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The number one reason you’re not getting invited to tender

Law firms don’t occupy much space in the head honcho’s hippocampus, writes Graham Archbold. Here’s how you can change that.

How many law firms can the average chief executive name – no prompting – top-of-mind? What about a general counsel or finance director? Having done exactly this, over and over again as part of market research interviews, there are two things that strike me and which offer lessons for anyone endeavouring to get their firm on more RFP lists.

First, the numbers are small. Across industries, your typical CEO will recall the names of only three or four law firms – the average is 3.3 if you want the exact figure. It’s a tiny fraction of the market. Law firms simply don’t occupy much space in the head honcho’s hippocampus.

What they recall more often is individual lawyers. They know that if it’s a property matter, it’s Frank they need to call and if it’s employment it’s Sarah. The firm they’re attached to is a secondary factor in their decision-making – it does matter, but it’s a hygiene factor. The firm just needs to be good enough – and not currently subject to especially bad publicity.

As you’d expect, general counsel have a much larger repertoire of firms that come to mind. On average, GCs name 7.6 different firms with rarely more than a dozen on the tip of tongues before they dry up. That’s not to say they don’t know more – if you prompt with a list of the top-50 firms, they’ll probably confirm they know of almost all of them in some capacity or other, even if it’s just from passing mentions in the legal press rather than first-hand experience.

So even among subject specialists it’s not many. And in case you’re wondering, finance directors fall somewhere in between CEOs and GCs and are, unsurprisingly, just a little more likely to include a big four accountancy firm among those they’d consider instructing for a legal matter.

The second lesson from this executive memory test is that beside the number of firms being small, it’s a painfully unfair distribution. If the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto were alive today, he’d lean back in his chair and say, ‘I told you so’. Around 15 firms occupy more C-suite headspace than all the hundreds of others combined. It’s a mixture of magic and silver circle along with some well-established national firms.

Your top decision-maker might never dream of instructing Linklaters but that name is occupying a place on the list and there isn’t space for many names. This reduces the mental real estate available for other firms.

Obviously, sector specialism is important. The execs of a sports club are more likely to recall firms with dedicated sports practices, but the comparisons are limited. Those big names dominate – some firms like an Eversheds Sutherland, are just there in the subconscious.  

But why does it matter if a decision-maker can’t think of your firm’s name? Afterall, it’s all about personal relationships and the individual lawyers anyway. Not quite. Not when this is a big collective decision rather than a single consumer making a purchase. Walk into a supermarket on a mission to buy cola and chances are, the first brand name in your head is Coca-Cola. That’s brand saliency in action. It’s being top of mind when a potential buyer thinks about a particular product or category.

Individually, you might want some special artisanal cold-pressed organic cola that’s been hand-brewed (if such a thing exists). But you’ve a committee of buyers to convince and they’ve never heard of that particular quixotic brand. It’s easier to put Coca-Cola – or in our case, say Pinsent Masons – on the list, and not have to justify your choice or risk looking foolish.

This is why most smaller brands don’t get invited to tender and the big firms keep getting bigger.

However, the strategy that saves smaller firms is positioning – being very clearly focused on a sector and tailoring solutions so that you become closely aligned with it, even synonymous: Capsticks for healthcare, for instance.

It’s not enough to pick up the phone once in a blue moon or send a newsletter occasionally. Keeping front of mind requires much more frequency, ideally via multiple channels.

When we prompt our legal buyers for how they know the firms that they recall most easily (excluding being a client and instructing directly), then the most influential forms of contact are newsletters, events and press articles.

These are nothing startling or innovative – it’s about showing up, focusing on the buyer’s sector and doing so consistently and continuously until you have that top-of-mind association; penetrating the CEO’s top three or being among the GC’s first seven.

Graham is Founder of Chorus Insight, delivering all things feedback related – brand, client and employee insight – exclusively for professional services firms. 

Matt Baldwin
Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

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