Widening the Net

I recentlyCasting-a-Net-Irrawaddy had breakfast with my friend, Toni. Toni is more than a friend, actually: she is one of my very best friends, my client, my co-conspirator, a trusted business advisor, and co-author of a book we’re working on (that’s a whole other column). We meet for breakfast about once a week to check in with each other. And to gossip.

“You know, the problem with Bob’s business?” she asked. Bob is a mutual friend and a client whose name really isn’t “Bob.”

“It’s his marketing,” she continued without waiting for my answer.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He only markets to people who already know about him. How is he ever going to grow his business that way?”

She is right, I know. I’ve seen it. Bob’s primary means of marketing is social media and online advertising, and it is primarily seen by the people who already frequent Bob’s business. He offers discounts and specials, and he posts a lot of information about his services on his site, his Facebook page, and his Twitter feed.  He also attends a few local networking events each week, always the same few groups, and he has pretty much garnered all of the business out of those groups that he is going to get. He seems busy with the marketing stuff, but why isn’t it enough?

It’s not enough because Bob is overfishing the same waters, so to speak. His business has done well generating repeat business; but his growth is dependent on getting new customers in the door. A strong business needs both. That means casting a wider net in different waters to see if you can catch some new fish. My favorite definition of “insanity” is Albert Einstein’s: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” When it comes to marketing, Bob is insane.

Solo and small firm lawyers are pretty insane, too. We get comfortable with doing the same marketing activities week after week. But if we want our firms to actually grow, eventually we will find that we have to expand our efforts.

In my case, if I want to bring on an associate, send my paralegal to classes, and grow this firm, I have got to make bringing in new business a huge priority.

Sure, you can advertise. You can put your face in a magazine or on a billboard or bus stop and maybe get the phone to ring. Advertising is a “shotgun” approach, scattering your message all over the place and hoping that you hit the mark a couple of times. Thomas Smith wrote an article on Successful Advertising in 1885, saying that it takes up to twenty impressions for a buyer to respond to your ad; and while it may not take quite that many, there is a reason we see the same TV ad over and over and over during the evening news. Advertising can get prohibitively expensive. Even when your shot hits the mark, the prospective clients you get from advertising are not qualified leads. You have to vet them: make sure that they are the right fit for your firm, that they need your services, and that they can pay you.

Most small firms and solos I know cannot afford to go the advertising route. Instead of advertising, we look to “marketing,” which is less about how many impressions we can get and more about the kind of impression we can make.

The number one request I get from the students in my Representing Small Businesses class here at Solo Practice University is a class on marketing to small business owners. I have not done that class yet, and I may never do it. That’s because I don’t actually market directly to small business owners that much at all.

I get about half of my business these days from my web site (see my article on ethical SEO if that figure sounds too good to be true). That’s about it for direct-to-the-client marketing activities. The rest of my clients come from referrals. Most of my referrals come from existing clients and from networking.

When I first started marketing my firm, I networked my butt off with the local voluntary bar associations. I have a few lawyer friends who regularly refer clients to me, but the fact is that lawyers know a lot of other lawyers, and therefore they have lots of other lawyers to refer to – you’re just one of the many. In the long run, it’s spinning your wheels.

Then I looked into networking at some large organizations: Orlando Chamber of Commerce meetings, Rotary Club functions, charity work with United Way, and paid networking groups like BNI and WOAMTEC. I got a few referrals that way. However, I quickly realized that these waters were pretty overfished, too. Many attorneys were already involved and very active, and they were going to get the bulk of the referrals. Time to rethink my networking strategy.

Since my clients are all small business owners, it makes sense that my clients would ask the people who help them with their business to recommend a lawyer. In order to build my referral network, I realized that I needed to look for the people to whom my prospective clients talk. In the case of small business owners, I’ve found that they look to other professionals that service their businesses: their bookkeeper, accountant, insurance agent, financial planner, banker, or other business advisor when they want advice on choosing a business lawyer.

Whatever your practice area(s), you need to figure out who your prospective client is talking to. Start by asking yourself who your ideal client is. Then ask who it is that they are talking to about their problems. And then ask who it is that they are likely to listen to when they are told to talk to a lawyer. That person is who you need to get in front of. That is who you need to take to lunch and cultivate as a referral source.

Reach out beyond your current clients and referral network, maybe get a little uncomfortable with your marketing. Really put yourself out there. Widen the net.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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2 comments on “Widening the Net

  • A couple of thoughts: Accountants will always give their best referrals to lawyers who also have good clients to refer to the accountants. It’s not a one way street. Every business needs an accountant—they can represent the solo owner who has the 10 employees and has to file tax returns, needs advice on taking money out of the business—but those same bizzes won’t have much need for a business lawyer….your turn!
    “Small” businesses: Not sure what you mean…the company with a solo owner and with the eight employees who is not in a regulated business and really doesn’t anticipate or want any steep growth in the biz operations really doesn’t have much need for a lawyer….unless there’s litigation, or unless there’s trusts & estates work involved. Not sure I see how solo lawyers who have kids to send to private college, mortgages to pay, etc etc., can make a “go” of it just repping “small” businesses on biz matters….your turn!

  • Hi Steve,

    Just saw tho, so I apologize for the lateness of my reply. All I do is represent small business owners. Mostly mom and pop businesses. I set up business entities, review tons of commercial leases, draft services agreements, write buy/sell agreements, negotiate and write asset purchase agreements, draft all kinds of contracts. Yes, we do some litigation here and there, but we are largely a transactional practice. And we are doing just fine!

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