pricing

Pricing is a point of differentiation in difficult times

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In my working career to-date I have experienced, first-hand, four economic downturns:

  1. The first was in the late 1980s in the UK (when I had just moved to UK from Southern Africa) and everyone walked around with negative equity for a few years (at least, those that hadn’t had their homes repossessed).
  2. The second was the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis (AFC). This was shortly after I had just moved out to Asia and it completely redefined my legal career as I moved from someone working in Project Finance and Major Projects work to someone who did an awful lot of Debt Restructuring and Workout work (Chapter 11 stuff).
  3. The third was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2007-2008 – shortly after I moved to Australia (anyone else seeing a trend here?). Fortuitously Australia didn’t suffer the GFC nearly as badly as the rest of the world and technically we haven’t had a recession in 30 years (although many of the States in Australia have, the country has not).
  4. The fourth is what is now know as COVID-19 in 2020.

Out of all of these, the uncertainties around COVID-19 concern me the most.

Having said that throughout history, every example of adversity has also provided us with a chance at opportunity and this latest economic downturn is no exception. While there are many who sadly won’t survive, there will be many who do.

And, in my experience, those who do survive will be the firms who both understand the circumstances they face and plan for how to deal with those circumstances.

The problem with ‘value’ in economic uncertainty

The perceived ‘value’ your customer sees in your services should be core to how you price those services – in that it’s not about the cost of your services, but the value of the services you deliver.

The problem with this theory is that in economically uncertain times, your customers’ perception of value will change.

It therefore becomes critical that all in your law firm understand that now is the time to provide solutions to your clients problems and not a service.

The elephant in the room: The unused capacity issue

The traditional professional services business model is one based on capacity. In my experience, one of the immediate results of an economy that falls off a cliff is that firms run around looking for work their excess capacity can do.

And one of the go-to strategies to achieving this is that firms will look to drop their prices to gain competitive advantage.

But, as my experiences of 1997 and 2008 have shown me, this is a short term solution to a long term problem.

In both those downturns lots of law firms dropped their prices significantly in response to the AFC/GFC, who were then never able to recover the lost ground.

Essentially they smashed the value perception equation and couldn’t recover it.

You can still drive growth and profit in difficult times

All doom and gloom aside, there are some pricing-relating things that you can start to put in place to get you through this without putting yourself out of business. These include:

1.  Do an audit of your work types

Do a deep dive audit and look at the types of work your firm does. Are these the types of work we are likely going to need in a post-COVID-19 world? If not, what types of work are we going to need? And can your firm provide this (or will you need to laterally hire it in)?

2.  Stay away from the traditional Alternative Fee Arrangements of discounted hourly rates and capped fees. These will only lead you to a race to the bottom.

3.  Align your law firm’s incentives with your customer’s

Over a decade ago Jeff Carr – Vice President, GC and Secretary of FMC Technology – introduced an Alliance Counsel Engagement System (ACES) on its outside counsel panel. Part of ACES included a methodology of aligning the incentives of the outside firm and FMC through a hold back incentive scheme under the terms of which it was possible to get remunerated more than you billed if you provided a good service outcome (dependent in part on an early form of NPS feedback – Carr was ahead of his time!). 

Take out: What is your firm doing to ensure it incentives its team to financially align with those of your customers?

4.  It’s time to think outside the pricing box

For most of my career as a pursuit and tender manager I have read law firm material about how innovative they are in pricing and how they think outside the box. In most cases this simply isn’t true.

Now is the time when you can change that.

For some time Ron Baker and Ed Klees have talked about subscription pricing being the new Value Pricing 2.0 (Google it). And now really is the time to consider pricing the relationship, not the transaction. Think about what services clients are likely going to need as a result of COVID-19, whether that is Employment, Safety, General Contracting, Debt Recovery, Workouts, Restructuring, Loan Borrowing – and think about this:

Which of these services can bundled into a subscription package?

To End

For a long time I wasn’t sure I held with Deloitte’s ‘Pricing and Profitability Management’ theory that a 1% improvement in price equaled a 12.3% increase in Operating Profit.

Don’t get me wrong though – I KNOW that any pricing improvement kicks the sh!t out of any cost reduction. I know it because I have lived it.

And that’s why I can say with absolute confidence that how you price your services over the next few weeks/months/years is never going to be more important to the ongoing success of your firm than now!

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Does your law firm apply a Minimum Discount Benchmark?

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Pareto Principle‘: The Pareto Principle, named after esteemed economist Vilfredo Pareto, specifies that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes, asserting an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. This principle serves as a general reminder that the relationship between inputs and outputs is not balanced. The Pareto Principle is also known as the Pareto Rule or the 80/20 Rule.

source: Investopedia

Most of us are aware of the Pareto Principle, but it wasn’t until recently, when I was listening to Episode 47 of Mark Stiving’s weekly Impact Pricing podcast, that it occurred to me that we could use this same theory in respect to the discounts we offer customers.

Now don’t get me wrong, I haven’t suddenly gone soft and think discounts are great. I’m still very opposed to them! But I’m also realistic enough to know that most law firms offer customers discounts and customers happily accept them.

If this sounds familiar, then here is a little tip that Kevin Christian gives Mark in the podcast:

  • Look at your historical [discounting] data for the last 12 months. Lop-off the bottom 25% of these discounts – by percentage – that you have been offering clients. This new figure becomes your new Minimum Discount Benchmark. Any new discounts you offer customers must exceed this new minimum threshold.

Which is to say, if you offer customers a range of discounts from 30% to 5%, then the 25% of discounts at the 30% end need to be discarded to give you a new Minimum Discount Benchmark – say, hopefully, a 20% discount rate.

Now any new discount you offer customers cannot be greater than 20% – as this has become your new Minimum Discount Benchmark.

Three months later repeat the process.

At this point your minimum Discount Benchmark should be closer to 10 to 15%.

Repeat again at 6 months.

And within a year, you should be close to a 0% Minimum Discount Benchmark.

Word of warning: if utilisation is your primary reward mechanism, then offering customers a discount is an incentive scheme and the above process likely won’t work as there are competing/conflicting interests between the customer and the lawyer.

As always, interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

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“Are you cold?” – a tale from the trenches

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Back in the mid 1990s, when I was first starting out in this profession we call “law”, I was putting my jacket on to go home. As I recall it was around 8.30 p.m., after what had been a long day. The partner I was working for at the time saw what I was doing and asked me:

“Are you cold?”

In an era when if a partner asked you to jump, you replied “how high?” – I got the message.

I sat down and got back to work.

Fast forward to today’s world

So why does this old war story from the trenches even matter in today’s world?

This story matters because of some press coverage here in Australia following recent investigations, etc, by Australia’s Fair Work Commission (FWC). The upshot of this (as I understand it, and I could be wrong) is that the FWC, rather ironically if you ask me, is looking at the number of hours junior lawyers are working to ensure they are being paid minimum wage.

As is often the case when the business of law model is under attack, the establishment fights back. In recent press coverage here in Australia this has included comments in the following two articles in the Australian Financial Review:

Long hours aren’t just for young lawyers in which John Denton (ex-CEO of Corrs) argues that:

  • lawyers should focus on what they offer clients rather than the time that it takes“,  (NB: not sure how clients being billed by the hour would take this comment), and that
  • the key as a profession should always be that it’s not about the hours, but about what the value you’re creating for your clients“, (absolutely right, but wait: how does this work with time-sheets) and that (the Great Escape)
  • You always have to be available, matters don’t come at orderly times“.

Welcome to the real world, law grads in which John Roskam (an executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank based in Melbourne, Australia – and so far as I can tell has never been a lawyer) basically says that if you don’t like being a hard working law grad or junior lawyer, then nobody is making you do it and go and go join the world of commerce where they work much harder (for the record, in my day it was the dot.com world).

So let’s put this into a little context for a second:

  • At the time of my little Are you cold? episode I worked for a Magic Circle firm and my annual billable target was 1,400 hours (1996).
  • The current version of Yale’s The Truth About The Billable Hour (which is from 2002) has it saying US firms typically ask junior lawyers to bill between 1,700 and 2,300 hours a year.
  • The Australian Financial Review recently (2018 from memory) had this number at 1,600 hours in its Partnership Review.

All of which has me wanting to say:

  • to Mr Roskam – we are not asking these kids to work as hard as we did. What we’re actually asking them to do is to work harder.  In some extreme cases, 300% harder! and
  • to Mr Denton – if billable hours really aren’t that important, and if it is all about the client, why do we even bother setting hourly billable targets that – and this is important – junior lawyers have no control over meeting and are almost completely at the mercy of their partner, consultant, special counsel, senior associate, associate, lawyer who also need to meet their annual billable targets?

And I’ll leave you with this: In case you are left wondering, it has been a long held view of mine that billable hour targets are unhealthy  and a really crappy way of working out law firm revenue budgets (side joke for the nerdy, every time someone leaves your team you have to budget re-forecast!).

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Progressive pricing – the “essence of fairness”

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Value is shared with customers rather than extracted from them

Following on from my ‘Will We See Hourly Rate Load Pricing In The Legal Industry?‘ post of last week, during the course of this week I had the chance to read a January 2019 Whitepaper by Jean-Manuel Izaret and Just Schurmann ‘Why Progressive Pricing Is Becoming a Competitive Necessity‘ published by Boston Consulting Group and the Henderson Institute.

For those who have not read it, Izaret and Schurmann’s Whitepaper provides some really thought-provoking insights, including:

  • Progressive pricing scales prices up or down on the basis of the value an individual customer derives.
  • the levels of pricing under progressive pricing are value-based, not means-based
  • Progressive pricing seems to violate the rules of traditional economics, which assume that customers buying the same product or service will pay the same price.
  • Progress pricing enables providers to offer each customer a fair, personalized product and price point.

In essence, progressive pricing enables service providers, such as law firms, to calibrate the value they provide at an individual customer level.

But, importantly to Izaret and Schurmann (see #4 of their ‘four most important differences between progressive and traditional pricing approaches‘):

Progressive pricing is a fairer way to determine prices, because customers pay a price proportional to the value they receive, rather than paying the same fixed price others pay.

For any supporters of value-based pricing, the above quote is pure gold.

But, the caveat in next line of Izaret and Schurmann’s piece is probably more crucial:

But the firm must make the case for this perceived fairness

QED, it is the duty of the firm to communicate the value the customer is getting, not the customer!

As a growing advocate of value-based pricing in professional services, one of the greatest take-outs for me was this line:

Making progressive pricing a profitable day-to-day reality can happen only if firms change how they create, define, and measure value so that they can share it fairly.

All I can say to that is “amen” – because it isn’t going to come out of utilisation and realisation rates, no matter how hard you look!

It is such a great piece I’m going to leave you with the following three quotes from this paper:

  1. Companies must first step back and re-imagine the concept of value in their market. How can a business combine its own capabilities with the close personal knowledge of its customers to create something that fundamentally changes a customer’s life?
  2. Can you define value, measure it, and get everyone to agree on what value is?
  3. Most firms are accustomed to expressing prices in units of product or some other basic metric such as hours. If they can instead calibrate prices in terms of unit of value, then the price per unit of value can remain constant and the amount a customer pays can scale in proportion to the value demanded. That is the essence of fairness.

Great read. If it is not on your list – add it* (*then get back to me and let me know if you agree)!

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Will We See Hourly Rate Load Pricing In The Legal Industry?

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Rational choice theory hypothesises that individuals use rational calculations to make rational choices to achieve outcomes that are aligned with their own personal objectives.

One of the biggest (of many) problems I have had with the hourly rate in the legal industry – dating back to my start in the early 1990s – is that it assumes every hour in the day is equal. But, as anyone who has worked in private practice law will tell you, this simply isn’t true.

What do I mean?

Well, to say that the value of the work that we do at 6am, is the same as the value of the work that we do at 12am, is the same of the value of the work that we do at 9pm, is the same as the value of the work that we do at 12pm is simply false in my opinion.

And, critically, this doesn’t take into account an important factor; namely to anyone who has worked in private practice for any length of time, saying that an hour of work (from a personal cost perspective) at 10% utilisation is the same as an hour of work at 130% utilisation is simply insulting.

So what’s the answer?

Well, if hourly billing is your thing, has the time come to consider load weighting?

How would load weighting work?

Well, if you’re a morning person, what if you told your customer that your time between 6am and 10am was going to be at a higher premium than your time between 6pm and 10pm?

Conversely; if you are an evening person, what if you told your customer that your time between 6pm and 10pm was going to be at a higher premium than your time between 6am and 10am?

Or, alternatively, if you haven’t seen your family for several days because of a busy workload, you tell your customer that your 40th working hour that week was (emotionally, because it will rarely be economically) worth than your first or tenth hour (as opposed to the scaling discount most firms apply)?

As an industry we need to move away from the one set billable hour value; but to do that we first need to accept that not all billable hours are equal and to start talking to our customers about charging a premium for those hours in the day/week/month/year that are worth more – to both us and them – than others!

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‘Bears and Alligators’

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Happy New Year to all.

I trust everyone had a relaxing and enjoyable holiday period. I certainly did, and took the opportunity to catch-up on some podcasts I had missed towards to the end of 2019. One of those was Episode 47 of Mark Stiving’s weekly Impact Pricing.

In this episode Mark has a free-ranging talk with Kevin Christian on all things pricing related under the appropriately named ‘Two Pricing Experts Talk Pricing(published 9 December 2019) and, while the whole podcast is great, things get particularly interesting  around the 19 minute mark when Kevin asks Mark:

“If a bear gets in a fight with an alligator, who wins?”

Now I can hear you saying: “What has this got to do with law firm business development and pricing issues?”, but – pun intended – ‘bear’ with me.

Because, as is music to the ears of every lawyer, Kevin explains,

‘it depends’ –

on where the fight is taking place.

If the fight is taking place on land then the bear is more likely to win; but if the fight is taking place in water then the alligator is more likely to win.

Que?

Here goes – bears and alligators are analogies to the ‘value’ discussion such that, as Kevin states, if you are:

  • Talking about the ‘Value of your Solution’: then you are in the seller/vendor territory and the seller/vendor is going to be leading and benefiting from the conversation;

whereas:

  • If you are only talking about the ‘Price of your Solution‘, without talking about the value, then you are in the buyer’s territory.

Takeout – what does this mean?

In a world when we deal with procurement and other agents who are not looking at the value of the service we provide, but are constantly looking at the cost of that service; then, as law firms, it becomes imperative that we explain the value being provided and have ourselves a land battle with the alligators.

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It doesn’t pay to be a loyal customer

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The Chanticleer column in this weekend’s Australian Financial Review is titled ‘It doesn’t pay to be a loyal customer’. The article is a post-Hayne, post several reductions in interest rates, look at bank mortgage rates and analysis undertaken by Matthew Wilson at Evans & Partners that suggests:

“In Australia, the banks enjoy a profit benefit of about $3 billion a year from exploiting the difference in mortgage rates between existing and new customers”.

I’m not going to comment on whether or not that statement is correct/true (although a hunch would suggest it is), but it did make me think that in the professional services (read ‘legal’) sector it absolutely holds true that it doesn’t pay to be a loyal customer/client.

What do I mean by this?

Well when pricing services to new customers/clients – especially in tender situations, law firms are far more willing to:

  • Buy the work to cement the relationship
  • Offer volume discounts
  • Deeply discount on rack-rates
  • Agree to discounted fixed fee arrangements
  • Agree to risk-sharing arrangements

Indeed, more often than not the average billing rate (ABR) and the average realisation rate of a long-term customer/client will be higher than a new client, while lock-up days will be lower.

As Chanticleer says, it really doesn’t pay to be a loyal customer these days!

As always though, interested in your thoughts/views/feedback.

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