The 1989 recession hit the Chicago legal community hard, particularly damaging the stellar reputation of Ungaretti & Harris, one of Chicago’s leading mid-sized law firms. Five years later, the firm sought to revitalize its tarnished image, needing a bold strategy to regain its quality reputation.
To get the legal and business communities focused on the firm’s service and innovation, we developed the nation’s first written service guarantee, leading to a 50% increase in revenue in 12 months during a flat 1995 market, as the firm grew from 60-95 lawyers, becoming one of the nation’s ten fastest-growing firms according to The American Lawyer.
Client retention soared, attorney retention quadrupled, and led to quickly developing a well-deserved national reputation for quality, innovation and client service.
The program received numerous awards including the ABA’s “Ethics in Advertising” award for the nation’s best ad campaign, as well as the Legal Marketing Association’s grand prize in 1996, the first-ever Best of Show award, for the nation’s best marketing campaign.
The Legal Profession’s First Written Service Guarantee
A strategic business and marketing program to improve client service and retention, and create a differentiated identity.
A service guarantee embodies the positive behavior law firms strive for: responsiveness, efficiency, communication, and a resolve to provide the finest technical skills. No law firm had ever offered this type of guarantee. Using client focus groups to help craft the language to identify and motivate the most critical conduct: the continuous communication that ensures that any problems that arise are identified “promptly” and repaired to the client’s satisfaction.
Although financial adjustments were part of the offer, this was not a crass “money-back” guarantee. That commercial attitude demeans the fundamental principle: write-offs don’t keep clients satisfied, meeting their service needs and building long-term relationships do (which also dramatically increases firm profitability).
An inaccurate, but lingering, recession-era image.
In 1989, this firm experienced significant and conspicuous downsizing. Although it rebounded, the inaccurate perception of continuing instability remained, despite extremely talented attorneys. In late 1994, our analysis showed that the firm had an historically poor client-retention record, caused in part by double the profession’s average annual attorney turnover. The firm’s revenues had been flat for five years, but its enterprising environment was primed for creative new strategies and solutions.
The entrepreneurial managing partner was willing to take a calculated risk for a program he believed in, and we had the creativity and commitment of a talented marketing team, as well as a remarkably forward-thinking and influential Marketing Committee. These factors created the synergy that positioned the firm exceptionally well to try something unique. We decided to offer a written service guarantee.
- Create a dynamic, differentiated firm image, and
- Constantly improve the firm’s service to increase client satisfaction and retention.
Perception had lagged far behind the fact of the firm’s revitalization. We wanted to ensure that the external opinion of the firm matched the reality of the firm’s skilled attorneys, to aid business-development and recruiting activities, and to build this recognition around high-quality client service, like Nordstrom’s or Federal Express.
Other important goals include:
- Increase revenue and profits
- Improve attorney retention by showing that the grass is greener atthis unique firm
- Grow strategically, to serve client needs
Follow a strategic, integrated marketing and business model.
We planned to implement the guarantee and use both creative advertising and vigorous media relations to amplify the message that this is a high-quality, innovative, and service-oriented firm. We began with proprietary market research (383 metro-area purchasers of legal services), finding that inadequate communication caused most problems in attorney/client relationships. We also found that 80% of dissatisfied clients take their business elsewhere.
Therefore, we crafted the guarantee’s language to reinforce and reward the close communication that “promptly” identifies any hidden problems so we can repair the issue immediately and improve the relationship. It creates credible evidence of our service and (indirectly) of our technical skills, without simply declaring it as an unsubstantiated conclusion. It is a legally binding client contract – a firm-wide mission statement with razor sharp teeth.
Aggressive Media Relations. If we could be the first firm to offer such a guarantee, we felt we could gain significant media attention. We actively courted the media, and dozens of positive feature stories greatly magnified the reach of our message worldwide.
Targeted Advertising. Local law firms did very little creative advertising. We saw this gap as an opportunity to leverage our message and broaden our image among our audience in the local business and legal communities. We worked with an outside ad agency to develop a bold yet corporate-looking campaign and placed these ads in The Wall Street Journal, Crain’s Chicago Business, as well as local and selected national legal periodicals.
Coordinated Collaterals. Supporting our newly differentiated image, we created a variety of collaterals, built around the elegant, glossy, white-on-black guarantee brochure. These other pieces included a coordinating “new-hires” announcement with a dramatically different look and theme than the traditional “We are pleased to announce…” cards. We reproduced this announcement in selected advertising as well. To fortify the message for our internal audience, we designed matching mouse pads and coffee mugs which bore the guarantee, and sent these items to clients and the media to keep our message on their desks.
Internal Meetings and Training. The guarantee also spawned firm-wide improvement. Following introductory small-group meetings with all of our personnel to explain the significance of the guarantee and seek internal buy-in, the firm created interdisciplinary teams of attorneys and staff to target specific areas of the firm (e.g. the phone system) and suggest concrete improvements.
- We became one of the nation’s 10 fastest-growing law firms.
- In just one year (1995), during a stagnant legal market, and following 5 flat years:
- Revenues jumped 50%, compared to the profession’s 2% average growth.
- We grew by 50%, from 65 to 95 attorneys, compared to the profession’s 2% average growth. According to a source at a national management consulting company, this ranked us among the nation’s 10 fastest growing firms. Growth was all individual, not through large acquisitions.
- Attorney retention increased 400%, to just half the profession average attorney turnover. The firm lost no partners and none of the few departing associates went to competing firms for two straight years.
- Client retention increased significantly.
- More than 20 positive feature articles were written about the firm, from The New York Times and the local business press, to The American Lawyer and the ABA Journal. The firm was also the subject of a 3-minute “Special Report” on the local ABC-TV affiliate news, and numerous radio shows:
- “Today, [the firm] has come to be recognized as a standout among mid-sized firms in the country, with high-quality lawyers and innovative moves.” – Illinois Legal Times, June 1995
- “Major retailers have built reputations on top-notch customer service, but never until now has a law firm…. The idea of a service guarantee is not new, but what is unusual, indeed unprecedented, is applying it to a law firm. And clients are reacting with enthusiasm.” – ABC-TV News, August 2, 1995
- Success in new-business competitions increased from 15% to 50%, generating millions of dollars in fees.
- High-quality lateral hires attracted.
- We were selected by Microsoft Corp. as one of five law firms for use in its national advertising campaign.
Why this is Successful
Before we embarked upon this journey, we learned through market research that given the choice between equally qualified law firms, if one firm offered a written service guarantee, more than half would choose the firm with the guarantee. All signs indicated that the market was ripe for this new initiative and that we were well-positioned to try it. Nonetheless, 1995 far exceeded our expectations. The firm became known nationally as “the firm with the guarantee,” and we get calls regularly from various professional service firms seeking to offer their own guarantee. A new energy coursed through the firm and clients commented how pleased they were with its service.