How retail is teaching law firms key lessons in strategy

By Sally Calverley

As 2013 got underway, headlines announced the death of the high street. HMV, Jessops, and Blockbusters followed Woolworths and Comet to an unglamorous end. Threats from out of town shopping centres, online shopping and the predominance of the supermarket big brands have all added to an extremely challenging trading environment. Retail vacancy rates stand at 10% and the government commissioned Mary Portas, Queen of Shops to produce a report on how to revitalise our city centres.

Why should lawyers care? Don't you have enough of your own problems to worry about?

Maybe. Except for one small thing. Those shoppers who stopped buying from HMV and Blockbusters are also your clients. Their expectations of service and how that will be delivered is, whether you like it or not, shaped by their experiences online and in store. Good and bad.

The young mum who comes in to discuss buying their first home probably has an iPod, chats online with other mums on Mumsnet and likes her favourite stores on Facebook. She probably leaves her children in the crèche at Westfield, buys organic baby food and has her teeth whitened by her dentist. She isn’t used to being kept waiting. Oh and she may be the major breadwinner, she's on maternity leave. At work she's the FD of a bike repair chain who are doing very nicely thank you since they combined bike repairs with coffee and cake.

She's clued up, probably more than you are, on how to buy stuff online. She downloads books onto her Kindle and has her Waitrose shopping delivered. She'll use her smartphone Apps to compare prices whilst actually in the shops. She will check the online price against the store price and buy online if she can get a better price or free delivery.

And then she meets your residential conveyancing team. She probably has already found out what the standard process is and checked you out online. She'll have used formal and informal ratings to find out whether you are any good. She may even have found out what your competitors charge. And she has already been waiting in your reception for five minutes, and her baby is due a feed.

At this point, your young mum has already decided what she thinks about you. She has measured you not just against your competitors but also against every positive buying experience she has ever had. And you didn't win.

Unless. Ah, yes, unless.

Unless you have done what lawyers do – watch, learn, take the best bits, adapt. The retailers that fell by the wayside failed to change with the times. “Woollies” was about as on trend as... well, a woolly jumper. HMV, which had survived the Great Depression, a World War and the swinging sixties, failed to meet the challenge of the digital revolution.

If you want to survive the changes in our market, you must get up close and personal with your clients. You need to see the world through their eyes. Fashion retailer Zara, for instance, knows exactly which items customers will pick up to try on together. Unlike HMV, Waterstones gets the physical immediacy and intimacy of buying books in store and hosts Costa Coffee in its stores. But in both cases, you can also buy the product online.

Like the big supermarkets who offer online, home delivery, convenience stores and hypermarkets, all linked by a loyalty card and a brand experience, law firms can, if they want to, find ways to engage with their clients, at home on the sofa, at work, even in a competitors meeting room. Squire Sanders' UK Employment Law Cloud App provides checklists, calculators, event booking and the essential "contact us" button. By the time the client ends up in their office, they already have a positive relationship with them. After all, Squire Sanders has been in their pocket or handbag for a couple of months!

Of course, the online experience has its disadvantages. ITunes started in 2001. 12 years later, only 20% of music buyers are total download devotees. As Olivier Ropars, senior director of mobile at eBay told Marketing Week, “retailers with a high street presence have a significant advantage over pure online retailers, as consumers can experience the products, get advice from knowledgeable staff and purchase what they desire instantly with no shipping costs”. Yes, people do set up businesses online and fill out tenancy agreements. But research shows that 76% of people buying online give up immediately if they encounter a problem. This failure rate rises if the customer is unsure or stressed. Given that buying legal services usually means a change of or unwelcome stress in personal circumstances, a combination of online and human encounter is vital.

The human contact, the emotional link of a face-to-face encounter with a real live lawyer who is understanding, knowledgeable and reassuring is quite different from finding out online the bare facts of how to get divorced. Here the trick is to, as the retailers do, help the client with both: online and face to face. “Here is the service, you can buy it here online, or, if you prefer, come and try it on at our store.”

Because here’s the thing. As Wayne Hemingway, retail guru explains here, the high street is a place where people meet, shop, walk, do “stuff”. Most people actually go to the high street to buy and do something else. They do human things with other humans. The face-to-face experience, the service, what Stuart Rose (Ocado, Marks and Spencer's) calls the “theatre” is what it is all about.

As Professor Laura Vaughan of UCL says: "Change and continuity are both part of the story of town centres. Every generation comes out with a statement forecasting the 'death' of the high street and is proven to be wrong. We no longer visit the high street on foot to shop at the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, but we do still make local trips on foot, bicycle and car to the post office, library, greengrocer, nursery, bike repair shop and so on." It would be good to include solicitors on that list.

For more on the future of retail, including the theatre of shopping centres, “gamification” and the poshing up of car parks, listen here.

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