Last weekend was unusual for me. With a scandal forcing the resignation of a cabinet minister, I read the news section of the weekend papers first. Normally, having had an eye on news all week, I first reach for a restaurant review.
I have never, though, checked out a restaurant on a website like Tripadvisor. I feel like I don’t know enough about the reviewers and the standards or knowledge they bring to their review. Not for me the wisdom of crowds, though as I type that I know I sound pompous – antique, even.
Crowd wisdom, though is clearly attractive to the Legal Services Board, which is considering making such review sites compulsory for consumer-facing law firms. Demonstrating that transparency and competition are functioning in the market the LSB superintends is a central part of its remit, which has consumer/client interests at its heart.
I can see the attraction for the LSB.
And some firms a relate positive experience of online reviews. You should, they note, stay on top of responding to reviews - and also consider whether critical comments are fair as the reviewer may have a point.
My problem with the mechanism is this. Even when I am an informed ‘consumer’, I never leave online reviews. My wife doesn’t either. Neither do my friends. And I doubt my best contacts do.
Competition authorities have been known to sound a bit techy about people like us. If we also do not regularly shop around and change providers, we are not helping the market ‘work’. Naughty us – who knew the free market came with such onerous duties for consumers?
The truth is, even though I can present as antique, this approach to transparency and information actually looks quaint to me. In fact, it looks leaden.
That is because it ignores the way people increasingly check and select services.
We all are members of networks, and those networks are reaching further than ever.
My street’s WhatsApp group buzzes with appeals from neighbours to recommend services, including professional services – to the extent that I have to mute it in working hours. Those replies are trusted, too.
My area’s Facebook page goes even wider. I don’t know most of the people on it, but it is a lively forum for recommendations, and its members includes some local trade and professional services people who pop up to say how they would handle a job, or suggest a private exchange. And of course, unlike Tripadvisor, I can see a bit more information on anyone making a recommendation.
Our networks do not produce something the LSB or the Competition and Markets Authority can ‘measure’, to show their own job is done. Information is not captured in the same way, and inevitably the same question may be asked of a network multiple times by different people.
My experience, though, is that my networks lead me to good decisions – not least because the people I trust, and the kind of people I trust, are more likely to contribute an answer to the questions put (whereas they would not leave an online review). That is why our networks are an important and growing part of what determines client and consumer choice in markets – whether that is the legal market or the search for a local gardener.
Networks, I predict, will overtake ‘online reviews’ in importance. We just won’t know when they have – maybe, even as the LSB completes its online reviews pilot, networks are already more important.