Many firms have fallen into the habit of either offering or if insisted upon by a client or prospective client, agreeing to a free first interview. Is this a smart marketing initiative or a dopey value destruction strategy?
How did we get to this place?
Many firms have fallen into the habit of either offering or if insisted upon by a client or prospective client, agreeing to a free first interview. Smart marketing initiative or a dopey value destruction strategy?
Well, based on my straw poll on the Validatum LinkedIn group ‘Profitable Pricing for Lawyers’ (make sure you join the group and keep up with what your colleagues are doing) 19% think it’s a great idea, 33% think that its okay if used sparingly and selectively and 47% thought it is plain dopey.
Why do we feel we have to do this? What is the strategic objective? Are we just doing it because others are? Do surgeons give free first interviews (how absurd)? Would a general medical practitioner be very profitable if they didn’t charge for 30-minute time slots? Does anyone value something that is free? Does the strategy make us look desperate and weak? Does it undermine our value and only serve to make subsequent pricing conversations even more difficult that they already are? Hmm. Makes you think doesn’t it?
A large part of the problem is that we don’t have a clear objective in mind and even if we do, we don’t communicate that to the client.
Here is the proven and well-tested answer to this perennial problem. Divide the first interview with prospective/new clients into two quite discreet approaches based on the objectives of the meeting. It is up to you to decide which of the two is most appropriate based on the initial telephone conversation with the prospective/new client. I see the two choices this way.
The main purpose of this meeting is not to dispense copious quantities of legal advice. It is simply an opportunity for the client to meet you, for you to gain their confidence and trust, and for them to assess whether they do trust you, like you, and are comfortable having you work for them. The characteristics of such a meeting might be:
- Maximum of 30 minutes
- May be timed to coincide with coffee - mid to late morning or mid-afternoon
- Your discussion about the issues will be in very general terms; still helpful in giving them a macro perspective but no detail
- You will not be taking any notes
- You will not be writing any report to them afterwards other than a short e-mail or letter expressing appreciation for them coming in and looking forward to working with them or looking forward to hearing from them when they are ready or whatever
- There is no cost
You may think that this option is a little counterintuitive in terms of my general opposition to free advice. However, when I look back at the circumstances in which I would make the same offer to prospective new clients of my old firm (whom I had already satisfied myself in a phone conversation were not ‘tyre-kickers’) the conversion rate to full paying clients was very high - 90% plus. On that basis, I think one can justify the occasional wasted 30 minutes.
(B) Substantive first meeting
This meeting is more meaningful and is designed to enable the client to ‘dip their toe in the water’ in terms of both getting to know you and getting some useful initial advice but without committing too much expense or committing to provide you with ongoing instructions. The characteristics of such a meeting might be:
- A set maximum time of say, an hour
- You will take some basic notes
- You will follow up with a short letter or e-mail summarising the key issues. It is very important to make it clear to the client that this will be a ‘Lite/Low fat’ report which deals with the issues at a macro level, quite probably in bullet point format and under no circumstances should it exceed one page.
- A fixed (slightly discounted – 10% to 20%) fee of whatever represents the fee earners’ normal hourly rate for the meeting and the short report
- You can offer them two prices; one with a short report included and one for the meeting only and no short report (their choice entirely)
- You can make it more attractive by offering further price segmentation; a normal trading terms price (we’ll send you a bill to pay next month – hopefully!) and a lower, pay-as-you-leave price.
As you know, I'm a big fan of providing clients with choice; pricing choice and payment choice. One of the most effective ways to deal with new clients and in particular those that are expecting a free first interview is to give them these two very clear options.
Remember that this also serves as a triaging process and because both of those options are I think very fair and reasonable from the client's perspective, if they do not select one of those two and try to haggle for something else, I would turn them away there and then. All the signs are that they will be problematic later so you may as well save yourself the grief and part company early.
I have developed a smart little client communication matrix for this strategy. If you would like a copy, please email me; [email protected]