In the Biglaw legal marketplace, it's taken as gospel that loyalty is dead. Corporate clients that once retained the same law firms over a multi-year period may now issue RFPs and shift the work to lower-priced firms. Partners with solid and portable client relationships may leap to new firms offering more generous compensation packages. Associates with certain pedigrees are test-driving their newly-rediscovered market appeal and selecting employers who will pay above-market rates. These changes are arguably a healthy reflection of a dynamic and competitive marketplace. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is that all of these changes are preceded by triggers; they don't just occur spontaneously. For examples, clients who change law firms always signal their dissatisfaction, though sometimes you have to watch closely to see the signs. I'm baffled why any law firm relationship partner is surprised when a new General Counsel or new Chief Executive Officer predictably launches a cost-cutting initiative or brings in trusted advisers from a prior life. Why is it a surprise when a longtime client demands rate discounts several months after implementing a new e-billing system? When a client or prospective client issues an RFP and invites its procurement or finance team to the negotiation, why are law firm partners surprised to discover that alternative fees or discounts may be a necessary factor in winning the work, and not just pedigree or length of relationship? Some years ago in my corporate life my team established a "risk index" for our key clients, incorporating several independent factors that, when viewed in isolation, were mildly helpful indicators of satisfaction. However, when viewed collectively, these factors were surprisingly accurate in predicting when a valued client relationship was at risk, allowing us to be proactive in our retention efforts. This wasn't rocket science. We simply looked at factors like our contract terms (were they paying higher than average prices?), and depth of relationships (did we rely on one well-placed "friend in court" in the client organization, or had we established relationships at all levels?), and product penetration (did the client invest in numerous offerings or was our relationship limited to a single product or service), and product reliance (did the client have mission critical business processes relying heavily on our services, or were we in the "nice to have" category?), and even our own loyalty (has our sales and service team been consistent, or are we constantly re-assigning people and confusing the client with who to call?), and more. Two factors were highly correlated with risk, or a potential change in circumstances in our relationship. One was a change in our primary contact. The other was a notable change in the client's financial performance. When our primary contact changed, this nearly always led to a review where we had to defend the investment in our service offerings. And if the client or its parent organization had a bad year, even in an area totally unrelated to the line of business we were in, this nearly always led to belt-tightening that would sooner or later impact us.
As a result of this ongoing analysis, my team was rarely surprised. We developed a proactive toolkit when one of our key client relationships was flagged as high risk. And the clients loved it, because we often offered some creative solutions before they had formulated an attack plan, and in some cases, before they even were consciously aware that changes were needed. Who was unhappy? Our parent company, whose executives rejected any notion of proactive renegotiation because the only indicator of a relationship at risk that they would accept was an outright cancellation! This probably sounds familiar to many law firm leaders who hear soothing words from relationship partners of key clients until <gasp!> the client suddenly defects, or fades away without ever lodging a formal complaint. "But they love(d) us," the partner in charge will claim, all evidence to the contrary.
I was recently reviewing an old article in which I shared an instance of proactive service recovery by my preferred airline at the time, Continental. My closing remarks were prescient. Frequent fliers have certain buying triggers, and when an airline stops rewarding loyalty, the frequent fliers stop being loyal. Continental merged with United several years later, and, as loyal Continental fliers anticipated, the combined airline took on the service posture of United which is, shall we say, more focused on "What have you done for me lately?" than "Thank you for your many years of loyalty."
"Over the years I have flown to a lot of places. As a result I have earned many miles and points from various airlines, hotels, rail lines, car rental companies and other assorted vendors to the business traveler.
I have countless horror stories. You've all heard them. Or something like them. It's part of our culture to mock airport security, or express frustration at airline pricing, or bemoan the inattentiveness that leads to lost baggage and is compounded by further inattention in returning it.
But today I won't discuss what's gone wrong. I'll mention a couple incidents that went right.
Continental Airlines lost my bag last week. More accurately, I had 12 minutes to make a connection in Houston and I made it but my bag didn't. When we arrived at the final destination, the gate attendant came on board and paged me, asking me to see him as I stepped off the plane. He apologized that my bag didn't make it. He gave me the specific name of an agent in the baggage service office who was waiting for me, ready to complete the lost bag forms. Since I was awaiting a colleague on a later flight, I first stopped at the food court and had lunch. Apparently I was paged several times in baggage claim, as I received calls and text messages from alarmed friends. Then I received a call on my cell phone. The baggage service agent had called my home, explained to my wife that she wanted to help me expedite my claim, and asked for my cell phone number. I spoke to the agent briefly, stopped by the baggage claim office to fill out the form, and in about 4 hours the bag was waiting for me at my hotel. Two days later I received a letter in the mail from Continental, apologizing for the mixup and thanking me for being a customer.
Last year was my lightest travel year in over a decade. This was a blessing. But also a curse. Veteran travelers know that losing "elite" status means waiting in long lines with extended families, students, sports teams, foreigners baffled by the cacophony, and vacationers. As it turns out, I flew just enough to finally attain Million Miler status on Continental, which earned me lifetime elite status. I received a nice letter, a few related tokens of appreciation, and another thank you for my business. At the exact moment I expected to have no priority status while traveling and would therefore be more of a price shopper than a brand loyalist, Continental secured my loyalty. Again.
This is even more pleasing because several years ago I asked Continental -- the reason why now escapes me -- for a running tally of my earned miles. The agent who responded via email was curt: "We don't divulge that information except by court order." I forwarded the unusually hostile email to the head of OnePass, the loyalty program, who immediately apologized, provided the necessary information, and thanked me for my business. I suspect the customer service agent also received a scolding for not reflecting the proper service posture.
Continental still serves food. There are still pillows and blankets on the flights. Their rates are as good as anyone else's. These are good reasons to travel on Continental. But business travelers demand a high level of service, the sort of service posture I have come to expect and enjoy from Continental. So unless I move to a city which requires extraordinary effort to connect to a Continental hub, or unless the airline goes out of business, or merges with another airline and the service posture declines to the industry's lowest common denominator, then I will remain a fiercely loyal, and frequent, Continental Airlines traveler."*
There are two lessons here for law firm leaders. One: identify the change triggers that are likely to signal a potential change in circumstance with your client's buying patterns. Better yet, build this into a predictive index and apply it regularly to all clients that you wish to keep. Two: develop a proactive response for at-risk clients. The triggers vary, so the responses will vary. But the earlier you act, the greater the chance to salvage or even rejuvenate the relationship. You're going to hit some roadblocks. Relationship partners tend not to like anyone looking over their shoulder. And data is hard to come by. And developing a collaborative response plan is a challenge in an organization where collaboration isn't necessarily rewarded. But do it anyway. On occasion will you "poke the bear" and provoke a "Hey, we hadn't been thinking about you lately but now that you mention it, we're unhappy" response? Sure. But I'd rather control that conversation and stay involved in designing the outcome than have my competitor provoke the conversation unbeknownst to me. Loyalty isn't dead. It just needs some attention.
Timothy B. Corcoran was the 2014 President of the Legal Marketing Association and is an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change. For more information, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This article first appeared in a previous blog in February 2009