Techniques for success

The legal profession must use marketing techniques to survive in an increasingly competitive market, says Laurie Young

Most people associate marketing with soap powder advertising or the sort of aggressive sales techniques common to business in the US. As a result, professionals dismiss a skill which is becoming increasingly important to their survival.

However, marketing a professional service is totally different from marketing consumer goods. Issues such as client communication, image, "bedside manner" and quality of administration are critical components in the success of professional services.

The Bar standards review body report, led by Lord Alexander of Weedon, emphasises the importance of these elements of service: "The Bar, like other professions and businesses, needs to display a wider, more all-round excellence: value for money and good client communications are an essential part of the standards of a modern profession."

The Bar is not alone. Many professions are finding themselves subject to new pressures. Leading specialists in fields like head-hunting, management consultancy, architecture and accountancy are having to think of new ways to do business.

Many are finding that professional barriers to competition are being eroded or challenged. They must consider new ways to recruit clients and offer them new services. In short, they must market their practice.

Professional services have several things in common which must be taken into account when marketing them:

Professionals may not have a rational business strategy.

The military assesses possible battle scenarios to ensure success. Recently, many businesses have adopted and shaped military strategic techniques to the needs of commerce. These are methods to assess the likely outcome of actions taken by professional practices, including barristers' chambers. A little forethought, using methods successful elsewhere, increases the likelihood of success.

Developing strategy for a professional service is difficult because a partnership or chambers is a group of professional equals.

Everyone must be involved in devising a strategy. They must be told all the options and must be fully involved in reaching the final consensus.

Every professional thinks he understands the client's needs.

This belief comes from years of thinking on clients' behalf, but it is often not true. Clients can be reluctant to tell a professional what they really think of the service because they are intimidated by the professional's superior knowledge and experience. Objective methods of researching clients' needs and attitudes to service are essential.

Professionals assume they offer excellent quality service.

Clients are no longer satisfied by excellence in the professional's field alone. Issues such as communication, administration and client care can be just as important to gaining business as a professional's skill or reputation.

Few professionals have a way of assessing the changing business environment.

Professionals should use the straightforward methods of assessing changing circumstances that are available to make sure they know the implications of such changes.

Traditional forms of advertising or generating business are often not effective and, in some cases, are not allowed.

Reputation, word of mouth endorsements, publicity about excellent work and referrals from fellow professionals are good ways to grow business.

However, professionals can no longer rely on these traditional methods of getting work. Barristers, for example, may get less referrals from solicitors if the latter have direct access to the courts. But there are well tried techniques which communicate the value of a service to potential clients. They are most effective when used as part of an integrated client communications plan and based on research in to which media most influences target clients.

Professionals do not tend to build their reputation in to a brand.

Studies have shown that the image and values of the corporate name are critical to long-term success. Management consultancies have been particularly good at exploiting this. For example, names such as PA Consulting and Andersen Consulting encapsulate a particular promise for their clients.

The legal profession is moving into new waters because of changing social standards and regulations. Old safeguards and assumptions are becoming less relevant and businesses have to be carefully developed and managed. The marketing techniques successfully used by other professional services should now be tested by firms and chambers to counter the competition they are facing.

Laurie Young is a management consultant.