A year ago, our firm took a strategic decision to expand the practice and elected to ground a footprint in the Tableview area along the West Coast of Cape Town. After a year of successful practising, I reflect on the achievements made during the year and, more importantly, share with you some of the general marketing initiatives considered and undertaken to develop our Blouberg practice.
Practice development process
For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to state that to achieve a measure of success and sustainability for your new practice (or branch office), you will need to undertake a holistic business approach to establishing and growing your firm. This starts with an honest assessment of your own abilities and resources. And your ability to deliver a certain type of service and whether such services are, in fact, needed by prospective clients.
It will also require an honest assessment of your competition and how best you can generate a competitive advantage to acquire market share. If all signals from your approach show a green light, the next step is to build your practice through a marketing process which will entrench your position, create brand awareness, and secure your firm's name as the law firm of choice in the prospective client's mind. How is this best achieved? From my perspective, this embraces a further holistic approach to marketing and is made up of the following main categories:
None of the above categories can be executed in isolation - only a complete package will work to establish your presence in the mind of your prospective client. Law firm marketers must also understand that such a marketing package is also one that will not necessarily return instant results and must be viewed on a medium- to long-term time horizon. So, what do the above include?
Broadcasting is what I term the "shouting" process to let clients know of your existence and what you stand for (See my article on Positioning). This includes activities to generate new leads, enquiries and opportunities. Broadcasting is a combination of things such as newsletters, seminars, articles, speeches and, as one local firm has recently started, the use of radio and infomercials. Broadcasting tells the world who you are, what unique services you offer and why you offer such services.
Broadcasting must, however, be carefully planned to ensure that you direct your message to the right target audience. It is no good when a collections practice presents a seminar to an estate agency, hoping to generate leads through it. Rather, a conveyancing practice should target its service offering through seminars and infomercials aimed at estate agents, the property buyer and the property seller.
This will create an awareness of its services with a view to generating opportunities for engaging in potential business relationships. Broadcasting is the "glam" side of the process and should be undertaken only after you are satisfied that the other main categories mentioned below are in place and are built into the fabric of the firm's culture. There can be no worse indictment of a firm's poor service and service delivery than advertising its position or services and then failing in its ability to deliver what it has promised.
Once a firm has established a lead or opportunity through its broadcasting strategy, the second category of the practice development package must kick in, namely, courting. This is a crucial step in the practice development process and is arguably the most time-consuming of all. This process moves away from a general or blanket marketing approach and focuses on a specific person or group of people who have expressed an interest in the firm.
Courting the prospective client depends on the ability of the firm to convince the client that your firm is the right firm with which to form a business relationship to the exclusion of all other similar firms. Remember, the job of the law firm marketer is to convert the prospective lead into a full blown client. Here the skill of selling and proposing by the firm's rainmaker comes to the fore and the marketer must understand that he or she will only get one chance to convert the prospective lead.
Courting should therefore be carefully planned by the whole firm so as to ensure that, based on what you have broadcast, you can in fact deliver better than anyone else. Courting also requires an understanding by the firm that it can serve the perceived needs of the client and that it has the skills, capacities and resources to pay attention to the client and his or her needs.
If the courtship strategy is successful, the real work then starts for the firm as a whole. Remember, the aim is to ensure long-standing business relationships with clients. The new client of the firm must not be viewed simply as another source of funds to meet the revenue stream for the month. Rather, the attitude of the whole firm must be to view and treat each client as an asset with the potential to deliver for the firm an annuity income over his or her (i.e. the client's) lifetime. The third process in practice development is therefore concerned with the nurturing of the client.
Client retention is a competitive advantage in an ever-decreasing client market for law firms. It is one in which the business relationship becomes firmly entrenched when the client feels and perceives that his or her interest are truly a priority of the firm. Clients do not like to be taken advantage of and they expect their professional advisors to invest heavily in their needs and wants. Clients are, today, looking for lawyers and law firms that are not reactive but progressive and who will propose new ideas to them for improving their lives and businesses. If you do this, no matter how big or small your practice, you will retain the loyalty of your client however hard your competitors may try to persuade him or her to move their business.
An effective exit barrier built into the nurturing process is the process of Superpleasing. Again, in the South African market, this is an untapped source of competitive advantage. Clients are not looking for the firm that can take them out to the most lunches or who wine and dine their employees or agents. Clients are looking for a demonstrably superior service that is unparalleled. As an example, the current sluggishness in the transfer process of immovable property means that an average transfer takes approximately 89 days to complete. In light thereof, our firm always lets the client, agent and purchaser know upfront what the reality of the transfer process timeline is. Then we set about to deliver well before the average time. The old saying, "Always under-promise and over-deliver" is an essential building block of our firm's quest to superplease the client.
To me, the most important process in practice development is the art of listening. This can better be described as gathering "market intelligence". To improve your position relative to your nearest competitor and to constantly secure new clients (and retain existing clients), law firms need to better understand the way their clients think and to anticipate their perceived needs. It is incredible for me when I see that nearly all of our law firms promote and market themselves on what they think the client needs or guess what the clients want.
Raymond Ackerman, in his book, Hearing Grasshoppers Jump, says that what one needs to do is to have your ear to the ground and hear what is coming. Herein lies the lesson. Invest in listening to your client's needs and wants, understand the competitive strategy of your colleagues, employ the best staff and professionals to deliver a demonstrably superior service and constantly revisit the practice development plan along the processes described above. This will ensure your position as the law firm of choice among the public. The return on investment herelies in the retention of an ever-growing client base, improved workforce culture, economies of scale, and long-term shareholder growth.
Practice development for law firms is no longer an ad hoc duty to be performed by the senior partner of a law firm. Practice development is an integral part of the art and science of what I call the "Business of Law". Law firms need to ensure that much time and resources are given to the development of the practice by a competent team of business specialists to ensure that the firm establishes itself as the law firm of choice in the minds of the client. Slowly but surely, several leading law firms in the country are realising the innate competitive advantage in this process and are developing smart business models to ensure that they develop a brand reputation and positioning statement as the preferred supplier of professional legal services. This process is driven by a commitment to brand development and strategic marketing know-how of the firm, its directors and staff. Failure to act decisively or to act with the false belief that "it isbusiness as usual" will spell, in the not too distant future, the eventual demise of the unprepared law firm. The choice is yours …
Sean Bosse is an attorney at Guthrie & Rushton (Cape Town) with a strong passion for what he calls "The Business of Law". Sean completed an MBA in strategic management and marketing and wrote a thesis on brand development by law firms. Before joining Guthrie & Rushton, Sean worked as a strategic business management consultant for an international internet service provider. Please feel free to contact him at: email@example.com