Building a brand
Firms seeking to retain fee earners and secure clients need to look beyond restrictive covenants and focus on developing a strong brand to create loyalty to your business, not the individuals within it, writes Judith Dorkins
Any firm manager who has lost a partner or key fee earner to the competition
will recognise the challenges of using restrictive covenants to retain staff and, more particularly, clients. Building a strong brand can be a far more successful and, indeed, attractive weapon in the fight to secure clients, referrers, and staff.
So, why are restrictive covenants of limited use when a key fee earner resigns? A well-constructed restrictive covenant does, of course, give you time to talk to all the staff and clients who may be affected by a resignation. It will also create useful boundaries for the exiting fee earner, limiting their opportunities to entice colleagues and clients to move with them.
Despite these benefits, restrictive covenants
are not a panacea for the problems created by
key departures. Covenants are often challenged, leading to uncertainty and even litigation. They can create enormous ill will if handled badly, and there are rarely any winners in such circumstances. The biggest difficulty is that the covenants are designed to manage the actions of the departing individual, yet, in the process, become a tool that seeks to control the client. Only when a client
calls and expresses their wish to move with the departing fee earner does it become crystal clear why a restrictive covenant is a poor way of retaining a client.
Your client can be told that you will not permit their preferred lawyer to act for them for a year, but it is a pretty unpalatable message. You may prevent your client from following your departing fee earner in the short term, or even permanently, but that does not mean they will remain with you. The likelihood is that they will be disgruntled by your actions, leading to more general dissatisfaction and even complaints about your firm. Ultimately, they will probably leave anyway, and while you may have the satisfaction of knowing they did
not go with your exiting fee earner, that will be scant consolation.
Retaining and developing business from these clients is much more likely to be achieved if there has been a long-term positive strategy of brand engagement rather than any last-minute enforcement of covenants. This also has the advantage of being part of your business development activity, not just something to
focus on when someone resigns.
Brand is still not a concept readily recognised
by many firms, yet it is already a key factor when clients and potential clients are selecting your practice as their adviser of choice. With firm name recognition still relatively limited, even in the business-to-business market, it can be assumed that brand does not matter. However, to assume brand is merely about name awareness is to misunderstand both the meaning of brand and its importance. Used correctly, your brand becomes the key factor differentiating between you and your competitors and is the best way to develop real client loyalty. Developed successfully, it can override the loyalty a client feels to one fee earner and instead create an increasingly strong relationship with the firm as a whole.
In today's legal market, clients increasingly select their lawyers on the grounds of service and trust, with much less emphasis placed on the products and benefits a firm may offer. Whether it is a referrer, in-house lawyer, or commercial client,
they will all have in mind your reputation when choosing or recommending you. Decision makers will look at whether their peers use you and what people say about you as they will want to be confident they will not be criticised for their
choice. In a similar way, the consumer invariably selects their lawyer using trust sites and recommendations. Developing a strong brand both helps you influence the stories told about
you and creates valuable differentiation.
So, what do we really mean by brand? It is
not about your logo or visual identity but the experience a client, or indeed anyone, has when they deal with your organisation. The more consistent that experience becomes, the stronger your brand position, good or bad, will be. This is neatly summarised by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon: 'Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.' It becomes important because it is the biggest single factor
in deciding whether people wish to do business with you.
Your business has a brand, whether you recognise it or not. In some cases, that brand
has been built by many years of hard work and attention to the delivery culture of an organisation; in others, it is the accidental consequence of a series of individual actions and inactions. In every case, it is the amalgam of experiences each client has had, which, in turn, determines how they
think about you. If those experiences are broadly consistent across your clients, then your brand grows in strength.
Culture of the individual
Brand, then, is the overall instinctive feeling that
a person has when they think about your firm,
built on every single interaction they have, from the receptionist to the managing partner. The challenge for professional service businesses tends to be that they are often 'selling' individuals - the specialist lawyer in the case of the legal sector - and as a consequence have tended to assume
that those individuals can and should build the relationships with the client.
All professionals, but arguably lawyers in particular, are hard to control and like to offer
their own unique approach to handling work
and clients. Allowing them to do so can have
huge benefits in that they create strong relationships with their clients. In turn, that will deliver great fees and repeat business. With this, though, comes the inherent weakness: those clients see themselves as clients of the fee earner and not of the organisation. They can come to believe that the service they receive is unique to the lawyer, and perhaps their immediate team,
and the firm itself is irrelevant. Little wonder then, when the fee earner decides to leave, that the client believes they need to move with them to continue to receive the service they have come
to expect. What is actually happening is that the experience or brand the client recognises is that
of the individual and not of the firm.
For any professional services business to become as strong and successful as possible, it is important that it does not over-rely upon any one individual. Ideally, there should be an expectation that everyone works to reduce the risks of too much dependence on any individual. This means helping to create a consistent brand at a team and an organisational level and not seeking or accidentally creating any difference between the two.
This is not easy at a time when the culture of
the individual has become increasingly prevalent. In many cases, the latest generations of lawyers
see their work as a series of staging posts and are unlikely to consider they will be working in one firm for their whole career. Instead, consciously
or subconsciously, they are developing their own brand which will help them move from place to place. Interestingly, with this mindset, they are
not inclined to accept the restrictive covenants organisations have been used to relying upon because they expect to be moving on. In recent years, the very best individuals have developed the confidence to refuse to entertain such restrictions in their contracts.
If you want to keep these people in the longer term, you are going to have to prove to them, as you do with your clients, that they would be foolish to go anywhere else. Over a period of time, a great brand experience will work on both your internal and external markets to create the loyalty and passion you require in your people and your clients. The ultimate success comes when both groups become brand ambassadors for you.
Reluctance to cross-refer
Breaking the cult of the individual also requires an organisation to succeed in getting fee earners to share their clients, not just with their immediate team, but more widely across the organisation.
This is not about cross-selling services simply to maximise the revenue from each and every client you have. Instead, it is about building a positive, strengthening relationship by ensuring they engage with more and more areas of the firm.
This then means that your business becomes the natural first port of call when that client has any opportunity or challenge that they want assistance with. In essence, you will be creating a dependency on your organisation which your client accepts and welcomes because of the support they receive.
Unfortunately, in many firms there is a great reluctance to 'share' clients and there can be a variety of reasons for this. The most obvious problem can be where the reward and recognition systems such as individual targets act in competition with the stated aim of sharing clients. These sorts of problems can be easily overcome by increasing the sophistication of the measures of success for your people to include, for instance, introductions.
The more challenging problem is where a fee earner is reluctant to refer a client to another department or office because they are not confident in the service their client will receive.
While in many instances this manifests itself
in an inertia to meet cross-selling targets, it is not unknown for fee earners to refer a client to another firm for a particular service they do not believe is done properly in their own organisation. For any business where cross-referrals and client sharing is limited, an early, urgent investigation into why this is happening is crucial. Plainly, working together on a brand that delivers a consistently excellent experience should remove this reluctance to cross-refer.
Creating a brand experience
As we have seen, your brand has the power to secure both your clients and your people, so it is important that you take control of it and make it
as attractive as possible. To do this, begin by deciding what experience you want everyone, internally and externally, to have and then ensure you take steps to deliver it. Your brand will begin
to gain momentum if you ensure that your chosen
experience is delivered by every person, across every office, every day. Consistency is what builds
a brand and with it the loyalty that begins to tackle the very essence of client and staff retention.
The kind of experience you seek to offer your clients and staff is not something that should be lightly decided upon. It must begin with a careful look at the existing culture of your business and what elements have been the most successful. Seeking the views of your stakeholders should always be the next and most important step. Many long-established clients will be delighted to share their views on what will improve their experience when using your firm. When they see some of their recommendations being implemented, it will only strengthen their relationship with you. Be sure
to also seek the views of those clients who have expressed some dissatisfaction. As Bill Gates observed, 'Your most unhappy customers are
your greatest source of learning.'
Take the opportunity to review what lines of work are most successful and what clients most desirable for your business, and make sure that the brand experience you create is designed to meet their expectations. It is best not to try to be too many things to too many people as your brand will become confused. This can be a real challenge, for example, for those firms trying to offer commercial and consumer legal services using just one brand.
This is also the moment to ask yourselves why clients do leave. An honest appraisal of what it is that has failed to ignite their loyalty will really help to counter the problem going forward. Similarly, exit interviews for your people can help to inform how the internal culture needs to be addressed
to reduce unwanted departures, and build staff loyalty and energy.
Consulting your own people generally on what they like, dislike, and wish to improve about the way the firm delivers legal services will vastly increase the strength of the offering you ultimately decide upon. They will generally have the best ideas because they are dealing with the challenges every day. If your people genuinely feel a part of the decision-making process, they have some ownership in the building of the brand, which is vital if consistency is to be delivered. Perhaps even more importantly, they will find the firm reflects their own desires and aspirations for delivering a great legal service. This then helps bind the very best people to your business in a much stronger way than any financial incentives ever can, because they see something both unique and attractive that they wish to be part of.
Having established what you wish to be famous for, then comes the hard part of making that a reality. This does not come about overnight
but is a hard slog and requires great attention
to detail. In general, it is not the big things that cause the problems, because everyone focuses
on them. It is the small things that can make all the difference, good or bad, to the perceptions people are left with. Your client will take for granted that the legal advice they receive is going to be right, but if they have difficulty finding the building, or are left hanging about in reception, that can undo all the good work.
No part of the process includes external publicity. It will be years before you are sufficiently confident that your brand is embedded to begin talking about it. In the meantime, seek client feedback and use that to begin to publicise how people feel about your organisation. Word of mouth will do the rest.
Whatever you do, some staff, partners, and, indeed, clients will leave your firm. However, working on your brand experience should help
you retain the clients and staff you really want.
The clients and staff who then choose to leave
are much less likely to be the ones that you want
to work with.
Building a great brand is really about building
a great business. By deciding who you can best service, determining what they want, and then working as a team to consistently deliver it, you
will be answering all the challenges necessary
to be successful. People, be they clients, referrers, suppliers, partners, or staff, all want to work with great businesses. Deliver on the right brand and you will create passion and a loyalty to your business and not the individuals within it. You
will stand out from the crowd and your points
of differentiation will be what make clients select your firm. You then have little to fear when, very occasionally, a partner or fee earner decides to leave, because your key clients will not, for a moment, consider going with them.