Any time you have a chance to determine what your clients need and want from you, consider it a priceless opportunity to learn. Their needs and wants–and their experience with your firm–are the key to identifying the focus of your marketing efforts. Finding and delivering what your clients need and want will not only result in satisfied clients but, if you apply this knowledge to your practice, their experience of your firm can also become your branding.
At a corporate law firm in Century City a few years ago, a senior partner shook hands with one of his clients after completing the company’s first public offering. The two men reminisced about their long relation-ship. “We’ve been through a lot together–both good and bad–from climbing out of our financial mess, to the opening of our first four stores, to building out nearly four hundred of them, to finally going public,” the president of the company said, smiling. “It wasn’t an easy journey, but I’m sure glad in the end that it was you who was with us. No matter where we were, you were always there too.”
When a client speaks to you from the heart, the insight you receive will be priceless. The marketing materials for that Century City law firm had previously emphasized their track record, their versatility and their willingness to be tough. Had they failed to incorporate this client’s insight, they would have missed a precious marketing opportunity. Luck-ily, the senior partner was a savvy marketer. He immediately knew the value of a long-term client’s praise. It became an important part of the firm’s identity and, after a while, made its way into the firm’s branding and marketing material: “Wherever you go, that’s where we’ll be…”
Beyond the decent service, the sound legal advice and the expectation of professionalism, what mattered to that client on an emotional level was that this firm had been by his company’s side through the good times and the bad.
Not all of your clients will hand you a resonant marketing phrase. But an experienced marketing professional with the proper skills can make you more aware of them when this does happen, and more impor-tantly, can help you use them to shape the way your firm brands its services. But the key in this example is not the catchy phrase or even the kind expression of gratitude. What makes the Century City firm’s marketing insight so important is the fact that it represents a fundamental truth about the firm: It does stick by its clients even when times get rough. That’s how the firm does business.
In the late 1990s, one of the largest law firms in the nation decided it wanted to tap into the technology boom. The marketing team advised the firm to target small start-up companies and offer them a reduced hourly rate for general business matters in the hope that, if the business succeeded, the firm would be handed all their legal work, including taking them public. The marketers believed that doing this would demonstrate the firm’s commitment and loyalty to their smaller, more vulnerable clients. One such client had this unfortunate experience dealing with the firm:
“In the beginning, the firm really seemed interested in what we were trying to create. They spent time getting to know us and expressed a real desire in seeing us suc-ceed. I really believed them. I was invited to firm-sponsored seminars and even got invited to the firm’s sky booth for the big game. Everything was going well until the technology bubble burst–and with it, our close relationship with the firm. No more friendly partner calls to see how we were doing. After a while, I was lucky to get my calls returned. They knew we were strapped for cash and, when we were unable to pay their bills, they sued us. They didn’t just sue the corporation (the one they helped us set up), they sued me personally, since I was the president of the company. It was a disas-ter. When the chips were down, this firm came at us with knives. I will never forget this experience–nor will my associates and friends.”
It doesn’t take a marketing genius to know that it’s bad business to sue your clients, but the contrast between the Century City firm and this one is worth noting. One firm made a loyal friend out of a client while the other made an enemy. The point is that how a firm does business, whether it’s how they manage their receivables or which new practice group they decide to open, says something important about the firm in relationship to its clients.
In most cases, firms consider internal business decisions to be entirely internal–separate and distinct from the external side that the public sees. Firms fail to recognize that what a firm is can often be measured by the decisions it makes, and they often make decisions without regard to the effect they might have on clients, even in indirect ways. Firms must con-sider the ways in which their decisions may change the nature of the con-tact between them and their clients.
Law firms make important business decisions every day, and rarely do they consider the impact on those who do business with the firm. When problems do surface, they are often handed over to the public relations department to clean up.
The Zone of Contact
Consider that almost everything a firm does or communicates impacts the clients’ experience of the firm. The parts of a firm that clients deal with directly are part of the firm’s zone of contact.
Everything a firm does is, in some way, an expression of the firm’s values or lack of values. Every act or omission reveals the level of the firm’s commitment or lack of commitment.
Everything–from the paper stock the firm uses to its policy of return-ing phone calls to how lawyers and staff greet new clients and say good-bye to departing ones–can impact clients. Even small things–like the quality of coffee, the effort put forth to make a client feel welcomed, the demeanor of a law clerk and the pictures on the wall can make a differ-ence.
Sophisticated marketing experts take great effort and time in examin-ing a firm’s major points of contact. The quality of the client’s satisfaction relative to a particular point of contact is an indicator of the general health of the firm. Much of marketing consists of translating these ordi-nary points of contact and shaping them into positive client experiences.
Altering the point of contact to be more in line with the client’s satis-faction will certainly improve the quality of the service your firm pro-vides, but it will not, by itself, bring about a fundamental change in the firm’s quality of service. For this, the firm must examine its innermost core–the primary leadership and the inspired principles these leaders rely on when building the firm’s character.
Only by reaching this level of depth can you transform your firm from ordinary to extraordinary.
Contact points are only as good as the quality of service that speaks through them. Service must be a direct expression of the firm’s values, made real through the language and actions of the entire firm. When a firm’s actions are an expression of its inspired values, every point of con-tact becomes an expression of its unique brand of service. But the concept of service must originate from the center of the inspired values formulated by the firm’s top leadership. I call these central values the firm’s “V” spot. When a firm has a solid set of inspired values, every point of contact will resonate with the firm’s vision.
Without the formulation of inspired values and the clarity of purpose these values create, the firm will be unable to build the language, the structure and the systems necessary to ensure that all of its actions and communications are commensurate with these values.
Every action a firm takes must reflect its true identity and its in-spired values; otherwise, it risks seriously damaging its reputation and its credibility. What the firm does, what it stands for, and the promises it makes and keeps must be seen and experienced by everyone–not just clients–as an authentic expression of the firm’s true identity. Only then can the in-spired values become a central part of the firm’s branding–the firm’s persona–an undeniable statement of what the firm stands for and what people can expect of the firm, whether they’re a client or a foe.
Identifying every point of contact with a client or a prospective client must become the focus of the firm’s marketing efforts. Each point within the zone of contact must reflect, and be consistent with, the firm’s char-acter. A client’s contact with the firm should be viewed as an opportunity to convey what it means to do business with the firm.
Assuming that the firm has taken the time to do the planning and hard work necessary to identify their inspired values, the next challenge is to ensure that everything the firm does is an accurate and sincere expression of these values–that these values are conveyed to clients and others who interact with the firm through the zone of contact.
The zone of contact is where the firm interfaces with its clients, either directly or indirectly. Since every contact the firm has with others con-veys information about the firm, every contact becomes an important representation of the firm’s values. The zone of contact includes every-thing–including the firm’s business cards, the lobby decor, the recep-tionist, and meetings with staff, associates, lawyers and partners.
In order to maintain quality control over client satisfaction levels, many marketing professionals focus on reactions of clients to various parts of the zone of contact to make sure that what people experience in their contact with the firm is an accurate and positive expression of the firm’s character.
This examination of quality focuses not on what the firm intends to convey as much as on the client’s actual experience within the zone of contact. To perform such an examination, the firm must assess its major points of contact with clients, and once these contact points are identified it must determine which of the contact points elicit positive service expe-riences from the client.
Ideally, the specific action and communication responsible for a positive service experience can be traced to one of the firm’s fundamental values. If the client is having an experience–even a positive one–that is not in keeping with the firm’s values, the firm may wish to consider whether the value being conveyed is at odds with the firm’s values. If it is, the firm’s actions should be changed to reflect its values more accurately. If the experience is not at odds with the firm’s values, the firm’s action may simply reflect an unidentified value.
When a point of contact is in keeping with the firm’s fundamental values but elicits a negative service experience, the challenge is to quickly determine what has gone wrong. Has an action or communica-tion been missed? Can the firm remove a barrier between its fundamental service values and the client’s experience to make the experience a more positive one? Often, what is missing is a value that is either hidden from view or unable to be expressed.
As you’re no doubt beginning to see, the zone of contact is not separate from the firm–it is the firm.
The firm constantly radiates its values to clients, prospective clients, the legal community, and vendors and the business community. When you can achieve an alignment among the inspired values of your firm, the language of your firm and the actions of your firm, marketing becomes an expression of your firm’s unique identity. It becomes proprietary and is evidenced in every point of contact you have with your clients, whether the contact occurs through the legal services you provide or the way your receptionist greets the firm’s visitors.
Some contact points exist quite naturally within a firm. Clients’ initial calls, their first meeting, the letters and messages they receive during the course of the relationship–all of these are points of contact, and all of them ultimately become expressions of your firm’s unique brand of service.
But there is no reason to leave it at that. Considering the importance of heightening the value of these contact points with clients, the firm that is determined to provide great service will create new points of contact. These moments allow you to meaningfully shape client interaction, mak-ing special efforts to convey the inspired values of your firm while learn-ing more about how you can improve the quality of your service.
Instituting a completion ritual with your clients is one example of this approach. In most law firms, when a case is concluded, the client’s next point of contact with the firm is the bill. For the client it’s anticlimactic, to say the least. And, socially, it’s counterintuitive. If you have a friend over to dinner, you shake hands at the end of the evening and say, “It’s been great having you here.” This is a social nicety that provides a tiny ritual of completion. Clients, in contrast, are typically left dangling.
Imagine how much your clients’ experience of the firm would im-prove if you were to conclude each case with a completion meeting. Not a quick, patronizing handshake with a junior associate, but a qual-ity meeting with a senior partner of the firm who says, “We are committed to your satisfaction.”
Better yet, show your clients what they mean to you by making a symbolic gesture. For example, during a golf game, a Texas lawyer in-troduced a client to a large real estate developer. The two men ended up doing business when the client was later contracted to build a huge shop-ping center. When the deal closed and the papers were signed, the lawyer took his client aside and presented him with a golf ball imprinted with both the client’s and the developer’s names, courtesy of the law firm. Corny, you might say. Perhaps, but ten years later, the client still has that golf ball sitting on his desk and the lawyer still gets all of his business.
A true symbolic gesture is more than a clever expression. It demon-strates that you took the time to think about the relationship with your client and made it both significant and interesting. Compare this gesture with the all-too-ordinary imprinted pen or calendar sent out to clients once a year.
Effective marketing creates a quality point of contact that demon-strates your commitment to your client. It elicits respect and trust. It ac-knowledges the importance of the client relationship. And, if done suc-cessfully, it will create a lasting and invaluable bond with your firm.
This approach is magnitudes more powerful than coming up with the catchiest jingle or the most sophisticated ad campaign.
A client who is emotionally touched by a relationship will tell every-one about your firm. In terms of generating more business, this kind of marketing is worth ten times the value of a great TV commercial. In terms of personal satisfaction and quality of life–for your clients, your firm and yourself–it’s priceless.
Positive Service Experiences
Understanding “value” requires understanding different types of emo-tional responses resulting from experiencing different levels of service. The list below describes some of the major emotions psychologists asso-ciate with positive service experiences.
For every point of contact, it is important to identify the specific emotion elicited from the interaction that made it a positive experience.
Positive service experiences can elicit these positive emotions:
Although these qualities are subjective in nature and cannot be evoked in every client every time, there are some tangible ways to consistently produce positive experiences for your client. The key is to recognize how important it is to generate these types of feelings–then it’s astonishing how many opportunities will arise.
One way of making clients feel more secure and confident about their legal predicament is to become a resource of important information—especially if what you offer goes beyond legal considerations and is both practical and immediately useful to your client.
Willy Little, a partner in a small Los Angeles firm, described his spe-cial brand of value-based service like this:
If we have a client in the midst of a divorce, they often need to find alternative living quarters. They need leases to be reviewed and names of reputable services that can help them with the mundane, but often exhausting, task of relocation.
We’re a family law firm. But we are committed to providing our clients with the best service possible. So we do our best to become a resource for our clients–not just in our legal capacity, but in a much broader sense, assisting clients in dealing with the many aspects of di-vorce. We become a client information hub–an information resource. Clients really appreciate this and, when they need legal help again, they know where to turn.
Sometimes providing superior value to clients means expanding the focus of the legal services a firm offers. Cecilia Smithers, a partner in a midsize litigation firm, remembers the rationale behind a change at her own firm that expanded the firm’s zone of contact:
“While our firm was litigation-intensive, we felt there were many times it served our clients’ interests to con-sider alternative dispute resolution. To do this effectively, we needed to focus on counseling our clients, which meant making the effort to get to know them and, with some work, earn their trust. We worked with clients to consider alternative points of view whenever possible, which often led to helping them clarify their objectives and think about their situations in new ways.”
There can be little doubt that the clients of these firms experienced the service being provided to them in emotionally reassuring ways. Research shows that experiential marketing –marketing that addresses a client’s needs–is far more effective than the coercion, persuasion and propaganda on which many marketing campaigns are founded.
Consider today millions of clients are turning to cyberspace for their legal solutions. One web portal that is near and dear to this writers heart is: http://www.GotTrouble.com – a legal help portal that expresses it’s own set of core service values and weaves them into the user experience.