Let them eat chocolates!

January 9, 2006

Cue the Ambassador?s residence, a dinner party for glamorous and sophisticated people, soft lights, romantic music, and a beautiful young woman approaches her impossibly handsome host ?Ahh Mr Ambassador you spoil us with your chocolates?.

This fondly remembered line from a rather silly television advert about luxury chocolates is also relevant to legal services. I realise there is a bit of a leap quoting from 1980?s TV advertising to making a serious point about lawyers but stay with me?

You see I think it helps to illustrate the as yet largely unresolved question at the heart of professional services delivery; what is it exactly that clients value?

Do they marvel at the quality of the legal advice? (?Ahh Mr Lawyer you spoil us with your warranty clauses?) or do they marvel at the quality of the service and the care taken to invest in the relationship? (Which for the sake of my analogy are the ?chocolates?.)

My contention is that for most work, most of the time, the client does not appreciate or value or care about the quality of the legal advice given. The client instead is concerned about whether there is enough chocolate; which in this instance means the following:

? Do I like the way I am being told stuff?
? Do I understand what I am being told?
? Is it on time and can I afford it?
? Can I use it and do I want to come back for more?

In short, do I value the experience?

In such a competitive world where business is hard won and so difficult to retain the way firm?s manage relationships and care about the chocolates, it is getting more and more important.

I am now beginning to regret my analogy as it perhaps trivialises such a key issue, so let me try to persuade you in a different way. If you accept that the experience of the client when using the firm is important, (I say more important than the legal advice ? but even if you disagree with me on that point you will hopefully accept that it is very important alongside the quality of the legal advice), then certain management issues naturally follow:

? How do you assess what the client will value and, as important, will value less?
? How can you ensure that you are delivering what the client wants and values?
? How do you raise awareness across the firm that client perception is really, really important?
? How do you articulate and measure value as a means to sustain and improve profitability?

These are not Holy Grail questions to be met with the riposte ?Well if we all knew the answer to that we would all be rich?? These are, quite frankly, the questions any firm with ambitions to be successful, must try to answer.

I am also of the view that the answers are closer at hand than might first be thought possible.

The way we need to think, however, demands that we focus our thinking not on the quality of the advice but on the quality of the means by which we deliver advice. What does this mean in practical terms? For me it means joining together three themes:

? First, what does the firm stand for? What are its values? How does it want to portray those values in terms of the client?s experience? What, in the marketing parlance of today, is the ?look and feel? of the service?

? Secondly what are the processes and policies that help to support these things ? think in terms of reward systems, appraisal systems, targets and objectives etc. The more specific the better as very specific actions are easier to assess in terms of impact.

? Thirdly ensure that the firm?s values and the supporting processes and policies are linked into a serious and focussed personal development and training programme for every individual.

Each of the three elements supports the other two; each element is important in its own right but diminished without the other two; all three elements together work to create a virtuous circle of activity, process improvement and client satisfaction that helps to ensure a greater chance of success.

In turn, this should also mean that a firm?s management and leadership become issues for competitive advantage. Until quite recently law firms have seen competitive advantage in more obvious issues such as subject specialism, location, price, technology and so on.

To see competitive advantage in management will be news to many but to me it is the most important unconquered area of effectiveness and efficiency.

The legal market is full of brands that have little or no resonance with the public and corporate clients, but where professionalism, honesty and integrity are almost guaranteed. In addition, competition ensures that while prices are a variable they are increasingly less of an issue in terms of the choice to be made between firms.

There are therefore so few distinguishing features between any number of good competitors that in the end, judgments can only be made based on the quality of the relationship, the way the service is received and the ease of use. While these things can be given prominence by individuals and help to build individual reputations, it is for management to ensure there is a consistently excellent standard of service delivery across the whole firm. Indeed, only management can design the framework that supports doing the right things more often and only management can incentivise performance and deal with dysfunctional behaviours.

The firms that get this right will leap ahead of those competitors who believe that simply being good lawyers is going to be enough.

It is going to be a fascinating time??Let them eat chocolates!? Cue music?

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