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| 15 minutes read

CMO Series EP38 - Paula Zirinsky of Structura Strategy Group on clients, romance, and where law firms can up their engagement game

Legal marketing is different from any other industry, there are unique challenges and constraints that you don't find anywhere else. With that being said, there are a lot of lessons law firms can learn from outside of legal. One area to apply those lessons will be the top of nearly every managing partner's priority list - client engagement.

To dive into this further, Ed Lovatt is lucky to welcome Paula Zirinsky to the CMO series, former global CMO and Co-founder and Chief Strategist at Structura Strategy Group. Paula shares her experience and insight on how to take client engagement to the next level. 

Together, Ed and Paula explore:

  • Paula’s career inside and outside of the legal space and how those roles influenced her thinking around client engagement
  • The perception of client engagement within law firms and among lawyers
  • The idea of romancing clients and prospects and some examples from Paula’s experience 
  • How lawyers can cultivate relationships and the dos and don’ts of client engagement
  • Why saying ‘thank you’ doesn’t go far enough and the ways firms can engage in a more meaningful way 
  • Advice for other Marketing and BD professionals looking to up their client engagement game


Intro: Welcome to the Passle podcast CMO Series

Ed: Clients, romance, and where law firms can up their engagement game. Legal marketing is different from any other industry. There are unique challenges, challenges and constraints that you don't find anywhere else. But with that being said, there are a lot of lessons law firms can learn from outside of legal. One area to apply those lessons will be at the top of nearly every managing partner's priority list: client engagement. To dive into this today, we're so glad to welcome the CMO Podcast series. Paula Zirinsky, Former Global CMO and Co-founder and Chief Strategist of Structura Strategy Group. You've had an amazing career with roles inside and outside the legal space. You were at K2 Integrity, as well as law firms including Morgan Lewis, Morvillo, Abramovich, Fried Frank and Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft. How did those roles influence you and how you think about clients and engagement?

Paula:  Thanks, Ed, and thanks so much for having me here today. I do think that roles both inside and outside the legal space have influenced me and how I view clients and client engagement. Every job experience has broadened my skill sets and allowed me to look at things with a more discerning eye. I think we'd all agree that a multidisciplinary team can lead to a better client solution. I also believe that individuals with diverse skill sets and career death often contribute to innovative, more strategic solutions to help solve those same problems. Changing industries forces you to learn about new markets, new trends, new technologies, new clients, and new ways of working, including those related to client engagement. I would like to think that I successfully transferred these best work practices and I can give you an example if you'd like?

Ed:  Yes, do. 

Paula: Before entering the law firm universe, I worked in corporate communications for Daimler-Benz, a company with a broad and a very complex structure. This structure challenged me to really focus on how to manage not just my day to day work, but how to manage and relate with my relationships with communications colleagues from around the world, as well as executives I needed to engage with from different subsidiaries, offices, and cultures to continue to grow the company. I needed to think about each one as a client, a client that needed to be cultivated and nurtured. I needed to develop good client engagement. For me it started at the top with the chair of Daimler-Benz and his immediate corporate marketing and communications office inStuttgart, which was the Department I directly reported to. Next, it included the Chrysler Corporate Communications team in Detroit, which Daimler acquired while I worked for them, and finally my North American communications teammates. My colleagues across multiple offices in divisions throughout the US, Canada, Puerto Rico and Mexico. In a macro sense, three distinctly different clients. I developed strategies and relationships based on each of their different needs. To succeed, trust and judgment needed to be established with each knowing that I not only understood their unique needs, but could also anticipate a change or a new opportunity that would affect them or the company. When I joined Cadwalader, my first law firm, in 2001, I used this segmented model. I looked at each partner as a client. I looked at each practice as a client, each office as a client, and each critical Rainmaker as a client. I then implemented the client engagement model I had used at Daimler while in corporate communications. I brought this unique outside expertise inside to the law firm, and this served me well. During that time, I worked for a few partners who were considered to be, shall we say, a little bit difficult. But with my outside expertise client engagement approach, it worked out and everyone was treated as a client that needed to be nurtured. 

Ed: Wow, that's a brilliant answer. Especially interesting with Daimler Benz, being such a broad area that you were covering. But you mentioned just then, sorry, the outside expertise. Can you explain what you meant by that? 

Paula: Sure. Let me explain. In 2001, which is when I started, there were not a lot of corporate communications professionals working inside of law firms. I was one of a handful who had this type of experience acquired inside a company outside of law. At that time, many law firms were still focused on using people from other areas within the firm to do a wide range of marketing and PR activities. They were still somewhat reluctant to hire those with expertise from outside industries. Companies outside of law. Sure, there were people at law firms placing by-lined articles and lawyers were speaking to the press. But there were no deliberate Proactive news Bureau programs set up similar to those we constructed at Daimler. These types of programs - Proactive news Bureau programs - are developed by corporate communicators. They are constructed to know who is qualified to speak on specific topics and by carefully following the market and use opportunities, being able to pitch their experts proactively to provide comment and explanations or a written piece for a targeted publication. And this was how we communicated their expertise on topics related to their practice to audiences of interest. It took a lot for a corporate communicator to do that. You had to not only know and understand all the practice areas at your firm, but you had to develop a long term relationship with the lawyers you worked with and develop trust with them. So they trusted you to evaluate what they should do and more importantly, what they should not do or what they should not say. This is what I mean by outside expertise. I brought my corporate communications disciplines into the PR role Cadwalader. After Cadwalader, I moved to several different firms and broadened what I did beyond PR to include marketing, BD, content marketing, social media, and technology to my bag of tricks now. And during those times, I was working as an insider internal to law firms and then I moved outside again to a risk advisory firm, not a law firm. This, like my experience at Daimler, was also defining. While I was able to bring skill sets from the law firm universe to my new firm, things like the importance of a CRM content marketing strategy, and a website based on customer experience, I was now working with a team that was not just composed of lawyers. This wider range of disciplines included former prosecutors, those formerly with the FBI or the CIA, other government agencies, forensic accountants, compliance officers and banks, seasoned corporate investigators, technologists, and so on. It was a really varied team. I was able to see how they did things and how they approached their business development, which was a bit different versus a law firm. Oftentimes they were more focused on fewer options in order to maximize their networking and client engagement, and they did this directly on a one to one basis. Most importantly, they focused on sales and the selling process and the importance of not just keeping and learning from a robust pipeline opportunities database, but marrying that data to other data held by the firm in order to maximize the probability of a win or stay up to date on an existing client or referral source, client engagement. Now as an adviser, I work with many law firms. Again, from my law firm experience, I have a good understanding of how they and their lawyers work, but I'm also able to give them input about how things might work. Based on my experience outside of law, I'm able to get productive recommendations once again sharing best practices. I do believe that across professional services, the future of building successful businesses is rooted in how deeply the client is understood, as well as how quickly we can keep up with and exceed their expectations. By working with and providing data driven actionable insights, firms can be more agile and respond faster to client needs, generating better client service and creating better results along the way. All of which centers on client engagement. Client engagement being so crucial.

Ed:  Fascinating to hear that you've worked with such a range of disciplines, such as you mentioned, former prosecutors and FBI and CIA. That must be quite an incredible range that you have to deal with. You mentioned the notion of client engagement a couple of times. Then what are your thoughts about client engagement within law firms and among lawyers specifically?

Paula:  Really important and really great question. Client engagement or that one on one to establish trust and hopefully a sustaining relationship is crucial. And law firms and their lawyers are keenly aware of this, and many do it very well by instinct. Other firms are measuring the strength of a client relationship, calculating stickiness with clients or otherwise collecting data from different departments across the firm to build predictive models. Yet so often law firms morph client engagement together with brand engagement. And while each is important, they're quite different with brand engagement. Everything you do, every activity undertaken is done to establish and position yourself or your firm or company as an expert. Experts known for something, and hopefully this expertise will translate into the consciousness of clients and prospects. Push marketing is also used in these endeavors, outbound email being the most frequently used tool in order to inform audiences and gather analytics on who's reading, clicking, forwarding or responding. These touch points are important, but often isolated a moment in time. Unless there's a specific opportunity or engagement, that's where it ends. But it really doesn't have to be that way. Let me give you an example where brand engagement can transition to client engagement from the retail sector. Most people know my husband was a really avid runner, a runner who was constantly hunting for the latest technological innovation in running shoes. The quest for the ultimate running shoe. He had a favorite, and still does, online website where he regularly buys those shoes. And he's been doing that for quite some time. They know it, they know him. They know his purchase history, and they've done a good job at brand engagement. Keeping him informed, giving him discounts, sending him emails. But here's where they pivot now. They reach out to him with news of a new running shoe that will be launched and available later that month. And they asked him, as a devoted customer of theirs, like to make an advanced purchase because they know the shoe is going to be very popular. And before doing any other advertising or promotion, they reached out to him to ask, do you want to buy the shoes and not miss out? Of course he buys the shoes. And with that one email, they've successfully advanced their relationship. Okay, let's go back to the expert in the law firm being developed by virtue of article writing, podcast panels, whatever. With the announcements of those activities being pushed out by outbound email, you've just written an article on a specific topic. Your marketing team is preparing the outbound email to push out to your marketing list. And this is okay as a start. But you have to ask yourself, did you go through your list of those who previously opened your prior outbound emails on that same or a similar topic? This is a list you need to hold onto. Or even better, did you pull up your list of those who sent you fan mail? Those thank you notes from a prior article? Yes, that's information you have to save as well. Why should you do this? Before marketing pushes out your latest article, take that short, targeted list of those who read or responded to your prior emails and send them your article before it gets pushed out with a personalized note. The note would say something like, I know you've been interested in this topic in the past. I wanted to let you know that I'll be pushing out an alert today, but in advance of that I wanted to make sure you're aware of it and saw it. Since it's so significant for your business, then tell them why it's significant for their business. And of course, thank them for that business. This transitions your important brand engagement efforts into client engagement. The ability to understand, motivate, and build relationships with your clients as individuals. So often the client is seen as a company or a bank with a few names and emails on a list, but not as an individual. You need to develop a relationship with those clients and in essence, romance them. 

Ed: You're suggesting a romance? Okay, please explain. 

Paula: Okay, so you need to romance your clients. I read an article not long ago about cultivating client engagement and advisory relationships where the author made an analogy about dating versus romance. And this is what it was. Dating is magical. You meet someone, you start to talk, you learn about them. You get a piece of business, and that's where it ends. And it becomes transactional. And often, lawyers go through their careers with a series of these one night stands, one-offs. It's fun. You're attentive. It can be lucrative, but in a noncommittal way. Transactional relationships are far too often focused just on getting the job, getting the job done, and doing it well. But in romance or an advisory relationship, on that date, you listen to them. You learn about them. You start to have feelings about them. In romance, you're listening to what the person you're dating is not just saying. You're in touch with what they're feeling and why they're saying it. You understand them and their business in a meaningful way. You connect the dots. You anticipate the need. Far too often, the activities one embarks upon to position themselves as an expert are not effectively used to reinforce client engagement and ultimately become that trusted advisor. 

Ed: Interesting, I'm now incredibly intrigued. Can you give me an example of romancing a client or even a prospect? 

Paula: Yes, I can. Now, let's go back to those outbound emails that I spoke about before. To be thought of as a trusted advisor, you need to build both existing and new client relationships on your own. It's like dating. You just cannot swap someone else in to replace you on that date. You need to be there, literally and figuratively. You cannot rely on others to build that relationship. Taking responsibility is key. Yeah, lawyers need a team to support them, and that team should and does interface with the client as well. It's a trusted team that keeps the engine running. But so often, though, we see professionals, including lawyers, rely on others to do their relationship building. It's super easy to have marketing push out that outbound email with your article to a long list, which hopefully you've visited and updated frequently. And even though the email can be customized at the top. Dear Paula, Customization is not personal. It's automated. Now, I'm not advocating not to do these. Certainly taking a targeted group of clients or prospects and preparing content that you know that group will be interested in makes a lot of sense. And you'll get open rates of 20% to 40%, depending on how timely and relevant the content is and how targeted your list really is. And out of those, perhaps a few dozen will thank you for sending the article and maybe even comment on its relevance. But here's where the romance happens. Have you given real thought to those people who read and took the time to respond to you? Have you taken the time to revisit their history with you and your firm? Did you do a Google search on issues possibly affecting them, their firm or their category of business? Did you go beyond the quick thank you and draft something specific to them? Because if you had, you would probably be having a second or third date by now with them. Why is this? Because nothing in the end will substitute for a personal touch. Another example, let's take LinkedIn during the pandemic and work from home. Most of us saw resurgence in reactions to our posts, comments on our posts, and direct messaging on the platform. This is another area where you need to avoid the one night stand. What do I mean by that? Just like in dating, on LinkedIn, you connect to someone who you want to get to know better. Maybe you met them at an event, or you saw them comment on another connection post. You sent a message. You have initial back and forth, and now you're connected, and you're getting each other's posts when you push them out. But you haven't built a relationship with them. You have not stayed connected with them. You've not added them to your list or written separate notes to them. You have not responded to the comments they may have made on your last post. You've not checked in by a message with an article of interest for them, an invitation to have a Zoom, or now maybe a live coffee. All you did was connect. Honestly, having thousands of connections is not the point. On LinkedIn, it's all about building a relationship. And yeah, you could do that virtually on LinkedIn. And more important than anything else, it's also about showing gratitude. Client engagement is the cultivation of a relationship and a relationship that must never be taken for granted. 

Ed: You've shared the tips on cultivating the relationships in that last question that I asked about what should be done. Are there certain things that you would advise that shouldn't be done? 

Paula: Absolutely. Most of your listeners at law firms all have ways to calculate and measure the strength of a client relationship. Yet regardless of what those indicators may say, never take the client relationship for granted. Those calculations of data points may not reveal the full picture. They may be capturing a moment in time, and they may not take into consideration the arrival of a fierce competitor. I have an example for that. You have what seems like a terrific client. Revenues have been on the upswing year after year. Your team is growing. They're all engaged. All the firm indicators are positive revenues. There gross margins there. But often those indicators are lagging. They're built on what is measurable. Not necessarily market conditions. I was at a firm once with one of those clients. Then one day, to everyone's surprise, an announcement came out with a new program with a different law firm attached to the new work. We've all been there, a sudden scurry of activity that never ends well. The team was so busy they lost sight of the category of possible new needs and the one on one with senior members of the clients inside the team. That client one on one origination partner. Meanwhile, another firm marched right in and pitched new business. Never take a client relationship for granted. Be there. Take responsibility. Show gratitude. 

Ed: You're saying that saying thank you isn't enough?

Paula: Sadly, I am saying thank you is just not enough. Taking responsibility and showing gratitude is a better ticket to success. Think about it this way. You get a new client. What does the new client first see from you and your firm? Give this one a thing. It's probably a letter of engagement. A negotiation of terms of business schedule. Absolutely nothing. Very sexy, very, very transactional. How about starting each new engagement with a genuine letter of thanks? It's a total shift. It's a mind shift, but it's the one that a trusted advisor really effortlessly makes.

Ed:  I couldn't agree more. Paula, it has been incredibly interesting to talk with you on this topic. I have learned a lot from it and I'm going to take away a lot of things from it, especially the comparison with romance and dating. That's definitely one that I think a lot of people could maybe at least compare with. I'll definitely have to find out which running shoes your husband uses as a runner myself. But thank you very much for your time, Paula. Hopefully speak to you very soon. 

Paula: Okay. Thank you so much, Ed, for having me here. I really appreciate it and I had a lot of fun.

Saying thank you is just not enough. Taking responsibility and showing gratitude is a better ticket to success.


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