As a risk averse lawyer, I am always nervous about people who use the word “guarantee”. It connotes something of a near certainty, and, let’s face it, very few things these days are that predictable (or at least no one wants to commit beyond what is sensible).
But of this – growing a practice – I can be sure. Why? Because, throughout my 20 year career in the service sector, it is only way that I have been able to grow a practice – whether that was recruitment or legal services.
“I am not you”.
“Yes I know that, but the strategies and tactics that I have deployed, if you believe in them and are willing to fail (yes you hear me right), will work for you.”
This is not novel stuff. Look at all the firms who have gone the sector route, which is another way to think of a vertical market. Or those firms who have coalesced a division around a person who has a penchant for a certain area or, more likely, a loyal following of clients in one area of the market that happens to be (quite) profitable. But, and it is a Big but, let me dispel one enormous myth: Simply creating a vertical market out of the ether will not of itself work, even if you have the foresight to undertake a detailed P.E.S.T.E.L. (Political, Economic, Societal, Technological, Environmental, Legal) survey. You might think you are picking a winner but absent the passion, dedication and enthusiasm of the person so anointed to take things forward it will not work.
Let me spell that out again: If the person or people that are chosen to take forward your vertical market are not insanely focused and passionate about the clients, the market, the likely work type and the excitement of growing a new practice area then don’t even bother. Save yourself the headache.
If you are not convinced about the need to focus on a vertical market, then you better have a brilliant plan to compete either at the commoditised or standardised end of the market or at the top end. If you hang around in the middle, where the majority of firms still ply their trade, then your blandness will come home to roost, and you will begin to lose market share. Middle of the road will then feel like a slow death.
I hope you need very little convincing of the need to go vertical, but here are my 7 starter Tips to get you going:
- Spend some quality time with all the main departments in the firm. See if there emerges any strong pull towards a sector or a group of sector-specific clients. If you haven’t yet got into the habit of cross-functional/team meetings, then now is the time to start. Rather than asking the rather glib question “Which sector or vertical market should we focus on”, I would be inclined to ask everyone to bring with them details of their top 5 clients that they are acting for or have acted for. If this doesn’t work, then ask your teams to do a visualization exercise to each come up with a dream list of 5 clients. My first sector was pens, watches and stationery. Yes there were a few headline acts but, to begin with, no one client was off limits. I just knew that with my knowledge of the sector and my love of the brands that it would be easy for me to find great sales people, and so it proved.
- Having done the exercise it will be clear where there are sectors that have a strong pull but importantly before you nail your colours to the mast, you need to understand who has the passion/drive/desire to take things on. You don’t need everyone on board. That person has to like people, networking, banging on doors, not taking no for an answer and has the disposition to face down rejection day after day and not be phased by not billing anything for the first few months.
- Make it easy for the department to grow. That doesn’t mean spending lavish sums of money on advertising, putting on meaningless events or generally hawking around every networking event. It means not putting obstacles in the way. Having a mindset that says anything is possible. Not being short term in your outlook. Being realistic about what one person can do. And not viewing a nascent area like a mature one.
- Make sure there are some clear milestones or goals of what you want to achieve. My advice is not to focus too heavily on the numbers in the early days but rather look to celebrate client wins, even if the revenue is modest. I was successful in securing a Plc client by doing their defended small claims track work. It just about washed its face but it was the opportunity to do better quality work that inspired me and was of much greater significance.
- Stay close to what is going on and be prepared to back the person or team. If things look like they are not working out, don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that you have made a mistake. Weigh up all the options. Does the person need some help? Do they need some training in an area like lead creation? Do they need to go even deeper and more specific in the sector? Take my previous sector, would you be better off just concentrating on one of those sectors rather than all three?
- Don’t be tempted to copy those firms who may have established a presence in the sector. Unless they are a very sizeable firm, apart from the fact they may have a few more clients than you, it is likely that they will be grappling with the same, troublesome issues.
- Finally make sure that the reward for success is clearly defined. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Again you need to be realistic. If someone’s career prospects are riding on them bringing in £50,000 of new revenue in the 1st full year of trading, don’t be a weasel and say “As you only brought in £42,00 you haven’t made it.” In comparison to other areas that £42,000 may be highly profitable or more than that it may mean that with the clients that you have secured you have the ability, all things being equal, next year to easily double the turnover. You might be able to get away with the slight of hand once, or as an outside bet twice, but not a third time. Tight market or no tight market, your star will leave you and you will be left holding the proverbial.
This is just the start.
Winning new clients is exceptionally hard, and never more so in a sector where you are going head to head with bigger and more experienced players. But if you crack it then it will define the practice of the future. Although not always replicable, if you do it once, it will give you the confidence and self-belief to try it again and again. You will also find that it inspires more people to come forward and commit to something.
~ JS ~