Smart Marketing for Challenging Times
By Susan Van Dyke, May 2009
As the economic crisis deepens, it’s time to re-evaluate your marketing efforts. Here are five steps you can take to boost your firm, now and in the future.
WhenBy now you must know that the time has come to take a serious look at your marketing and business development efforts. We may not be in the turmoil that our brethren to the south are experiencing, but we still must take a critical look at how we’re spending our marketing time and dollars.
This is an opportunity to bring business planning in your firm to the next level, and when you have, you and your firm will benefit in the short and long term.
By focusing your marketing efforts on high-value, revenue-driving programs, you’ll be forced to evaluate all your current activities against these criteria. Let’s look at five key areas:
- Non-billable time and what you do with it.
- Client loyalty – are you deserving?
- When did you last look your best clients in the eye?
- Ask the right questions, not just the easy ones.
- Future work and where it may be lurking.
Harness the non-billable hour
Are you effectively applying your non-billable time to productive activities? Do you know how to use the gift of non-billable time most effectively?
If you have in-house marketing professionals, ask them to help you devise a personal marketing plan that has a short-term focus. If you don’t have this resource, there are consultants and coaches in most markets who can spring into action to assist you. This is money well spent; it will save you hours of ineffective efforts, and it will channel your time into activities that will bring you the highest return on investment.
Attract client loyalty
Think of the quality that you seek in your current business relationships, and ask yourself if you’re delivering it to your clients. Consider where you’re sending your business in this economy. Has it changed? If so, how?
I find myself more sympathetic to the entrepreneurs and business owners with whom I have a personal rapport. I enjoy patronizing a business that knows my preferences and cares about my needs. How they make me feel has a direct impact on my buying decisions, even, at times, if I have to spend a little more for their product or service.
Conversely, service providers and merchants who take my business for granted have not gained my loyalty, and I’m easily won over by a competitor who gives me a reason to give them a test run. Interestingly, loyal customers and clients can be very forgiving when human error makes an appearance – not repeatedly, but when things go sideways and we make it right, our loyalists are the first to forgive us.
Examine your own buying behaviours, and those of your family members and firm leaders. All things being equal – price, convenience, quality of product or service – who do you return to use, time and again — and why?
Consider this example: a colleague wanted a flat-screen TV, and was prepared to part with a fair bit of money to get what she needed. She researched them all over many months. On the spur of the moment, she and her partner rolled into one of the big electronic store chains, the one known for very aggressive sales people. A friendly and helpful salesman listened to them, offered them a fair price and, voila, the sale was made within just a few minutes.
As they headed to the parking lot, sale complete, the salesman ran after them, looked them in the eye, shook their hands and thanked them for the sale. Next time they need electronics, where do you think they’ll go?
How do you attract and keep each of your clients? Have you earned their loyalty? At a bare minimum, I’d want my clients to know they are respected, valued for placing their trust in me, and that my concern for their business is present in both good times and bad.
Must be present to win
According to Woody Allen, 90% of life is showing up. For some lawyers, getting some non-billable face time with clients will go a long way.
Attracting new clients or new work from existing clients takes this kind of effort. New work comes to you because a client trusts you, and that’s just as true in today’s economy when there’s likely more at stake than ever before.
Trust is still largely gained, or maintained, the old fashioned way – face time. Technology is a powerful tool to expand established trust, but nothing replaces time together. As a society, we’re spending less quality time with each other as we become more dependent on the conveniences and efficiencies of technology.
Become mindful of how frequently (or infrequently) you visit your clients in person. If you can, keep track of face time for each of your top clients or referral sources. In this economy, many lawyers actually have the gift of time to “show up” and visit clients.
There is no better time than now to sit down with your clients and ask them how the current economy is affecting their business. Most are affected in some way – good or bad – but all will have opinions and anecdotes. So go ahead and schedule an in-person visit to discuss your clients’ experiences and concerns.
When you go to their facilities or offices, you’ll better understand their business. You’ll also view the assets they purchased as part of a transaction. Not only does it show an interest in what the client does, but also it ensures you’re increasing your knowledge about a transaction and the client’s business.
Also, consider inviting your client and their staff to professional development functions such as a CLE session, or industry-specific events that key in on topical subjects for the client’s organization. Learning together can be a powerful bonding agent.
Using social events as an opportunity for face time can work well too, but consider the individual and the event carefully. For instance, parents with young children may not be interested in extracurricular activities, but might highly value other face-time opportunities. Understand what they value by simply asking; then, just be present in all respects of the term.
Ask the right questions
It has never been so critical to understand your clients’ needs as now. I have gone on about client research, interviews and discussions here in the past, but the time has come to stop procrastinating, making excuses or busying yourself with other, lower-value, activities.
If you believe you know what your best clients are thinking, I’d say that these assumptions are largely incorrect. We can no longer guess what clients are thinking, or base assumptions on past expectations or outdated information that does not reflect or gage current opinions.
Take the Ispos Reid Market Now! report for the period between December 10 - 18, 2008 on how people are responding to the current economic situation. The results indicate a significant variance between men and women, those close to retirement, and those of affluence.
Levels of optimism between females and males differ when considering current economic conditions and financial outlooks. Women are more risk-averse or pessimistic about “investments associated with greater degrees of risk.”
In speaking with your female clients then, be sure to probe for how they rate levels of risk with each assignment. The greater your understanding of a client’s evaluation of a matter in terms of risk, the better positioned you are to offer her an alternative; perhaps a less costly measure of tackling issues rather than delaying them.
Of course, most lawyers can’t engage in meaningful non-billable conversations with every client. For most firms, the top 20 percent of clients you billed in the last fiscal year are worthy of some extra attention to ensure they are well-served and appreciated. These are the clients you don’t want to lose. If you make this extra effort, these clients will have no reason to stray to your competitors, and better yet, your competitors won’t even get face time with the client.
Take it up a notch, and activate a client-interview program that targets your most valuable clients. This is the part where we sit down with your client and discuss, nose to nose, what’s going well, and how you can do even better for them.
We take some notes, review them with the legal team, then circle back to the client who was interviewed. We parrot back to the client what we heard and tweak the service delivery in any way possible that benefits the client. Sometimes, it’s an opportunity to identify future work, but the focus is not on business development – it’s on feedback and improving service.
I see you wincing, but client interviews are the single most effective method to truly understand client needs and identify possible lurking issues just developing. And no, you don’t really know what the client will say unless you ask the right questions.
For other valued clients, this is an opportunity to differentiate yourself by discussing clients’ economic concerns and looking for ways in which you can help them without charge. Even reach out to clients you haven’t worked with for a year or two.
You are a trusted advisor, and your concern and feedback will be valued by your client. Literally go that extra mile, visit their place of business, and ask how they’re doing and how you can help by making introductions or sharing information.
Study the crystal ball
How do we stretch our marketing efforts even further, though? If we had a crystal ball and could predict where our clients would need us most we’d look like geniuses, make better use of our business development time and keep everyone around us busy. We’d hit the mark each time and our conversations would always be relevant and timely.
In the absence of a crystal ball, we can turn to commentary on our current economy, the federal and provincial budgets and economic outlook reports. On a regional basis some of this information is available from your business council or board of trade.
In B.C., one of my favourite sources for economic information is Jock Findlayson from the Business Council of B.C. He discusses economic trends and forecasts clearly and concisely, and in business-speak. He’s one of my heroes.
Look for a Jock in your region, review these reports regularly and start to put this intelligence to work for you and your firm. This is particularly relevant for all managing partners, practice group leaders and the rest of the firm’s leaders. It would also be of interest to marketing directors who support the firm’s leadership.
When considering where to spend your business development time or where to place emphasis on your marketing planning for 2009/2010, ponder the following and how it might impact your firm or practice:
- The recession is pervasive and steep, resulting in a lot of suffering businesses over the next while. The fledgling company may not have much for the collector to legally seize, but they might negotiate on other remaining assets. Legal skills needed then won’t necessarily just be in seizing security, but also how good you are in negotiating a settlement. The collector will need to move fast to reduce the hemorrhaging financial loss while they would otherwise be waiting for courts to determine an outcome. ADR will likely increase in popularity.
- In its Outlook 2009 report, BCA Research, an independent provider of global investment research, postures that a massive amount of debt is careering towards us as spending by government goes on a tear. The spending spree will surely require contract advice, private infrastructure development and P3 projects when financiers have a renewed taste for private financing. So, look at federal and provincial budgets and where money is getting spent. Legal services are sure to follow.
- Canadian real estate foreclosure rates have jumped 50% (a small total number) since last year and are expected to grow as unemployment increases. Of those who are employed, many are making less income as bonuses drop, or employees opt in to cut back from a five-day to a four-day work week. In addition to foreclosures, many near bankruptcies go unreported, but many still require legal counsel. Given the forecasting by financial commentators and pundits, the concept of thrift will be with us for years and long-term business planning can be developed around this principal.
As BCA Research reports, there’s no need to be overly worried about Canada moving into a depression-like environment. BCA Research notes in their report “Canada: Cyclically Weak, Structurally Strong” that Canadian households arguably have better balance sheets than their U.S., U.K. or Australian counterparts. Private sector debt is lower as a percentage of GDP than in these other countries.
Additionally, as BCA Research notes in the “Worried…” report, Canada is benefiting from a depreciating currency, whereas the U.S. is struggling with their appreciating currency against its trading partners. Canada’s goods have become significantly cheaper, in a very short period of time.
Of course, bear in mind that forecasts are predictions and not certainties, so carefully manage your level of risk with the business strategy you put into action.
And lastly, keep an eye out for overdue accounts related to any industry. Law firms should be billing promptly and with due dates. Many firms are still billing too late and letting receivables age, costing you and your firm money.
Smart marketing. Its time has come.
Susan Van Dyke, Principal, Van Dyke Marketing & Communications is a law firm marketing consultant based in Vancouver, BC. She can be reached at 604-876-7769 or email@example.com.