Image [cc] camknows

The keynote speaker for the Marketing Partner Forum, Joe Pine, focused his discussion on the idea behind advancing the service economy into an experience economy. He began with the idea of the gumball machine and how adding the experience of seeing the gumball roll down a spiral ramp before exiting the machine has revolutionized the gumball machine industry. He notes that the experience does nothing to improve the taste of the gum, or does it improve anything about the actual gumball itself. In fact, if you think about it, the spiral ramp actually decreases the efficiency of the gumball machine by taking a longer time to dispense the gumball to the consumer. The product stays the same, but the service has advanced by improving the experience of the consumer. Having seen this in action with my four children, I can attest to the fact that the experience drives the customer to come to me and ask for any quarters I have in my pockets.

Pine went on to discuss a number of other services that are improved through engagement of the customer in ways that changes the interaction between the service and the customer. Hospitals that have focused on personalizing, humanizing, and demystifying the hospital stay have created improvements in healing and overall health care experience. Architectural firms that personalize the experience of their customers and cause an engagement between the firm and the customer’s project that makes the customer feel as though they have the complete focus of the firm on their projects. Restaurants that create an environment where the customers are actually a part of the overall presentation, and not simply a bystander there to eat a meal.

There was one example that Pine gave that he says failed in his opinion to engage the customer, although it is known for creating an interesting and interactive environment. The Rain Forest Cafe is a chain that creates an atmosphere of interesting automated animal creatures, but that alone is simply not enough to create an experience (at least not a positive one.) The scene is set, but there is no one directing the experience. I remember my first time in one of these, and was told that there would be a “show” every twenty minutes. We watched, we waited, the animals made a few sounds, moved a bit, but we never actually saw a show. When we left (after about an hour), we asked about the show, and the waitress said that we’d seen the show three times. We left disappointed, and I’ve never gone back.

This type of “show without direction” reminded me of what law firms have created in their receptionist areas of their offices. Lots of interesting items that line the room with spectacular views, and even a few items lying around waiting to be picked up and read. But the experience is usually this:

  1. Exit the elevator; look around for the receptionist area
  2. Greeted by the receptionist; asked for name, who you are here to see
  3. Receptionist calls the attorney and announces you are here
  4. Receptionist invites you to sit down in one of the comfy chairs
  5. You wait until the attorney comes to get you (usually after they’ve finished up editing a document or finishing up an email)
  6. You are then walked back to the meeting room or attorneys office
  7. When you finish, you are walked back to the receptionist’s area
  8. Parking validated
  9. Enter the elevator and leave

There is ample opportunity for engagement with the client, yet the time spent before and after the meeting results in very little engagement actually performed.

The main problem that popped into my head while considering this process is that law firms have created a highly efficient receptionist that can handle high volumes of telephone calls, visitors, and deliveries that enter and exit the law firm. It is all very utilitarian. However, the trade-off for being so efficient is that there is no individual experience. Views may be great, but views with a story behind them are twice as great. We lack that engagement… that storytelling of why something is laid out on the table enabling the customer to see more than the words and pictures before them. No one is making the customer feel as if he or she is important to the firm. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Vendors coming in to sell products to the firm are given the same treatment as clients bringing in thousands or millions of dollars of business to the firm.

I began thinking of how we could change this bland, one-size-fits-all, experience and make it more engaging to the client, and more productive for the law firm. Ideas of a client concierge began forming in my mind. Imagine having someone in your Marketing, Business Development, or Client Teams departments greeting clients (especially key clients) when they walk off the elevator. Knowing exactly who they are, who they are there to see, and being ready to engage the person or persons in conversation. One of the points that Joe Pine made in his talk was that the experience should be a presentation, staged, if you will, and no “back stage” preparations should be exposed to the customer. Therefore, the attorney should be ready to meet with the client and all other business (telephone calls, document editing, emails, etc.) should be put away. If there are timing issues between the attorney’s availability and the client’s time to meet, the concierge should be ready to expand their engagement to fill that time. However, the client’s time is just as valuable as the attorneys, so this should only be a brief extension of the concierge’s performance.

The idea behind the client concierge is actually two-fold. First and foremost, they are there to engage the client and create an experience that lets the client know that they are important to the firm, and that at this moment in time, our resources are focused upon them. In addition to the engagement, there may be valuable information that the client discusses with the concierge. There may be exciting personal news the client talks about, or new business dealings brought up in the conversation. The concierge should relay these points to the attorney or departments responsible for this particular client. This isn’t about prying, it is about creating a better relationship, and improving the client’s overall experience with the firm.

I brought my idea up a couple of times, and was a bit surprised by one answer I received. “Clients like being left alone in the reception area. It gives them time to check and answer their emails.” I really hope that is not the case. I would think that clients do not like waiting (especially if they think the clock is running on the attorney’s billable time.) Instead of making them wait, engage them. Instead of letting them come up with ways to pass the time, take advantage of the time they are giving you by appearing at your office. Personal contact between clients and the law firms that represent them are fleeting. Firms should find ways of leveraging that time and engaging the clients in ways that produce a more positive interaction, and result in a better experience for the client.

While I was in Seattle at the 2013 AALL Conference, I had a chance to listen to, and briefly talk to Casey Flaherty of Kia Motors America, Inc. As many of you have read recently, Casey is making waves by giving his outside counsel some basic skills tests on how long it takes them to update contract language via MS Word, print to Adobe Acrobat, and resorting MS Excel lists. His testing of ten outside law firms associates (9 total firms and 1 took it twice) came back with all ten failing his technology competency audit.

He gives one example in most of his talks where an additional indented sentence is added into a contract. He shows the crowd what should take about 12 seconds to do (if the attorney is tech savvy and understands form automation tools), usually takes about 10 minutes for most attorneys to complete because they are manually updating paragraph numbers and reformatting the document piece by piece.

Now, the question I presented to him was this:

Why should the associate be the one doing the word processing updates in the first place?
Shouldn’t those tasks be assigned to Secretaries or WP Staff members who:
1. know how to use the resources effectively and
2. are either billed at a much lower rate or aren’t billed at all?

His answer was a bit simplistic, but typical of today’s corporate counsel expectations (I am completely paraphrasing his response):

Technology is so entrenched in the day to day operations of the associate, that it is expected that they have (or should have) the skills to complete these simple tasks so quickly that it doesn’t make sense to outsource it to a secretary or Word Processing Department.

Implied in that paraphrased answer was the idea that even if it went to WP, the lawyer would still review it (and charge for his or her time), so why add in an extra layer of work to do such a simple task that the lawyer should know how to do already.

Here’s a couple of observations that I walked away from Flaherty’s talk:

  1. Flaherty is either going to be a hero or a goat for discussing this and calling out his outside counsel for having such poor tech skills, and that his ‘tech audit’ is simply the beginning (he is also asking for access to daily time entry by firms so he can find associates that are billing .3 hours to 10 different matters each day, or those that enter time in weeks after the work was actually performed.)
  2. The basic message that Flaherty is giving is that:
    a. Corporate Counsel simply have lost trust in the firms they hire (this is the biggie!!)
    b. Poor skills equal higher costs billed to the clients
    c. Firms that bill by the hour have no incentive to improve these skills
    d. Clients will need to be the drivers to improve the skills required of their outside counsel
    e. Clients will either need to negotiate alternative fee arrangements with outside counsel, or
    f. Clients will need to assess skills and decrease fees for those firms that fail these skill tests
    g. Clients will need to monitor firms more closely, and even require firms to disclose processes used (such as up-to-the-day time entry exposure on all of the client’s work) and force changes that are deemed, by the client, to be inefficient.
  3. There are ‘opportunities’ for firms as well:
    a. Firms that work on tech skills and pass the audit can use that PR to use as an advantage over other firms
    b. Firms willing to take the temperature of their clients on what technology skills they want their outside counsel to have can use this a leverage within the firm to improve the skills that are important to the client
    c. Firms that have internal discussion can motivate the law firm leadership (both on the Attorney side and on the Administrative side) to evaluate basic skills needed on products that attorneys use on behalf of the client. It could start by asking simple questions like:
    i. Can an attorney print from Word to PDF?
    ii. Can an attorney resort information in an Excel spreadsheet?

    iii. Can an attorney update a basic form using the automation resources found in MS Word?
    iv. Are there customized resources we have within the firm that already improve the time it takes attorneys to do basic tasks (and are we telling our clients about these resources?)
    v. Is our work flow set up to take advantage of the professional staff we have to either push these tasks to the appropriate level, or leverage the skills of the staff to train the attorneys on simple tasks that can save enormous amounts of time?

All in all, what Flaherty is doing is an attempt to dictate the minimum skill level that his outside counsel has and decrease the costs to his company by requiring those improved skills, or punishing firms when they lack those skills (usually through a flat across the board fee discount.)

It should be interesting to see how much more traction Flaherty gets, and how soon it will be before a third-party snatches him up and he becomes a consultant for other companies to improve tech skills for their outside counsel.

Image [cc] J. Paxon Reyes

Dear Client,

You have been pretty clear about wanting to save money. AFAs, bigger discounts and all sorts of ‘cost savings’ messages are being sent to firms. Law firms have responded with an array of pricing proposals, which are often set aside in favor of bigger discounts. Whether this saves you money or not, no one is sure. But at least you are being specific about what you want and accepting nothing less.

As an extension of those cost savings messages, you have also talked about wanting more efficiency. Here’s where we are running into a problem. What do you mean by efficiency? Law firms assume you generally mean doing things with less hours. But you could also want firms doing things with cheaper hours. Or doing things with technology instead of humans. Or maybe even to stop doing certain things. Which is it? Or is it some combination? Are there certain approaches on the list you don’t want firms to employ?

You are starting to see the problem here.

Absent specific instructions to your law firms, they are not sure what to do. Most firms believe they are already being efficient. From their perspective, they do things with the least amount of hours they can. There you go. Efficiency achieved.

But its likely you are not satisfied with this answer. Which leaves law firms a bit confused or at a minimum ignorant of your needs. So, as a favor to your firms, be a bit more specific about what it is you want exactly the next time you ask for more efficiency. 

Waiting For More Guidance

UPDATE: To our good fortune, John Wallbillich over at WiredGC, was gracious enough to respond with “My Lawyer, He Wrote Me a Letter.” If only more clients would respond like this.

Sound crazy? Yes and No. Yes – in that a provider of a service isn’t already laser-focused on efficiency  No – in that this reactive approach is the mantra of the legal profession.

Lawyers are really responsive. They are great at doing whatever the client asks. But not until the client asks. Law firms don’t show up on the client’s door and suggest they need to sue some other company  They wait until the client calls them with a lawsuit and asks them to represent them before they do anything. That’s the paradigm of the profession. Unfortunately, this mind-set has put law firms in a passive, reactive relationship with their clients on many other fronts, including efficiency.

So … my guess is that until clients specifically ask for some type of efficiency  law firms will continue to wait for more direction. Lawyers do know how to file motions and write great contracts. Efficiency? Not so much.

Of course the smart lawyers will shed their passive, reactive ways and go engage in efficiency conversations with clients. But equally likely, there won’t be enough of that. Thus the letter to clients.

Last Wednesday, my wife and I were on day 3 of a 4 day Vermont cheese and maple syrup tour.  It was about noon on the hottest day of the year and we were driving down Route 35, about 30 miles from anywhere you’ve ever heard of, when I took a sharp corner and quickly swerved to avoid a piece of debris in middle of the road.  It looked like a rope or a piece of rubber, but the thud as I rolled over it made clear that my initial assessment was off. Then the tire pressure light on the dashboard lit up.

I popped the trunk, saw that there was a spare, but no jack or tire iron, then pulled out my phone and realized I had no signal.  A flat tire, 3 miles from nowhere, no jack, no tire iron, and no cell signal in the heat of the day on the hottest day of the year.  We flagged down a passing car and got a ride into Grafton where we hoped to find a cell signal.

I was grouchy, hot, frustrated, trying to remember if I had ever actually changed a tire and what the steps were, wondering if we were going to make it to the next bed and breakfast, whether we should call ahead, how much it was going to cost me to cancel, wondering how we could keep any cheese we buy from melting, I really wasn’t thinking clearly at that point.  I pulled out my phone and started up my Zipcar app.

We live in New York City, and as people with more sense than money, we don’t own a car.  Zipcar is a car sharing service that allows us to reserve local cars for use on an hourly or daily basis.  Their app allows us to make reservations, and report damage to the car, but the best feature by far is the big orange button in the upper right corner that simply says “Call Zipcar”.

I hit the button and got Debbie on the line.  I stammered incoherently, “Flat tire…Outside Grafton…No Jack…Help, please.” “I’m so sorry about that”, she said cheerfully, “let’s see what we can do?”  I gave her the details of where we were, where the car was, and where we were staying that night.  “OK, stay near the cell tower, I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
A few minutes later she called back with news that someone would pick us up in Grafton, drive us to our car and change our tire. She found a tire place near the B&B we were staying that night and called ahead to make sure they had a tire that fit.
It all happened just as she said, and when we got to the garage in Manchester, they had a new tire ready and waiting for us.  In the room at the B&B, I snapped a picture of my tire receipt, emailed it to Debbie, and within a few minutes had confirmation that my credit card on file with Zipcar had been reimbursed the cost of the tire.  It had been an adventure, but relatively painless considering the situation we were in just a few short hours before. 
This got me thinking, as many things do, about law firms.  My situation on the side of the road in middle of nowhere Vermont is not unlike the situation many clients are in before they call their attorney.  No one calls their attorney just to check in and say that everything is going well.  You call on the hottest day of the year, when your metaphorical car is in a ditch with a flat and you’re missing a jack and a tire iron.  You call when you need help, often when you are not thinking straight and when you need someone else with the knowledge, resources, and capacity to do the thinking for you. You could argue that the answer to one of my earlier posts, is that we are selling the knowledge, resources, and capacity to do your legal thinking for you.
But there is one big, glaring difference between Zipcar and the legal industry.  The person solving my problem is a customer service rep, but my relationship is with the car service, not with the rep. If I hit the big orange button and Debbie is unavailable, or busy helping someone else, then I’ll get another qualified person, with access to the exact same tools and resources that Debbie has, to ensure that I get out of my jam as quickly and painlessly as possible.  After my flat tire experience, I’m a Zipcar believer and I am truly grateful to Debbie for all she did, but should she choose to move on to Hertz, or Avis, I will probably continue to work with Zipcar. They created a loyal client in me by making every aspect of my terrible experience as easy and painless as possible, from the app with the big orange button, to arranging all of my roadside and garage service needs, to reimbursing me for my out of pocket expense with nothing more than a cell phone photo emailed to customer service.  Debbie was absolutely integral to my positive experience, but it was the tools, resources, and relationships provided by Zipcar that allowed Debbie to so efficiently solve my problem.  Why should law firms be any different?

This will get me in trouble, but attorneys are the most expensive client service representatives ever.  That is not in any way intended to diminish their importance.  Good client service reps are absolutely necessary, but not nearly sufficient to provide a good client experience.  The greatest lawyer in the world without the right tools, resources, and relationships is still going to be a very good lawyer, but will not likely provide an optimal experience to their clients.  The tools, resources, and many of the relationships that attorneys use on behalf of their clients are provided by the firm and yet, GC’s have been known to say things like “We hire the lawyer, not the law firm.” That mindset has made the modern BigLaw firm little more than shared office space for “partners” always on the lookout for another firm that will promise them a larger cut of profits. 

To create an optimal client experience, the primary client relationship needs to be with the service provider, and the service provider in this case is the firm not the attorney. As I said in my previous article linked above, I think we are selling “access to the collective knowledge and expertise of the firm”. Otherwise, there is no benefit for the client in hiring a BigLaw attorney. They are paying a premium for the prestige of the names on the letterhead, but getting the efforts of a solo or, more likely, a couple of young associates in return.

How can we begin to change the client/firm relationship?  We’ll all have to work together.  First, Attorneys need to stop the merry-go-round of lateral defections in pursuit of a few more points, and to put some of that energy into making their current firm a more effective and pleasant place to work.  Secondly, firms need to provide tools and resources to clients that actively build relationships at the firm level and they need to develop a culture within the firm that facilitates sharing of resources and knowledge between attorneys rather than simply sharing infrastructure. Finally, clients need to demand a relationship at the firm level, and then they need to have the courage of their convictions to stick with any firm that gives them that relationship, even if “their attorney” jumps ship.  

I’m not suggesting this would be easy or even possible, but if we could strengthen the relationships between clients and firms, and change the underlying culture of our firms to share resources like any other functional service provider does, then we too could give our client’s a big orange button that says “Call Firm” to be pressed when the client is in trouble and needs someone else to do their legal thinking for them and get them back “on the road” as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Debbie was a terrific representative for Zipcar, but I wonder how my experience would have differed had I hired the customer service rep, instead of the car rental service.