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The Marcus Perspective

HOW LEGAL MARKETING WORKS: A QUICK PRIMER

By Bruce W. Marcus

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Professional services marketing is not a litany of mechanics. Itís a process thatís designed to bring a firm and its prospective clientele together. More than just accumulating clients, the effective marketing program helps shape and secure a practice thatís relevant to the dynamic needs of both the firm and the clients it serves.

The process, essentially, may be perceived in four parts:

  1. Define the market;
  2. Define the service to meet the needs of the market;
  3. Define the tools of marketing to be used to reach and persuade the market; and
  4. Manage the tools.

The significant body of knowledge that is the foundation of the marketing functions are comprised of two areas ó the techniques, or tools (articles, press releases, collateral material, etc. and they ways theyíre used), and the study of the markets themselves (such as the demographics, motivation for buying ó its shape, its structure, its needs, and its opportunities.). Strategy ó the way in which the two are brought together ó is crucial.

Persuasiveness ó Why People Buy

Thousands of dollars spent on research about why people choose one professional service firm rather than another, has taught us little. Professional services are, to a large extent, too amorphous to respond to simple motivation, but there are some reasonable surmises that can be made, based on both logic and experience.

Part of the problem resides in the fact that professional services marketing rarely moves people to act immediately, and so the purchase decision is too distant from the marketing effort ó unlike product marketing. Another problem is that the reasons buyers need or want legal or accounting services are variable and diverse.

Surveys, moreover, consistently show that how professionals think their clients view their performance and what clients actually think, are usually miles apart.

In the light of what we do know, and considering the singular nature of marketing professional services (as compared, for example, to product marketing), what works? Or more specifically, what seems to work?

  • Name recognition. People tend to buy names they recognize.
  • Reputation. If your firm has a reputation for effectively resolving legal problems, for service, for not overcharging, or for anything good, it goes to building trust ó which is an essential element in professional services.
  • Specialty. If your firm has a reputation in a specialty, thatís a major factor in being considered by a prospective client.
  • Demonstrating expertise. A significant reason you are asked to propose is that your reputation is founded on demonstrable expertise.
  • Networking. In the old days, it was the golf course or the country club. Today, itís done by planned participation in organizations in the fields served by your prospective clients.
  • Client referrals and word of mouth. Clients who are particularly satisfied with your work will enthusiastically recommend you to other prospective clients. Word of mouth (now called by the peculiar name, viral marketing), in which people tell one another about your virtues, is a marvelous concept, but difficult to generate. You have to do something worth talking about, though
  • Influentials. There are always people from other professions or trades who are in a position to recommend you.
  • Serendipity. Or luck, is more like it. Serendipity is great, but you canít build much of a practice on it.
  • Practice Development. At some time in every marketing campaign, the name recognition and reputation and networking come to a point at which the prospect has to agree to start Monday. The prospect must be sold. A request for a proposal may have to be answered. The prospect may be considering other of your competitors. This goes well beyond the skills of name recognition and reputation building, which is why the specialty of practice development evolved.

Because a professional services marketing program must do more than accumulate clients, and it must function in a dynamic world thatís constantly in flux, an effective marketing program canít be a list of activities that use a static list of marketing tools. It must have clear objectives that are flexible enough to accommodate the dynamic nature of the market. It must focus specific aspects of a practice, predicated on the distinctive needs of each aspect of the prospective clientele.

And while itís commonly assumed that the idea is to sell the firm, experience shows that marketing professional services works best when it focuses on individual market segments. A program that does that well results in projecting a capable firm in all its parts.

How, then, recognizing the foregoing differences, can marketing programs be devised that are focused, effective, and competitive?

The answer resides in formulating objectives for each program, based on the distinctive characteristics of each market.

Setting Objectives

If you donít know where youíre going, how do you know how to get there?

Two things about planning that are immutable:

  1. Firm and marketing plans are intertwined. The objectives for the firm and the objectives for the marketing program must closely relate to one another; and
  2. Both plans must begin with a realistic assessment of the market to be served, and with an understanding of the skills necessary to reach and serve the market.
Firm Objectives

Practically, a firmís plan should be in two parts ó near-term and long-term. Near-term should be no longer than two or three years. Beyond that, there are too many variables in the economy, in law, in regulations, etc. to be valid ó even with the flexibility that should be part of any plan. The short-term goal, on the other hand, should be action-oriented, with an action plan for each goal.

Within the context of the market and the firmís skills, there then follows a readily defined understanding of what the firm and its partners want, both in the near and the far term, and what they hope to have the marketing program and action plan accomplish in pursuit of those goals.

And as Gerald A. Riskin and Patrick J. McKenna remind us in their excellent book, Practice Development, objectives should be consistent with a firmís comfort level, and should certainly be ethically acceptable to both the firm and the profession practiced by the firm.

Specific Factors

In defining firm objectives, some specific factors must be considered:

  • Firm Environment. Nothing is more important than the kind of firm you are or want to be. Without a firm environment thatís satisfying and fulfilling to its partners and staff, there will be no growth, no profitability, no future.
  • Size. Businesses usually donít grow substantially by accident. Itís almost invariably a conscious decision by its partners or owners.
  • Profitability. Profitability, of course, is as much a function of margins as it is of volume, and so itís useful to know your costs as precisely as possible ó a particularly difficult task in a professional firm.
  • Time Frame. The ability of a car to accelerate ó to go from zero to a hundred miles an hour ó is measured in seconds. The ability of a firm to meet its objectives is measured in a larger time frame. It can, however be flexible. It can allow, for example, five years for the firm to double in size, if thatís what it wants, but only two years to expand its market geographically.
  • Pricing. Pricing is as much an element of marketing as is advertising or promotion. Aside from the fact that it affects revenues and profitability, it also affects positioning. Value billing is on its way to superseding hourly billing, which raises the complex question of defining value. But the consideration is value to the client before value to the firm ó or there will quickly be no value to the firm.
  • Market. There are three aspects of a market that must be considered ó its size, its needs, and its location ó and all three must be viewed carefully in formulating objectives. Do you have the skills to succeed in a particular market?
  • Service concept. As a professional service, your relations with your clients dictate that they are served personally. The service option, of course, is the firmís, but it should be made a specific choice. If itís not, if itís arrived at arbitrarily, it sends a diverse message to clients, and is counterproductive to a firmís growth and success.

But in the final analysis, the tools and strategies of marketing serve to enhance the practice development process.

The professional firm must now be recognized for what it is ó a structure to deal with the market it serves. It must recognize that it no longer exists for itself, but as an instrument to get and sustain clients. Lawyering is merely the services provided to fill the channels opened by the devices of marketing.

The management skills needed to run a professional firm are a different set of skills than those that are needed to merely sit at the head of a firm. A professional firm is a business. A professional firm that competes is a marketing entity. The demands of this new kind of management bring the skills of management to a new realm of artfulness ó one for which the traditional lawyer is rarely trained.

And the ultimate lesson to be learned is that the catalytic element of tomorrowís professional services marketing is that the relationship that begins with the market ó the client ó now includes the professional. As one moves and changes, so too must the other.

The tools of marketing are, of themselves, immutable. Except perhaps for the use of the Internet, nothing much has changed in generations. We still have networking, public relations, speeches, seminars and articles. We still understand the need for fathoming the markets we serve, and the strategy for using the tools to reach that market. But the difficult lesson to learn is that the value of the tools is not in themselves, but in how innovatively, persuasively and imaginatively they are used.

But it is only when we understand the changing relationships between the professional and the client, and the need to nurture ones ability to function in that relationship with flexibility and agility, that the professions will be able to adapt and survive the coming generations.


Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (www.marcusletter.com), the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), and the forthcoming PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING 3.0 (Bay Street Group, Spring, 2011) from which this article is adapted. His e-mail address is marcus@marcusletter.com. © 2011 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved

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