Small and medium-sized firms can market effectively too – and the Marketing Advisory Service can help show you how

The 1980s saw the introduction of marketing as a discipline into most large legal firms. They either engaged an individual marketing director or a team of people to run seminars and other client events and to generate promotion material. It is still rare to find a smaller firm with marketing personnel because they are either not affordable or the partners have never considered that the addition of such non fee-earning personnel would be beneficial.

In the last few years, however, many partners of small and medium-sized firms have realised that increasing competition is threatening their size of firm more than the larger firms and that they most engage in marketing. But how to get started? The Marketing Advisory Service, offered free of charge by the Law Society of Scotland, was established to help firms in this predicament. Now several hundred Scottish firms have received visits and some follow-up help from one of the three consultants and several were asked for their views on its impact.

McConville O’Neill is a young firm, established just over a year ago to provide personal injury advice, particularly related to industrial disease claims. The choice of this "niche market" is so far providing successful, generating higher than expected fee income.

Paul McConville was grateful for the Marketing Advisory Service because it helped the partners to focus on those marketing techniques which would generate new business for their firm. It made them establish a framework for their marketing activity, rather than practising in an ad hoc fashion. For example, knowing that the best marketing is personal recommendation, they systematically ask clients for referrals now, whereas before, they would occasionally do so, if they remember. This technique alone has resulted in a surge of new business.

Proactive Employment Lawyers, based in Aberdeen, is three years old and, as the name suggests, offers solely employment law services. Hayley Bloodworth, partner in the firm, describes the impact the service had on her practice: “It has enabled us to question, fine tune and implement our own ideas within a realistic timescale. The help we have received has gone far beyond marketing to encompass all aspects of the practice, such as client management ands service development.

“Changes which have been made since receiving marketing advice include changing the name to reflect more clearly the activities of the firm; introducing a more flexible pricing strategy and positioning the firm to carry out work which they might otherwise have been unable to carry out”.

Alan Davies, from McCash & Hunter, a sizable Perth-based firm, felt that the firm benefited from the Marketing Advisory Service because it made them focus on the importance of marketing. The advice given prompted them to organise a marketing campaign and to monitor and evaluate its success at regular marketing meetings, which are held separately from partners’ meetings. Since the MAS visit, the firm has its corporate image and offices revamped. They have organised several seminars and a number of dinners and other hospitality events. As a result of staff consultation, estate agency and front-of-house staff wear uniforms, which also enhance the firm’s image.

The consensus among most small to medium-sized firms is that most of their business comes from existing clients or through personal recommendations and referrals. So why are so many small firms poor at communicating and keeping in touch with their clients? There is a fear on the part of many professionals (not just lawyers) that they will be seen as pestering clients if they write to them or send them information. It is true that you do not want to bombard your clients with junk mail, but on the other hand the occasional short letter informing them about a relevant change in legislation or advising them of a service which might benefit them can surely do no harm.

The other reason why firms are poor at communicating with clients is that they do not have an up-to-date database. The database is a powerful tool if used correctly. It enables you to keep an ongoing record of the services clients have had, and therefore identify those clients who have not received a particular service. It allows you to select clients by where they live; marital status; age, etc. provided the information has been entered in the first place. Many firms are missing out on a huge amount of possible repeat business by failing to invest a relatively small amount of time and effort into this exercise.

Since personal contact seems to be the main reason why someone will use one firm rather than another; it is important to focus marketing effort on creating occasions where solicitors can meet clients and referrers of business. It is probably not realistic to invite all private clients to a Christmas party, but it may be more feasible to invite them to an evening talk on a topical or relevant subject, followed by a reception, which can be repeated if numbers require it. If a firm’s client base comprises commercial clients, a discussion lunch on a particular subject with a local accountant taking part, could be productive.

It is always worth trying to think of a more unusual event, which differs from competitors’ activities and gets people talking. Inviting a local artist or photographer to exhibit their work in a firm’s office has a dual benefit. It shows that the firm is putting something back into the community as well as presenting an opportunity to hold a private view for say, commercial clients and intermediaries. Alternatively the firm could sponsor a small exhibition in a gallery and enjoy the associated publicity as well as hosting a private view.

Some firms have held very successful open days, which clients and the general public can attend and find out more about the firm. If the firm is property orientated, a novel idea would be to have a local architect or surveyor on hand to offer practical advice.

Involving younger solicitors in marketing is beneficial in a number of ways. Firstly, it shows them that work does not magically materialise, but that effort has to be made to secure and retain clients. Secondly, they will gain more confidence in the networking and may well make useful contacts for the firm. Thirdly, since many prospective clients are closer to their age than to that of the partners, it makes sense that they are encouraged to network. One way of achieving this is to give them a relatively free hand in organising a social event for their age group, ensuring that it falls within an agreed budget. A "debriefing" should follow the event to discuss whether it was worthwhile, how it could be improved and how to follow up certain more likely prospective clients.

The next best thing to direct personal contact is to give a talk to a group of people. Obviously, the audience should consist mainly of those who could need the services of that particular firm, e.g. a group of farmers if the firm has agricultural law expertise. Targeted public speaking is both an economical use of time and a way of raising the firm’s profile and being associated with the body which ‘invited’ the speaker: In actual fact, rather than waiting to be invited it is better to be proactive and identify the relevant groups and then approach them, offering to give a talk on an appropriate, preferably topical, subject. For example, if a firm provides predominantly court services, it would be beneficial for one of the solicitors to give talks to the police, social services, schools and community groups. If it is a chamber firm, it would be more appropriate to be addressing staff and residents at nursing homes, members of bowling clubs, women’s groups, and so on. Often, once someone from a firm is on a speakers list, the individual will be invited back in the future, proving that a small investment of time can bring great results.

Another similar exercise with commercial clients is to offer to give an occasional talk to their staff on a topical subject. While this might not win new business, it will cement the relationship and hopefully demonstrate goodwill to the client. Before anyone in a firm takes on speaking engagements, it is vital that they are confident, interesting speakers. If they are not, they should receive some presentation skills training, otherwise they will be a liability to their firm rather than an asset.

Of course there are numerous marketing tools and techniques, such as websites, brochures, advertising and press coverage but, even in these hi-tech, ever-changing times, there is nothing like the personal touch.

Ruth Webber established Webber Associates in 1989 to offer strategic planning and marketing advice to professional services firms. In addition to private clients, she has worked with the RIAS (Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland) and the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors), running seminars and writing articles. In 1995 she was appointed by the Law Society of Scotland to provide the Marketing Advisory Service to member firms and was later joined by two other consultants.

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