear interest in web sites which contain consumer experience reviews and ratings of solicitors. This suggests that the traditional modes of communication such as wordof-mouth and friend recommendations are now appearing through blogs and online consumer reviews. Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the role of information technology in markets, both in traditional markets and in the emergence of new electronic marketplaces such as Internet-based retail and auction sites. Web sites are complex artefacts, often with many types of user, each of which may perceive quality or good service in very different ways. Purchasers of legal services are not a homogeneous group, neither are legal problems such as conveyancing or divorce, despite sometimes sharing similar processes across cases. A key challenge for law firms and legal service providers in 2011 is to understand consumer requirements and expectations, and to develop their online presence and back-office operations accordingly. 1.2 A need to reconsider the solicitor-client relationship Legal services have typically been characterised by a power imbalance, where the consumer engages with the solicitor from a position of dependency and the solicitor determines what is in the consumer's best interest on the basis of their professional judgement (Parsons 1975). However, the professional-consumer relationship in legal services has undergone unprecedented change. Relationships which were traditionally dominated by respect for a professional status are now being challenged by increasingly self-informed consumers. Consequently, the once inviolate professional discourse has been fractured into multiple consumer narratives. As many consumers turn to the Internet as a convenient and accessible source of information, they are increasing likely to challenge the traditional power structure in 4

6 professional relationships. Further, through the ability to rate and review service providers online, consumers may hold higher expectations and be more critical of suppliers they perceive as failing to meet their individual service requirements. For professionals, the emergence of the consumerist narrative poses fundamental challenges in terms of: (i) their role in the delivery of professional services; (ii) the nature of professionalism; and (iii) the wider place of professionalism in contemporary society. An important aspect of benchmarking changes to the legal services market is to capture the ways in which law firms currently market and deliver their services, and how they attract and cultivate relationships with clients. This activity becomes particularly important when major shifts in the environment occur such as the introduction of new business models and legal service providers. Bitner et al. (2000) discuss how Internet technology is altering professional-consumer service relationships. In consideration of the validity of the price comparison web site model in the legal sector, there remains a need to define what is meant by e-service quality, to identify its underlying dimensions, and determine how quality can be conceptualised and measured in this context. 1.3 A price comparison web site for legal services? Price comparison web sites are becoming a familiar presence in web information searches across sectors such as energy suppliers, insurance, travel and all manner of tangible products. Many of these sites are aimed at consumers looking for the best priced deal for a specific type of product. Similar search and match mechanisms are also being deployed, without the price imperative, to match user to job and dating opportunities (e.g. Monster.co.uk; Loveconfused.com). These infomediaries act as a go-between, or referral mechanism which aids a consumer s decision-making around the purchase of products/services. Given the complicated nature of many legal problems, it would appear that a price comparison web site would not be effective without consideration of other areas such as quality of service; complexity of the case; interaction with the client and so on. As such there is benefit in probing the price comparison web site model in some depth before it is accepted as a valid mechanism in the legal services market. This report goes some way to instigate thinking and raise questions in this endeavour. This report begins by considering the landscape of e-business and the infomediary, proceeding to consider the price comparison web site model and its applicability to the legal services market. Key aspects discussed include the online decision-making aids available to consumers, the ability of solicitors to offer instant fixed fee quotations via the web, and the relationship between price and perceived-quality. The report concludes with a reflection on what the expanding e-marketplace and price comparison model might mean for solicitors and for consumers. It also hints at some of the many other ways in which technology is mediating the solicitor-consumer relationship. 5

7 2. e-business and the rise of the infomediary 2.1 The marketplace Bakos (1998) describes the function of markets as threefold: (i) (ii) (iii) to match buyers and sellers; to facilitate the exchange of information/goods/services/payments; and to provide an institutional infrastructure such as a legal and regulatory framework to enable the efficient functioning of the market. More than ten years ago, Riggins (1998) argued that Internet-based markets were having a major impact on the roles of markets this impact has only increased and diversified in the ten years since. Evidence of this growth includes: By 2006, e-commerce Business-to-Consumer product sales totalled $146.4 billion in the United States alone, representing approximately 6% of all retail product sales in the country. According to IMRG, UK consumers spent 4.9bn online in February 2011, equating to an average of 79 per person (Charlton 2011). Nielsen reports that, among Internet users in 2008, the highest percentage shopping online is found in South Korea (99%), followed by the UK (97%), Germany (97%) and Japan (97%). The most popular and purchased items are books, followed by clothes and the DVDs/Games (Achille 2008). The rapid growth in e-commerce over the Internet has fuelled predictions and speculations about what makes a Business-to-Consumer (B2C) web site effective. Aggregating a number of studies in this area (Senn 2000; Sheth et al 2000; Zeithmal et al 2002), the three key dimensions of e-business web site quality can be identified as (i) usability, (ii) information quality, and (iii) interaction quality. The increase in B2C commerce has made many businesses look for new ways to understand online shopping behaviour in order to attract and retain consumers. 2.2 New sources of information Rapid advances in the technology for buyer seller interfaces not only increases the communication flows between buyers and sellers, but also provides each with the ability to obtain more information on the other (Bakos 1997; Sheth et al. 2000; Sinha 2000). The new word-of-mouth is blogging. For example, encourages those setting up service web sites to find bloggers who are willing to visit their site and write reviews about the services they offer, claiming this word-of-mouth can create an excitement in the Internet community, leading to the evolution of a long-term user base. In addition, increasing numbers of B2C sites are offering the facility for consumers to rate and review their experience of a supplier (see Section 2.8). Beyond consumer feedback, new tracking mechanisms enable businesses to track the preferences and viewing history of online users. This information, made possible through technology, allows businesses to differentiate themselves through a personalisation of offerings (see Section 5). The vast majority of research on e-commerce is, at present, based on a North American context. However, research in this field is rapidly expanding to include the European and Asian marketplaces. Following the crash of the dotcom industry, now some ten years ago, research began to question which factors would determine the survival and profitability of e-businesses and e-markets amidst so much potential competition (e.g. Day et al 2003). One key factor to emerge was the value-added 6

8 function which 'infomediaries', such as price comparison web sites, provide (Senn 2000); with the acknowledgement that information-mediation, or 'infomediary' roles must also evolve in order to sustain profitability (Anderson and Anderson 2002; Yoo et al. 2002). Internet marketplaces are fostering new types of infomediaries that create value by aggregating services and products that were traditionally offered by separate suppliers this not only saves the consumer search time, but also helps to bring a transparency to prices and offerings across a market. Wagner and Turban (2002) discuss the effects of infomediary agents on the changing nature of general business models, but the impact on consumers' choice of legal service provider should also be examined in some depth (a task that far exceeds the scope of this report). 2.3 The Infomediary Infomediaries include sites such as Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) and Expedia (www.expedia.com), both of which aggregate a range of travel services and allow consumers to personalise their search and to package combinations. Other sites, such as Bargain Finder (http://bf.cstar.ac.com/bf) and Jango (www.jango.com) search the web on behalf of consumers to collect and compare products by price and other features. Inevitably, e-marketplaces will promote the growth of new types of electronic infomediaries. These infomediaries will offer a range of functions such as: matching buyers and sellers; aggregating information goods; integrating the components of consumer processes; managing physical deliveries and payments; and providing trust relationships and ensuring the integrity of the market. (Bakos 1998: 13). According to Bakos (1998: 3), a key function of markets in our economic system is price discovery, i.e. the process of determining the price at which demand and supply clear and trade occurs. By price discovery Bakos means the price at which a seller is willing to sell and a buyer is willing to buy. Mechanisms to reach this price discovery can include auction, negotiation (e.g. market stalls/used car lots) or a standoff of retail fixed price in non-sale periods. Infomediaries, especially price comparison web sites, bring a transparency to price and raise awareness of the price discovery mechanisms which shape the market for different types of product or services. The transparency of price information on the Internet ruptures the traditional information asymmetry that exists between buyer and seller, and challenges the ability of business to differentiate solely on the basis of price. Instead, marketers have to explore what constitutes value for the consumer and determine new ways to create and deliver such value. Savvy marketers will attempt to compete on the basis of both price and non-price variables in ways that contribute to consumer value and, thus, perceived satisfaction. It is in such a ruthless arena (well established for other sectors) that law firms may find they now have to compete. It is not clear how firms will demonstrate non-price factors such as specialist knowledge and quality service via their e-presence and/or online modes of marketing and delivery. Further, many law firms may not yet have realised a need to demonstrate value to (potential) clients via their web sites. Yet, increasingly there will be pressure on businesses, regulators and commentators to measure the quality of online service provision. 7

9 2.4 Measuring e-service quality Several businesses have developed their own scale to measure the e-service quality of online suppliers; most widely used is BizRate.com. Table 1, below, shows the BizRate 10-point scale in relation to a service-oriented scale developed by Lociano et al (2000). Table 1: Scale items used to measure e-service quality BizRate.com Lociano et al (2000) (i) (ii) (iii) (iv) (v) (vi) (vii) (viii) (ix) (x) ease of ordering product selection product information price web site performance on-time delivery product representation customer support privacy policies shipping and handling. (i) (ii) (iii) (iv) (v) (vi) (vii) (viii) (ix) (x) (xi) (xii) informational fit to task interaction trust response time design intuitiveness visual appeal innovativeness flow integrated communication business processes substitutability The aggregation of a variety of scales, including the two in Table 1, suggests the key measures of e-service quality and perceived value in web site transactions are: ease of use; content in relation to needs of consumer; accuracy of content; timeliness of response; aesthetics; and privacy. Consumers' perception of the quality of an e-service, as with offline services, typically relates to the expectations held prior to purchase and confidence in the chosen supplier. Koufaris (2002) draws on the Technology Acceptance Model to show how emotional and cognitive responses to visiting a web site can influence consumers purchase behaviour (including their likelihood to make unplanned purchases ). Gefen and Straub (2003) also demonstrate that consumer acceptance is related to trust. Where a service is perceived as lesser quality this can sometimes be attributed to a fulfilment gap - which represents the overall discrepancy between consumer s requirements and their experiences of a product/service web site. One major form of fulfilment gap occurs because of inflated marketing promises that do not reflect the consumer s reality of the web s operation and, thus, leads to a consumer perception of poor quality service. Research on consumer satisfaction is extensive and focuses primarily on measuring the relationship between pre-purchase expectations and post-purchase satisfaction (Yi 1990). Satisfaction literature (e.g. Spreng, Dixon, and Olshavsky 1993; Ortmeyer, 8

10 Quelch, and Salmon 1991) offers little insight into the effect pricing decisions might have on consumer satisfaction or perception of quality. In terms of purchasing services online versus offline, online buyers were more likely to perceive a benefit in obtaining information directly from a site rather than having to telephone around or visit physical sites. 2.5 Purchase decisions According to Charlton (2011), 46% of online shoppers do not have a clear idea of what they want to buy when they go online. Instead, groups of shoppers, termed gatherers and collaborators, spend time researching and sharing information online prior to making a purchase. Charlton also indicated that 32% of online shoppers think better of a brand that has been recommended. Research with consumers 1 by Ranganathan and Ganapathy (2002) derived four key dimensions to online purchase decisions: (i) information content; (ii) design; (iii) security; and (iv) privacy. This concurs with other measures of perceived quality and the factors identified as important in online transactions. Almost all research with online consumers flags concerns with security; not just with the transmission of financial details, but also whether their personal data is stored and/or shared with other companies. However, there is still much research to be done. Zeithaml et al (2002) suggest we know almost nothing about the demographic, behavioural and experience correlates of electronic service quality (p.368). They question whether age, gender or income affect perceptions of quality service delivery through web sites; and these may prove crucial demographics to consider in relation to the marketing/delivery of online legal services and consumer access to justice. Grewal et al (1998) and Parasuraman & Grewal (2000) identify four value dimensions of a purchase: (i) acquisition value: associated with the benefits consumers think they are going to receive by acquiring the service relative to the money given up (i.e. cost price); (ii) transaction value: the pleasure of getting a good deal (Thaler 1985); (iii) (iv) in-use value: the utility associated with the actual usage; and redemption value: the price of the product at the time of trade-in or endof-life. (see). The first two values have the most relevance to the purchase of legal services. Acquisition value is enhanced by the Internet s ability to provide greater reach and access, and the ease of comparison shopping through the provision of detailed service and price information. Transaction value is enhanced by the Internet s ability to search out the best deals, as well as enabling the formation of reference prices that are deemed closer to reality. Grewal et al (2003) propose that consumers will use the monetary price information provided by Internet retailers to a greater extent for commodity-like products as opposed to non-commodity products and are less likely to compare monetary prices for products that are perceived or marketed as highly differentiated, even though the actual differences may be nominal (p.395). Equally, consumers are less likely to purchase products over the Internet that require inspection or judgment, especially when engaging in such transactions for the first time. Kaufman (1999) argues that 1 Based on a questionnaire survey of 214 online shoppers, ranging in age years; all had made purchases online and 70% made at least two or more online transactions in the last 6 months. 9

11 product categories such as perfumes, houses, and cars, in particular, are less likely to be bought over the Internet by first-time consumers. This raises questions around the location of legal services in the e-marketplace and the possibility of online instructions. It will perhaps depend on a mix of (i) a familiarity with transacting online; (ii) a confidence in information security and (iii) a perception of the uniqueness of their individual case, as to whether an individual decides to locate a solicitor and/or purchase legal services online. Purchase decisions are also enhanced by other consumers reviews, Recommendation Agents and Comparison Matrices these are discussed in Section From professional discourse to consumer narratives The professional-consumer relationship is an evolving set of discourses, through which it becomes possible to develop an understanding of the consumption of professional services. Professional services have increasingly been exposed to the negative effects of a number of interconnected trends. For example, Ham and Alberni (2002) note a reduction in the asymmetry between professionals and consumers, as the latter have increasing access to information (Hogg et al. 2003) and greater awareness of the proliferation of service alternatives (Laing et al. 2002). This leads Laing et al (2002) to suggest that patterns of consumption, the basis of professional status, and the format of professional-consumer relationships are in constant flux. There is evidence that consumer narratives are increasingly diverse and distinct from professional discourse, both in respect of the service delivery process and the selection of service options. As a result, the dynamic of interaction within the professional service encounter is altered, as Table 2 shows (see also figure 1, following page): Table 2: Dynamics of interaction in the professional-consumer relationship Dynamic Interaction Compliant = the consumer acquiesces to the professional's knowledge and judgement. Collaborative = both parties bring information to the encounter; judgement is negotiated. Confirmatory = the consumer makes a preliminary decision, but seeks professional opinion to confirm; also way of devolving responsibility if it turns out to be a bad decision. Consumerist = the consumer expects to choose their supplier independently; professional confined to an advisory role only. The conventional format of the professional-consumer encounter is characterised by the consumer acquiescing to the professional s perceived expertise (Compliant). There is an implicit expectation that the consumer will defer to the judgement of the solicitor. This hierarchical relationship reflects an assumed social distinction between the professional and (the majority of) consumers. The expectation that professionals act as the decision maker within the service relationship is typically upheld by older consumers and those who recognise the significant cost (direct and indirect) of being required to contribute to the encounter. Yet, arguably, the Internet has fuelled an emergence of the 'collaborative encounter. The central feature of the collaborative interaction is the pooling of information, knowledge and values. The relationship is characterised as a dialogue, with service outcomes being negotiated between the parties. Of central concern with this type of 10

12 interaction is the weighting given to consumer over professional judgment particularly pertinent in a legal services context, though a problem also faced by doctors whose patients research their symptoms online in order to self-diagnose prior to a GP consultation. Figure 1 plots the dynamics in Table 1, suggesting through gradation where the weight or emphasis of each encounter is based. Figure 1: The weighted relationship in each professional-consumer dynamic consumerist professional confirmatory collaborative compliant consumer Evidence indicates that there are limits to the extent to which consumers ultimately wish to exert their authority and act independently of the professional (Hogg et al 2003). For example, although consumers may choose a solicitor based on independently acquired information and past consumer reviews, judgement regarding the legal service itself will still, on the whole, be deferred to the professional. This raises questions about consumers ability to rate or comment on the quality of the service they have received from the professional, when already they have bowed to the latter s greater knowledge. 2.7 Sharing The impact of different types of information on consumer decision making and perceptions of quality needs to be investigated. Increasingly web sites, including online newspapers, job adverts, recipes and events listings offer buttons to enable users to view as a print friendly version or to a friend. newsletters are sent with an invitation to share this , followed by a string of symbols: 11

13 Each of the symbols above represents a link to an external site, which can be accessed by clicking through the symbol. The more obvious symbols of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are supplemented with MisterWong, Reddit, Blinklist, Stumbleupon and Buzz to name but a few. The Internet not only provides mechanisms for users to ping points of interest around to others or to forge links between sites and their various profiles (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn), but also the ability for members of the public to author and share their own reviews and thinkpieces - a role once restricted to professional media and cultural commentators. 2.8 and caring In the past, recommendations came by word-of-mouth and brand reputation. Purchases of household goods were limited to a small number of familiar brands and consumers typically replaced the item which had broken or worn out with the same model. Choices were fewer and products generally lasted longer. Recommendations came from friends and family who had bought certain products, stayed at particular hotels or used, say, a builder, solicitor and so on. Word-of-mouth reputation was worth gold to businesses; especially small or independent traders, who not only acquired a steady stream of business, but in some instances were saved from steep marketing costs. The communication facilitated by the Internet means that consumer expectation of the service levels that companies and organisations must provide has been raised considerably. Online businesses are becoming ever more aware of the need to improve their offerings. The vast networks of information and information sharing made possible by new technologies not only widens what information is available to consumers and random web searchers, but also puts a degree of power in the hands of consumers to research a product or service and to post their own reviews; reviews which influence the decision making of future users. Whilst consumers might once have voted against bad service with their feet (i.e. taken their custom often silently - to another supplier), now they can vote with their fingertips, to a global effect. Sites such as Amazon and Tripadvisor have long enabled the public to post a review of a product or experience. Such reviews are used to praise, warn and inform and help to establish a dialogue and a sense of community among consumers through the sharing of experiences, problems and solutions; consumers also have the ability to vote whether other consumers reviews have been helpful to them. There is a range of literature that explores the role of reputation and feedback mechanisms in online transactions, which suggests that the potential supplier s reputation can be a significant factor in the negotiation strategy and final price (Zacharia et al. 2000; Standifird 2002). Research in this area also examines the key dimensions in which Internet-based feedback mechanisms differ from traditional word-of-mouth networks, focusing on design, evaluation, and use (Dellarocas 2003). Ranganathan and Ganapathy (2002) identify the consumer buying process as a sequence of stages of which information search and evaluation are two important preparatory steps. The next stage involves the evaluation of alternatives before making a final purchase decision. Haubl and Trifts (2000) demonstrate that decision aids have a favourable effect on the quality of online purchase decisions. These decision aids initially the extended product/service information available online 12

14 have expanded to include consumer reviews and rating systems. Further decision aids include recommendation agents and directed s, both based on a consumer s known browsing and purchase preferences. Consumer tracking technology allows companies to identify the demographics of individual buyers through mechanisms such as cookies, registration forms and history of products viewed/purchased. (i) The Recommendation agent The Recommendation Agent, found on web sites such as Amazon, allows consumers more efficiently to screen the landscape of alternatives available in an online shopping environment. Based on registration data and/or past purchases, the Recommendation Agent generates a personalised list of suggested items. In the instance of Amazon, recommended items may be in the same genre or field as those previously viewed or purchased by the consumer; equally they may be items which have been purchased by other consumers with whom the current user has at least one purchase in common as in customers who bought this item also bought Systems such as Firefly (www.firefly.net) draw on the feedback experiences of consumers with a profile of likes/dislikes similar to the targeted buyer. The Recommendation Agent reduces consumers search effort for product information and arguably decreases the size, but increases the quality of their range of alternatives. On the face of it this would suggest an improved quality of purchase decisions. However, used alone, the list of recommendations may raise uncertainties in the mind of the consumer that other options or bargains may be missed; further, some consumers may display a resistance against the desirability, or even ability, of a software programme to pigeonhole their tastes in this way. (ii) The Comparison Matrix The Comparison Matrix, found on sites such as Amazon and ebay, is designed to help consumers make in-depth comparisons among selected alternatives. The matrix allows consumers to organise attribute information about multiple products and to narrow and sort alternatives by any attribute. Research findings suggest that interactive tools designed to assist consumers in the initial screening of available alternatives, and facilitate in-depth comparisons among selected alternatives, may have strong favourable effects on both the quality and the efficiency of purchase decisions. This suggests that interactive decision aids have the potential to drastically transform the way in which consumers search for product/service information and make purchase decisions. According to Bakos (1998: 9) the ability to customise products, combined with the ability of sellers to access substantial information about prospective buyers, such as demographics, preferences and past shopping behaviours, is greatly improving sellers ability to price discriminate, i.e. to charge different prices for different buyers. However, the notion that price is becoming tailored to the known demographics of individual consumers is challenged by the market-wide popularity of one particular infomediary model: the price comparison web site. 13

15 3. Price comparison web sites The price comparison web site market has become highly competitive in the last year, fuelled by advertising campaigns such as Go Compare! and Compare the Meerkat/Market. There are even web sites to show consumers how to set up their own price comparison web site; for example: A price comparison web site allows individuals to see different lists of prices for specific products or services and to compare prices of those who do not exclude themselves (e.g. Direct Line run a TV campaign promoting the fact that they are not on comparison sites). Most price comparison sites do not sell products themselves, but source prices from retailers from whom users can buy. The site owner s main revenue model is usually on a cost per click or on an affiliate based cost per acquisition model. Sites also generate revenue through advertising. Products and pricing details are usually uploaded from the merchant to the price comparison site through an XML feed (a set of rules for encoding documents electronically where a search engine is fed information about an advertiser's or other's website). Despite the increasing number of consumers who use the Internet for pre-purchase information and online shopping, very little is known about how consumers make purchase decisions in such settings. Figure 2, below, illustrates the stages in prepurchase prices and the steps which are encompassed by the price comparison web site. Figure 2: Stages in the purchase process Decision aid: Recommendation Agent Information search 2 Information evaluation 3 Price comparison web sites Consumer identified need 1 Identification of possible alternatives 4 Purchase Decision 6 Evaluation 5 of alternatives Decision aid: Comparison Matrix 14

16 Initially, consumers might typically screen a large set of available products/services/ suppliers [2 and 3] and identify a subset of the most promising alternatives [4]. Subsequently, they evaluate the latter in more depth [5], perform relative comparisons across products/services on important attributes, and make a purchase decision [6]. The ease of use of search engines such as Google, and the availability of consumer reviews and ratings as decision aids for consumers, may lead to a transformation of the way in which shoppers search for product information and make purchase decisions. The price comparison web site takes on steps [3 and 4], enabling the consumer to go straight from [2] to [5]. 3.1 Comparing price Price is a crucial comparison variable in competitive markets. The Internet enables most 2 consumers to compare and shop more efficiently by allowing price information to be conveyed in a less costly manner across the market. Buyers can now search efficiently and without cost over the Internet to obtain the lowest prices (Singh 2000). The Internet has the functionality to address individual consumers and be responsive to their needs (Deighton 1997) through a personalisation of search criteria. Consequently, the Internet enables consumers to seek, and marketers to provide, unique (and cost-effective) solutions to specific needs. Research into price comparison practices pre-internet reveal certain demographic characteristics. According to Toh and Bernard (1984) female consumers are more likely to be price reliant than males in forming product quality judgments. Age differences have also been reported, with older consumers showing a greater reliance on price as a quality cue (Shapiro 1973). Income effects have been reported to be both positive (Toh and Bernard 1984) and insignificant (Shapiro 1973). Findings suggest that an alternative explanation for the income effect may be a greater riskaversion among lower income consumers, leading to increased use of price cues. 3.2 Comparing products and services Products with identical features (e.g. brand, model number) can be more readily compared across web sites. Where the exact same product is on offer, price emerges as the most important and almost exclusive comparison tool and yet, this also suggests to suppliers a need to find new ways to differentiate themselves (e.g. in terms of quality customer service). Breadth of range in perceived quality within a product category has also been demonstrated to have a significant moderating influence on the extent of price cue usage. For example, Peterson and Wilson (1985) demonstrated that if asked for an opinion on the statement, the higher the price of the aspirin, the higher the quality, most consumers would disagree. This did not hold true when consumers were asked their opinions on products such as diamonds or wine and, equally, consumers are more likely to perceive legal services as varying significantly in quality. In the choice of legal service supplier, monetary price information is seldom used alone to compare various quotes. The price/perceivedquality relationship is an important one in respect of legal services and the decisions consumers make around price comparison web sites for legal services. This is discussed in Section 6. 2 Access to technology in developed countries is less of an issue now than it used to be. The public can access the Internet in libraries and community centres as well as in Internet cafes or at friends houses. A bigger factor may be an individual s technological literacy or readiness. 15

17 4. Price comparison web sites for legal services The advent of Alternative Business Structures from October 2011 suggests a potential shake up to the legal services market in particular around private law areas such as divorce, wills and conveyancing. Once the competitive market becomes more stable, it is reasonable to expect law firms to build distinct packages to offer these services to consumers and, thereby, to develop a wider Internetsourced client base. Here, price comparison web sites for legal services may indeed prove effectual. Whilst over 60% of those surveyed in the YouGov (2010) consumer research would take recommendations from friends, relatives, or work colleagues, 21% would use a search engine. Web sites with independent consumer reviews and ratings of law firms and solicitors were the third most popular method mentioned by 20% of those surveyed. At that time price comparison sites for law firms were favoured by just 10%. Experts agree that the development of price comparison sites in this sector is a major advance in the battle for the legal consumer s pound. Richard Susskind claimed that such infomediaries would change the way consumers select lawyers (White 2008). He said: This is a market worth 10bn, and the means of selection of lawyers is usually hit and miss. If 66% of people in UK use the internet, you only need a small number of these to choose legal services [in this way] to make this a serious issue. (Susskind, in White 2008). However, when later questioned whether price comparison web sites might promote a false conflation between price and perceived quality, he said: Price comparison systems on their own can be dangerous because they are one dimensional - we only want to buy cheap if our needs are met. The answer is to have them working alongside Reputation systems, so that buyers can determine not just the cost but the level of satisfaction these providers have delivered to other customers. (Richard Susskind, Virtual LegalIT Q&A, March ) As geography becomes less important, new sources of product differentiation, such as customised features or service innovation will become more important, at least for those solicitors who do not have the lowest quote or service cost. Some solicitors suggested that the price comparison web site was an invaluable marketing tool for smaller firms that perhaps did not have the budget or resources to gain this much potential publicity alone. 4.1 The commoditisation of legal services? Stephen Mayson predicted that price comparison sites moving into the legal sector would increase the fierce drive to price-cost reduction and to commoditisation and consolidation This is what 21st-century, internet-driven consumerism looks like (in White 2008). Armitage (2008) reported that Moneysupermarket (www.moneysupermarket.com) and Tescocompare (www.tescocompare.com) are already planning to compare routine work like wills and conveyancing and it is only a matter of time before price comparison will be possible for other legal services. This word routine should not be left unquestioned, especially if it is in the hands of the consumer to decide at the outset if their case fits the routine package on offer. There is a sense across solicitors blog posts that price comparison web sites will achieve status for low value:high volume type work: 16

18 I do actually think that price comparison sites will gain traction in the legal services market. It is a proven business model and one which a lot of people would love to apply to a fresh market. (Peninsulawyer 3 blog post; August 19, 2010). The public s perceived familiarity with price comparison web sites mainly through television adverts from sites such as confused.com, compare the market.com and Go Compare! - was seen as an advantage to law firms going down this route. Further, the Director of price comparison web site, Wigster, said: We feel the majority of the public felt disconnected from the legal profession, felt it was inaccessible ultimately you can still do everything you could do with a lawyer the traditional way. However, additionally you can see how a firm stacks up against others and make a decision based on your priorities. (posted on Services are generally characterised as (i) more intangible than tangible, (ii) simultaneously produced and consumed, and (iii) less standardised than tangible goods (Berry 1980). To date price comparison websites have struggled to find a way to standardise solicitors fees, often because solicitors work to hourly rates rather than fixed fees. Hourly rates alone are meaningless without a prediction of how long a job will take and a low hourly rate does not necessarily correlate with the level of service or expertise a client may expect. There may be a small sub-set of legal work where firms are actually able instantly to quote fixed prices up front on the basis of limited information provided by the client, for example residential conveyancing, will writing, powers of attorney and perhaps divorce work (as Wikivorce does). However, even conveyancing might be described as a complex bundle of legal services and it cannot be assumed that these will be the same or straightforward on all conveyances. A solicitor draws the analogy: It is a bit like the difference between getting a fixed price from the garage for servicing my car and expecting the mechanic to give me an instant fixed price for fixing my engine without looking under the bonnet when I drive in with it making a funny noise. (Peninsulawyer blog post; August 23, 2010). The organisational as well as technological components of comparison sites would benefit from being co-designed by solicitors and IT experts so that the technologies best fit into the workflows and practice of the firms. Whilst practice is likely to vary by firm size, type and areas of law, the contained range of legal services which currently lend themselves to the price comparison model suggest some agreement in best practice could be found. The design needs to address: (i) ease of use/navigation; (ii) information quality; and (iii) solicitor-consumer interaction. Within a law firm, the utilisation of price comparison web sites (or online modes of marketing/delivery), may change the nature of the business, as well as the way the interaction between solicitor and (potential) client is conceived. Successful management of this relationship suggests the need for a holistic view, whereby the legal service and technological mechanisms are fully integrated not only in practice, but also in the conceptual understanding of the firm. 3 Peninsulawyer is a blog written by a solicitor based in the Wirral who specialises in corporate and commercial law. 17

19 There follows a closer look at ten examples of legal services comparison web sites. These range from direct price comparison web sites such as CompareConveyancers.com and Wigster.com to more complex consumerprofessional matching services. Whilst not all are strict adherents to the price comparison model made familiar through TV campaigns, what they have in common is the aggregation of information and search results in one place, and with a view to aid consumers in their decision-making around legal services. These sites offer a service like the price comparison model, though not all claim to be able to provide instant quotes. Each example, below, begins with a screen shot of the site homepage, followed by a brief description of the operation. 4.2 Legally Better [www.legallybetter.com] About Legallybetter was established in 2008 to provide a quick and reliable way to find a good local lawyer or find a solicitor for both private individuals and organisations. Consumers do not need to register to use this site, they fill in a simple search form on the homepage. Membership is free to law firms and there are no introducer or referral charges. Revenue appears to be from extras, for example: profiles of individual feeearners, including their photo, can be added for a small fee. Also from additional services to firms, for example, Legallybetter offers firms a low-cost way of running client surveys via a client feedback service which starts at 120 a year and is Lexcel compliant. And, in association with Fedora Consultancy (www.fedoraconsultancy.co.uk) offers a marketing consultancy service that specialises in helping smaller law firms. 18

20 Legallybetter connects consumers and law firms through a solicitor comparison website which works in partnership with law firms and solicitors. The site describes how it helps consumers to make an informed choice when purchasing legal services. Equally, it describes how it helps solicitors by offering a cost-effective way to promote their services and build reputations online. Law firms without their own web site can use Legallybetter to promote their services on the Internet without incurring significant development costs. One key factor of this web site is that consumers are able to rate and review their solicitor, to leave feedback which can help inform the decisions of future users. These reviews and ratings posted on the site have come from a mix of regular independent consumer and business market research surveys, and client testimonials from law firms. Consumer reviews are passed on to the firm to enable the firm to develop the client experience and their reputation. Law firms are rated using a Legal Stars system, similar to that used by Amazon, covering 5 key service criteria: Quality of advice:- to what extent were you satisfied with the quality of advice given? Value for money - this is not about price alone, but was the service received good value for money? Efficiency and speed of service - did you feel that you were kept informed of developments in a timely fashion? Helpfulness - were staff courteous and responsive? Communication and use of plain English - were you able to understand the information they supplied to you? 4.3 Quality Solicitors [www.qualitysolicitors.com] 19

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