Do Prospects Want Your Testimonials - Or You?

Reprinted from:

Published 5/06

I consistently disagree with one piece of marketing "wisdom" that is offered time and again to law firms: the value of using clients’ names for testimonials.

My contrarian perspective has been developed from 25 years of practicing law, and it’s against the perspective of all sales people I've ever met. Most advice on this subject from marketing folks is that testimonials from recognizable clients/customers are good. People want to associate with others whom they want to emulate (as today’s flood of celebrity-focused advertising seems to attest). For business clients, the reasoning seems to be that if you’re a small but growing company you should engage a professional services firm that has helped and can name other small companies that became big and successful. The implication, by naming these companies, is that the service provider can do the same for you.

Conversely, I believe that clients don't want to acknowledge that they have circumstances requiring legal advice. Clients want to keep their name out of the press and off an attorney's web site. That's the whole idea of confidentiality. Not only is the subject matter to be confidential, but so also is the very fact of representation to be confidential.

We can get around this by asking and getting permission. And many clients do give permission for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they respect the lawyer and want to help. That's not the point, however. Subconsciously, in my experience, most clients are reluctant, even when they do give permission. I’ve seen this reluctance in my own coaching practice – many of my clients ask me to keep their identity confidential, even though there is no rule governing this. And I respect their wishes. My attitude is that if I can't get business without using a name, then I have not yet proven my credibility.

This is not to be confused with giving references in a confidential communication. It is also different from giving case histories / war stories of work you've done in the past, which are quite appropriate and can be made without disclosing client names. In fact, clients often appreciate this, especially when you assure clients that even for matters of public record (litigation, stock offerings) their names will remain confidential.

So, how should we "entice" prospects into using our services? Let’s go back to basics and remind ourselves that, no matter what we think, lawyers simply aren’t that unique. No one wakes up in the morning and suddenly says, "I need a new lawyer," any more than they suddenly conclude they need a new bank or accountant.

A bank marketing executive once told me: " You can't control sales; you can control only your time." Thus, projecting a 10 percent increase in sales based (for example) on a testimonial from a well-known current client seems folly. Rather, he said, "I prefer to look at the number of calls my team makes. That I can control. The more calls we make, the more deposits and loans increase."

Where clients have on-going relationships with law firms, no one is typically thinking of making a change. But, a client doesn't need a specific contract or litigation to consider shifting work to a new law firm Large corporations do this all the time, in the phenomenon that has been labeled convergence. However, such decisions are made on the basis of service, cost and recognition of benefits, not testimonials.

From the smaller firm’s perspective, the viewpoint of the banker who is out in the community seems to me the one worth emulating. The number of contacts that you make, the number of people you talk to, will have an impact on both name recognition and getting an opportunity to sit at the table when new matters are assigned to law firms. This goes beyond the issues of branding or marketing, and suggests that getting "out into the public eye" can do more than advertising alone for firm name recognition. A major benefit of writing articles, lunch meetings, bar association participation and the like is name recognition ... but it can also lead directly to sales (and yes, that’s what law firms do).

One important caution: Any law firm must have the infrastructure of outstanding client service in place in order to get and retain clients in this competitive world . All the testimonials, all the personal marketing in the world won’t make up for unreturned calls, unresponsive service or math errors on the bill. S ervice is fundamental. Your clients want you, but only because of the quality service you can and should provide.

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