Law firms have at least 2 branding initiatives at any single point in time. One is carefully planned, orchestrated, researched, and measured to determine its success. The other is far less formal. It occurs as interactions between the individuals at your firm and people outside the firm—namely clients and potential clients. This informal branding leaves a larger and much more lasting imprint than your formal initiatives.
The good and the bad news is the interactions between your firm and the rest of the world are almost limitless. But of this plethora of interactions, our research shows 7 stand out with much more impact than all the others:
Inevitable scope changes either destroy or boost your brand. They are never neutral. The firms actively discussing scope changes with clients on a real-time basis look good and make their client look good. Your client can announce changes to their internal stakeholders well in advance of completion and look like they are in control and know where things are headed. Clients brand these proactive firms as being on top of their plan, strategy, and able to adapt on the fly.
Clients remark the firms not reporting the impact of scope changes on a timely basis are just not client focused and/or not thinking about their matters strategically. Neither is likely to get you more business.
How You Treat Your Client in the Courtroom or Negotiations in Front of the Other Side
Top legal decision makers tell us they learn so much about firms by watching them in the courtroom, negotiating deals, dealing with regulators, or in action somewhere. They watch the legal strategy unfold, but are equally mindful of how these attorneys treat their clients. Some describe opposing attorneys as heavy handed and dogmatic while others envy how the other side behaves. Equal numbers of corporate counsel make the decision either to hire the other side the next time out or to never use them based on what they see during a live performance.
Clients believe they are seeing you at your best. Whatever you present, say, and do brands you forever, or at least for a very long time. This is the ultimate direct experience. Clients presume the insight you bring during the pitch will be the level they can expect during your work together. The look and feel of your presentation, the level of interactivity, the level of teamwork, the specificity you bring, and the ease with which you move through the pitch set the expectation—and to a large extent—tell clients what your firm is worth.
Your Final Invoice
The one document every single client reads. Whether or not you’ve discussed it in advance, clients always have a figure in mind of what your services will cost. They expect your invoice to be reflective of their expectations and expect it to be concise. The minute your final invoice includes any billings your client doesn’t already know about, the negative branding begins. Your final invoice represents the culmination of your strategy, planning, and ability to execute the plan.
When your invoice doesn’t match the client’s expectations, clients immediately know this is about surprise charges, untold changes in scope, impacts of unplanned events, or changes in fact and circumstance. If your client learns any of these things through the invoice and not in a conversation with you at the time of the change, they will label your firm as unreliable. To clients, their budget is just as important as the outcome.
The budget is one of the items which clients report to others outside the department. When clients have to explain budget overruns to their boss—or worse, the Board—they look bad in front of the people who matter most. The firms making them look bad are branded forever.
And if your client never brings up the budget, remember: Every client has a budget, even when they have no budget at all.
Your Voicemail Message
Clients believe your voicemail message speaks volumes about your approach to client service and individual clients. Clients want to know when you will be back and when you will be answering calls. They also want a reference to someone they can reach for immediate needs.
Top legal decision makers take note of the attorneys who are silent about when they will return; the messages just saying “leave a message,” and those saying they will “reply at their earliest convenience.” Clients brand these attorneys as those not to call with important and time-sensitive matters.
Your Email Signature
Clients want to be able to reach you when they want. All things being equal, which they often are, convenient access to your email and phone are surprisingly essential. This is especially true for questions about new issues and when your client wants to brainstorm or is looking for an opinion. These are the conversations which lead to new work. Be sure to include your email, direct office number, and cell phone in every email (and reply email) to clients.
Asking for Meaningful Client Feedback
Law firms seeking client feedback are still in the minority. This applies to the hardcore feedback which clients believe is so important to improving performance—and to making their own life easier. The law firms conducting world-class client feedback interviews where clients learn something about themselves and you learn how to improve, differentiate themselves from other firms.
You can turn unintended branding into a positive brand differentiator for your firm by exercising the same diligence as you do to intentional branding initiatives. Embracing the tools like scripts for voicemails, templates for email signatures, hardcore training for client-focused pitches, and measuring how quickly you tell clients about scope changes will all harness the power of unintentional branding. You will not enjoy a stronger and more unified brand—you will stop unintentional branding from standing in the way of winning the next piece of new work.