Edge International

Differentiation: The Whole Product

Mike White

Either in the course of my “client experience innovation” work, or in helping groups of partners do a better job finding new clients, I hear the following frustration, “We’re a great law firm! However, as great as we are, we’re no different from other great lawyers at other great law firms who do what we do. Frankly, I find this reality to be really discouraging . . . “.

I largely agree with this lament . . . but only as far as it goes. No doubt it is challenging for a firm and its partners to differentiate themselves in a market at a purely technical level (i.e., based on good lawyering alone); however, corporate consumers of legal work are not just buying “good lawyering” per se – they are often buying much, much more. It is in relation to the “more” that law firms can in fact differentiate themselves.

Commercial legal-services consumers (corporations, in-house lawyers at corporations, business managers who engage outside law firms directly) buy a “whole product” rather than just raw lawyering. For example, they buy a non-technical sensibility that when curveballs emerge during the course of a legal matter, the lawyer-client decisioning about the surprise will be really effective. Or, for example, they often buy benchmarking information you provide about how other clients might assess certain risks and be guided by those insights. They are buying a lot of things outside of “lawyering” that make up the whole product.

An emerging procurement feature in what law firm clients are buying relates to cross-disciplinary integration. Companies want to see all of their providers (lawyer, strategy consultant, business insurance risk consultant, capital markets adviser/investment banker, CPA, etc.) link their insights with other providers outside of their discipline in ways that make sense. For example, litigation lawyers should have a seat at the table when the risk-management consultant quarterbacks the corporate risk-assessment process. Transactional lawyers should play a role in the post-acquisition business-integration process being managed by outside management consultants. Learn who are the other non-law firm advisers to your clients and try to partner with them in this way with “hybrid” insights and solutions.

Certain client types really appreciate the role a law firm can play outside of “lawyering” in helping them do what they do as a business. For example, private equity funds are most challenged by their low-quality (and quantity) deal flow; today they have a hard time finding well priced companies in their focused sector in which to invest. Any law firm that can directly – or indirectly (through the law firm’s clients and other relationships) – enhance a private equity fund’s deal flow will transcend the noise and position itself to be retained.

Law firm clients give law firms credit for being “better” just by being “different”; despite this, law firms do a really bad job of differentiating themselves. Law firms that do try to differentiate do so at a purely technical level (“. . . No. Honest! We’re really, really, really, really . . . technically smarter and better than your existing law firm you’ve used blissfully for the past 25 years . . . “). Clients aren’t generally in the business of generating legal work; rather, they have “jobs to be done” that throw off “legal symptoms.” Learn about all of a prospect’s “jobs to be done” that drag “legal symptoms” along with them, and try to make those jobs easier.

Finally, ask your lawyers the following: Are you a better lawyer by virtue of your being part of our firm than you otherwise would be at a peer firm? If the answer is yes, create an inventory of all of the reasons why such is the case. In so doing, you’ll begin to build an inventory of firm differentiation that your lawyers can use during their outreach with prospects and others in the market.

So, don’t be constrained by the limits imposed by conventional differentiation. Learn about your prospects’ “jobs to be done,” and sell your “whole product”!

Trade Associations, Conferences, and Events: Creating Warmth and “Reach” Out of Thin Air

Mike White

“Oh, how I hate cocktail receptions . . .” “If my practice group leader berates me about attending more trade association events I think I’m going to scream . . .”  “Ever since my first day of kindergarten, there are few things in life I hate more than walking into a large room of people I don’t know, knowing that I have to spend the next few hours in that room trying to make small talk . . . ” These are some of the refrains I hear from law firm partners who are struggling to (what I call) build up their funnel of relationships and dialogue. It is true that many partners spend too much time at the wrong large group events, and hanging out at cocktail receptions can be an affirmatively bad use of one’s time as a lawyer trying to develop business. With that said, as with most bus dev strategies, a focused and effective exposure to the right large group environments can pay off handsomely over time.

Why Do It?

Client cultivation is a game of both quantity and quality: you’ve got to do enough of the right things to create an effective portfolio of activity capable of producing yield. The same is true of large group involvements, whether they be industry sector trade association events, cocktail receptions, etc. From a quantitative – or rather, efficiency – perspective, if you focus on doing corporate and real estate work for convenience store operators, for example, it could make good sense to attend a trade association event of large independent convenience store owners and operators. Among other things, seeing members of your prospect universe coalescing in one place over a concentrated period of time is very efficient for you. Moreover, qualitatively speaking, or from an effectiveness perspective, it can also pay off in spades to be seen at a trade association event. When you attend an industry event attended primarily by non-lawyer industry people, you are signaling to the industry that you “get them.” All legal work in your practice may look the same to you – but to convenience store owners, their particular transactions are unique to their industry sector, and they would like to work with a convenience store professional who happens to be a lawyer as opposed to the converse.

So . . . What Do I Do?

Lawyers have a disserving view of what trade association and event related involvements are supposed to accomplish. While events are helpful for profile building and establishing differentiated expertise, the goal here is to put yourself in a position over time to have a portfolio of individual discussions/meetings with real prospects, and connectors to prospects. That’s it! If your attendance at a particular event doesn’t serve that goal, then you might not want to participate.

Given that we want to set the table for well qualified individual dialogue with prospects and connectors, below are a few tips relating to event/conference participation and strategy:

  • Before The Conference: Get the attendee list for this year or last year well ahead of the event, and reach out
    • Study the list and isolate a subset of attendees of particular interest, or “persons of particular interest” (“PPIs”).
    • Email each of your PPIs something along the lines of ” . . . I see you’re planning to attend the xyz conference next month. I’m planning to be there, and hope we get a chance to bump into each other. Among other things I’d like to hear more about (something related to their business or their market). Safe travels, and hope to see you next month . . . ” If you don’t know that they are attending this year but you do know that they attended last year, then reference their attendance last year as some kind of indication they’ll be attending this year.
  • At The Conference: Gain permission for post-conference dialogue
    • Your primary objective at the conference is to gain permission from PPIs to speak with them offline a week or two after the conference. This is a numbers game, so you want to make as many “quick strike” introductions as possible. Introduce yourself quickly (albeit obligingly), bend over backwards saying you don’t want to interrupt and take up their time to speak now, and ask if it would be alright to “ping” them via email about chatting a week or two after the conference. If you handle this well, the object of your overture will be relieved and even blissfully happy that you’re not burdening him or her with time consuming substantive discussion at the conference (as he or she wants to burden others with such!). Like Vietnam, get in, declare victory, and get out!
    • In all likelihood, you won’t have a chance to meet or introduce yourself to most PPIs who received your pre-conference email. That’s okay. Don’t worry! More on this below.
    • You will have time for one to three pretty substantive discussions with PPIs at the conference. Feel free to learn about what those PPIs are trying to do with their business, their individual role in advancing that agenda, and any other “points of pain” or priorities you can uncover. No “selling” here: these discussions are about establishing “connection” so that they will want to have a next discussion with you. With that said, you might want leave these discussions planting an idea or two about how the two of you could “make 1+1=3.”
  • After The Conference: Follow-up! Follow-up! Follow-up!
    • For those PPI’s you actually met at the conference, send out a follow up email (or leave a voice mail) along the following lines: ” . . . I’m glad we had a chance to bump into each other. Let me know if you have time to catch up over the phone (or over coffee) sometime over the next couple of weeks. In addition to learning more about where you’re trying to go with your business and the people in our market with whom you find yourself spending most of your time, I wanted to share with you some perceptions of our market that you might be able to validate and help me think through, or alternatively poke some holes in. In any event, if you’d be game to do a call (or let me buy you a cup of coffee), I think we’d have a good exchange . . . “
    • For those PPIs you did not meet at the conference, send out a follow up email (or leave a voice mail message) along the following lines ” . . . I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet at the conference. When I did see you in one of the exhibit rooms, we were both heads down in discussion. In any event, I’d welcome the opportunity to chat with you over the phone (or over coffee) . . . (repeat balance of script above applicable to PPIs you did meet at conference).

A Note on Trade Associations

  • The key to trade association involvement is not the number of committees you can oversee and amount of time you can commit, but rather the membership roster. The membership roster is all you care about! Once you have the membership roster you are in a position to get to the individual dialogue you want to have with PPIs in the association. Without having to spend a lot of time at the association, and in an effort to get in dialogue with trade association PPIs, you can send out emails to PPIs along the following lines “. . . I understand from _______ (membership director) that you have been involved in the xyz trade association for some time. I’m a new member and wanted to see if you might allow me to sit down with you (or have a call with you) to pick your brain about how I might be able to make best use of my involvement in the xyz association: i.e., what meetings and events are most useful, how you feel you’ve benefited from your participation, etc. If you’d be game to get together (or do a call) sometime over the next few weeks, I’d welcome the opportunity to get together. . . .”

Creating “Warmth” Out of Thin Air

If you follow the above approach you can get in dialogue with a rich population of prospects and connectors – so-called PPIs – without having the benefit of an introduction through others. In other words, you can create “warmth” out of thin air! Conferences and trade association involvements can be very leverageable if you use them the right way. So go ahead: create some “warmth,” and get close to your market!

A Business Development Reality Check

Gerry Riskin

Remember when things were busy and prosperous, and meeting a prospective client was a joy? There was a spring in your step and, while you were not cavalier, your future did not depend on any given individual so there really wasn’t a whole lot of pressure on each greeting or encounter.

Remember that more senior lawyer in your firm who used to feed you a ton of work until she retired, or was laterally hired away, or whose own practice dried up a bit so she stopped sending the work down?

The New Status Quo

Now, there has been a bit of a drought in your practice. A few deals that were coming to you collapsed. Some clients who professed to understand an imminent need postponed anyway.

The industry you focus on is going through difficult times.

Your clients have some new awareness of how to put the fee pressure on you. Even long-standing clients are doing RFPs just to keep you sharp.

You read about alternate fees and you’re not quite sure when to use them and when not. You read conflicting reports about the receptivity of clients to alternate fees: first you’re told clients love them and demand them, and then you are told that clients reject them and see them as a device for you to extract more from them.

Trust out there seems to be waning.

Your internal meetings tell you that many of your colleagues are in the same boat. While there’s comfort in numbers, the pervasiveness of the problem does not bode well for your next compensation review.

So, the anxiety grows. The greater the anxiety, the less you want to deal with this. You didn’t like schmoozing at the best of times… and you don’t like it any better in the worst of times.

What to do?

I wish I could tell you that there was a magic button that would solve all of your problems. All you would need to do is make a one-time investment of $99.95, and every time you pressed the button, new and profitable clients would walk through your door. The magic button would be available in your choice of colors and designs. You could set it to “Silent,” or select the bell tone of your choice. When you pressed it, in would walk your ideal client and all you would have to do is simply listen for a few minutes to learn exactly what they wanted you to do for them in exchange for the substantial amount of money they were offering.

Well, guess what? The equivalent of that button is available to you right now – and there is no cost involved! Instead of money, this magic button requires you to invest some time and thought. Furthermore, the button does not conjure a paying client every time you press it… instead, you have to press it multiple times for every client you get, and for those you already have. But the end result will be the same: you will build your practice instead of watching it decline.

Pressing the button is a metaphor, of course. The “push the button” activities available to you right now include such strategies as the following:

  • Visit client premises.
  • Phone the client between matters to find out how the last matter is unfolding.
  • Follow up on the client’s personal issues that he or she has mentioned to you… How did the surgery go? Did your daughter get into that university?
  • Send an unexpected gift that relates to the personal interest of your client… Who would’ve thought that there’s a new book on butterfly collecting?
  • Invite your client for lunch… or for a cup of coffee in the morning… or for a beverage after work.
  • Know enough about the client’s business and industry that you can make it the topic of conversation. Impress the client further by asking smart questions that could only be asked by having done some research first (which you can often acquire by spending five minutes on Google).
  • Say “yes” to client invitations even if it means a bit of a sacrifice on your part.
  • Express appreciation for every referral… and I don’t mean via email. How about a personally written thank you card that goes out with a stamp on it? (Trust me: the referral source will be flabbergasted.)
  • Do an optional “lunch and learn” at the premises of business clients, small and large. Prepare properly for them by knowing who is going to be there, interviewing them to fine-tune content, and ensuring that they have valuable takeaways that are relevant to them.

I can add to this list but you get the idea. You have the button, and you didn’t have to pay for it. You just need to keep using it.

Soon it will be the “Happy Holidays” time of year, and there will be a lot of socializing. By all means participate. However, keep in mind that it’s how often you push the button during the other eleven months of the year that will correlate to your business development success.