"There is no such thing as over-monetization!" Until the client catches on. And then you're screwed. I don't know when I first learned that money could become a verb and monetize and monetization were a thing. But as a young corporate guy moving up the ladder, these words were ideal additions to my vocabulary. If there was one thing I was good at, it was making money for my organization. But in my perpetual quest to close sales, develop new products, defeat the competition, and win awards, I never lost sight of the client's needs. In fact, it was this laser focus on long-term client satisfaction that formed the basis for my success year after year.
It sounds simple in practice, but when faced with the choice to make a few more dollars today while potentially putting the long-term client relationship at risk, many businesspeople are awfully short-sighted. And so it is with lawyers, whose compensation plans often reward billing hours, collecting cash receipts, and generating sizable short-term profits. Maximizing matter profitability often conflicts with a client's desire to lower legal spending. So we might win the battle but lose the war when the client selects a different law firm for future matters of this type. In the end, did we really profit from this transaction?
In this endless quest to make money and make sales, why are we surprised when clients react negatively to high prices? In simple terms, in a price elastic (or price sensitive) market clients buy less when the price goes up and they buy more when the price goes down. In an inelastic market, the price doesn't have the same direct influence on buying behavior. Many law firm partners came of age at a time when clients were less price sensitive, or had sufficient legal budget so they could overcome their annoyance at rising prices. A simple google search will reveal in-house counsel complaining of rising rates for decades, but most did little about it until the "Great Reset" when shrinking legal budgets drove new behaviors. In addition to seeking lower prices -- by extracting price concessions from incumbent law firms and/or by shifting work to smaller firms with lower rates -- clients also began to seek alternatives and substitutes, e.g., more in-house staff, or LPOs, or non-traditional legal providers, to meet their legal demands. This behavior is as predictable as the sun rising in the East.
The concept of over-monetization is simple: when clients can obtain similar services at lower prices elsewhere, or when clients can obtain reasonable alternatives and substitutes at lower prices, and they act on this, your prices are too high. If your offerings are over-monetized, the clock is ticking. You can try, but you will never find enough new clients with pockets so deep they don't mind over-spending, or with management so inept that they don't recognize over-spending, to make up for the rush of clients out the door.
It is not hard to identify over-monetization. In the legal space, there are some excellent providers variously serving the buyer or seller side to provide such benchmarking. But remember, it's not just how your published rates compare to other firms' published rates; it's what clients are actually paying that matters. However, numerous law firm leaders persist in believing their offerings are unique, not subject to price elasticity, or tied to a premium brand that is immune from the price pressures facing weaker competitors. For a few law firms, this is true. Odds are, this isn't you. (I'm being gentle. All legal services are eventually subject to price pressure.) If you're observing some leading indicators of price pressure, including decreased realization, decreased client retention, decreases in new matters, a declining competition win rate, increased discounts, increased demand to contain firm overhead, and so on, then you're in the thick of it.
Recognizing price sensitivity is half the battle. Business leaders have a bias for optimism, but when that optimism turns to blind stupidity the organization is in trouble. Some years ago my parent company's brand new CEO insisted that warnings of price pressure and declining market demand were merely the bleats of frightened sheep, so he outlawed the term "over-monetization" in all business discussions. He then insisted that all product lines must adopt a hefty price increase in the coming year, irrespective of past price increases, client demand, competitive forces, or any other factor. Every. Single. One. My team had spent a year developing a new pricing methodology for our core product offering because past management’s excessive price increases had eroded the goodwill of even our most loyal clients. The widespread adoption of substitutes and alternatives was rapidly eroding our revenues and profits as well, so we not only resisted raising our prices, we planned to lower our prices. And we were overruled.
More onerous price increases took effect, and a few years later, long after most of us had moved on in frustration, the entire business unit disappeared. Completely. There was nothing left. The CEO, however, was handsomely rewarded when the price increases led to a one-time boost in revenues. Market analysts loved him. Until the following year when clients resisted that tactic. So he then conducted layoffs to boost profits. And he was rewarded again. Consistently boosting prices beyond what the market will bear works if your goal is to make a lot of money and run. But it's no way to build, or lead, a sustainable, successful business based on repeat clients.
The lesson is that ever-rising prices will not only eventually intersect with the clients' desire to spend less, it will often cause the clients' desire to spend less. But it doesn't have to be this way. Any business school teaches the concept of a business cycle in which products and services evolve from shiny new ideas adopted by a brave few, to commonplace tools in use by many, to outdated anachronistic offerings relied on only by slow movers. Typically prices are low for early stage offerings, and prices increase during the lifecycle until they reach their apex, at which point no one buys any longer. If your current offerings are over-monetized, you need to find new early-stage offerings that better meet market needs. Or start to downsize your business, because declining revenues and profits will not support the infrastructure you've built.
For law firms, this means finding new ways to price and package existing legal services so they better meet clients' desire to spend less. This can be a good thing. We can capture more market share from competitors who won't change their approach. We can lower our prices and win more. Of course, savvy business leaders recognize that we can't merely lower our prices to find long-term success; doing so would be tantamount to suicide. But we can embrace project management and process improvement in order to profit from efficiencies even as revenues for some product lines are flat or declining.
Your law firm is a business, so get over your angst about the use of words like price, and product, and sales. It's not a matter of if, but when your services will be over-monetized. So get there before your clients and you can reinvent your product offerings, and your business, before the disruptive new entrants and your fast-moving competitors dictate your future.
Timothy B. Corcoran is principal of Corcoran Consulting Group, with offices in New York, Charlottesville and Sydney and a global client base. He’s a Trustee and Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, and is a member of the Hall of Fame and was 2014 president of the Legal Marketing Association. A former CEO, Tim guides law firm and law department leaders through the profitable disruption of outdated business models. A sought-after speaker and writer, he also authors Corcoran’s Business of Law blog. Tim can be reached at Tim@BringInTim.com and +1.609.557.7311.