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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Get the Mad Men effect

Get the Mad Men effect


Following in the footsteps of the ad men of the 1960s, Douglas McPherson advises firms to focus on articulating their strongest and most saleable properties to win over prospective clients

Following in the footsteps of the ad men of the 1960s, Douglas McPherson advises firms to focus on articulating their strongest and most saleable properties to win over prospective clients

When it comes to marketing and business development, one of
the most practical books ever
written is Confessions of an Advertising Man
by David Ogilvy.

Ogilvy was the father of modern advertising and one of the inspirations for the TV series Mad Men. Admittedly, some the ideas, language, and points of reference are now as dated as Don Draper's trilby, but many of the points raised still hold true, particularly in a legal marketing context and particularly if you are looking to articulate your firm's offering and then promote that offering more effectively.

One passage in particular resonated with me
as I flicked through the pages for the umpteenth time recently. Ogilvy states that traditionally an advertiser's assumption is that if he is to sell his goods he has to convince his audience that his product is superior to his competitors'. However, this is not the best way to market. It is far better
to concentrate on creating positive feeling towards your offering, because if a consumer feels certain that your product is good and feels less certain about your competitors' product, they will buy yours.

He goes on to say that this approach is particularly effective when you are dealing with parity products (i.e. a product that is just one of a number of similar products that, to the consumer's eye at least, are all pretty much the same). That is the reason this passage resonated.

Although every law firm is different - whether those differences are in what you offer, in who you have on your team, in the niches you serve, in the way you deliver, price, or package your advice - to the consumer one law firm is largely the same as the next. If you are to overcome the threat of being 'just another law firm' and create a truly positive impression, you will need to get used to saying what is good about your firm and do a clearer, more honest, and more informative job of saying it.

If the theory is right (and let's face it, if it works in the massively complex and competitive market of fast-moving consumer goods, it's more than likely it will work in the more defined and delineated legal world), your ability to articulate your strongest and most saleable properties more clearly will create the required level of confidence in your target audience. It is this confidence that will make them more disposed to you rather than your competitors when the time comes to purchase legal advice.

The next question is, how exactly do you do that?

What is your CVP?

A client value proposition (CVP) is exactly what it says: it is how you propose to deliver true value to your clients. It is not a USP or, even worse, USPs (how can this be plural if the 'U' stands for 'unique'?). It is not a strapline. It is not a slogan,
an elevator script, or a manifesto.

It is a collection of your key strengths, the ammunition you are going to use to create the positive reaction that will elevate you above the underlying perception of parity that exists within certain seams of your target market. It is the ammunition you will use to gain an advantage over your competitors.

In essence, you need to come up with two lists: what you do well as a firm and what your clients want from their advisers.

The overlap between the lists will form the beginnings of your value proposition, but the pieces around the edges - particularly with regard to the second list - will give you targets to work towards in order to achieve the best possible service offering with which to dazzle your audience and elbow yourself into a competitive advantage.

So how do you come up with those lists? The best way is to have an open but facilitated discussion involving the most marketing-savvy members of the firm. The objective of this meeting is to come up with a series of concepts that will underpin your value proposition. From there you may wish to send those concepts to the various practice areas within your firm so they can contextualise them and make them directly relevant to their business and client base.

For example, your private client and commercial litigation teams will need to promote their strengths in different ways to attract their particular audiences, but it is essential that there is a common thread, a recognisable DNA, running through all of your external communications. If you send out a confused and contradictory set of messages, you will only ever create confusion and uncertainty, which is the polar opposite of what you need if you are to surpass any perceptions of parity.

As to who should run this initial session, it will come as no surprise to you that I'd always suggest the facilitator should be external and from a marketing rather than legal background. I can assure you that this isn't a sales pitch. It is an impassioned plea from someone who knows the huge difference a sound value proposition will make to every aspect of a firm's marketing. I cannot stress just how much more your CVP will deliver over time if you make the initial investment to get it right from the start.

The 'so what?' test

One of the horribly overexposed maxims you come across in basic sales training is 'sell the sizzle, not the sausage'. It's a horrendous phrase that embodies many of the reasons those not in sales avoid being associated with sales like a proverbial plague. However, as with all clichés, it's rooted in truth. People don't want to buy what you have, they want to buy what it does for them.
They want to touch, hear, and feel the benefit
of a product, and legal advice is no exception.

Once you have the bones of your value proposition, ask yourself a simple question about each of the core elements: 'so what?' The 'so what?' test is a tried and tested copywriting device. It allows you to say: 'That's what we have but what does it actually do for our clients?'

For example, if you take pride in the fact you deliver your advice quickly and in plain English, the 'so what?' could be that this will allow your clients to use that advice immediately and act decisively, ensuring they avoid potentially costly delays which could allow their competitors to encroach on their market share and, by extension, their profits.

When you are looking for the benefits, one general rule of thumb is that what you are promoting should save your clients time, money, or hassle - or, even better, a mix of two or three of those. If you haven't got to that point, you haven't gone far enough.

Once you know what each part of your proposition does and how this benefits your clients, it will be easier for you to articulate your key strengths in a way that will create the positive reaction required to sway your target audience away from your competitors and towards you.

Road-test it

Once you have your value proposition and your service offering as you want them, it is time to make sure that both meet your clients' 'best of all possible worlds' requirements and match their perceptions of you as a firm and of your core strengths.

If your proposition doesn't tick both boxes,
then you will need to tweak it before it goes live. Otherwise, it will not achieve your primary objective: to create the positive perception that will mark you out as a more attractive choice than your competitors.

This is where I'd expect a cursory handoff, perhaps along the lines of 'we send out a client survey form at the end of each matter' or, more worryingly, 'if our clients had something to say they'd come to us'. Let's shred both of those security blankets.

You may send out a questionnaire, but the truth is they are of little value outside of ticking a Lexcel box (which admittedly isn't a bad thing). Unless you are severely bucking the trend, you will only ever receive a minor percentage of responses, and of those the vast majority will either be excellent or dreadful. This means you will never get the real gold: the grey area in the middle where a few minor improvements would hugely strengthen your service offering and, by extension, the positive impression you create in the market.

And if you are waiting for clients to come to
you, the chances are the first you'll know of their dissatisfaction is when the work dries up because they've moved to another firm that has taken the time to court them, promoting its own strengths
to become a more attractive alternative than you.

So how do you run the road-test phase? Here's a very simple three-step model:

  • Choose your clients: This should be done on the basis of strategic importance (involving these clients will strengthen your relationship) and of how well you know the clients (the conversations with those who know you best will be the easiest to facilitate and, by extension, their insight will be the most valuable);

  • Choose your interviewers: Seniority is always good because it underlines just how important the process is, so wherever possible try to utilise your managing or senior partner or a head of department. However, it's equally important that your interviewers are totally comfortable with the subject at hand (the constituent elements of your value proposition) and with holding an unstructured, informal discussion and extracting the required insight from that conversation; and

  • Choose your objectives: Having said that
    the discussion will be fairly unstructured and informal, you do need to know what you want to get out of each conversation so that you can direct it. After running many client-listening campaigns, we've found the best way is to start with the end in mind and choose the headings you'd like to feature in your post-interview report. Once you have those, ask nice open questions (how, why, what) around each heading and you will gain the insight you want.

Remember that the most important defence for spearheading your marketing with the promotion of your core strengths is that it will not insult the intelligence of your existing and prospective clients. No one will ever blame you for putting your best foot forward. In fact, the reverse will
be true: people will develop a more positive impression of your firm because they will recognise that it is set up to specifically provide the best possible product for them.

Moreover, once you create that level of acceptance and understanding, it will organically generate new opportunities that will help grow your fee levels for very little additional investment. Why? Because the positive feeling you will have created will increase the likelihood of your clients referring you to their personal and professional networks and make it easier for you to successfully cross-sell your other practice lines to each client.

Douglas McPherson is a director at Size 10 ½ Boots @BDinLaw