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Why Brands Don’t Stick in Professional Service Firms

By Burkey Belser  and Stefan Klocek
July 8, 2015
Why Brands Don’t Stick in Professional Service Firms

This paper is heavily inspired by the brilliant article on UX by Stefan Klocek, Google’s UX lead, called Fixing a Broken User Experience published by Smashing Magazine. Here, his concept for understanding and fixing user experience has been translated to the challenge of branding professional service firms. The parallel challenges are uncanny. This may seem like a big jump—a lateral jump—but you will see the connection soon enough. Of course, read Stefan’s article to honor the author of this conceptual structure. Read on if you want to see it applied to branding. Note that the chart follows Klocek’s model quite closely as does much of the language, but has been adapted to the daunting challenge of branding professional service firms. 

Greenfield/Belser has created brands for over 400 law, accounting and consulting firms over the past 35 years only to see most of them dissolve like sandcastles because branding is so poorly understood by the rank and file within those firms. One could easily argue we have done a poor job of communicating brand, too. Over those years, we have spoken with over 4,000 professionals and over 5,000 buyers of professional services. We have undertaken original research in marketing professional services biannually for almost 20 years. It is the accumulation of this experience that found the parallel in Stefan’s article.

The Tarbaby of Tradition

Unless you’ve formed or joined a completely new law, accounting or consulting firm, you are likely to work for a firm that has accumulated years of legacy processes and procedures in its service delivery. In established firms carrying the weight of history, leaders find it difficult to upset a model that’s worked for years, even if the market has fundamentally changed all around them. What’s the model? At the individual level, it is to (1) build a book of business (2) based on the billable hour. The result in a firm of any size is a culture of independent business people and a fragmented service portfolio, which leads to an inconsistent, and ultimately broken client experience. The inconsistency is magnified proportionately in the largest firms. In the field, some firms are referred to as a “hotel for lawyers” where the glue that binds is weak—amounting to little more than those independent business people sharing space and resources. On a zero to ten scale with zero being “hotel” and ten being a “team,” nearly all firms (we have asked) assess their position as a four.

Understanding a law or accounting firm and its clients, then designing the right service model and brand expression for that firm is no easy task. It is usually assumed the primary challenge is to alert clients to the brand but, in fact, in professional services, the far bigger challenge in a firm is to communicate that brand to its own professionals. Most have already created their own service style in the mode of the practice leader and that leader may be hostile or indifferent to the top-down dictates from management. Moreover, because of the business model (build your own business and bill it by the hour), stakeholders demand without cease to know, "what’s in it for me?" Tough assignment because branding “starts with surface improvements, goes progressively deeper into structural issues and ends with a substantial organizational shift." This is the genius of Klocek’s model for software suites. And it is a perfect parallel for creating professional service brands. A successful brand is an infection that takes over the body corporate.

The Hierarchy of Effort

As the legal and accounting markets consolidate (82 law firm mergers in 2014; 88 in 2013), firms find themselves selling dozens of services with the inefficiencies that naturally develop in large organizations. However, these inefficiencies are magnified in professional service firms. There’s very frequently little rhyme or reason in the service suite. Law firms grow like topsy. Accounting and consulting firms generally grow in response to market demand. But all share the curse of the individual professional’s independence. In our experience, very little effort is made by management to cure these functional inefficiencies because management lacks the power to do so. These ungainly service suites are the result of mergers, acquisitions, different sets of client needs, legacy services and contracts. Sometimes the reasons for a set of service lines makes perfect sense; other times, the wide set of offerings doesn’t serve anyone’s needs particularly well. The red-headed stepchild is granted an office, too. 

Professional service firms often do not know what they are buying when they embark on a branding initiative. Witness the million or multi-million dollar efforts abandoned by the roadside every year with the launch of a new website. Many, however, know quite well what they hope to achieve, but find the individual owners, the partners, chip away at the finished product until it is unrecognizable. Many if not most firms simply toss it out altogether after a while as if it were a painting they’d tired of. New management comes on board or a new marketing director arrives, neither with any understanding of the existing brand strategy. The documentation is available but languishes like a misfiled investigation in the Vatican. When the successor is cleaning out the desk of her predecessor, it’s so easy to simply toss everything, isn’t it? But in every case, the brand initiative begins (or began) with the goal of creating a common look and feel and a core set of messages that is hoped will lead to a unified client experience. In almost every case, the common look and feel is achieved. The core set of messages is defined. Abandoned at the altar is the “unified client experience.”

Low-Hanging Fruit

Andy Warhol said, “I may be superficial but I’m deeply superficial.” Some feel the initial result of the deep review of a firm’s culture and business, mission and goals is superficial. The logo may be changed, colors altered. New collateral material is developed, a website overhauled, the proposal system streamlined, alerts and blogs and other periodic or episodic communications repaired and polished. Visual consistency is achieved. Messaging is organized. Communication debris is swept aside. A personality is created. But to most members of a professional services firm, it feels more like a new suit than a successful stint in rehab. Deeply superficial? Or just superficial?

You could call it lipstick on a pig. But I’m less sure. This really is the beginning point of a new client experience. The benefit of visual consistency is the promise of a unified client experience. In effect, this is the business result that branding promises. Or it should be. The problem is: people wear the suit. They spill opinions on it, tear at the design, keep it in the closet and, too often, go back to their old suit. Because they are allowed to. Because they can.

Behavioral Consistency Follows Visual Consistency

Changing behavior is a bit more challenging than changing a logo. A logo stands still; a business is dynamic; people are set in their ways. In over 35 years of brand projects with service firms, we devised a rule of thumb: our experience is that twenty percent of the players are on board, trimming the topsails and manning the guns. Sixty percent can become excited and pulses will race for a while after a brand makeover before settling back to normal. The final twenty percent could care less, never will, never would. Or worse, they are actively hostile. The goal of leadership is to calm the boo-birds so their negative impact is negligible—not easy but doable. We urge management to buy them off with “sweets,” however defined—usually, more marketing dollars directed at their special interest. The sixty percent are your target and it is to them your constant communication must be directed. The worst enemies of a nascent brand in a partnership are those who commend the effort but act apart, as if the brand was for others, deserving of sympathy but not accord. Insidious, devious, never mal-intentioned, but gnawing at the ropes that hold the sails trim.

Our 2001 research, Why Firms Fail, Why Firms Succeed was, and is, a formula for leadership in the 21st century. We learned the semi-religious covenant that governed law firms in the 1980s was broken when the first associates were laid off in the early 90s. The unspoken covenant of history declared, often publicly to the partnership, that we will support each other in bad times and share the wealth in good times. Like a fraternity, the lyrics to the shanty were all-for-one-and-one-for-all. No more. Now leaders must manage the contract and not the covenant. In the contract era, talent is portable and moves to the highest bidder. To keep people on board and engaged, leadership must communicate, communicate, communicate. Then begin again. An article in this publication argued the most important role of the leader was to protect the brand. In order to protect the brand, the leader must understand it, agree to it, then communicate it. But if you imagine the brand to be only “visual consistency,” why in the world would you spend your political capital on “behavioral consistency?” Yet behavioral consistency is step two in the brand process. We understand firms get weary when the visual and messaging process of branding is complete. We call it—a bit cynically—“check-writing fatigue.” Hell, we’re exhausted, too. But neither one of us is done. The process of branding is just getting going. There is wind in our sails. No time for the doldrums now; we may need to tack to keep the sails full but no progress will be made without some continued effort. Sailors did not generally mutiny because they did not know how to read the navigational instruments kept under close quarters by the ship’s captain and first mate. Imagine taking over the ship only to drift forever with no horizon in sight. In those circumstances, controlling behavioral consistency was relatively easy. A more appropriate analogy for professional service firms is, say, a fishing fleet or, for smaller firms, a flotilla of sailfish.

The process of creating behavior consistency within an organization is known as employer branding. Ambitious leaders of organizations intuitively understand the necessity of employer branding, i.e., of building enthusiasm and commitment to the brand from the ground up. Others may recognize the need for “some internal effort” only after the merger has failed to deliver its intended results. Employees still talk about Legacy Sprint and Legacy Nextel. I’ve heard the 1,000 lawyer firm of Wilmer Hale described the same way—two different firms in a marriage of convenience but no sex. As marriage vows often state, we wish to stand apart to remain confident and strong in order not to become co-dependent. That’s not a vow merged firms can afford to take.

Behavior Optimization

“Brand is reputation; reputation is behavior” is an axiom often quoted by former partners at Arthur Andersen. If anyone should know what that means, it is the Andersen tribe. Nowhere is this truer than for professional service firms that consist of individual fiefdoms making up a kingdom that is “the firm.” These feudal lords have dual allegiances—one to themselves and their team and the other to the firm itself. The partnership structure and reward system makes it almost impossible to optimize behavior but this is certainly the brand goal.

The visual and verbal consistency that comes from the brand is designed to be rolled out across all the firm’s materials and activities—everything—website, brochures, proposals, newsletters and alerts, webinars, seminars, parties, exhibits, signage, blogs, social media. Aligning behavior with those messages is possible, as we noted earlier, with constant creative repetition. Optimum behavior is a different story. This requires a firm evaluate its business processes and delivery system to match the brand message. This demands professionals and their staff perform their tasks more consistently. To achieve this, a considerable investment of time and effort is required.

We have begun to see technology take hold in professional services firms to provide a path to more effective service delivery. Yet professionals resist when the process improvements are not in their self-interest; e.g., more efficient means fewer billable hours, right? Nevertheless, the market is forcing efficiencies on firms they might otherwise shun. Corporate counsel can require law firm litigators to tie into their systems, use various combinations of smart e-discovery or switch to e-billing. It’s a clumsy dance on both sides as client and firm learn the new moves often at the same time. Sometimes, weary clients just insist on a discounted hour and the dancing stops. Others really want to learn the moves and professionals who wish them to be clients of the firm will continue the pas de deux.

It is becoming increasingly clear to anyone not living under a rock that a service delivery revolution is well underway. We should note that many firms have seen the light and are trying but, in our opinion, acceptance of the New Order within firms is a thin layer, driven by IT professionals and a few lawyers , accountants or consultants fighting an uphill battle against entrenched behavior patterns. The long-term view loses out to short-term thinking.

The ideal workflow could lead to collapsing multiple services into a few, eliminating redundancies in capabilities or refocusing the service which takes deep organizational commitment and a strong mandate. It takes long-range, instead of short-term planning. It can’t be done quickly, and doing it well takes organizational honesty and courage. The real beneficiary of this kind of effort is the client, because this service strategy is client-centered—and the third step toward fixing the broken client experience.

A Unified Client Experience

Visual and verbal consistency lead to consistent behavior among professionals that must then be persistently optimized to improve service delivery. The logical result would be a unified client experience. That’s what brands strive for. The Ritz Carlton wants you to have the same experience with every stay, Hertz with every rental, Google with every search, Coke with every can. Professional service firms try on and discard “brands” routinely because they are completely unaware of the commitment brands require. And that’s the fault of firms like mine, not theirs. I suspect very few purveyors of brand development for professional services understand what they are selling themselves. This article is written because the demands of a brand were never quite so crystal clear to me before I read Klocek’s article about developing software product portfolios. Lateral thinking provoked the insight—this is the formula for branding professional services!

The Brand

So many conflicts of interest exist in professional services—the conflict between the billable hour and efficiency; the conflict between “building a practice,” a P&L that benefits the individual, versus working in teams that benefits the firm. These conflicts lead to the “broken user experience” that is the premise of Klocek’s article and this one. Understanding the ramifications of branding and truly living the commitment is the only way to design a brilliant client experience. A shiny new logo is not enough. We often talk of the professional service model as a leverage pyramid. It starts at the top. A brand cannot take root in the law or accounting firm of the past—in the brambles of tradition. To no small degree the old needs to be cleared out enough for new growth, a new species of firm. A brand begins at the bottom. And it is this bottom-up brand that will drive success in the professional services firm of the future.