Last month Toby Brown and I co-wrote “Bet the Farm” Versus “Law Factory”: Which One Works?. We explored how large law firms could segment their business. Toby discussed tiers of matters and I law firm sub-brands. Today I extend the brand analogy. 

I asked whether law firms could operate multiple sub-brands, drawing an analogy to the Hilton Hotel chain, which operates both luxury and value properties. My stay this weekend at the Waldorf-Astoria, a Hilton luxury brand, made me think about “brand” experience and what BigLaw might learn from it.

The Waldorf-Astoria brand disappointed me in many ways:

  • Check-in. Check in took 10+ minutes. Waiting some 10 minutes for the receptionist to see if a different room configuration was available, I inferred he had to search manually. With my legal tech and KM background, I had expected Hilton to provide faceted search to the front desk. Check-in was further delayed by printing, in real-time, several vouchers. In contrast, at recent Hilton Garden Inn and Doubletree stays, check-in took about 90 seconds, with vouchers pre-printed.
  • Physical Plant. Multiple issues: (1) Beyond seemingly unreasonable elevator wait times, I was unhappy when a moving one stalled jerkily and then re-started for no apparent reason. (2) A room-darkening blinds was tattered, dirty, and would not stay down. (3) The water temperature changed intermittently while I showered even though I did not touch the controls. (4) In my opinion, the room felt generally run-down. I’ve never had such problems at “lesser” brands.
  • Other Problems. (1) On check-in, I was promised a free newspaper. I did not find one outside my door in the morning nor did I receive instructions on how to get one. (2) I had a voucher for a free breakfast at the onsite Starbucks. At 9am there 20 people in line and I had no time to wait. In contrast, at Hilton Garden Inn, coffee is available throughout the day, for free, with no wait. (3) The bill I found under my door was for someone else. So much for accuracy and privacy.

Brands are promises of what consumers can expect in a product or service. For me, Waldorf broke its promise many times over. There are lessons here for BigLaw. A “Bet the Farm” firm offers an implicit promise. The most important is “good outcome.” I easily enumerated how Waldorf broke its promise; how do BigLaw clients know that top tier firms deliver their promises. Comparing outcomes is hard and I wonder if clients apply circular reasoning, thinking “I used this fabulous firms so the result most have been fabulous.” So lesson one for clients: be able to rate your experience, especially the outcome achieved, objectively.

With outcomes hard to measure and few firms having a lock on particular expertise, other brand attributes matter. Clients also want predictable price, timely sharing of key information, efficiency, responsiveness to inquiries, knowledge of the client’s business and industry, and friendly service. Just as a hotel stay is an amalgam of many discrete experiences, so too is a law firm’s representation of a client. I was surprised that Hilton’s “law factory” brands delivered more consistent and higher quality service along many dimensions that matter to me than did its luxury brand.

So lesson two is that industrializing repeat processes makes for good customer service. Industrializing does not mean impersonal – it means making sure it happens and happens consistently. Waldorf’s grand design and bed turn-down service did not make up for a lousy experience. Large law firms that lack systems and processes for meeting client expectations consistently are at risk relative to those that do. The prevailing mentality of Tier 1 law firms is that everything is “one off”. Even if that is true for legal work, it’s not for virtually all other aspects of the service experience. So even a “bet the farm firm” should offer the equivalent of always-refilled hot coffee and pre-printed check-in vouchers.

Lesson three that I draw is that service providers need to have systems to determine what their clients think. At minimum, that means asking questions and responding to concerns. Hilton does ask via comment cards and providing an e-mail address. As Jerry Seinfeld might say of Hilton, “you know how to ask, but you don’t know how to answer.” I sometimes wonder if law firm interview programs are not creating a similar problem.

And a fourth and final lesson is that sharing experience helps the market. I do not expect disgruntled large law firms clients to write blog posts like this. But it is not clear how widely they share their service frustrations even privately, which dooms other clients to learn for themselves. Various rating systems now developing may address this problem but clients have to be willing to complete the rating forms.

In sum, with my recent “bet the farm” brand experience, I place even greater value on routine, flawless execution of a whole series of elements that make up a service experience. Charm and grace have a place do not make up for bad service. For law firms, results matter, but so too does consistent service delivery.