Ask the Coach

  • March 26, 2009
  • Gary Mitchell

Q: "Ask the Coach: How do I market in an economic downturn?" —Junior Partner, Regional Firm

A: This question couldn’t be more timely. Professional services marketing is all about building close and trusted relationships. Now more than ever this is true and should be your primary guiding principle when choosing your marketing tactics.

If you couple this with the fact that clients are looking for more value – and have more time now to scrutinize it – you need to look for ways to differentiate yourself by the value you provide. When you do this, you will not only ride out this market cycle, your practice will be more profitable and more predictable on the other side of it.

This article explores the actions you can take to build relationships that have the most impact:

  • Meet with each of your key clients
  • Raise your profile – strategically
  • Understand your own SWOT
  • Be innovative

Meet with your clients

If you haven’t done this already, go out and see all of your key clients. Find out what they are worried about, what their current or immediate challenges are, and what they foresee as future challenges. What is going on in their day-to-day operations? Be genuinely interested in them.

Here’s how it turned out for one of our clients: While on a call with a firm client, a junior lawyer learned of a pressing need. He communicated that need to his managing partner who immediately got on the phone with the client. Ten minutes later, at the client’s request, the managing partner met the client at this office and a few minutes after that, he secured a large mandate to help the client solve the problem the junior lawyer had learned about earlier that day. It can be that simple.

Get a pulse on what your clients are doing, what they need and how can you help them. To do that, you have to get out there and talk to them. The opportunity here is to create a value-based relationship. The impact of your social relationship with a client is important but will only get you so far; watch what happens when you create a value-based relationship.

Raise your profile – strategically

Shotgun approach or strategic approach? That’s easy. Strategic. Don’t do what everyone else does (”show up and throw up”). Look at building your profile from the client’s perspective first, then your own.

Here’s how you can avoid the lacklustre results you get from a self-centred shotgun approach by being strategic about how you build your profile: First, be where your target market is; second, be relevant. How do you do that? Ask your current clients what events they attend and why. Ask them what they read and why. Ask them what content would be of value to them and why. Find out what’s missing.

Then, contact the associations and publications your target market attends and reads and ask them the same questions. This is a highly effective and strategic way of ensuring you are where your target market is and you’re relevant to them and their needs.

Understand your own SWOT

Take a good hard look at your own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. You should always know where you stand. And, if you are in a practice area that thrives in this kind of market cycle (insolvency, for example), then my repeated message of “niche thyself” holds true now more than ever. Keep your focus, deliver good service and keep your eye on client relationships.

If, however, you are in a practice area that typically suffers in this kind of economic cycle (M&A for example), then follow this advice: These times call for your flexibility and nimbleness. But be strategic about it. It might be tempting to take the work wherever you can get it right now, but first think about work that will diversify your core practice.

For example, look within your firm for work in related areas to your main focus. This will enhance your core competency without distracting you from it. Once you have identified these opportunities, go and speak to the practice leader in those areas, ask how you can help them expand a practice group or create a new team. There isn’t a better time to be creative, create teams and work together.

Be innovative

Rising tides raise all ships. And the tides have been rising for the last several years. But we’re not in Kansas anymore – those tides are no longer rising. Market cycles like the one we’re in now tend to shed light on strengths and weaknesses. That means that slight competitive advantages can become significant advantages, while weaknesses can prove fatal.

Be innovative in the way you connect with your clients. How can you repackage your current services or customize them? Can you offer alternative billing arrangements? Consider unbundling services which allow your clients to pay separately for different elements of what was previously an all-in-one package (like the airline industry did by unbundling food, luggage and seat selection options). How can you offer customized project pricing for major projects?

Being innovative isn’t always easy, because it means you have to take the lead. You can’t wait for others to try and prove something works (a habit most lawyers and law firms have come to embrace). It means you have to be willing to try new things. But new doesn’t have to mean risky.

When you take the first step and meet with your key clients, you will gain a better insight into possible approaches you can take. When you listen, your clients will always tell you the direction you should take.

The 80/20 rule

In closing, spend 80 per cent of your marketing efforts with your current clients, adding more value and coming up with new and innovative ways to serve them. Invest the other 20 per cent in trying new things, new approaches – be bold. You’ve likely heard the over-used expression, “Think outside the box.” So here’s a new spin on the old term: Get rid of the box entirely and recycle it so your competition can use it.

Let me know how it works out for you.

Gary Mitchell is the Managing Director of GEM Communications, where he leads an international team of consultants and coaches who help lawyers and law firms prepare for and profit from transformation in the legal industry. GEM’s services include strategic planning, marketing, media relations, and a suite of coaching programs that address the talent development needs of law firms. Gary can be reached at or 604.669.5235