As word of mouth moves online, lawyers occupy the same place today that hotels were in a decade ago: just starting to face the prospect of widespread use of online user reviews, and concerned that such reviews will crater their business. Hotels—like restaurants and consumer products before them—have learned to live with, and quite often leverage, the phenomenon of online reviews. While no system of reviews is perfect, the now ubiquitous “reputation ecosystem” has created a resource that helps consumers and clients crowdsource opinions, ratings, and judgements. This allows them to make informed decisions on what to buy, and in this case, who to trust with their legal needs.
Lawyers would be wise to recognize the inevitability of this trend toward professional services. Often, they are hyper-focused on the potential for negative and phony reviews. This can cause paralysis and failure to adapt to this massive change in how clients are researching lawyers. Make no mistake—this change IS happening. According to the latest Nielsen survey data, consumer reviews posted online are now the second-most-trusted source of marketing information for consumers. Trailing only personal referrals, online reviews now rank ahead of brand websites and editorial content—far ahead of traditional “bought” advertising.
There are three primary tactics that attorneys and law firms can use to get ahead of this trend and effectively manage their online reputations. But before we get to them, it’s important to recognize this fact: every attorney—even the best, most attentive, empathetic and outstanding in our ranks—will receive a negative review one day.
The law is an uncertain business, dealing with stressful matters where success often means achieving the best possible bad outcome. And clients, being human, are sometimes saddled with unreasonable expectations. Over time, and given a sufficient volume of reviews, the overall tenor of the reviews for a practice should paint an accurate picture. But any given review may widely miss the mark. Accepting this reality is the first step in managing your online reputation.
So how can lawyers actively manage and influence their online reputations?
Make It a Habit to Ask for Reviews
Smart businesses realize that the surest way to inoculate themselves from a negative review (and to maximize the “free market research” aspect of online reviews) is to ensure that they get a wealth of regular feedback from clients. They actively make it a habit to regularly ask for reviews.
From post-purchase emails, to survey instructions on the bottom of receipts, to cards handed out in a medical clinic waiting room, sellers of goods and services in virtually all industries are proactively seeking out reviews. While it may feel strange to ask, it’s worth making it part of your file closing procedure to actively ask for feedback. Avvo and other sites have tools to make it easy to do so.
Lest you think that only the cranks want to vent their spleen in online reviews, it’s actually the opposite that is true: happy customers are more likely to leave feedback. This is particularly true where the services are high-cost or high-stress like legal services. The only caveat is that most states have rules against offering anything of value in exchange for a good review. Be sure to read up on your state’s advertising rules to make sure your request is compliant.
Build a Wall of Content
There is an old advertising adage that when it comes to expensive purchases, “long copy sells.” This concept originated in the “Mad Men” days, but it remains true today. A person who is prepared to spend serious money wants as much information as possible. Such purchasers are far less likely to respond to buzzwords or taglines.
On top of this is the rapid growth of consumer reviews and increasing suspicion of products and services that have no reviews. Consider your own behavior when researching products on Amazon, hotels on TripAdvisor, or restaurants on Yelp. What does an absence of reviews make you think? Building a wall of content through regular soliciting of reviews, blog posts, articles, completion of online profiles, etc. ensures that any potential client researching your services will have that “long copy,” a wealth of information to rely upon in making their decision to retain you.
Comment on Negative Reviews
It sounds counter-intuitive, but a negative review can actually be a golden marketing opportunity. How? By posting a comment in response to the review. Done correctly, a response comment communicates responsiveness, attention to feedback, and strength of character. The trick is to ignore the lawyerly impulse to directly refute the substance of the review. A far more effective approach is to write the response with future readers—potential clients—in mind. Think of what they’d want to hear: that you care about feedback even after you’ve been paid, that you want to make things right for your customers, that you have compassion for their situations. Then invest adequate time and attention in crafting a message that takes the high road. A poorly-handled response to a negative review is much worse than no response at all. It makes you look thin-skinned and defensive. Worse, if you argue and reveal client confidences (or even potential harmful non-confidences), you may be subject to discipline.
By actively using the first two tactics, you will be well on your way to managing your online reputation and inoculating yourself from that inevitable negative review. But keep in mind as well that client reviews can actually be much more than simply a “necessary evil” to be managed. Online feedback is free research into how your practice is perceived by clients. It can validate the things you’re doing right, and expose blind spots in your approach to delivering client service. In the past, this opportunity to learn was nonexistent or incredibly expensive to undertake. Rather than just managing it, embrace the window into your practice that regular online feedback can give you, and respond accordingly.
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