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Protect Your Law Firm From ABS Competition & Discover How To Attract & Convert More Business

Law Firm Need To Arm Themselves To Protect Against ABS CompetitionSMB law firms up and down the country are naturally concerned about the implications of the Legal Services Act 2007 on increased competition in the legal sector from Alternative Business Structures (ABS), and how they can protect, compete and retain market share.

As a solicitor of 15 years and now online marketing strategist I would like to share with you some important insights on what you can do to protect your business from increased competition entering the legal market, how to attract and convert more clients and thereby grow your business even in the most challenging market conditions.

To do this I need to explain the mindset and decision-making process of consumers of legal services today and then explain why law firms have a clear advantage in winning new business by focusing on their strengths and legal specialism and then marketing that expertise with a 5-Star reputation.

Increasing Competition From Alternative Business Structures (ABSs)

We’ve all read the latest moves by the Co-op on DIY divorce kits and more, holiday specialist Saga on wills, estate planning, probate and conveyancing services. Rocket Lawyer of the US on online documents for individuals and small businesses at a fixed-fee on family law, wills, probate, property issues, employment and corporate law. And lets not forget the barrister’s Barco scheme that will allow Barco to hold client money.

These are just some of the more recent competitors to legal work, once the preserve of law firms.

So what are solicitors to do in the face of tougher and probably better financed competition?

Before I got started offering my marketing expertise to the legal profession I did a lot of work in other industries that face much more aggressive competitive than law firm, and it is here that I draw much of my conclusions and recommendations on the way forward for law firms.

Is There Sufficient Demand For Legal Services?

The first question is whether there’s strong demand for legal services.

It is not in dispute that everyday consumers are looking for legal services. It is also not in dispute that the likes of the Co-op and Saga have an advantage in that they have a captive audience to offer products and services that would otherwise have been dealt with my law firms.

However, you need to bear in mind that not all of Saga or Co-op customers for example, will want to choose to go with these companies. Many more sophisticated consumers will undertake their own due diligence inquiries before deciding who to instruct to handle, for example, their employment claim, their accident claim, or perhaps the conveyance on the sale of their property.

This is where you need to properly understand the decision making process of prospective client of legal services and how they go about choosing a legal provider.

When you understand what it is that your prospective clients are looking for before making a decision and you are able to provide that information and the reassurance that clients look for when buying or choosing services online, you will gain the competitive advantage to win more business and get your phone ringing.

So while there are prospective clients looking for your services every day, the question is does your phone ring or your competitors’?

Consumer Behaviour In Purchasing Products and Services

I have learned a lot about consumer behaviour studying internet marketing.

There is a lot to be learned about consumer behaviour just from studying the keywords that they use. I’m not proposing however to cover keyword research here, I just want to touch on general patterns of consumer behaviour when looking for goods and services and the general trend online, with specific reference to Google and what Google is trying to achieve.

I’m also not going to talk about social media because that is not where immediate buyers of goods and services are to be found.

In my opinion too many SMB law firms are overly concerned and focused on social media before they’ve even developed a strong brand and reputation of their own. Also, let’s not forget that consumers don’t use social media to look for goods and services. If you want a plumber to fix a leaky toilet valve, you’re not going to find them on social media sites.

But that is not to say that social media doesn’t have an important role to play in marketing. Naturally, I can see the attraction of using social media to syndicate your message across the web and a potentially large audience. However, have clarity in what you want to achieve from social media and don’t just jump on the social media band wagon simply because that’s the biggest shinny marketing object that everybody else is doing.

Whatever you do, have a very specific and targeted strategy and don’t use it like I see many companies do, which is to spam consumers with messages while they are in a “socializing mindset”.

Your Online Reputation Follows Your Law Firm’s Listing Everywhere

This is a very important point for you to understand if you are doing any kind of marketing today.

When Google rolled out Google + local for business, it made these pages fully indexed in the search engine, which means that they now appear everywhere – in organic search, in PPC, in Google Maps and Google Plus, in website rankings and in local directories. Which also means that your company’s reputation, reviews and client rating are exposed for the whole world to see, because they follow your company’s online listing everywhere.

So if you have a bad reputation your phone is not going to ring no matter from where your potential customers find you online, whether its through social media or on the the first page of Google. Which means that if you are spending a lot of money on getting high rankings in Google or on a comprehensive social media strategy for branding and engagement, if your prospective clients are seeing that you have a bad reputation, do you think your phone will ring?

Think about it from your own perspective as a buyer of goods and services online.

A good example of this is when you book to eat at a new restaurant. Initially you may not know anything about that restaurant except that perhaps its been recommended, or you simply fancy trying it out.

The first thing most people do is search online to find out more. The Google search the name of the restaurant and maybe the location, which incidentally is what many potential clients do when looking for a solicitor.

You will probably be very familiar with restaurant Zagat ratings and reviews. And if you enjoy eating out, you will no doubt be very aware of the power of social proof i.e. what others say online, in influencing buying behaviour.

As from the end of May 2012, 80 million local businesses had their Google Places listings switched over to Google + and with it some very important changes, such as the ability for customers to leave Zagat ratings and reviews of all local businesses, which exposes a business’s online reputation for the whole world to see. A businesses reputation online can be either bad, good, a mixture of good and bad, no reputation, or an excellent 5 star reputation.

If local businesses are not properly monitoring and managing their online presence on a regular basis, they will learn that it just takes one unhappy customer to leave a bad review and bad reputation online – “you are only one customer away from a bad reputation online”.

The Rise In Importance of Local Search To Law Firm Marketing

There’s also another important online development to note. Given a choice between 2 companies, one a national company with no geographical proximity to the consumer and another a locally based company, all things being equal, consumers generally prefer to deal with the local business rather than a disconnected large national company.  I explain why this is below.

We can see this happening every day.

People research online for goods and services but buying habits show that they have a much stronger inclination to buy locally once they know what it is they want.

This is also a particularly strong pattern of behaviour that has emerged from various studies of mobile phone use. Many studies have shown, including a Google study, that mobile phone usage is predominately used as a tool by consumers to find local goods and services.  The Law Society’s recent survey (2012) found that 78% of firms drew at least half of their clients from their own region i.e. locally based.

We also know that local search is growing in importance simply by studying what changes Google is implementing.

Google is constantly studying consumer buying behaviour and making changes to how it serves its online search results.

Ultimately, Google’s goal is to improve a user’s online experience. So by studying what Google is doing you gain enormous insight into consumer buying habits.

The Google Experience Tells Us A Lot About Web Users’ Behaviour

The main focus in everything that Google does is to provide the web user with the best experience possible, which it does by serving search results that it believes the consumer is looking for.

By providing the best user experience and the most relevant information quickly, Google seeks to attract more users to use its search engine, which means more traffic and more advertising revenues. Over the years Google has been fine-tuning the process through various algorithm changes.

This screen shot shows search results for solicitorWith this is mind when a consumer searches for goods and services, if it is something that can be provided locally Google will now serve local results above all else (excepting PPC).

You see this when you type in general phrases such as solicitor, plumber, accountant, or vehicle repair and so on (e.g screenshot on the left).

Google serves its Google + results for searches made for services that are provided locally because Google knows the likely search intent of the person conducting the search, is for ‘local’ products and services.

So local search listings for local businesses is growing in importance. That’s first point you need to bear in mind. Numerous studies of consumers behaviour show that purchasers of goods and services prefer to deal with local businesses, Google know which is why it serves local search results first.

So as a business providing products and services to a local market, you have the advantage over larger companies that don’t serve a defined local market because Google now displays Google Plus results ahead of all other organic results.

Locally Listed Law Firms and Their Reputation

An important change occurred on 31st May 2012 when Google merged Google Local and maps into its new Google + for businesses, which now displays Zagat scores and ratings, giving consumers the power to rate and review local businesses.

In addition, these pages are now fully indexed and appear in the search results.

Right now this is still under the radar for many law firms because most consumers have still not yet developed the habit of leaving a review and therefore most law firms haven’t yet noticed that clients can leave a review about their experience. This won’t last for long, so expect your clients to soon be leaving ratings and reviews about your practice.

These changes have affected 80 million local businesses across the web, not just law firms, so it is still early days.

However, look no further than the restaurant and hotel market to appreciate how important reviews and Zagat ratings are to these businesses for ensuring that they remain busy and get a constant flow of new customers.

This is a screenshot of the search results for restaurant

Ratings and reviews are important because consumers use these as a gauge to measure a business’s reputation and the kind of service and experience they might expect to receive. How often have you read reviews on a local restaurant and been put off by bad reviews?

Yet despite it being only 4 months since the change occurred, it is already evident that clients are leaving reviews against law firm listings in Google and on third party review sites.

But here’s the danger. It only takes one bad review to get a bad reputation online. So you need to be watchful and have a strategy to deal with consumer reviews.

Why Client Reviews Are So Important To Law Firms

If there is any doubt that reviews are important in winning new business, then you only need to look at what consumers of all types of products and services search for online.

Google tells us what people search for with it’s Google Instant feature i.e the keyword suggestions that Google gives you when you start typing in your search term in the Google search field.

The term “reviews” is now a major search term for people looking to do business with solicitors. Why? Because consumers want to be sure that your current clients are getting a great service, because it’s a clear indication to them that they too are likely receive a great service from you if they were to use your service. Also, google tells us as much as consumers are searching for reviews on law firms.

Bad reviews on the other hand is an negative indicator to the consumer – caveat emptor – ie. if they instruct you they too may receive a similar bad experience, which people will naturally want to avoid.

The “phrase” match type for the term “solicitors reviews” currently receives just under 3000 searches per month (as at September 2012) according to Google’s Keyword Tool, which will also include searches against the names of particular law firms  (i.e. “name of the law firm + reviews” e.g. “xyz solicitors reviews”).

[nb. Search volume update as at April 2013 is 3600].

As I mentioned above, it is early days but I expect that you will see many more prospective clients actively searching for specific firms + reviews once your clients begin to realize that this information is now available.

This shows how Google Instant gives the suggested keyword ReviewTo find out whether your prospective clients are searching for reviews on your firm, simply enter the name of your firm into Google, then start typing the phrase “review” to see if Google suggests “your firm’s name + reviews” as in the example on the left.

Google’s suggested keywords are extrapolated from data that it collates on what searchers look for online. If Google doesn’t suggest the keyword “reviews” when you search against your own practice it simply means there isn’t sufficient data at this time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your prospective clients are not doing a review search against your practice.

Try a larger firm that has more search volume online such as in the example in the screenshot above.

Online reviews are an important criteria for deciding whether to use your service or your competitors. We know this because online reviews are second only to personal recommendations as the most trusted source according to a detailed study by Nielsen, one of the leading global information and measurement companies.

In a study on trust of different media channels Nielsen found that 92 percent trusted recommendations from people they know, but surprisingly in second place 70 percent said they trusted consumer opinions posted online. This was well ahead of such things as editorial content such as newspaper articles, branded websites, ads on TV, subscription emails and so on.

Nielsen - Level of Consumer Trust in Advertising

Nielsen – Level of Consumer Trust in Advertising

In another study by Myles Anderson of BrightLocal.com, it found that 72 percent of buyers trust reviews as much as personal recommendations.

Law Firm Reputation Will Be The Most Important Deciding Factor In Winning New Business.

Consumers are starting to wake up to the fact that they can leave reviews about local businesses. Unfortunately, as consumers we are more motivated to leave negative reviews than positive reviews simply because of the trouble it takes to go online and leave a review. And that’s the danger for all local businesses not just law firms, unless you have in place a strategy to manage this.

And as consumers begin to realize that reviews are becoming mainstream for all business types they will increasingly look out for reviews before making a buying decision.

Look no further than Amazon, which was one of the first online businesses to use customer reviews as a key feature in its business model. Amazon was well ahead of the rest of the market in understanding the importance of customer reviews.

Even when someone receives a personal recommendation to use a particular firm or company, customer reviews online are still very important. Here’s why. A person that receives a personal recommendation to use a particular company is still highly likely to go online to get information such as a phone number, an address or even directions. And when that person does go online, reviews are the first thing that they are likely to see or be curious to read before taking that final step and calling you.

So for local law firms, this new feature in Google is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because when you have an overwhelming excellent reputation with 5-star reviews and ratings, your phone will inevitably ring.

Having a 5-Star reputation online sends you pre-sold and pre-qualified clients and customers.  On the other than if you have a bad reputation, no reputation or a mixed reputation of good and bad reviews, your phone will not ring because the consumer will not trust you enough to give you their business.

Non Local Geographic Alternative Business Structures Go Without Google Reviews & Ratings

Google + is Google’s new local business listings. It is designed to help local consumers quickly find the products and services in their local marketing.

National online businesses that don’t have a local presence don’t have a Google + and therefore don’t have Google’s Zagat ratings and reviews feature in its listing on Google.

Therefore, as a local business, by positioning yourself with a 5-star reputation in your local marketplace, you become the preferred supplier of that product or service and the perceived market leader.

The reason for this is because given a clear choice, local consumers will always gravitate towards using a local service whom they know, like and trust and secondly, various studies show that the consumer will choose a company with 5-Star ratings and reviews other a company that has either no reputation or a bad reputation.

So its quite simple, all things being equal people buy from people they trust. All things being unequal people buy from people they trust. As consumers we prefer face-to-face contact whenever possible, especially on important matters and will choose the company with the best reputation as voted by current and former clients and customers.

In Conclusion

Consumers look primarily for local goods and services to meet their needs, which we can see clearly identified in keyword usage.

Google understands that in order to keep making money and growing its online presence it needs to keep its users happy by delivering the best search experience possible.

As a result, Google serves local business results ahead of non-local geographical online businesses in circumstances where it is clear that a searcher’s intent is to find services that are available locally.

Your prospective clients want to read client reviews about their experience of using your services because that is the trust factor that they are looking for everyday before picking up the phone and calling you.

Local law firms therefore have a very clear advantage that can be easily exploited.

Law firm online reputation is therefore critically important for ongoing success in winning new customers that search online for those services, and also if you want to compete against ABSs and continue to win new business moving forward.

Law firms also have an advantage over ABSs in that they are already perceived as the experts belonging to a very long, established and reputable profession. But it is not enough in today’s market to simply be a solicitor, you need to gain “trust” and leverage that trust online, as I have explained above.

It’s also important to understand that as consumers, if money was no object, we would all want to instruct the best experts to deal with our legal problems.

Solicitors already have that expert authority status, you simply need to articulate it correctly and then position your firm with a 5-Star reputation which serves as social proof.

If you are finding that cost is a major reason why you prospective customers are not calling or when they do that they are primarily concerned about cost, then you need to address to standing out from the crowd with a 5 star reputation because not all prospective client are first and foremost concerned about price, many would prefer to deal with the best solicitor for their problem.

Once a law firm is positioned as the leader in the market with a 5 star reputation, cost becomes less of an issue which means that you can charge a premium to law firms that lead their marketing based on price.

 

Graham Cardona, is a qualified solicitor, local marketing strategist and reputation marketing expert. If you found this article entitled “Protect Your Law Firm From ABS Competition & Discover How To Attract & Convert More Business“, help share this article with other solicitors by clicking on the Share button below and Like the page. If you would like more information on reputation marketing, request a copy of our reputation marketing report pdf, which we will gladly send you by email. If you require more immediate help and assistance with your firm’s reputation and or are in need of a unique and highly effective reputation marketing service and strategy, please do not hesitate to contact us to find out more.

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