Nobody likes conversations with clients who are complaining about the size of their bills. If you respond with something like “I think you’ll find that our fees are commensurate with other firms of our size and experience”, you’re missing an opportunity.
Ideally, clients should not be surprised by the amounts of their bills; if you’ve communicated with them throughout the matter, they should already know what to expect. But what they’re really asking is “What do I get for all this money?” That’s when you need to have the Value Talk.
To a client starting up a business, the value of a partnership or shareholder agreement isn’t immediately obvious. They don’t yet know the twists and turns their businesses will take. They can’t see two years down the road when the business they started in their garage is taking off and the partners want to go in different directions, or one shareholder wants out, or another wants to bring in someone of whom the other investors don’t approve. They have no idea what such disagreements cost to fix without a partnership or shareholder agreement. So talk to them about the value, rather than the price, of the work you’ve done for them. Tell them about your experiences with other clients (unnamed, of course) so that they know the situations you’re describing are real.
And that brings us to the topic of what you’re really selling. What’s your value proposition? In my column of March 19 2013, Know What You’re Selling, I talked about letting your clients know what they’re protected from so that they understand the value of your services. But value must also be seen from the client’s point of view, because they might perceive your value to them quite differently from the way you see it. For example, I think my IT guy is worth every penny I pay him—not because my computer system is fast or because my phone syncs with my computer calendar wirelessly when I recharge it. No, it’s because I can get prompt answers to questions and if I run into a problem, he can fix it remotely. He’s there. The peace of mind is palpable.
I once had an immigration law firm as a client. They asked for help with trade show materials, so we talked about who would be attending the show and what their concerns might be. As they discussed H1 visas and NAFTA work permits and intra-corporate transfers, my head began to spin. Their clients, usually HR professionals in large companies, had to keep track of hundreds of employees crossing borders around the world. So I asked the lawyers, “How do your clients feel when you take over their immigration portfolio?” They looked surprised, but quickly came back with the answer: “Relieved. They’ll never miss visa application deadlines again.” That’s what they’re really selling—peace of mind. That’s the value proposition to the client. We quickly came up with a script for the lawyers staffing the booth to engage visitors in a meaningful conversation about their legal wants and needs.
A client-focused value proposition should be the foundation stone of all your marketing efforts, not just those conversations with clients about their bills. Randall Craig, author and president of consulting firm 108 ideaspace, says: “Most law firm marketers would argue that their competitive advantage falls along the dimensions of expertise and trust, not price. A value proposition summarizes why a client should engage the firm. A great value proposition summarizes why/how your firm can do this better than any other.”
Your value proposition should not only be the key message throughout your marketing materials, it should also be known by everyone in your firm. It’s as important for your receptionist to know the value proposition that her firm espouses as it is for your marketing director to use it in marketing materials. I once served on a committee with a retired Procter & Gamble executive who told me that he expected to be able to walk into any P&G production facility, ask anyone on the production line what was the primary purpose of the business, and receive the same answer—which would be the firm’s value proposition. He didn’t expect them to know the company’s stock price, but he did expect them to know what the company was selling (and it wasn’t just soap).
So how do you craft a client-focused value proposition? The first necessity is to understand your clients’ business needs, which is essential to providing good legal service anyhow. Then, besides resolving their legal issues satisfactorily, how else are you helping them? Does your advice help them to make good business decisions? Are you saving them time, money, reputation? Do you relieve them of worry, make them feel more empowered, give them confidence, make them look good? Rest assured, these are the things that matter to clients. Let’s give the last word to a client to prove it.
Chris Griffiths, director of fine tune consulting and founder of seven businesses, said in the Globe and Mail last year: “A few 20-minute phone calls throughout the year to give your lawyer a head’s up on a new project or direction in your business could generate some great legal advice, cautionary warnings or unbridled support. Any of these scenarios is valuable and the price you pay will be minimal when compared to the value of risk management you’ve achieved.”