By Gary Holstein, Practice Advisor

I recently overheard an estate-planning attorney comment on his marketing efforts by saying, “I did some things in the first half of the year, but now I’m too busy to devote any more time to marketing.” A real estate attorney had a different complaint: “Business is really down…I need to get going on my marketing efforts.”

Both comments are symptomatic of an all-too-common phenomenon I call “stop and go” marketing. This refers to the wildly inconsistent approach to marketing that many practitioners adopt in their attempt to keep a steady stream of clients coming in the door.

What drives “stop and go” marketing is the inverse relationship between the amount of business a firm currently has and the perceived need to market. When law firms are busy, they undertake few, if any, marketing efforts. But faced with fewer clients, firms suddenly feel an urgent need to market. I use the word “urgent” carefully because the recognized need to market does not always translate into actual marketing activity.

Marketing May Not Come Naturally, But It’s Still Necessary

In truth, most attorneys are business executives by default; still, they need to attend to and manage functions common to all businesses, whether they enjoy them or not. As Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Everybody lives by selling something.” Though lawyers trade in professional services, they are no exception.

For those attorneys whose sole focus is practicing law and for whom practice management issues are incidental (and perhaps even an annoyance), “stop and go” marketing appears to be a logical approach. Legal technicians focus on legal matters; preoccupied with the law, they are often extremely reactive to the market’s demand for services. Unfortunately, they tend to operate behind the curve and are often caught by surprise when business slows to a trickle.

The difference between a thriving law firm and one that teeters on the brink of extinction from year to year with occasional spikes of good revenue may be found in how consistently they cultivate new clients through their marketing efforts.

“Stop And Go” Marketing Creates “Stop And Go” Revenues

There are several dire consequences to “stop and go” marketing. Inconsistent marketing results in poor client development, which fuels every professional and business organization. Without new clients regularly coming through the door, there is no business.

When the effects of the sporadic marketing efforts kick in, cash flow is good. But when client development efforts drop off and there is little new business to replace the old, times will be lean. “Stop and go” marketing always produces “stop and go” revenue.

Unpredictable revenue has additional negative implications. Firms defer necessary investments in office equipment, training and software. They stop hiring associates or additional staff members whose presence would allow partners to properly delegate and leverage tasks.

Without Consistent Marketing, Desperation Drives Client Flow

“Stop and go” marketing also affects the quality of a firm’s clients, which lawyers have identified as the factor second only to income level in determining their satisfaction level. Effective client selection is impossible if attorneys don’t have a steady stream of clients from which to choose. With no screening process in place, these attorneys often practice “threshold law”-that is, they accept anyone who steps over the threshold as a client even though they know that careful client selection is the lynchpin of a successful practice. Who you choose as a client affects your stress level, your financial situation and your growth as a firm. When revenues are down, however, due to a lack of consistent marketing, desperation drives the decision making process.

Marketing Affects Relationships

“Stop and go” marketing also influences relationships. When done well, the marketing of professional legal services is primarily about relationship building. Consistently cultivating relationships with referral sources who come to know, like and trust their attorney is important; it insures that these referral sources will continue to refer clients. If they only see their attorney, colleague or friend when they need business, they risk appearing insincere and perhaps desperate-something no one wants. Consistently cultivating the company of referral sources avoids this impression.

Three Strategies Will Help You Avoid “Stop And Go” Marketing

There are three ways to avoid the lure, and consequences, of “stop and go” marketing. First, start thinking of client development as critical to the future growth of your practice. Consider it a regularly occurring, ongoing part of your business, just like returning client phone calls and sending out invoices. Never stop marketing! Remember this even when your practice is thriving because even the best marketing efforts rarely bear fruit instantly.

Second, to generate real results, attorneys need to be involved with a minimum of three referral sources a week, every week, for at least 20 minutes to an hour. Face-to-face contact is best, whether it’s lunch or golf. Make the commitment and put it on your calendar in advance: otherwise, it won’t happen. Marketing needs to be built into the workweek and considered important enough not to override when other matters come up.

Third, hire a marketing assistant even if only part-time to help manage client development efforts. Like a paralegal, a marketing assistant handles many of the lower-level tasks such as making appointments, tracking contacts, making reservations, and sending out reminders and thank-you notes. This will free you up to practice law confident that client development efforts are occurring on an ongoing basis. Marketing assistants can also act as accountability partners for attorneys who need an extra push to get out from behind their desks.

Finally, to market themselves effectively, attorneys need to adopt and adhere to a systematic approach. If they don’t know how to talk to people, what to say and how to say it, they should get training-in a manner that is compatible with their personalities and values. A systematic approach, backed up by proper training, makes marketing more predictable and easier to repeat effectively.

Acknowledge that client development/marketing is a business function that needs consistent and systematic attention and you are absolved from the 4th deadly sin!

Prior articles in the series:

  • Sin #3: Break the Chaos Paradox
  • Sin #2: Seeing A Stranger In The Mirror
  • Sin #1: Relying On The Kindness of Others
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