Starting in the 1970s and continuing for many years, one of the major fast food chains ran ads that featured a catchy jingle: “two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.” The jingle was well done and, unlike many jingles and commercials in general, you immediately associated it with the company using it McDonald’s. To this day, those of us around when the jingle was running instantly know someone is talking about McDonald’s when they hear the jingle.
The list of ingredients didn’t include anything special for a hamburger except, of course, the special sauce. For those in the know, the special sauce could be mimicked using some very common ingredients. But of course most people didn’t know and without the Internet they couldn’t check online to see who had come up with a recipe. The special sauce, common as it was, added something special to the McDonald’s hamburger experience.
Of course, McDonald’s wasn’t the only chain that had something special. It wasn’t event the only hamburger chain with something special. Another chain called White Spot advertised its secret sauce, another combination of common ingredients but still special for its customers.
Building a Secret Sauce
As lawyers, I’m sure you all are offended by a blog post on lawyering that talks about fast food. Why, nothing could be further from the fast food experience than lawyering. Coming to a lawyer is more like a fine dining experience. May I suggest checking out this post on Thrillist.com? The selections range in price from $60 to $666, with a couple of real oddballs thrown in at higher prices.
Back to fast food. Obviously, one challenge for hamburger chains is differentiation. When you sell a basic food product, it is tough to explain to customers why they should visit your restaurant. Convenience could be a differentiator, but since all fast food chains claim to be convenient, it doesn’t get you very far. You can sell other foods, but so do the other guys. Your burgers might be cooked differently (fried or grilled), but that differentiator also has its limits. But a secret sauce? Now that is something hard to copy, or at least not something another chain would want to copy. Why would you want to advertise you serve the same secret sauce as the other guy?
If you decide to go the secret sauce route, then you to have to decide what goes into your sauce. Is it a special blend of seasonings? A mix of unusual condiments? The choices are almost endless, until you factor in cost, what customers like, and other nuances. Even with those constraints, when it comes to secret sauces you can have some fun.
But We Are Lawyers, Not Chefs
Enough with the hamburger metaphor, you say, we are lawyers not chefs. What does the whole secret sauce bit have to do with us? Every legal services delivery organization should have at least one secret sauce. Your secret sauce is something that differentiates your organization from all competitor organizations. Now, every organization will have a differentiator – its own sauce – so having one doesn’t make your organization unique. What makes it unique is how you do the sauce.
Let’s assume your organization’s sauce is customer service. All legal services organizations have some manner of customer service, so your organization isn’t differentiated so far. But now you make customer service your secret sauce. How your organization delivers customer service will be unique to your organization, even if you model your customer service after the way another organization does it. Your organization’s culture, people, values, and all the other things that go into your organization will blend to come through in that sauce. The secret will be the unique blend that is your organization.
To belabor the metaphor a bit more, the trick is in getting the blend right. Anyone could mix the ingredients to mimic McDonald’s special sauce or White Spot’s secret sauce. The trick was in knowing the ratios of the ingredients. If you get the ratio right, customers like your sauce and will come back for it. Mess up the ratio, and customers will come once.
The Legal Organization’s Secret Sauce
Today, law firms of all sizes struggle because they don’t have a secret sauce — a differentiator. Look across the vast universe of solo, small and medium size law firms and you will see quite a few that look alike. Historically, the firms didn’t worry about differentiation. The secret sauce was relationships. The lawyers at the firm built relationships with their clients and the clients came to trust and rely upon the lawyers.
Relationships still are an important secret sauce — perhaps the most important secret sauce. But many clients want more. In an era where so much is accessible online, where competitors crop up daily, and where there are many more lawyers competing for work, relationships are necessary but not sufficient.
I believe the secret sauce for law firms, at least as law firms go through this transitional period, will be how they blend technology with human activities. The software emerging today doesn’t force lawyers to practice one way. It enables them to decide how to fit technology into their practices. Since standardization still is rare in the legal industry, that means each firm can choose its own mix of software and human skills to make something that works for the firm and its clients.
This approach has several advantages for firms and clients. For the firms, it means they can retain what they believe is important to the firm culture while stirring in those pieces of technology that work well within that culture. For clients, it means they will have choice. A client doesn’t want 200 law firms that operate all the same way. A client wants to choose the firm that has the blend of human and technology interaction that works best for it.
Right now, most law firms aren’t trying to come up with that blend. They are leaving it to clients to dictate what the firms should do. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of going to a restaurant and telling the chef how to make the meal. I want the chef to make the meal, to delight me with the food and service, and to charge me a fair price. Get those three right and you have mastered the art of the secret sauce.