Monday 8 February 2010

What does Google have to do with referral fees?

"You don't buy it with ads [or referral fees]. You earn it, and you earn it customer by customer, search for search, answer by answer." - Eric Schmidt of Google on Fox Business News in 2009

Despite that comment, Google chose to advertise during the televising of the Super Bowl on 7 February, so perhaps people's views, or circumstances, or both, change

Until very recently, I was adamantly against paying (or receiving) referral fees for getting (or giving) work opportunities - the only effect seemed to be to increase costs to the consumer (or reduce profits to the service provider). This still seems to me to be the case in respect of residential conveyancing: some agents are keener to earn their £125 referral fee than to ensure that the conveyancing work is handled properly. In my view, this is very short-sighted, but there we are, at present.

However, I have just joined two organisations that are, in effect and in part, referral organisations: Quality Solicitors, to whom I pay an annual subscription for marketing and referrals, and Contact Law, to whom I pay a percentage of my fees on cases referred to me by them. In both cases, this means that I get referred to me transactions that are within my target market for commercial transactions and which I would very probably not get a chance to pitch for otherwise.

In addition, some of the larger local firms are actively courting - and offering to pay for - referrals from me in respect of work I would not handle myself. This is effective marketing for them and I would not refer unless I felt it appropriate for the client. However, while I would welcome an additional income stream, I still feel a residual reluctance to "taint" a referral in this way.

The difference is, perhaps, subtle: I make it clear to prospective clients who are referred that I have an arrangement with the referring organisation, that I pay them a fee (an annual subscription or a percentage of fees charged to the client) and that the client has a choice whether to instruct me or not. Equally, I would not refer a client to a firm I did not think was right for them. I do not think many estate agents do the same; indeed, I know of several who say or imply that the prospective client must use their "panel solicitors" if they are to sell or buy through them, even when they indicate that they already have solicitors they are happy with.

I do have some concerns over my existing arrangements. I discovered, for instance, that a prospective client was recommended to me by her accountant but, when she phoned directory enquiries to get my telephone number, they insisted on putting her through to Quality Solicitors (on a premium rate line) instead. I have raised this with Quality Solicitors, and they have assured me they will stop that practice - which they had not themselves instigated: that was the idea of the particular directory enquiries service.

The public interest argument in favour of referral fees is that it provides a service to the public who do not know what solicitors might cover their particular needs and can go to a service that, in theory, can identify an appropriate solicitor. Unfortunately, greed will inevitably taint the operation: the desire to earn the referral fee is likely to discourage referrers from mentioning that the consumer has any other option. This is where solicitors have to be whiter than white, but they do not have a particularly good track record in that respect.

There is also the argument from fear: if we don't pay referral fees, other organisations will, but that seems to me to be a particularly poor argument.

On the whole, I think solicitors should earn their reputations, including their reputation for independence and integrity, not try to buy them. However, I will give both Quality Solicitors and Contact Law a fair chance. In addition, I will continue to demonstrate to estate agents, accountants, IFAs and other introducers that they can safely recommend me on the basis of the quality of my service and not to get a referral fee; I think that is a better business and professional model - a genuine recommendation, not a bought one

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