THE THIN BLACK LINE: ADOPTING A MARKETING STRATEGY THAT WORKS
For an effective marketing plan, start with your strengths and where your work comes from rather than focusing on your competitors, says Doug McPherson
Life for the mid-tier law firm isn’t easy. You constantly have to deal with your clients’ increasing cost-consciousness and hunger for added value, new billing models and new delivery mechanisms. At the same time, you need to protect yourself against the new online providers while staying one step ahead of the national firms; and new legal offerings being launched by accountancy firms which are trying to encroach on the markets you’ve worked so hard to establish. Factor in the current political uncertainty and the disruption caused by the cumulative effect of all these challenges, and you’re faced with a situation you must address with speed and conviction. Your first step should be to implement the marketing and business development strategy that will package what you offer, make sure you reach the right people and articulate clearly how your approach will benefit them once you’ve reached them. We split the process of creating that strategy into four steps: understanding; communication; implementation; and measurement and reflection. UNDERSTANDING Before you begin to refresh your marketing strategy, you need to understand the competition you face, what you sell, who you sell it to and what your most successful routes to market are. While it may sound counterintuitive, the starting point must be you and not your competitors. Unless you understand your strengths, your client base, where your work comes from and why people choose your firm, making constructive and dependable decisions on how to market moving forwards simply isn’t possible. Also, as soon as you allow yourself to be led by what your competitors are doing, your marketing will immediately become reactive and confused as you struggle to keep up. By concentrating on what you can control, you will keep focused on the objectives you’ve set to underpin the growth you want. Ask yourself some questions. Firstly, do you know where your work comes from? Whatever type of law firm you are, your work comes from three sources: your current clients; your existing professional contacts (referrers or introducers); and new clients. Analyse where the majority of your work comes from. If that information isn’t immediately available, look at the way you record your source of work for each new matter and make that a priority for your fee earners. Whatever you think, this is not a step you should avoid. For example, if your firm generates most of its work from your current clients but you decide to throw the bulk of your budget, time and resources into generating new enquiries, it’s highly likely you’ll lose that money without seeing any return. Second, who are your key clients? These will be your easiest source of new work. They have already ‘bought’ you, they trust you and they are in regular contact with you. They will all have future legal requirements (this is as true for a private client practice as it is for a commercial or not-for-profit practice). They will also be within the personal and professional networks to create client referral opportunities organically. But if you don’t know who your key clients are, you’ll never take full advantage of the opportunities they could bring you; you’ll never maximise the commercial return they offer. The same goes for your professional contacts. Do you know which ones actually deliver the volume of referrals you want? Once you understand this, you can apportion your efforts accordingly. Again, this will save you from investing time, cost and effort into blindly chasing the contacts that generate very little return for you. Lastly, look at where the most obvious opportunities lie. If you are a private client practice, which postcodes offer the most opportunity? What are your firm’s pockets of sector excellence that you can promote to increase your attractiveness to the other businesses in that sector? If your town or city is about to invest heavily in courting specific industries or groups of people, what are they? Once you know where your clients are likely to be, you can assess their likely legal needs and then match your strengths with those requirements. Similarly, if there are requirements you can’t currently satisfy, you can start to work out how to bridge those gaps with lateral recruitment or training. COMMUNICATION Once you know what you have and where your opportunities lie, you can start to work on the most effective way to get your message in front of the clients you want to keep or win. I’m going to let you into a little secret now. However complicated certain marketeers try to make marketing – it’s actually one of simplest components of a business. List out what you do (this is your ‘product’) on one piece of paper and place that on the left-hand side of your desk. Now list out who you think needs those skills (this is your ‘market’) on another piece of paper and put that on the right-hand side. Marketing is simply the line that joins the two bits up. What you do along that line boils down to communicating effectively with your market. Understanding exactly how your market is composed will make deciding on the best means of communication easier and more effective. To keep things as simple as possible, we tend to break the different types of communication into another group of three: In person - This is usually called ‘business development’. It includes client development, formal networking (networking groups and events) and informal networking (bringing a few people together for a meal or drinks, attending sports or social events or just having a coffee with clients, contacts or prospects). These types of activities generally lend themselves to practices that win a lot of new work from clients and referrers. However, they can also pay dividends if you’re looking at breaking into a new sector or area as you can identify networking opportunities that’ll get you in front of the right people. In writing - If your focus is on new business, your writing could be based on producing articles for the trade or local publications read by your clients and targets; or publishing your own content on your firm’s website to influence the search engines to generate new enquiries. Or, if you are more client or referrer focused, you could turn a series of articles into a downloadable whitepaper or produce a regular e-newsletter. Online - While your most obvious visibility will be your web copy and your social media profiles, you also need to ensure what you’re offering online visitors is in line with their preferences and expectations. For example, if you have a large residential property practice you may want to consider first-time buyer guides, jargon busters or a stamp duty calculator. If you have a major tech offering, you may want to look at video content, ‘how to’ downloads, the ability to chat virtually or even an app. Again, it all comes back to truly understanding your clients. Finally, it’s important to note that the communication process doesn’t finish with just knowing where to say what you want to say – you also need to know how to say it. The marketing term is ‘client value proposition’ (CVP) or, in plain English, having a consistent way of accentuating your best bits so you appear more attractive than your competitors. If you think your largest threat is a low-cost online provider, your message conveys your experience, the depths of your strengths, and the fact you approach every client in a different way to find the solution that best suits their objectives and circumstances. Is your threat from larger firms or new market entrants? If so, you might want to push the service aspect, the superior client experience you offer and the close proximity you maintain to clients at all times to make sure they get exactly what they need in the way they want it. Although these are generalised examples, once you have your own set of messages you must make sure you use them consistently across every type of communication you’re using, and that everyone networking, writing or speaking is also using those messages (in their own words, of course!). IMPLEMENTATION It’s no surprise that however good your plan is, it will never generate any significant results unless you put it into practice. As you and your colleagues are very busy people, finding the time to tackle the ‘other stuff ’ is never easy. So when you’re moving from the planning stage to the ‘doing’ stage, we’ve found the following three tips help: Get buy in - Once you have your plan, launch it properly. Gather your staff together to tell them what the plan is and how you came up with it; what the objectives are behind it; and the part everyone will be expected to play. Persuade them to understand how the plan’s success will link to their own success and contribute to the professional future and/or long-term job security they want. Match activity to personality - People are always more effective when they’re being asked to do something they are most comfortable with. Managing clients, getting out and meeting new people, writing articles, giving presentations and organising your own training or social events each require very different skill sets. If you take the time to work out who’s best at which, the people in question will be much more likely to do what you’ve asked - and to do it well. This will make the implementation phase quicker, easier and much more productive. Little and often - Solicitors are busy people so try to break things down into a couple of actions per month so that progress is achievable in and around billable work. There really is nothing more off-putting and over-effacing than a big, long list! MEASUREMENT AND REFLECTION Investing in the ‘understanding’ stage will help you make the right decisions as to how you market the different parts of your firm. But maintaining the return you want requires management. There is a great deal of truth in the old adage ‘what gets measured gets done’. Make sure you schedule regular meetings to discuss progress and ensure people are completing the tasks they’ve been given. However, the real benefit of regular reviews is that it will spare you from spending time, money and effort unnecessarily. As Einstein once said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Monitor activities and invite feedback from the team to identify what is and isn’t working and tweak your plan accordingly. In terms of giving your new marketing strategy the best possible chance of success, here’s one more (and arguably the most crucial) tip of all: listen to your clients at every stage. Your clients will help you understand your market and their requirements. They will tell you what they want from you and how best and how often to supply it. They’ll even tell you which are the best groups, events, publications and websites to use to reach them and people just like them. So, however you choose to market your firm, make sure you factor in repeated opportunities to listen to your clients – especially as nine times out of 10 you’ll leave the meeting with a new piece of work.