How not to win business: a guide for professionals
The fourth in the series asks what is that "something extra" that clients value most
Put skill above service
Promoting skill first and service second is a tremendous way not to win business.
Doing client work diligently and to a high standard is fundamental. But in the battle to differentiate your offering to clients, knowledge of the law is rarely decisive. It is a ticket to the game, no more.
Service will always be more important than expertise. Rarely will clients emote: “Tristan/Isolde, the beauty and timeless elegance of your draft collateral warranties in schedule 17A will live with me forever – I salute you!” But they will appreciate it deeply if they can always get you when they need you, and find that you’re willing to work as long as it takes when the pressure is on, meet deadlines, communicate in plain English, have connections who are useful to them, and are unafraid to give advice, rather than just take instructions. They will place tremendous value on accurate, easily accessible management information, innovative approaches to billing, or use of technology.
At a personal level, they will appreciate you even more, if, instead of paying lip service to knowing their business, you take the time and trouble to understand their ambitions, the pressures on them, the dynamics between their key people, what they especially value in their lawyers, and as important, what they dislike.
The converse is true. If clients do not like you personally, and admire the way you deliver, then however technically gifted you are, sooner or later they will walk.
I once heard the comedian Michael McIntyre describe going into an airport bookshop to find some light reading for the flight. He wandered into the crime section and came across a novel which trumpeted on its bloodstained front cover that it was “A Real Page Turner!!” “Frankly,” he reflected, “that’s the very least I would expect from a book.” In the same way, most clients take technical competence for granted. Beyond a certain point, even sophisticated clients find it difficult, or not worth the trouble, to distinguish the quality of one lawyer’s work from another’s, as long as the necessary competence is achieved.
It is because these service elements are so important, and financial pressures are so acute, that in the corporate world there is constant pressure from in-house legal teams for their law firms to provide added value. How does one provide genuine added value at a cost which does not impact too severely on margins? In much the same way as Paul Simon counselled that there must be 50 ways to leave your lover, the US-based Association of Corporate Counsel has produced an excellent guide, “51 Practical Ways To Add Value”, which you can access online by searching against the title. Many of its suggestions are relevant to every firm, corporate, country or high street.
Since the early 1900s, the core of American business philosophy has been “Service with a smile”. The first will always be key. The second? Now there’s the real challenge…
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds Solicitors, which grew from a sole practice to UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and adviser to firms nationwide.
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