What Can Lawyers Learn from Retailers?

In recent years, we’ve seen a steady parade of retailers shuttering stores and filing for protection from creditors. We’ve watched as once respected brands like Payless Shoes, RadioShack, Sears, and Toys R Us were marched solemnly to their inglorious ends. Retail vacancy rates have skyrocketed as real estate developers scramble to revitalize strip malls and repurpose anchor spots in shopping centers. Every day, a new headline prophesies that “Main Street” may be on its last breath.

What does this have to do with lawyers? Why should they care, don’t they have enough of their own problems to worry about? For one thing, those shoppers who stopped buying their stuff at Toys R Us are also prospective clients of law firms. Their expectations of service and how it will be delivered is—whether we like it or not—now permanently shaped by their experiences online and in store. As it happens, the current legal market is flooded with an overabundance of competing legal teams, uncomfortable bill audits, increased profit compression, and wavering client loyalty. Will investments in technology breathe a new vitality into the profession, as it seems to be doing for retail? And what role will the marketing function play in this future? These are all difficult questions the retail has wrestled with lately, and the legal world should pay attention.

A middle-aged lawyer may not think of it very often, but couples who come in to a law office to discuss estate planning make most of their purchases on Amazon. They research and pay for their next vacation on TripAdvisor and they ‘like’ their favorite styles and stores on Facebook. They’re savvier than your average attorney when it comes to the internet and especially ecommerce. They listen to books on Audible, they have their groceries delivered by Publix, and they use a smartphone to compare prices, and the check out everything online before committing to an in-person experience.

So, say you’re a lawyer and one of these savvy young clients has scheduled an in-person meeting with you. Of course, they would have already done their homework and checked out your firm online. Your website looks professional, but before they visited it they looked for reviews about you and your firm on Yelp. And, if your firm got less than 4 stars (or worse, there were no reviews of your firm), they’re walking into your meeting with some healthy skepticism. They’ve poked around LegalZoom and they may have already pulled a few templates for living wills off of RocketLawyer. They’ve also checked out your competitors, and they have a very good idea what the going rate is for estate planning legal services. And now they’ve now been waiting in your beautifully appointed reception area for thirty minutes.

At this point, this young couple has already decided what they think of you. They’ve measured you, not just against your competitors, but also against every retail buying experience they’ve ever had. And if you don’t stack up, you don’t win their business.

What lessons can lawyers learn from retailers? How can a lawyer take those lessons and better position his or her firm to win? Here are three critical pieces of advice from the retail industry.

Communicate with Authenticity and Relevance

The retailers that fell by the wayside, like Sears, failed to adapt to changing market dynamics and they lost relevance in the mind of their customers. For instance, Toys ‘R’ Us clearly got lost in transformation. Their brand story became irrelevant to customers, they ceded their strategic position as the “toy authority,” and they chased bright shiny objects, like augmented reality, rather than giving their customers an authentic and relevant reason to buy.

Successful lawyers and firms should use brand stories to demonstrate how they represent certain values, offer quality, and assure productive outcomes. The most authentic and relevant brand stories are the ones in which the client is the hero (not the lawyer or the firm). You give the client a reason to care, a reason to listen, and most importantly a reason to engage with you.

Translate Customer Insight into Action

To avoid disruption and thrive in the new digital economy, a law firm must get up close and personal with clients. You need to see the world through their eyes and, in some cases, know them better than they even know themselves. To this end, digital platforms powered by A.I. can help. Fashion retailer Zara, for instance, has insight into exactly which items customers will pick up to try on together. By stitching together a data-driven view of their customers, Vineyard Vines delivers a highly personalized experience for their customers.

Likewise, a robust case management system gives lawyers a holistic view of client records, cases, communications, appointments and schedules, billing, bookkeeping, documentation, and deadlines. Not only do these systems save lawyers time and money, they enable a more streamlined and personalized experience from the client’s perspective. Such efficiency and streamlining helps firms offer clients a level of service that will remind them of what they experience when shopping at their favorite outlets.

Meet Your Clients on Their Terms

Like the big supermarkets who offer online, home delivery, and in-store experiences, all linked by a loyalty card, law firms can find ways to engage with their clients, at home, at work, and even in a competitor’s meeting room. For example, Squire Patton Boggs’ Law Cloud App provides checklists, calculators, event booking, and the essential “contact us” button for clients. By the time the client ends up in their law offices, they already have a positive relationship with them. After all, the firm has already been on their smartphone in their pocket or handbag for a couple of months.

Of course, retailers have also been learning that offering an online-only experience may also have its disadvantages. Consider Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and their shift to acquire more brick and mortar locations to interact with customers. Amazon has recognized that retailers with a Main Street presence have a significant advantage over pure online retailers, as consumers can experience the products, get advice from knowledgeable staff, and enjoy instant gratification. Given that buying legal services may often be accompanied by unwelcome stress or fear, a combination of online and in-person encounter is vital.

The human contact, the emotional link of a face-to-face encounter with a real live lawyer who is understanding, knowledgeable, and reassuring is quite different from finding out online the bare facts of how-to setup a family trust or get divorced. The trick here is to take a hybrid approach as many successful retailers do today. Help the client with both, online and offline. Make services available for purchase online, and also offer to schedule a meeting with an expert at the office. The choice is up to the client, and you win either way.

Main Street has always been a place where people meet up, chitchat, shop, and do plenty of other stuff. Though many go to Main Street to buy, they also go to do something else important: interact with their community. The face-to-face experience, the service, the stories that are heard and told, that’s where the value is created in a service business.  For a more in-depth look at how to transform your law firm with an authentic and relevant story, a clear strategy, and fully aligned systems, subscribe to our weekly newsletter and order a copy of my new book Marketing, Interrupted.