Success is in store

Word of Gold - Success is in storeWe would like to thank Stephen Gold for the use of this article that was originally published in The Journal of THE LAW SOCIETY OF SCOTLAND.  

Great ideas for improving a business often come from looking at other sectors. Law firms have much to learn from retailers, and from one in particular, which is unique in being a partnership.

John Lewis is middle Britain’s darling store, famous for its wedding lists, and notorious for its MPs’ lists of “essentials” funded by the grateful taxpayer. Its Waitrose supermarkets enjoy similar kudos, their car parks choked with SUVs disgorging mothers who have just popped in to top up little Orlando’s kumquats. It even has a Facebook page, “Overheard in Waitrose”, which includes: “Darling, do we need parmesan for both houses?”

Virtually everything it stocks, or the equivalent, can be bought elsewhere, often cheaper, despite its historic claim to be “never knowingly undersold”, and yet its competitors eat its dust. The secrets of its success are not that secret. To shop there is to be in a classy environment, served by knowledgeable, courteous staff, who will never hard sell. If you are not as smart as the 65 inch TV you have just bought and discover when they deliver it that you have only 55 inches of wall space, they will take it away and give you a full refund, no questions asked. They have built a massively successful online business by understanding that people buy more readily online when they can see, touch and discuss before they choose – a classic “bricks and clicks” strategy.

In other words, when people buy from John Lewis, they are not just buying things. They are buying an experience: service, convenience and a relationship with an organisation they trust. It is interesting that “never knowingly undersold” has been refined over the years to “never knowingly undersold on price, quality and service”. Where once price was 100% of the pitch, now it is just a third.

The right messages

The lesson for law firms is that whether the matter in hand is a TV, a testament or a takeover, service is king. Firms live or die not by whether their technical knowledge is superior to their competitors. As long as they have the competence to do the job, they need no more. The public is unlikely to discriminate between their knowledge of black letter law compared to the firm across the street, and most lack the tools to do so, even if they think it is worth the effort. But service is not just visible, it is decisive. Am I greeted warmly in reception? Is advice given on time, out of hours if the situation demands it and in plain English? Do my lawyers understand my objectives? Do they have good judgment? Are they well run businesses themselves, so that they are able to handle mine in an efficient, cost-effective way? Do they deliver consistent results? These are always the questions of service, not skill, that determine who gets the business and who goes home empty-handed.

Let us turn to marketing, a topic which even the best law firms find hard to grip. John Lewis knows its market exactly. It is an aspirational brand. Discounters’ cannonballs may shatter the timbers of Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrison, but the good ship Waitrose sails on, sure of its course, not unaffected by the discount threat, but never retaliating in kind. Its budget offerings are, ahem, a little different. “Essential” camomile ironing water anyone? Its message is: if you want excellence here it is, but there is a price to be paid for it. We will never be the cheapest, but we will always be good value for money. Its success is built not just on shrewd stock selection and a focus on service, but on sharp brand positioning which places it precisely in the space it wants to occupy, and it has the confidence to charge accordingly. In a law firm context, one can see how effective this is for elite firms, but in every stratum of the profession this formula of clarity about markets to be served and what great service looks like, added to expertise in how best to position and price, is what makes the difference.

Finally, John Lewis understands that however slick its online offering, its digital business can never replace, and indeed owes much of its success, to the quality of interaction between its store staff and the public. Hence its constant investment in developing their personal skills. Law firms are better at this than they were, but still pay too little attention. Irrespective of the march of AI, empathy and the skill to make great human relationships will stay at the heart of all we do.

Must dash – I’m out of organic cambozola and they close in half an hour.