Services, like goods before them, have become commoditized. It’s harder and harder for clients to distinguish between the offerings of brand name law firm “A” and brand name law firm “B”. And, more and more clients are requesting alternative billing arrangements, such as blended rates and value billing. Translation: clients perceive they aren’t getting the value they desire when lawyers sell time by the hour.
A new economy has emerged and it signals a remarkable opportunity for leading edge law firms. It’s called the experience economy. When we purchase goods, we focus on features (V8 engine, calorie-free, sub-zero temperatures, 100% worsted wool). Lawyers learned a long time ago that, in the service business, clients didn’t buy features (250 lawyers, 6 Texas offices and 20 practice areas). Rather, lawyers had to sell benefits (results, experience in all the Texas courts -- regardless of jurisdiction, expertise that can help your business run smoothly and keep you out of trouble).
The benefits clients receive are important. However, if they are having trouble distinguishing among all the excellent firms, how can your firm get their attention - and keep it?
Instead of selling legal services, how about focusing on creating a client experience that happens to have the law as its cornerstone? Imagine the following law firm: Snow & Snow, LLP is a large, regional firm with 300 lawyers (or 10 lawyers - it works, regardless of size) and four offices in Dallas, Houston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. A recent finding during Snow & Snow’s client survey showed that clients are having very different client service experiences - not only from office to office, but from lawyer to lawyer. In fact, five of the top ten clients have fired particular lawyers and sections of the firm.
The managing partner is very concerned about this, but recognizes that the firm, while a partnership, is more like a hotel for lawyers. As long as their behavior is ethical, the lawyers are permitted to practice law and work with clients as they please. Until now, that is.
The executive committee changed the firm’s vision and issued a mandate that goes beyond client service. It’s a client experience mandate that “every client of the firm will have a consistent and positive experience with all personnel. Our clients will be able to feel the difference.”
Practically speaking, what does this mean? It means that all lawyers and support staff will have client service/experience protocols that direct their interactions with clients. It means that smart lawyers’ unruly or arrogant behavior won’t be tolerated. It means that if they can’t buy into this essential ingredient that will move the firm closer to client delight and loyalty, their future at Snow & Snow is at risk.
Creating a client experience moves the legal service from intangible (which clients have difficulty evaluating and valuing) to memorable. An experience occurs when a firm intentionally uses the legal services as the stage - and the goods (legal products) as props - to engage each client in a way that creates a memorable event. Experiences, unlike traditional legal service delivery, are internal and personal - the buyer has been engaged on an intellectual, emotional, physical, perhaps even spiritual level. (After all, what is trust?)
The master experience maker is Disney, but there are others. Any time I step into Nordstrom’s I consistently have a positive experience (more consistently favorable that Neiman Marcus, I might add). Southwest Airlines’ product is a commodity -- taking travelers from point A to point B at the lowest possible price. Yet, they have leagues of loyal followers who treasure the experience that they consistently deliver - convenience, informality, traveler equality (no first class), fun, and yes, peanuts. In Southwest’s attempts NOT to be something to every traveler, they have attracted devoted travelers up and down the economic spectrum.
Law firms that begin focusing on delivering client experiences won’t enter the new economy unless they actually charge for the experiences themselves. A firm could reinvent its client seminars and charge fees - right now, most of them are free and touch clients only on an intellectual level. Make them memorable experiences by jumping out of the talking head box - use interactive technology, engage in problem-solving experiments, feature speakers other than lawyers. Make your seminars and events places where clients can gain fresh, new insights and be a vehicle for learning and self-discovery.
If you are ready to make the switch from client service to a client experience, focus on the elements within the law firm that are critical and peripheral to the lawyer/client relationship. You must design the experience with the end in mind, then work backward to ensure that all elements are in place. A poorly conceived experience is as bad as no experience.
Identify the positive cues you can give clients and eliminate all negative signs they receive from your firm. Negative cues are: unreturned phone calls or e-mails, bills that are illegible and late, a receptionist that is surly, a coffee cup that isn’t clean, a conference room table that is soiled, fax pages that are out of order.
If your firm’s goal is to manage your client relationships better and provide better service, focus on the client’s total experience with you from top to bottom. It’s what your clients are doing.
Deborah McMurray is a strategic marketing consultant to the legal industry. She can be reached at 214.351.9690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.