What can you learn about marketing your law practice from a British guy that made pottery?
Josiah Wedgwood lived in a small village that few people traveled beyond when the average lifespan was 33 years. He, like many others of that time and place, apprenticed to be a potter when ceramics were luxury items, and a pottery business was a craftsperson plus a few assistants or apprentices turning out a few useful, fully completed objects, one at a time. He had three insights that led to the creation of a successful and enduring product line and brand.
Josiah’s first insight was to seek out the growth potential of his business rather than imposing unspoken limits. I imagine him wondering whether he could produce pottery with sales to more than a few local customers annually. He must have framed his challenge as: How might I persuade the wealthiest people that my pottery is as valuable and desirable as fine porcelain? I’ve most recently written about the link between framing problems and effective problem-solving here. How many lawyers limit their growth potential by never wondering what is possible beyond the assumption that all lawyers sell their expertise and time to a limited group of prospective clients?
His second insight was to understand the value he wanted to offer his customers as something different from that offered by his competitors. They produced useful objects with modestly profitable sales to local buyers. He produced perfect craftsmanship and beauty for wealthy patrons all across Europe, Russia and the Americas, who followed the trends set by royalty and aristocracy. How many lawyers copy what they see other lawyers and firms doing and never wonder about options to differentiate and focus deeply on who becomes a referral source?
His third insight was to introduce technology to redesign pottery production so that he could keep up with the wants and expectations of his ideal customers. He needed properly skilled workers and also efficient production. If he had copied what was already being done, he would have hired potters or potter apprentices; instead, he hired the untrained and trained them in his methods. If he had copied his competitors, his measure of a skilled laborer would have been someone able to produce a piece of pottery from start to finish; instead, he created one of the first assembly lines where each worker mastered a particular stage of the production process. He needed focused production perfection coupled with process efficiency that would be continually adjusted and improved by skilled managers. Sound familiar? How many lawyers use technology to its fullest potential or integrate process improvement into their business model?
So far, none of what I’m describing is what lawyers think of as marketing. Marketing for lawyers is getting noticed by the prospective clients who will decide to buy what you are selling. It’s about connecting where there is already a fit. What if you are a lawyer who is struggling to find and get noticed by the right clients? Then, you need to create the fit.
Josiah Wedgwood created the fit first and then marketing was just about getting noticed. Begin marketing by asking what needs to happen before the people you want as clients would want to buy what you are selling? Josiah knew that his ideal customers wanted expensive, beautifully crafted pottery. He created it and then branded all of his merchandise with his name and gave away free samples to people, who then bought more and were emulated by others, who began purchasing. His branding and marketing efforts ensured that what he was selling would be noticed by his ideal customers, those who saw and wanted what their neighbors already had. He created referral sources.
Law firms grow when lawyers produce and then market the services, experiences and relationships that clients want to buy. That creates referral sources. How do lawyers do this effectively and efficiently? They continually collect and evaluate information about what their best clients want, expect and prefer. They consider how those wants, expectations and preferences will change in the future and then adapt the services, experiences and relationships they offer.
1. Figure out what your ideal clients want and market that.
Clients want to eliminate problems and obstacles and retain, recover or grow something they value. When the pathway requires legal help, they want the experience to be as pleasant as possible. Clients want results, not time and expertise. When the financial and emotional cost to obtain the result is less than the value of the result to the client, the client becomes a repeat client or referral source. The relationship and advice are valuable when they help the client feel better.
When a client believes they have received an increase of value by working with their lawyer, the client becomes a repeat client and/or referral source. Value, as perceived by clients, is a combination of results and how the lawyer makes the client feel in the relationship. Does the client feel understood, respected and cared about?
Marketing begins with the service you are selling. Continually seeking out and making sense of client wants, needs, expectations, preferences, interests and concerns is the foundation for effective marketing. You must sell what clients want — service and experience.
This past year with COVID has changed how people think and feel about value and their values. Consequently, buying and relationship behaviors have changed, and what matters most to your ideal clients has changed too. Professional and personal boundaries have blurred, and empathy and respect are expected in professional relationships and sought out elsewhere if absent. Digital is second nature. Marketing now means asking:
- What do your ideal clients want that requires legal expertise?
- What would make the client feel understood, respected and cared about?
- How do your ideal clients perceive the value of working with you?
- What can you do to create and deliver more value?
2. Connect with current and prospective clients regularly.
Communicating with clients and prospective clients without billing for your time strengthens a relationship and makes it possible for you to collect information that you need for an informed business strategy. People will remember how you made them feel, even if they forget what you said and did for them. Relationships are built on emotions. If you want people to remember you in a positive light, spend the time to connect with them. Client loyalty grows from regular interaction where you add as much value as you take away.
Ask people to describe the pros and cons of their experience working with you or other lawyers. Too often, a fear of criticism or being too intrusive stops lawyers from asking what value means to any particular client. Solicit ideas for improving what you offer and how you provide those services. Find out what you do well and what they wish you would change.
Find ways to keep in touch with a broad group of prospective and current clients, from face-to-face presentations, online or phone feedback surveys, or a shared cup of coffee. Have a list of open-ended questions to ask, then listen.
3. Communicate effectively.
Clients are not always able to assess the financial cost-benefit of working with a particular lawyer, but they are always able to assess how the relationship will make them feel. Lawyers are always selling themselves and their ideas, making marketing and business development more difficult than in other sales relationships. Lawyers get new clients by selling themselves and their ideas as the best resource and process for a client to grow, retain or recover something that, in the perception of the client, is valuable. Hiring a particular lawyer is really a series of decisions about the lawyer’s character and communication style, in addition to the decision about value.
The decision about character is whether the client believes they know, like and trust the lawyer. The more the lawyer and client have overlapping networks of people, the easier it is for the lawyer to establish credibility and for the client to decide the lawyer is competent and reliable.
The decision about whether communication styles match is more complicated. Imagine an analytical lawyer talking a lot, but with little emotion, to a client, who is tearfully expressing worry about paying the bills and managing pain after an accident. The lawyer is focused on evaluating the legal issue and is demonstrating that through a communication style, while the client is focused on whether the lawyer cares about the client as a person and not just a legal issue. The client may quickly conclude that working with this particular lawyer will be unpleasant.
The decision about whether styles match is unconscious, and yet it informs a client’s decision about whether to respect and trust the lawyer and whether working together productively will be possible. We have natural communication tendencies we gravitate toward without thinking. In fact, the higher our stress level, the more likely we will fall into our natural communication style. Some styles mesh and others clash. Effective interpersonal communication is a consequence of being aware of your style, noticing different styles in others, and flexing your style as needed. Like mastering a new skill, you first learn the skill and then, over time, with lots of practice, it becomes easier and you become better at it.Susan Letterman White J.D., M.S., is the managing director of Letterman White Consulting LLC. She helps lawyers improve lawyers’ practices and careers. She is the chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Solo/Small Firm Law Practice Management Section Council.
G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa, The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas, (2007).
Casey M. Mulqueen and David Collins, SOCIAL STYLE® & Versatility: Facilitator Handbook, (2014).
Seth Godin, Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing Out of Sync? (2007)
Korn Ferry, FYI: For Your Improvement, (2014).
Marvin Chow and Kate Stanford, “4 COVID-era trends that will have a lasting impact on the products and experiences people want,” (March 2021).