(Guest post by Lise Anne Schwartz)
Regular visitors to this blog know that Deborah is a connoisseur of fine food, wine and restaurants. So when she visited New York last week, the pressure was on to find a unique dining experience for us to share. I took her to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant on a working farm 30 miles from New York City.
Blue Hill gets virtually all its produce, meat and poultry from its own four-season farm and other local organic farms. It is among the pioneers of the locavore movement in the Northeast, where food is sold and served as close as possible to its source.
Like top law firms, fine dining establishments sell a pricey product in a crowded and largely undifferentiated market. But some manage to stand out and earn a reputation for adding value to the dining experience. We think Blue Hill’s success in this regard holds a few valuable lessons for law firms.
1. Looks count. Our first steps into the dining room at Blue Hill told us what to expect. The room is large, with dark beams and trim against a high-peaked ceiling, heavy cream draperies, and a huge wooden farm table showcasing grown-on-the-grounds ingredients. Thick white linens, small votives and white plates dress the tables. Against this clean, elegant backdrop, creative vegetable presentations shine (smoked kale, roasted baby carrots and tiny, jewel-like radishes “growing” on a miniature twig tree, anyone?). The restaurant’s promise is immediately clear—unpretentious, rustic elegance, creativity and appreciation of simple, fresh ingredients.
A law firm often makes its first visual impression through its website. What kind of experience does your firm’s website promise? Does it effectively preview what it’s like to do business with you? Is the voice consistent – do you sound like “one firm?” Can visitors easily navigate where they want to go? Does your design showcase important content or overwhelm it?
2. Get personal. Blue Hill has no set menu; rather, the chef writes an individual menu for each table (and sometimes each diner) based on your food preferences and what’s fresh on the farm. All you have to do is answer a few questions and then decide whether to order five, eight or 12 (yes, 12!) courses. We diners feel like we are eating food thoughtfully prepared by a personal chef, not generic dishes the kitchen puts out on autopilot – day after day, week after week.
Good legal service is the same way. Sophisticated law firm clients, like sophisticated diners, come in with an idea of what they do and don’t want. If I tell you I don’t want sweetbreads, I won’t be happy if you serve them to me, no matter how well-prepared they are.
On the other hand, if you give me a meal I could have created at home, I’ll feel like I didn’t get my money’s worth. Successful lawyers really hear what the client wants—and then use it as a jumping off point to provide better service and results than expected. That’s the kind of value-add that makes clients line up to pay premium prices.
Deborah adds: Speaking of getting personal, let’s talk about written proposals and pitches. The volume of requests in 2011 as reported by marketing and business development professionals was up two to four times over 2009. This upward trajectory is expected to continue.
Creating a “one-size-fits-most” pitch packet is not getting personal. You can bet that it will not make your prospect feel special, important or well served by your firm. Marketers know this, of course; the key is convincing your lawyers to step back and design a presentation effective and tailored enough for the prospect to say, “You understand me. I’d like to hear/see more.” There are technology tools that automate the process so you can focus your time and attention on being the right strategic fit for your prospect.
3. Give a little bit. Before we began our parade of courses (we chose five), the chef treated us to three separate amuse bouches—small appetizers meant to welcome diners and awaken palates. A particular favorite was tiny beet and goat cheese sliders served on top of a tall crystal stem filled with sesame seeds. The presentation was wonderfully simple and elegant. We felt like valued guests, not people the restaurant was trying to milk for money.
What can you give away, either through your website or face-to-face? A training course? A quarterly status meeting? A set of form documents? Everything you give away should preview what it’s like to do business with you. Set the stage for what’s to come—awaken the palates of your prospects and clients.
4. Educated cross-selling. Cross-selling is the oat bran of today—the magic bullet, the cure-all for hard-to-grow law firm business. Everyone struggles with it, and sadly, it is frequently ineffective.
Blue Hill had something to cross-sell us, too: a series of wines perfectly paired to each of our five courses. But unlike most law-firm cross-selling, the server who artfully pitched us the pairings knew a lot about what she was selling. She had visited the vineyards (from France and Germany to Italy and California), seen the growing methods, tasted the products and talked with chefs and sommeliers about how the wines would enhance the sum of all the flavors. (Are you familiar with biodynamic wine growing methods?)
We know a good bit about wines, but because of her soft-handed style, she enhanced what we knew. She didn't make us feel like neophytes, yet we felt smarter at the meal's conclusion than when we arrived.
Imagine if lawyers knew this much about their partners’ practices before trying to cross-sell them. You’d have a trusted source actively participating in the sale instead of just saying, “You should meet my partner so-and-so; she really knows real estate.” Building—and using—an experience database for your firm can make this kind of cross-selling raw material a lot easier to come by.
Differentiation works, whether at Blue Hill at Stone Barns or in your law firm. It just takes care and diligence to make it pay off.
Lise Anne Schwartz is a New York-based copywriter and the President of Bold Language. She is a former SEC lawyer and pastry chef.