Hygiene factors versus differentiators

In 2011 I wrote the first of four books on the topic of business development in the professional services field. Titled The Invasion Game, it covered a simple but powerful approach to practice growth for lawyers. The starting point was that most lawyers attempt to differentiate themselves on the basis of expertise, which prospective clients see largely as a hygiene factor.

In that book, I suggested that the personal and commercial “fit” were more important to clients. I defined “personal fit” as shared values and behaviours. By commercial fit, I meant the opportunity for you, as a lawyer, to add significant value to this client, rather than simply resolving a legal issue. I coined the phrase “Conversation is the New PowerPoint®” to describe gathering information to determine what drives the client rather than making a generic presentation.

Clients are becoming more demanding

It seems that clients are changing. To focus on what drives them and on ascertaining specific needs that you can address is still necessary in winning business. Nowadays, it is no longer sufficient.

Clients now still take technical expertise for granted. They are unforgiving if they find it lacking. Personal fit is also becoming more of a hygiene factor in that it too is now felt to be a necessary factor in the hiring decision. Commercial fit may be assumed at a level. However, it appears increasingly to be used by smart professionals as a differentiator.

Insight not information

Too often, communication is sent out in the form of generic, impersonal emails. Too often also, they are no more than extracts from new legislation with (perhaps) a top and tail comment added. Sometimes even that degree of personalisation is missing.

Our research indicates that clients place very little value on such briefings. Instead, they prefer insights, not mere information either by way of:

  • A brief, personal email that comes from the person with whom they normally deal at your firm or
  • A short phone call from that person.

In either case, it should highlight one or two specific technical issues that are likely to be relevant, right now to the client. It also explains what the issue means for the client and what action is recommended. It may also propose a meeting or a longer call to discuss further. Ideally it will also highlight opportunities, not simply problems.

What to send to whom?

Email communication can now be automated to a large degree, using services such as AWeber, Constant Contact or InfusionSoft. The fact that you can send an email to everyone on the firm’s mailing list does not mean you should do so. Taking the time to segment your list in order to identify topics that are of particular relevance to each individual delivers a far more effective approach.

The key here is to ensure that your email (or phone call) meets four criteria:

  • The topic is of immediate relevance to the client
  • You are providing some kind of insight not mere information
  • You are adding real value through the communication
  • You can express the ideas in around 450 words (i.e. roughly one side of a sheet of typed A4 paper or a three minute phone call)

Ideally you would send your targeted email and follow up with a phone call. Both the email and the phone call can usefully suggest a follow up meeting or call to discuss in more detail.

In a world filled with ever more noise, regardless of the medium (email or phone), it is important that your communication gains the attention of the client and is acted upon in the way you wish. An email must

  • Get past any automated junk filter (using plain text and minimal embedded images / links helps)
  • Be opened (as opposed to being deleted unread)
  • Be read in full
  • Be acted upon as you wish

The client must pick up the phone call – or you must develop an effective strategy to leave good voicemails. It too must be acted upon if it is to be effective. It is essential that you decide in advance what action you want the client to take in response to your communication.  In other words, as an American friend says “What’s the ask?”

For How Long Should You Carry On Keeping In Touch?

Once a matter has concluded, it is tempting to keep in touch for a limited period and then cease. In our experience this often loses opportunities to resurrect relationships and win additional work.

In a recent client interview, we learned that one of the Big Four accountancy firms remains in touch with a former client on a reasonably regular basis some four years after their last engagement. Their communications meet all of the criteria outlined above. Who will be top of mind for the client when time comes to review their advisory contracts?

In general, we recommend keeping in touch with all former clients permanently; at least until they retire or emigrate, so long as we are able to do so in a manner that meets the criteria outlined above. A drip feed of useful, relevant ideas and opportunities that add value in each case pays dividends in evidencing our expertise and cementing relationships.

By Stephen Newton