Do you really understand your clients?

“Your Marketing Strategy starts, ends, lives, and dies with your customer. So in the development of your Marketing Strategy, it is absolutely imperative that you forget about your dreams, forget about your visions, forget about your interests, forget about what you want – forget about everything but your customer. When it comes to marketing, what you want is unimportant. It’s what your customer wants that matters.”

Michael Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited

Many a marketing strategy has been crafted with the sole aim of growing a legal practice based on the historical perspective. Firms have looked to past experience and decided that the best way to grow is to separate still further their specialist areas or sectors, refine the offering and market accordingly. In marketing parlance, taking a vertical approach. And, of course, up until the crash that all seemed to be working out very nicely, thank you.

But I am here to tell you that that approach, in and of itself, will no longer work, or certainly past success will no longer be a predictor for (future) growth.

No, the only way to guarantee success is to truly understand your clients’ needs and wants to the point where hopefully you are ahead of the curve in predicting when the buying need will arise.

For the firm that has a mixture of commercial, institutional and charitable clients, the likely programme of understanding might look something like this:

  1. Are they an existing client? Yes. If so, how much have you billed in the last 2 years? Is there a trend?
  2. Have you been able to cross-sell any of your other services? If not, why not?
  3. Have you put in place a SLA? If so, are you delivering on it?
  4. Absent a SLA or one that is not very helpful to either side, is it worth creating Heads of Agreement to deal with your service standards, a money back guarantee where you mess up and a overrider so that if the client spends more than a certain amount in a given period you agree to rebate or discount your fees.
  5. How many people have been to see the client and spend time with all the key people to properly understand the culture and the future direction of the business?
  6. Have you been invited to key strategy or board meetings to offer an opinion? If not is that something the client would find useful?
  7. Have you offered the opportunity to your client to do likewise i.e. spend time in the practice and attend any of your meetings?
  8. Have you agreed on any joint CSR initiatives? Even if your interests may be slightly different is there any way you can help the client?
  9. Have you asked the client to provide regular feedback or complete a regular client satisfaction survey which has teeth? By that I mean if you are not living up to their expectations that you agree to not only fix the problem but you will provide a discount or rebate off of the bill?
  10. Are you prepared to move people around so that you get your best people on the work, rather than the people who are going to make the most profit? Who has the final say in this?
  11. If applicable have you tried to introduce or  develop new business for the client? Likewise have you asked the client for recommendations and possibly an introduction elsewhere?

This list is for illustrative purposes only (we lawyers always so that …) but the point is that you need to get closer to your clients – much closer – and you need to develop a passion for their business so that you operate as an extension of whichever department you are serving.

The client should not feel worried if you start calling ‘out of the blue’ with your ideas, or to prevent or avoid a potentially brand-damaging incident or to report on something in the market that may have commercial value. Of course, they are not going to welcome a bill for simply doing your job – as they perceive it.

A programme or indeed any programme has to feel real. Lawyers usually start off, like any relationship, with lots of motivation, passion and enthusiasm but almost as soon as they find that they cannot bill or that the work starts to feel repetitive then they switch off and are looking for the next fix. If you know that is in the psyche then consider how you might address it. Perhaps, much like the beautiful game, you need to adopt a rotation system as long, of course, that the client is happy with a series of new faces.

As to the private client sector, the starting point is to start picturing every client as a lifetime client. Yes some will only instruct your firm a few times but they may, on the strength of your service offering, be your best advocates and refer endless new clients to you. The thing is you can never tell. Although it may seem a slightly artificial figure, I would always work on the law of 250. Meaning: clients will normally know of or be associated with at least 250 people and that is the sphere of influence that you are talking about for every single client. Imagine if every client referred just 1o people to you over the course of a year what a difference that could make to your practice.But you have to over-deliver on your service or as David Maister was fond of saying “Superplease”.

It goes without saying that a private client is not going to feel comfortable referring anybody to you if your service was average or expensive. This probably means having agreed service standards with private clients.

Most firms and certainly those with LEXCEL accreditation will have a client charter but rather than just being there for show, offer a guarantee if you fail to deliver.

Don’t be content with a day’s turnaround on returning a telephone call (it doesn’t have to be by you to count) but offer something like a 10 minute turnaround. Now that may look stupid to some but it sure is going to mean something to the client particularly in this day and age where we have to go through an endless series of ridiculous key-pad commands whenever we want to speak to a bank or service provider; and then you may find yourself waiting for 20 minutes. So much for customer service!

The biggest enemy for private client lawyers is not having enough time because they end up taking on too many cases. If that sounds like you then accept that whilst you continue with that old style approach you are going to lose clients or certainly you are not going to give yourself the best opportunity of capturing them as a lifetime client or getting endless referrals.

This for me is a compromise too far. Instead start looking at meaningful delegation; LPO; on-line provision; recruiting more staff; or only dealing with clients who have the potential to grow with the firm. In short you have to be much more disciplined about the way you manage your case load.

And don’t forget that once you have finished a job that is no excuse not to contact the client again. Have a tickle file where you remember to send something to the client, even if it is a small, branded gift or reminder of some issue that might float their boat. You may have to be a bit more organised with your contact file if you have a large number of clients but however you organise things, the point is that in order to generate goodwill with the client and turn the relationship into one where you are considered the trusted advisor then absent regular contact it will not happen.

If you manage to do this consistently and with passion then the rewards will more than outweigh the effort. However, don’t allow a culture of complacency to manifest and if you need to make it happen make sure you have this process included in the appraisal or bonus system. That is bound to focus minds.

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