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No, you aren’t imagining it: Legal services really are harder to ‘sell’

Legal services, and in fact many professional services, are what economists call “credence goods.” Selling credence goods has some very specific marketing challenges. I have described below three of the challenges I suspect will resonate with the experience all of you are having as you try to build your businesses, and some things to keep in mind about them in the course of your own business development activities.

1.  Credence goods are inherently difficult to sell because their value is difficult to quantify. The value of “credence goods” is extremely difficult for clients or potential clients to quantify because they have so few attributes that most clients (at least those who are not also lawyers) can confidently and competently evaluate.

As a result, before, during and after receiving the service, clients often feel themselves to have been placed in the uncomfortable position of having to blindly trust in those who sell the services to:

a) assess what services the client needs;

b) perform the services well; and

c) price them fairly.

Moreover, because they lack any reliable means of quantifying performance, clients’ expectations of outcome are often exaggerated and unrealistic, making them very difficult to satisfy.

 

One answer to this challenge is to make sure that your business development activities include things that focus on educating your clients, potential clients and target communities about things that you know will help them feel more confident and comfortable in making assessments about the need and value of legal services, rather than on persuading them to hire you.

 

Take this into account when planning your personal interactions, marketing and business development activities, and service delivery approaches. Wherever possible, find opportunities to incorporate into your communications something relevant and interesting to them that will also educate them about things like:

•    When or in what circumstances they should consider seeking help from a lawyer, whether it is you or someone else;

•    What attributes should be considered in evaluating the service they are receiving from lawyers, including you;

    effective ways to communicate their concerns, desires, or other issues to you or other lawyers they are working with;

    What they can realistically expect you or other lawyers to accomplish.

If you apply a little creativity, you can find ways to convey this kind of information in the context of a current file or relationship, a new relationship with a potential client or when addressing an audience of relative strangers through media, writing or speaking engagements, social media engagement, seminars, newsletters, advertising or any other marketing or business development tactics.  

It will be to your advantage to make the extra effort to do so, because incorporating the kinds of information that will reduce the uncertainty people feel about dealing with lawyers will increase their sense of comfort, trust and loyalty to you.  

2.  Those who perform the services also have to sell them. As is the case with other “credence goods,” personal selling has historically been the most significant element in the marketing of legal services. Even with all the changes that the legal industry is facing right now, most lawyers are still getting a lot of their work through personal referrals from people in their relationship networks.  

I can’t look into a crystal ball and say whether or not that will change in any material way in the future, but at the moment, to have the best chance at attracting and retaining clients and work, in the traditional law practice setting, the lawyers who are performing the services also have to be involved in selling them.  

This presents a challenge that breaks down into two major elements: The lawyers generally; a) aren’t naturally wired for sales, and b) struggle to find/allocate time to both performing the service and marketing it.  Unfortunately, the answers to both of these challenges lie in the discipline the professionals are willing to apply to overcoming them.  

Business development skills are learnable as are time management skills. It is a matter of adjusting your mindset and strategically focusing a portion of your time, effort and resources on the things that will help you build strong, mutual, loyal long-term relationships that will support your career.  We all struggle to meet all of the demands competing for our time and we all have to make choices about what to prioritize and when.  

As is the case with any other goal, you stand the best chance of successfully building a business if you prioritize learning and doing the things you need to do to make that happen.

3. Hard to differentiate. The mystery that shrouds those areas of endeavor that can be classified as “credence goods” makes it difficult for clients, or even for the service providers, to articulate differentiating factors between one provider and the others.  

We have all experienced this in law.  It is extremely difficult for a lawyer or law firm to effectively differentiate, for purposes of marketing and promotion, the services they provide from those provided by other lawyer or firms who work in the same general field.

The general, or generic, words or concepts often used to market legal services (e.g. recognized, ranked, broad experience and expertise, responsive, creative, innovative, record of success, reputation etc.) don’t actually capture or describe what is most valuable about the service to any particular client in any particular case.  

And finding words to describe what is actually valuable about the service is difficult, because what is valuable to each client is driven by the needs of the particular client and the specifics of the particular matter and is often different from what is valuable to other clients in other matters.  

At risk of overwhelming you all with “lingo,” lawyers will have the best chance of “differentiating” themselves, if they take a “market-of-one” approach. That means understanding that each situation will require different things of you and that you will need to take the time and make the effort to identify the unique needs and desires of each client in each particular matter and using those to create a “superior client experience” in each case. Despite the phraseology, I would also argue that the application of this concept can, and should, extend beyond current clients to potential clients and to people in your network that you are engaged with in a professional context. Giving them a taste of the superior experience that you give clients will help inspire them to hire you and refer others to you.

However, all of that begs the question: What is a “superior” client experience?  

Like so many things in this space, it is very hard to describe because it is completely dependent on all of the elements of each particular relationship context. However, I will share here a framework I like and some hallmarks associated with the different kinds of experiences that clients have working with lawyers (with thanks to BTI Consulting Group). I hope it will serve as a guidepost to help you start to see what kind of experience your clients and connections are having when they engage with you and give you some clues to help you convert as many as of them as possible into those that would describe themselves as enjoying a superior client experience.

•    Legal services: Most lawyers provide competent legal services. That is the cost of entry. Table stakes. You get no bonus points for doing what is expected and competently performing the service that you were hired to provide.

•    Superior client service: Some lawyers provide superior client service. The hallmarks of this level of engagement are that you are reliable, responsive, provide value in addition to the basic service and you make the effort to genuinely understand your clients’ needs.

•    Superior client experience: Only very few lawyers provide a superior client experience. You are providing a superior client experience when you do everything above, but then also go the extra distance to make sure that in all interactions with your client you are providing them with resources, connections, information, insights etc. that are relevant to them, different from what they have seen or received before, informed by an element of their specific context, and to the extent possible proactively address emergent issues that may in some way impact their interests in future.  Most often the activities that will be hallmarks of a superior client experience will fall outsight of the confines of your immediate file work.

One way you will know that you have successfully created this category of experience for your clients will be when your client spontaneously recommends you to someone else. It is rare, to be sure, but most of us can recall a time when someone in our lives was so delighted and overwhelmed with service they received that they were bursting to tell us about it, even though we hadn’t asked and didn’t, at that time, need the service. That experience is so rare because having a superior client experience is so rare; even more so in law because many lawyers still haven’t internalized the idea that law is a service industry and therefore don’t conduct themselves with enough concern for the service aspect of what they do.

There are many more challenges than these that are inherent in selling legal services, but hopefully having seen some of them identified in black and white will provide some relief to those of you who have been struggling to come to grips with why business development feels difficult and also give you a few ideas for things you could change that might enhance your success.

Until next time!

  • Why Lawyers, Firms, Struggle With 'Credence' Selling

    James Bliwas
    Your interesting article pinpoints two or three key issues that all lawyers and law firms regardless of their size or market dominance need to acknowledge - and take proactive steps to address - if they actually want to outperform, out market and out manoeuver competitors. 1. In no other sector, industry or profession are the people responsible for production - crafting documents, drafting filings, etc. - also responsible for sales. From accounting to car manufacturers and fashion designers, sales are handled by one function and production by another. 2. The emotional forces that make the law attractive to someone are the exact opposite of what makes a career in sales attractive to somebody else. You should see the look of horror on the faces of third year law school students when they're told "Besides knowing the law, you also need to know about sales, pricing and customer service as part of going into practice." 3. Law firms in general have done a horrible job at creating unique brands (as opposed to clever slogans) that help differentiate themselves from competitors large and small. Until these and a raft of related issues are addressed seriously by firms and lawyers, they will continue to struggle with "credence selling."

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