Customer experience does not apply to us – ‘we’re different’! Is it possible to be a genuinely ‘customer centric’ law firm?


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Let me set a couple of things straight before I even start this blog post. Whilst the title suggests that I am focussing on one particular industry, the essence of what you are about to read can apply to many industries and professions all over the world. I must also make it clear that I am neither a lawyer nor someone who has extensive knowledge of the legal profession!

So that being said, why am I writing about an industry I know nothing about? Over the last few months, I have had a number of conversations with people in my networks about the challenges being faced by the traditional professions – predominantly law and accountancy. I have also conducted some work with one of the professional bodies that is responsible for developing the competencies of professionals working in these fields. During these conversations, it has become abundantly clear that those who know a lot about Legal and Accounting firms are concerned that they are amongst the most ‘un-customer centric’ organisations on the planet.

They are not alone. Despite the ever-growing Customer Experience ‘tidal wave’ there are still many untouched industries that are yet to acknowledge the need for change – the need to re-think the way they interact with customers and clients. These industries are often populated by businesses who THINK they are already customer focussed. They do not THINK there is any need to do anything differently. They THINK that Customer Experience does not apply to them.

I have worked recently with a company who did not think that Customer Experience applied to them – ‘we are different’ the senior managers in the business said. They may THINK they are different…..but they are no different to any business that relies on the successful interaction with a customer to drive the commercial goals of the organisation.

Businesses that THINK there is no need to change are usually ones who are focussed on one primary measure of success – SALES. If the ‘top line’ is doing well, why do we need to change? If we consider the way the legal profession has worked traditionally, it is one that is as SALES focussed as any other. I have been told by many people that legal firms will ‘not work for nothing’. Every minute of every day is an opportunity to generate sales….or in other words ‘bill the client’. As long as employees of the firm are generating ‘billable hours’ all is good with the world. This is what I am being told – and it does not sound very customer centric to me!

I was told today that law firms are incredibly ‘short term’ focussed businesses. It is all about the weekly sales figures. If the figures are not going in the right direction, find more clients to bill. This is NOT a strategy that will lead to long term sustainability of an organisation – however long it might have existed up to now. I was also told that firms tend not to care too much about ‘non fee generating staff’ – that is not the kind of business I would want to work for.

The industry insiders I have been interacting with are in complete agreement that the profession needs to change. The problem is that as yet, there is little evidence that firms are prepared to take the step to change the status quo. It is almost as though the industry is caught in a vacuum of past glories and no-one is willing to disrupt what they perceive to have ‘always worked’.

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So is it possible to create a genuinely customer centric law firm that puts the needs of its ‘customers’ in equal balance with the commercial goals of the partners? You can guess what my answer is going to be…… of course it is! What the legal profession desperately needs is DISRUPTION! The legal profession needs someone – an individual, or a firm, or multiple firms – to disrupt the status quo. It needs someone to show the rest of the profession that it is possible to change the way things work – the way they have worked in the PAST.  Like other industries before it, the people who run law firms need to understand that becoming more customer centric will not only deliver financial benefits in the LONG TERM, it will also enable their businesses to become more efficient and effective at doing the things they do – or in other words improve their profitability.

To DISRUPT an industry takes ‘balls’! It requires forward thinking innovators to recognise that change realises opportunities. I strongly believe that the implementation of a Customer Experience Framework can help law firms to be the best they can be – for their partners, employees and customers. At conferences, workshops and seminars that I have the honour of delivering all over the world, I always remind people that at the end of the day, we are all customers in our own right. Even a lawyer is a customer him or herself – the key is to remind the lawyer that the things he/she considers to be important as a customer are exactly the same as the things his/her own customers consider important as well.

If you are a genuinely customer centric law firm, I would love to know about it – what are you doing to disrupt your industry? It would be great for others to hear your story.

As always, your thoughts on anything I write are very warmly welcomed – whether you agree with my point of view or not!

11 thoughts on “Customer experience does not apply to us – ‘we’re different’! Is it possible to be a genuinely ‘customer centric’ law firm?

  1. Hi Ian, I was at the Employee & Customer Engagement Forum in London in September, and this chap (Nigel Spencer, Global Director of Learning & Development) was speaking from Reed Smith LLP (http://www.reedsmith.com/aboutus/) . He was talking about what they are doing to change the way law firms differentiate, starting with Employee Engagement, e.g. Gen Y – getting them engaged and involved, growing people, giving them more earlier in their career, reverse mentoring etc. It was very interesting and it was refreshing to hear from an industry that you don’t “typically” hear from at these type of events. As you say, the Law industry (as do many others) need disrupting and moving forwards, faster.

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  2. There are successful exceptions but the points you mention are still very much entrenched in many law firms. The partner-led model has been given a wake-up nudge by the emergence of ABSs and outsourcing processors but, for example on the corporate side, long term contracts have bred a ‘milk it today and we’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow’ complacency. Unfortunately for them in the meantime, clients’ own world has changed as general counsel become a mainstream part of their business and as personal clients, we are more demanding of what we get from a law firm and how they do it.

    Law firms, like any business, already “do” customer experience whether it’s intended or not; the shift to making them the right experiences is not as big as they fear and is more profitable than admiring the status quo. In-house lawyers and personal clients don’t ask much of their law firm – technical ability is (broadly) taken as a given so the way to keep and attract clients is in the softer stuff that isn’t billed for but has a huge positive impact – for example, being responsive, taking time to understand the client, showing empathy with their challenges and helping them succeed in their own business.

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    • Thank you for the wonderful insight Jerry. The fact that law firms have engaged with Customer Experience experts like your good self is a very good sign – long may it continue!

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  3. As a long-standing practising accountant, Ian, I am of course truly horrified by your view that my profession is extremely un-customer centric! However that doesn’t make your comments any less valid.
    Can I suggest perhaps 2 obvious reasons for this deficiency: firstly professional firms spend most of their time advising clients in one form or another and therefore it is difficult for us to believe that we are doing anything but giving our clients what they want. However the fact that, for example, a client needs a set of accounts for a variety of purposes doesn’t mean that they find them particularly useful, often regarding them as a starting point not an end in themselves.
    Secondly standard business teaching across all SMEs suggests that any business essentially exists to provide the owners with the profits and lifestyle to which they aspire. This usually leads to concentration on internal issues such as: cashflow, profit, key performance indicators, systems, USPs etc. Now, all of these can be vital components of monitoring business performance. But of course they are all irrelevant if customers are not coming through the door!
    AND fundamentally, accountants are often in the vanguard of advising business on just these very internal issues, but rather ignoring the customer facing ones. Why would we be any good at client advice if we often can’t get our own houses in order(the very point of your piece)!
    However, there is the start of what may be a fundamental change in the way our firms think and act.
    Traditionally, professional firms have invoiced clients based on time spent. This is a really poor approach, for both the firm and it’s clients!
    More enlightened firms have moved to “value-based” invoicing. This should help to get professional firms into addressing some of the problems you raise! If the firm doesn’t provide perceived value to the client base, then they won’t get paid!

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    • What a wonderful response to this Adrian – ‘value based invoicing’ – it would be quite something for any industry to commit to doing that! Thank you so much for sharing as always!

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      • There are many points in the Ron Baker piece, Ian, but two issues arise of great relevance to your work, I think.
        On the face of it where a professional firm switches it’s pricing from time to a value approach, this is not just a procedural matter. As Ron Baker says it represents a different business model – with a fundamental change in the way it interacts with it’s clients!
        In the accountancy market there are many advocates of this new approach. Most notably perhaps the AVN association of firms,of which I am a member(just to come clean!). Mark Wickersham is the group’s resident pricing expert.
        However it has to be said that AVN represents a tiny proportion of UK accountants, so there is much more work to do in this area!

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  4. Interesting post Ian. I think those firms that invest significantly in digital marketing have embraced the importance of client experience. Also, we were recently invited to present the results of our mystery shopping to the Mazars National Partner Conference. These guys were very switched on to the competitive advantage that an excellent client experience gives them. Check out our website and client feedback at http://www.servicereality.co.uk to see some of our other enlightened clients.

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