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| 22 minutes read

CMO Series EP108 - Deborah Ruffins of Perkins Coie on the Lead-to-Work Revenue Mindset

Every CMO in professional services approaches their role from a unique perspective.

On today’s episode of the CMO Series Podcast, we welcome a guest to discuss an area of focus that we’re yet to explore in detail, and that’s how to develop a revenue mindset in legal marketing. 

Alistair Bone is very lucky to welcome Deborah Ruffins, Chief Marketing Officer at Perkins Coie, who joins the podcast to share how a revenue mindset and approach can enable marketers to become central to the growth of their firm.

Deborah and Ali discuss:

  • Deborah’s career journey to her current role and why a revenue-generating mindset was central to that journey
  • What it means to be revenue focused and why it is something that marketers in law firms need to adopt
  • The moments in Deborah’s career that shaped her focus on revenue 
  • What being revenue minded means for the team in practice
  • The resources and infrastructure essential to this approach
  • Advice for others trying to be more revenue focused in their roles


Ali: Welcome to the Passle CMO series where we discuss all things marketing and business development in the world of professional services. As we know, every marketer and professional service approaches their role from a unique perspective. And today on the Passle CMO series, I'm super fortunate that we can welcome a guest whose mindset and approach to her role offer a wonderful vision for how marketers can be central to and directly responsible for the revenue growth of the firm. It's my pleasure to welcome Deborah Ruffins CMO at Perkins Coie to the show, Deb, welcome.

Deborah: Thank you so much, Ali. I'm super happy to be here. Looking forward to our conversation.

Ali: As am I. I know it's gonna be fantastic. I’ve been very excited to get this one recorded. So really, really feel that you're here. So without any sort of further ado, you wanted to get into it with a bit of an opening question during our, prep for the podcast, you actually told a story about an interview for the role at Perkins Coie that illustrated the mindset we're gonna be talking about today. I was wondering if you would take a moment, maybe just to kind of talk us through that journey to your current role. And why that revenue-generating mindset was central to that journey.

Deborah:  So thanks for that question, Ali. I started this journey with Perkins Coie with a focus on profitable revenue growth in my interview presentation in front of a couple of dozen Perkins attorneys on a lovely November morning, the week of Thanksgiving in 2019. And I led with profitable growth because I have this fundamental belief that marketing is about connecting buyers and sellers to exchange something of value. And the value is the legal knowledge that the lawyers have. And the other value is the money the clients are willing to pay for that value. Marketing is both fundamental and also should be entirely focused on that revenue generation mindset. So in my presentation to Perkins, during my interview, I focused on the things that drive distinction and competitive advantage in service of generating revenue. So recognizing the kind of market forces and external factors that shape the opportunities that the firm has and you know, leaning into the idea of leveraging the strengths and the position in the market to grow. So you know, growth by what measure is, you know, up for debate. I'm a fan of revenue per lawyer, which means you're putting all of your time and attention, and focus on helping individual lawyers and teams increase their book of business right. So that's essentially a business development and revenue generation focus for marketing and business development. And you have to find the right levers to push from a revenue generation perspective. When you're kind of talking to the lawyers, you have to help them kind of guide their conversations with clients to the interest that is going to lead to uncovering opportunities. So I focus my presentation on what marketing can do to help uncover those opportunities. Like what are the strategic considerations? You know, there's always client satisfaction and client targeting and what markets and what offers, what services are you going to offer. But at the end of the day, profitable growth and expanded market share are focal points that have a limited set, of opportunities or ways to achieve them. And in the legal law firm marketing space, it's often about doing this kind of client needs assessment and uncovering those opportunities, and then working with the lawyer teams to offer the solutions that will solve those problems even if it's not the individual lawyer.

Ali: Yeah, I think that's so interesting. Actually, one of the comments you made there has been marketing equals connecting the buyer and the seller. And I've never heard that term used in terms of the law firm. I think that that's fascinating itself and then you actually measure growth being the revenue per lawyer. So out of interest, I mean, how did they perceive that I don't imagine they've had many you know, CMO come in and go, this is what my mindset is and this is what I want to do. I mean, how did that come across?

Deborah: Well, I got the job, so I guess that's a win. And you know, this idea of working together, getting everybody to work together towards that common, common goal. Let's make some money. I think that resonated with particularly Perkins Coie, which is very much a collaborative and team-oriented environment from an attorney perspective, they are used to working in teams, and they are used to working together towards a common goal. And so it, I think it resonated from a cultural perspective. But, one of the things I also said is there's this, so marketing is about connecting buyers and sellers. That's my definition of marketing. I actually developed that 15 years ago when I was working in a different industry and was getting this question. But what is marketing? What's the definition of marketing from the professionals in that industry? And the classic definitions of marketing don't work in professional services because you've got this kind of expert sales model, you're selling a person, not a widget. And so it is all about connections and it is all about having something to say to someone which is this idea of, you know, delivering value. And it's got to be intentional value, you know, clearly understanding clients' needs and meeting, you know, meeting them where they are. But I, I, in my interview talked about there's another quote that I like from Peter Drucker, which basically says that, you know, the purpose of a business is to create a customer. And so the business enterprise has just two things to do. Marketing and innovation, that's what produces all of the results and everything else is a cost. So marketing is kind of a distinguishing unique function of the business intended to drive revenue. And I think that central focus on helping the firm grow was also a point that resonated with the interview panel. And that doesn't mean that I don't focus on things like branding and client feedback and other things that are along the kind of service value of marketing. But they're all geared towards how is this going to increase our ability to make money and about branding. I often say if they don't know who you are, they cannot invite you to bid or they can't buy from you. And so it's all through the lens of creating a competitive advantage for the purpose of securing kind of secure financial stability and growth.

Ali: Yeah, I think it's honestly absolutely fascinating, and just the idea that that is your actual definition, your own personal definition of marketing. And, it makes so much sense when it comes to considering ultimately what a law firm is doing. And as you said there, that sort of second quote that you like to use, you know, really, it shows that marketing is, you know, the fundamental strategy driver and therefore, no, no wonder that being revenue and focused is, is so important. And having that revenue mindset kind of, you know, at the forefront of what we're, we're talking about here. It'd be interesting to see how, how you kind of see it when you come to think about what you're doing with your team. And you know, why is it something that marketers and law firms need to adopt? I don't imagine that your team had necessarily experienced it prior to your joining. So we'd love to understand a little bit about that, please.

Deborah: Yeah, absolutely. So the mindset that I am attempting to install when I say attempting because, although I've been in the role for 3.5 years, it's a journey and it's a different mindset. and is that marketing exists to enable sales. And, you know, a lot of times we do have a sales function here and sometimes they hear that as you mean, we're supposed to serve the sales team. No, that's we serve the lawyers and I don't mean it's enabling the sales team, although it should be a partnership, but it's the sales process in general. So growth is the purpose of marketing, this requires clients and the challenge is to find them and to create them to create interest. And so you know, attracting and retaining, well, retaining and growing clients is the objective. The whole point of connecting buyers and sellers is the enablement of sales. And so with the team, I am saying the words because just hearing them is a new way of thinking. I am running different types of training opportunities focused on sales. So for example, we had a marketing retreat in person in December, which was a huge win for us to bring everybody together for the first time in four or five years, certainly before I joined. And so, you know, focused on how do you have sales conversations and you know, how do you, I uncover and identify opportunities? What research capabilities do we have to understand client and industry segment issues? And just kind of seeding the ground with thinking that you should be looking at that end of the marketing funnel and not the how do I just put on an event or do an activity because a lawyer wants, wants to do something and the conversations I'm having with them now are twofold. One is, wouldn't you love it as a marketer if you were captain of your destiny in control, at least to some degree, the work that you do? Well, the way to do that is to have a plan and target, right? These are the clients that we wanna go after. Let's develop the programs that are going to be effective in reaching them, let's align them with the firm strategy and the group strategy. And then that, then we can say this is what we're going to do. It's going to make you money, that thing that you want to do, that's a fine activity. It's not gonna make us money. We're not going to prioritize that. So, it's, it's a much, very much a work in progress, very much, you know, an effort to get people to think differently. I'm going to have to write some new job descriptions that are more focused on sales support and sales strategy than the more classic legal marketing job descriptions. But you know, it's an everyday thing. I am well known for three messages in the firm. One is about the purpose of a brand is to create preference. Another is about, we are here to make money. And the third of course is about communications. If you ask any lawyer in the firm, they'll say one of those 3 things is something that I say all of the time. 

Ali: I'm sure there's one of them that they all particularly like.

Deborah: Well that comes out of that revenue generation.

Ali:  Honestly, it's so interesting, you know, driving that much shift in mindset for the team, ultimately just breaking new ground in terms of what, you know, legal marketing is doing is, is, is a very exciting time for you to say it's just, it's all a bit of a journey. I suppose on that journey, understanding a little bit of your own background. I know that you used to be within consultancy and you, you've done a few other bits and bobs, it would be interesting to know if there were any particular moments in your career that you feel really shaped your focus more towards that revenue side.

Deborah: Yeah, actually, there is a very clear and specific point. I, well, there are two. So I have always wanted to be a marketer which was kind of my objective as a kid growing up. And I got lucky enough to become a professional services marketer, which was a field that nobody, no kid ever dreams about. And I think it's a relative like it started to come, become a profession as I was becoming an adult. And so my first job was with this hr consulting firm that did executive relocations. And my job was to pitch real estate companies, real estate brokers to join our network. And that's where I learned what a value proposition is. I still remember what it was, what the line was more than 30 years later for 7/10 of 1%. I can guarantee you a commission for 7/10 of 1% of your commission. I can guarantee you a commission. Who's gonna say no to that, right? So, I learned about value propositions, in that job. And then, as I progressed in, in that organization, I took a role as a proposal writer and I wrote this cover letter for a group move for a client that basically started out saying something like group moves are hard. We understand that and we're here to help. Obviously, I'm, I don't remember the exact sentence, but the idea was I was acknowledging the difficulty for the clients, I was centering the client issue in the cover letter and the head of sales came out of his office and said, who wrote this letter? And I kind of, I looked and was like, I did the best pitch letter I've ever seen. So then I understood that you have to center the client's needs in their sales materials. And that really kind of got me excited about the idea of how can we convert prospects into buyers by, you know, articulating what their needs are and understanding, showing that we understand them. And once the bug bites, that's, you know, the journey that you wanna go. I went from there to the big four in a pursuit manager role and coming at marketing from the business development side, from the sales strategy and sales support side, you really begin to understand, you know, that's the tip of the spear, the point where the decision to buy is made. But oftentimes you get to that point of the proposal or the pursuit and you do not do all of the work that should have been done to get ready to make you best positioned to win. That work has been done further up the funnel. So then I started to, you know, that's how I ended up getting fully into marketing and really focusing on brand. Therefore, as a revenue generator and kind of market development, you know, events and content marketing as generating revenue through targeting, through going back to the marketing is about connecting buyers and sellers by having something to say to someone. You have to be very focused on saying the right thing to the right people. So you can progress them through the funnel to be potential buyers.

Ali: That's, that's a great story. I suppose that one pivotal moment was that was when you're the prosal writer that really, really spurred all of that on for you, which I think is fascinating, but actually, I guess almost getting to know you a little bit better, but it is it related to what you're just saying, why as a child are we so fixated on being a market that I, I just personally think that's quite interesting to hear.

Deborah: Well, I am old enough to have lived a bit as a child anyway, through the heyday of advertising, you will remember, you know, the television series Mad Men and was very, very much influenced by, I mean, always an observer of advertising, always kind of recognizing that we were, you know, somebody was pushing something. So it's less the of being duped into buying something and more being really curious about how that works and the kind of persuasion that is used in advertising to get people, to act, to buy things. I was always curious about that. I've always been very interested in how humans work, how humans interact, and how minds work. I was going to major in psychology but actually I found the first class extraordinarily boring. But the concepts of human motivation and buying were always very interesting to me and marrying the kind of marketing and the persuasion, that's the, you know, the advertising and the persuasion that's marketing and professional services marketing is the, is the best lab for that because, you know, as I said, expert sales model: we're working with individuals who have minds of their own and want to do things their way and don't always recognize the advice or want to accept the advice or, you know, lawyers are lovely to work with. They're very smart, but remember the aspects of their characters tend to let's just say, inhibit their success at selling.

Ali: Yes, I can imagine as a, as a lot of people refer to now, the whole idea of sales in law firms is a bit of a dirty word. But I think it's, you know, that story is very interesting in terms of, you know, connecting humans and, and it all kind of comes back to kind of relationships and actually everything you shared there, I can understand where that revenue mindset comes from. Actually, we're thinking about you, you said at the end there about the, you know, lawyers being individuals and they want to do it in their own way, out of interest within, within the firm at the moment. You know, are there any resources or, or infrastructure that you found essential to your approach? And if you were somebody starting out from scratch at a firm, would there be any prior priorities that you'd have from the get-go in terms of getting this, you know, revenue-focused revenue mindset within the team within the firm and driving things forward?

Deborah: Oh boy, that's a great question. There's there are lots of pathways. So I'm just going to kind of freestyle a little bit and say a few things that come to mind. So resources or infrastructure are essential to the approach. Yeah, data is very, very helpful, understanding what the position in the market is, what the sophistication of the service is, how much, what clients are buying from the firm that you know, all of that kind of data insight is very helpful. It's not essential, but that's something that I am focused on and I'm not alone in the firm. I'm just kind of the head of marketing saying we need client insights, we need client data, and we need access to data that are in other systems to help us shape our marketing strategies and programs. And I'll come back to that in a minute because what I have, what I would recommend is if we're speaking to CMOs, this is why it's essential to have a seat at the table because the information that you need and also the adoption of the key strategies that you know, if you're starting from scratch you need to implement, requires firm support, it requires strategic choices to be made by the leaders of the firm. And so if I'm starting from scratch, I would start with a client program and an industry program because you are going to center the clients by talking to them about the issues that are important to them and meeting them where they are in the market space and then everything cascades from there. Whereas in legal, we often start from the practice and market the services that we have to offer. I would flip that paradigm entirely and start with who are the clients. What are we best positioned to serve? So that's where the data comes in. How can we best reach them preferably as a team? So we bring all of our services together to those clients and how can we build credibility by understanding their issues and the industry challenges that they are facing? 

And so when I say, you know, you have to earn a seat at the table. It has been a journey for me to get to the point where there's a firm-wide acknowledgment that those two strategies and also the need for data are part of the requirements for us to be a successful firm. This is not something that a marketing department can do on their own, or a CMO can drive, you have to do the hard work of capturing hearts and minds and getting lawyers to think in terms of revenue generation and the ways the best ways to go about generating revenue. So, you know, starting from scratch, the priorities would be data clients and industries, but actually doing that, you know, what's essential to doing that is building trust and credibility so that you can be an influential leader among your firm leaders.

Ali:  I think before, bring us on to, to the final question, there's so much to unpack there and I think there's lots of different pathways as you say. And it's really interesting to hear that, have there been any blockers you've faced over time? Have you kind of come up against anything? You're like, gosh, I didn't expect that or this came up and this was the way that I navigated it.

Deborah: There's a couple that are kind of surprising. One, I talked about the mindset of the marketing team. It's a huge hurdle to get people to think from a revenue generation perspective and then understand what their role is. Frankly, the lawyer mindset, I was surprised by that because theoretically lawyers are motivated by money because of the partnership model, we pay everything out at the end of the year. It's all about attorney comp and comp is used as a way to accept certain behaviors. But actually, I don't know if this is unique to Perkins Coie or if it's also true elsewhere. But our lawyers love practicing law and they love working with clients and they love doing interesting work and they don't necessarily center on how we go and make money as a priority. Changing mindsets about you mentioned like sales is a dirty word. Changing mindsets and the need to focus on revenue generation and the way to focus on revenue generation is, was an unexpectedly difficult hurdle.

Ali: Yeah, it sort of amazes me. You wouldn't send to making money at the very, very core of what you're doing. It's actually we just love, you know, practicing the law and that's, that's what really gets us going rather than actually how does, how does this affect what we're trying to do? And the ROI and all these sorts of different things. So very interesting and of course, the team element we sort of discussed earlier is, you know, that's a journey but I'm sure you're doing a fantastic job on it.

Deborah: Well, we'll see, time will tell. I gotta say, I do love working with the lawyers and the kind of professional mindset that they have their dedication to their craft, and their interest in their work. It's just, it was just surprising to me that there wasn't equal space for revenue generation.

Ali: Yeah. Well, a bit of a journey with them too then.

Deborah: Yeah, exactly.

Ali: Well, unfortunately, that brings us actually onto the final question and, I know there's one given the huge amount of respect you have within the industry will be really interested to hear your thoughts and advice. But what would be your one piece of advice for others trying to be more revenue focused in their roles?

Deborah: Just one piece of advice?

Ali: Well, I mean, if you want to give us more, you can give us more. But I mean, it's whatever you think is the best here.

Deborah: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is make sure, you know how the firm makes money, not just, you know, the billable hour model, but like what levers does the firm focus on to make money as a firm? And it's surprising to me how few marketers really do understand the money levers, in legal. So that's, that's the first thing you have to understand how, how the firm makes money. And then you have to be really focused and committed to the idea. We're not just doing marketing for the sake of doing marketing, we're not just doing fun things or throwing parties or producing more content just for the sake of doing activities. You have to be focused on the why of the activity. What are you trying to accomplish? And you know, accomplishment is not just doing something that the partners want done. It's gotta be done for the purpose of some wider goal or purpose. And so keeping focused on that revenue generation is the goal and the way of making revenue generation. A possibility is the two pieces of advice that I would give. 

Ali: Two incredibly beneficial pieces of advice. They make, well to me as a novice, make a huge amount of sense, let alone to individuals with a lot more knowledge than I do. So I think that that's a wonderful place to sort of finish this off. And it's a great shame that actually the conversation has come to an end because it's been just fascinating and I knew that you'd be able to share so many fantastic insights and bits of knowledge. So thank you so much for your time on this the main bulk of this conversation.

Deborah: Yeah. Happy to, I love talking about these things. I do think they're fascinating. I don't think they're particularly insightful, but I also don't think we talk about this core concept enough in legal marketing and we should talk more about it.

Ali: Yeah, definitely. Well, I do think it's insightful but from your point there because, you know, it's not spoken about enough. But no, I really, really do appreciate that. It's been fantastic. In the interest of sort of tradition here, we have one final little part that we call a quick fire round, which is actually just a little bit more, you know, get to know Deborah Ruffins, get under the skin a little bit. So five very quick questions if you're OK for us to run through them.

Deborah: Of course.

Ali: Brilliant. So what is your favorite business and non-business book? It can just be one or the other. 

Deborah: Or both because I have lots of favorite books. In fact, if you are watching this podcast, you would see that my photo is a picture of my bookshelf. That's because I love to read. My favorite business book is The Trusted Advisor by David Maister. It's very relevant. It's a couple of decades ago at this point, but still highly relevant to what we do. And if I have to pick a favorite non-business book, I guess today I'm gonna go with The Bluest Eye by Tony Morrison or really anything by Tony Morrison or anything by Josie Sara, like Blindness, wonderful.

Ali: I love my reading as well. So a big fan. I have to go look up both of those myself. And what was your first job?

Deborah: Well, I mean, of course, I was babysitting. I also was a penny-saver delivery person very early on and then I worked in retail, but most of my free kind of professional if you will, jobs were telemarketing jobs I could pick up, you know, gigs working in telemarketing centers, just making calls and pitching services.

Ali: So always marketing, interesting, very interesting. What makes you happy at work?

Deborah: Success, getting the sense of accomplishment of, you know, something got done. So, you know, getting approval for a program or getting a, you know, a pitch in the door or something like that, success really feels good.

Ali: I love that. I love that. What are you listening to at the moment? Are there any podcasts, music, audiobooks?

Deborah: I am always listening to something and having just returned from the Vancouver Jazz Festival, I'm listening to a playlist of some of the artists that we heard there particularly this young cat named Isaiah Collier, who I highly recommend to all the jazz heads out there.

Ali: I love that. How wonderful. I'm sure that was a great spend of time. And the final question is, where is your favorite place to visit and why?

Deborah: I am fortunate enough to have a piece of family property in a town called Petersburg in upstate New York. So, it's kind of just north of the Hudson Valley. It's a beautiful area and I go there just to be quiet and alone. I love it.

Ali: And listen to some nice jazz while you switch off.

Deborah: Sounds good.

Ali: That has been absolutely fantastic. So, Deb, thank you so much for coming on today, as I said that the main bulk of the conversation was just brilliant, and always nice to get to know you a little bit better. So, thank you.

Deborah: My pleasure. Hopefully, you aren't just blowing smoke and the audience agrees.

Ali: I know they will. I know they will. Thank you very much.


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