Professional Service Firms (PSFs)

A fundamental of a successful brand is building trust. You build trust when other individuals who experience your service, product and brand offering trust that you will deliver on what you offer to do thereby achieving what I term ‘Brand Fusion™’. In turn this builds loyalty, that much sought-after, but rarely achieved status. But, it can be won. It just takes effort and making sure you do in fact deliver on what you offer.

It seems so obvious doesn’t it? Why would firms not do this? However, it is surprising how few organisations and professional service firms deliver; those that do, you will notice, achieve lasting success based on sound fundamentals with a trusted brand at the top of the list.

Always deliver what you offer. So, if you say ‘contact us’, make sure your website and links actually make it easy and intuitive to do just that, ‘contact you’, and make sure it is a person at the other end! If it does not, don’t offer it, as you will simply annoy actual and potential customers and lose their trust, respect and this will hammer their loyalty.

Let’s consider one very simple and obvious example where countless organisations slip up. Ever had an issue with a product or service and tried to communicate this with the company or organisation concerned? Ever tried to get hold of a real human via their ‘contact us’ link? I bet you have! I have, often, and sadly I must say most companies come up wanting, particularly the bigger, most ‘successful’ ones. The reason is simple: ‘contact us’ in plain English means you can get in touch with a person in our organisation in this way. The reality of experience proves all too often this is not the case.

While I have the feeling that most law firms don’t perform badly on this example (mainly because you can in fact get hold of a human being when you have an issue and more often than not even the head of the firm). For the sake of the profession, long may this continue. But you need to remain keenly aware of getting even these simple things right and all the other stuff that you ‘promise’ to potential clients and recruits. You then need to test everything else that you ‘offer’ and make sure this is experienced at every touch-point by everyone who comes into contact with your organisation. The truly great organisations do this, even the big ones. That is why their brands engender trust and loyalty. Remember, people who trust a brand ‘buy now and ask questions later’. 

I have recently experienced two encouraging exceptions to this:
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Law firms don’t recognise that the balance of power in relation to their employment brand lies not in their hands, but in the hands of their employees. To make matters worse, some of this power also lies in the hands of former employees, potential employees and other “employment stakeholders” such as recruitment agencies and digital media channels dedicated to commenting on the foibles of law firms.

Law firms don’t appreciate that the balance of power in relation to their employment brand lies with their employees, and even their former and potential employees, as well as with other parties like recruitment agencies . These other parties determine the brand. Firms assume it is what they offer that matters, but that is but one small component in the mix. (© Sean Larkan 2012)

This is because a firm’s employment brand is based on how the firm is perceived and experienced as an employer by existing employees, past employees and potential employees, as well as by other parties such as recruitment agencies and the media. Its employment brand is not what the firm thinks it is, but what these ‘others’ think it is.

This is a harsh lesson for most firms to stomach. It can be mystifying. Firms assume their employment brand is based on what they say in their recruitment materials, on their website, what they do, what they decide to offer employees as part of their employment package, and so on.

Instead, the power lies in the hands of others, the firm’s employees, past employees, potential employees, and others in the recruitment and media industries. What employers offer to their employees is merely part of what we call their employment brand offering. Firms still have a great deal of work to do to build their employment brand. For a start:

  • you must clarify your employment brand offering – identify, clarify and agree all the things you do offer to existing and potential employees and what makes working for the firm special and sets it apart. Bear in mind that standard features and benefits don’t make much of a difference; they don’t differentiate a firm as all firms offer them anyway – if they don’t now they can easily and quickly replicate them;
  • you must achieve Brand Fusion™ which is essentially ensuring that what you offer is actually experienced or has been experienced in the case of past employees. This is no mean feat given that you are largely dependent on the exigencies of individualistic, independent-minded partners to act as your front-line troops in making this happen;
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My wife and I bought a small farm three years ago. As the grazing was leased out to a beef farmer the quality of the boundary fencing was paramount. The lady we purchased from told me up-front (and has reminded me ever since!) – ‘now Sean, remember to walk your fence-lines‘.  She was essentially saying check them regularly for breaks, leaning or weak posts, or other issues, but also to see what was really going on around the farm – ‘you never know what you may pick up‘.

This advice reminded me of my days helping to run large law firms – I happened to enjoy walking around, at least weekly, talking to staff and partners in various sections of the firm – apart from being enjoyable, it was amazing how much one picked up and could convey in those informal interactions.

Remember to walk the fence-lines of your firm – talking to partners and staff – you will pick up on issues, identify achievements and be showing an interest in those who make the wheels go round (Sean Larkan image ©: Austral Eden region, NSW)

I did notice though as I got busy, or we had to deal with one or other crisis, this practice somehow seemed to slip into the background, priority-wise. Sometimes too, one may be tied up with a merger – ‘important stuff‘, and it always got priority. It always took time to get back to the walking around ritual, each time reminding myself – ‘can’t let that drift’.

I had this message brought home to me again last week when the editor from the publisher of my upcoming book on law firm branding arranged a new time-table for me. I had fallen behind my schedule – she said with my consent she would ‘walk my fence-line’ i.e. keep closer tabs on me. What a nice way to say ‘listen, I am keeping an eye on you – time to start delivering‘!

There are a number of benefits flowing from walking the fence-line:
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You can be the brightest spark in the office but if people can never get hold of you, or after they do you take ages to respond or are simply unreliable, no-one is ever sure you will do the job, professionally you are going to do yourself in.

Nothing beats being accessible, responsive and reliable. You can be the sharpest tool in the workshop, but if you can't be found, don't respond well when used or don't do the job you are called on to do, people will eventually tire of using you. The same applies to professionals. (Sean Larkan image - Old Dairy Gerringong - ©2012)
Nothing beats being accessible, responsive and reliable. You can be the sharpest tool in the shed, but if you can't be found, don't respond well when used or don't do the job you are called on to do, people will eventually tire of using you. The same applies to professionals. (Sean Larkan image – Old Dairy Gerringong – ©2012)

I know of one professional who is highly sought after due to his niche practice and ability. As a consequence he is very busy and time-poor. So busy in fact that he has an automated message responding to his emails, always, saying ‘sorry tied up doing x, y or z. Your enquiry is important, I will revert etc’ – unfortunately, you usually don’t get a response from him, not even later. You soon get the message, his work is more important than your enquiry or message. He has made himself inaccessible, is unresponsive and in your mind will probably not be reliable to deal with. In fact he also appears to be discourteous.

On the other hand we all know professionals who are busier than most, but who still manage to be remarkably accessible, courteous, responsive and reliable – some come to mind for me – Michael Katz, chairman of Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, Rob Otty, Managing Director of Norton Rose RSA, Jordan Furlong my partner in Edge International, Giam Swiegers, National CEO of Deloitte, Australia, John Poulsen managing partner of Squire Sanders (formerly Minter Ellison, Perth), Roger Collins Chairman of Grant Thornton Australia and Derek Colenbrander CEO of CareFlight Australia.

One of the most enjoyable responsibilities I had as a former managing partner of large firms was to do a short introductory talk to new recently-joined lawyers. The discussion, which we tried to make interactive, commenced by asking what they felt they would need to do or be to succeed in a large firm environment. As one would expect coming from the brightest law school graduates, the responses were varied and fascinating. However, not many picked up on these seemingly obvious attributes: accessibility, responsiveness and reliability. It was possible to emphasise these, providing examples, without names, of lawyers who did not have the best university pass or who were not regarded as the best technical lawyers in their practice area, but who rose to greatness and built substantial practices, at least in part due to these characteristics. I also emphasised that a big part of their early success would depend on their courtesy to staff, mainly support staff.

Your personal brand:
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Yes, get to know your clients, or someone else will!  Law firms that fail to obtain regular feedback from their clients run the risk of:

  • not keeping pace with their clients’ needs and expectations – and losing their work.
  • not knowing when a client is unhappy – and losing their work.
  • missing out on lucrative opportunities with their clients that they didn’t even know about.
  • slow payment of their bills, and/or requests for fee write downs, because their clients are unhappy.
I welcome as a guest to Legal Leaders Blog, Michael Moon, MD of Law Review, who specialises in advising on client reviews  and provides some great comment on these critical issues. Michael has also offered to provide a very handy free guide to obtaining quality client feedback – you just need to email him – details below.
Reviewing client service is part art, part science and can provide huge value – firms have realised the benefit of doing this in a structured, coherent way – some have also seen the benefit of having someone independent of the firm tackling this important strategic task

In a recent Legal Leaders Blog article entitled “Volatile future will demand law firms bring more to the party”  much was made of the increasingly competitive legal market and the need for law firms to provide a lot more to clients than just “quality legal advice”.  The article went on to suggest a number of things that clients are likely to demand from their legal advisors moving forward, including better service, improved value for money, more accurate scoping of work and a detailed understanding of a client’s industry and business.

We regularly conduct relationship review interviews with general counsel, senior in-house counsel and other users of legal services, from many of Australia’s leading private and public sector organisations, and these sentiments are consistently reflected in those interviews. In-house legal teams are increasingly under significant internal pressure to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their organisation’s legal function, including the value that they are receiving from their external legal advisors.
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It does seem like we have been laying into angry or difficult partners lately – so much so, you (almost) gotta feel sorry for them! (not really, we all know how difficult they can really be and how much time and positive energy they eat up) –  3 recent posts attest to this:

  1. Difficult partners

Challenging one’s vision and strategy somehow seems counter-intuitive, especially when so much time, effort and thought has gone into putting it together. But strategy is about achieving a competitive, and ideally a dominant positioning, and challenge it you must.

Stress test your strategy during formulation, prior to finalisation and regularly during the implementation phase, with semi-formal and formal reviews at designated times. Do this and strategy quickly alters from being an annual 'necessary evil' to an essential and practical process which is key to your business success.

Professional Service Firms (PSFs) find determining and reviewing vision and strategy a real bind. A necessary evil that has to be done each year (or every so often). Unfortunately it does not often get the real attention and passion it deserves. For this reason it is also often not properly stress-tested and reviewed.

Address the basics: I often come across firms which have completed their strategy but are still not clear on basics like:

  • what category of clients they will focus on?
  • what industry sectors will they concentrate on?
  • what geographic areas are relevant for them?
  • how will they deliver service (in a unique and differentiated way)?
  • what cultural attributes or guiding principles do they need in place to ensure they will achieve this strategy?
  • what is their people strategy and focus to deliver on this?
  • what is their brand strategy and level of understanding around brand?
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Soft Power leadership may provide a helpful framework of understanding and application for leaders or senior managers of professional service firms (PSF), particularly law firms.

Undertaking a leadership role in a PSF has always presented some unique challenges around power and leadership styles.  The reason is that the traditional sources and trappings of power and authority available to leaders in the corporate world are almost never available to PSF leaders.

The exercise of leadership is also different – even where authority has been granted, it is usually exercised with real care and discrimination. I believe Soft Power is a style of leadership which can play a role here – it relies on influencing others based on one’s set of values, personal attributes and leadership style, rather than traditional bases for power. I think it makes sense for PSFs. If it can be made to work, it affirms you don’t need the normal corporate sources of power to succeed in leadership.

Soft Power – a style of leadership which relies on influencing others based on one's set of values, personal attributes and example rather than traditional bases for power (iPad graphic by Sharon Larkan with thanks to Alan Moir for the idea)

What is Soft Power leadership? Let’s break it down, in reverse order:

  • leadership means leading or going forward, the skill to help a group define and achieve a common purpose. There are various types of leadership, but all have in common a relationship with followers and therefore some form of power over them. Leadership and power are therefore inextricably intertwined.
  • power at a general level is the ability to influence the behaviour of others, to get the outcomes one wants, through the possession of certain capabilities or resources.  You can coerce with threats, induce with payments or attract or co-opt.
  • Soft Power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. It relies on influencing others based on one’s set of values, personal attributes and leadership style. It is about attracting and co-opting. On the other hand hard power typically comes to the fore through authority and coercion, and for countries, through military might and economic power (e.g. USA and China, although China is studying the application of Soft Power principles).

Where did the concept of Soft Power come from?
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