Today we're going to be learning about a parallel between lawyers and chefs and how it relates to sharing expertise and client experience, so buckle your seatbelts!
Those who know me well know that I can really nerd out on business. Across all industries, it is fascinating to me the variety of ways things can be done, the alternate angles of approach, the numerous ways one can stand out or turn an idea on its head. But, nothing interests me more than customer service; it is the common thread to success for all businesses. No customers, no business.
There are customer service parallels between industries everywhere and when you start to notice them, it can be really exciting. In all likelihood, a problem you currently have, may have or didn't even know you had has already been solved. I first learned to think more like this from the CEO and Founder of Geek Squad, Robert Stephens, when he was the speaker at my Rotary Club. He talked about challenges in the early days of the business, such as being nervous about sending employees into customer homes. He looked towards the plumbing industry, which had been doing work in homes for decades, and found solutions. Uniforms to build trust, put on booties to keep the house clean, show identification for safety, and so on.
Last night I stumbled on a great parallel that I think many of you reading this can relate to. My wife and I were enjoying a fantastic meal at an Ann Arbor institution, Zingerman's Roadhouse. We usually sit at the bar. It is a wonderful and warm setting with leather wrapped chairs, a lacquered and well worn bar top, subdued lighting and deeply knowledgeable and personable bartenders. It's very easy to melt into a seat there for the evening. The food special that night was their savory meatloaf and it was lights out amazing. I'm no pushover either, my grandmother, Dody, set a high bar for loafs of meat! When I was done, I asked our server if I could have the recipe, fully expecting to be told "no" as this did seem like a unique creation. Instead, he instantly replied "Of course! Let me go get it for you!" I was overjoyed.
My business brain, aided by a Knob Creek Old Fashioned, went into overdrive at the prospect of having this magical recipe. Not only could I now enjoy this meatloaf whenever I wanted at home, but I could start my own meatloaf carry-out business with this knowledge. Soon the orders would be piling up. I just had to incorporate, lease or build a commercial kitchen, do some permits, dream up branding and packaging, set up an office, get a website, do the social media thing, advertise, go viral and boom, Meatloaf Millionaire! Of course, none of this will happen. The magical meatloaf is already being sold by Zingerman's and recreating and surpassing their dining experience would be very very hard. If I'm being really honest, just making the meatloaf myself the way they do looks challenging — I probably won't do that either.
So what does this dining experience have to do with lawyers? Lots! I really appreciated that Zingerman's freely shared their expertise with me. I enjoy learning about food and it is neat to see how they combine different things. But the experience amounted to much more than simply gaining this freely given knowledge for my own (admittedly aspirational) use.
First off, it increased my trust in them. They literally shared their secret sauce with me. They made me feel more like a trusted friend than a mere customer who could increase their bottom line. They showed that my gastronomic delight is more important to them than their own culinary secrets.
Second, and just as important, they gave me appreciation for the nuance and complexity of what they do. I'm pretty sure I am never going to try to make Zingerman's meatloaf. And this isn't just because mine probably wouldn't turn out quite as well since I don't do it every day like their chefs. It's also because — as Zingerman's showed that they know, by sharing the recipe — the recipe is NOT what makes the experience. Yes, of course it has to be good loaf. But what makes Zingerman's a place I come back to is not just the food, but the exceptionally attentive, positive and well trained staff, the atmosphere and decor, the thoughtful sourcing of their ingredients, and of course, not having to make any of it myself.
We are forever hearing pushback from lawyers who think their knowledge of the law, their special recipe if you will, is what keeps them in business. This belief makes them cautious about sharing too much information on their website through blogs, articles and FAQs. Even in person, they hold back for fear that the potential client will just do it themselves once they have the knowledge. What lawyers with this mindset fail to realize is that they are not in the recipe business, they are in the service business. It's their knowledge, combined with their wisdom, strategy, relationships, business systems, attitude, rationality and more that create a positive experience and lasting relationship for their clients with tough legal challenges.
To build on the previous point, look up any attorney in your local area and read the testimonials on Google, AVVO and Yelp. You'll see words like friendly, compassionate, caring, helpful, responsive, honest, professional, diligent, nice, considerate and accommodating way more than references to knowledge and legal prowess. This is direct evidence showing that what makes the relationship with clients stick is the complete experience, not the fact that their lawyer is skilled in the law.
Small law firms are under tremendous pressure from high and low. Larger firms bring resources, a deep bench and higher prices. Online providers like LegalZoom bring scale, efficiency and low prices. Small firms have a great opportunity to be the Goldilocks provider, offering that just right experience for their target clients.
To do so, like Zingerman's, recognize that you're not in the business of selling a mere commodity. Legal practice is a service, not a good. Your special sauce may differ depending on your areas of practice and your ideal clientele. It may well even include the very atmosphere of your office and attitudes of your staff. But it will certainly include your showing that you are trustworthy, responsive, and genuinely concerned with your clients' matters.
And one great way to get potential clients to taste that special sauce is by expressing your personality online and, indeed, sharing the recipe! Offer your thoughts on a particular point of law. Answer common questions folks have about the legal system or hiring a lawyer. Your transparency builds trust and shows people you care about how your field affects them, not just about making a buck. (And, with the right context, it really isn't that hard to communicate that what you're offering isn't intended to be direct legal advice.) As to the concern that clients won't need you if you spill the sauce, I hope you see that quite the opposite is true. Moreover, folks looking to DIY aren't your ideal clients, anyway; if your information nonetheless draws them in, that's free traffic to your website that boosts your rankings. Take it!