The Real Worry About Your Competitors

Wisconsin Law Journal - October 3, 2011

I recently spoke with a lawyer who suggested that increased competition was the largest challenge facing lawyers. What this lawyer specifically referenced was the difficulty of competing against lawyers who advertise heavily on television — not just the personal injury lawyers on late night and early morning spot ads, but lawyers with general practices who advertise estate planning, family law, restructuring and other services throughout the day.

Electronic media are certainly seductive tools on the surface for approaching clients — not only television but all the many Internet and social networking technologies and even something so seemingly old school as radio (for example, Atlanta-based Womble Carlyle has done radio spot advertising featuring its “Winston” bulldog mascot for more than a decade). However, such media are broadcasting in the purest sense of the word. They may reach a few potential clients, but they also reach many more people who don't have the slightest interest in the law firm being advertised. And the firm is paying for all those disengaged listeners.

This is not to say that advertising is irrelevant.

The Internet marketing efforts of small firm practitioners are typically designed to generate awareness and to get clients to initiate contact. When even the smallest of firms have informative Web pages, and their lawyers can interact with worldwide users of blogs and social networking sites, the playing field is leveled. The online marketing efforts of small firm practitioners should be designed to reach both current and potential clients and to encourage them to call if they have a need. Information provided aims at showing whether the firm's skills match their needs.

That said, the best focus any firm can bring to any marketing effort is to emphasize reaching existing clients. Bond with them; serve them in ways that create loyalty; and have these very same clients be your advocates with others. For such clients, you don't need television. What you do need is to know in exact detail the work done for current clients, how profitable that work is for the firm and what opportunities exist to get more work. That means you should be able to answer fundamental questions about the products, customers, financial health and employee demographics of any client.

If you can't, a competitor will at some point down the road.

Clients do not need to be convinced of your or the firm's expertise — otherwise they would not have remained clients. What they want in order to give you more work is to feel comfortable with you as a professional. Clients are most comfortable in their native habitat, where they work and do business.

How often do you see them there? What kinds of information might you gather, informal and perhaps even unspoken, that would dramatically expand the work you do for them, and even convey it on your website or in emails? In many cases, quite a lot. It's the kind of interaction that is impossible on television or even with all the advances in social networking.

The next time you see a competing firm's TV ad, don't worry about it — but do worry about when was the last time you talked to a current client who might be viewing it.

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