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June 10, 2006

Real Elitism: Toward Building A Client-Centric Culture.

In a couple of years, your clients won't care, and it may even backfire. Don't get me wrong. Those two 28-year-old ex-Supreme Court clerks your firm just hired at $165,000 a year along with your eight other fine new associates are treasures. Cherish and develop them. Still tell your clients and the world, as you have for years, that you only hire and the "smartest" people. Keep hiring them and keep telling the clients. But the chance that even one out of those ten hires--even assuming that all ten stay at your firm and make partner--will ever "get" clients and minimally master client service is about zilch. Talent and solid legal work are both critical--but they aren't enough.

In the 1994 book Built To Last, authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras discuss how enduring world-class companies often have developed "cult-like cultures" in which they view themselves as truly unique, superior and and frankly better-than-you in the production, marketing, selling and delivery of their products and services. Amongst themselves, and in talking to customers, they don't talk about whether their sales and management people are graduates of Tuck, Harvard or Wharton, huge state schools or small obscure private liberal arts colleges. That stuff faded into the woodwork when it was time to perform. Built To Last notes that some of the same firms don't have an external standard of quality. Instead, they have their own standard, and they compete against that. And they talk about it. Interestingly, though, their "elitism"--viewing themselves as special with their own special standard--didn't evolve with their success. They thought of themselves as special since day one. Check out the nearly 100-year history of IBM, pre-success elitists since 1911.

In firms of any type, size or caliber that sell services, talent and academic achievement is cherished, and it should be. Also valued is a high standard of client service: the art of making a valued client both "be and feel safe". However, services of all manner in the "new" global economy--new product-service mixes, traditional consumer services and professional services--continue to get low marks. The main reason for launching What About Clients? last year (see the first post) is the belief that client service at law and other professional firms is shamefully third-rate and our standard on client service so uninspired and low that it ensures mediocrity and failure. The best people and the best product are not enough. They are merely prerequisites. Better service or service techniques you learned last year at a seminar or from the state disciplinary board aren't enough either. A new campaign to keep clients more informed, return phone calls right away and buy better seats at the stadium won't get you to a client-service culture. And telling yourself and your clients that you give good or better client service than the next firm is like saying you're the most beautiful maiden in a leper colony.

Set your own client service standard and compete against that. Start talking about it. Learn from everyone, but banish other firms' standards of service out of your mind forever. Get a high standard--and then outdo yourself. Get cocky and superior about that. If WAC? could start one small revolution, that is the one we'd choose.

Posted by JD Hull at June 10, 2006 10:14 AM

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