Archives for September 2011

Of Groupons, Contract Law, and My Son’s Birthday Party

Dear contract law mavens,

I’m interested in your opinions on a recent kerfuffle I experienced concerning a local business that ran a Groupon promotion.

In mid-June I purchased a Groupon for a kid’s party at a nearby swim school. Both the online ad and the barcoded Groupon .pdf that I had to print out and present for redemption showed a Dec. 17 expiration date. I made a Dec. 11 reservation over the phone, and a few days later  went to the facility in person to present the Groupon and complete the purchase. No questions, no complications. I was all set for a fun-filled family celebration — or so I thought [cue ominous music].

Three months later…I received a call from the swim school’s customer service manager, who informed me that promotion expiration date in the school’s contract with Groupon was a date in November, so the Dec. 17 date on the advertising materials and redemption coupon was incorrect. She informed me that because of Groupon’s error, the school would not honor my coupon, and if I still wanted to hold my event I would have to pay the difference between the Groupon price and the full rack rate.

I told her that I expected to move forward as planned without additional charges because, regardless of whether Groupon breached the contract with the swim school, my agreement with the facility was still valid and binding. I am not a lawyer, but here’s the reasoning I gave her for my position:

  • I entered into a formal, written and signed agreement with the facility in good faith, and
  • The validity of the coupon was not questioned by the salesperson at the time of purchase and it was accepted as full payment.

The manager’s response to the second point was that the staff who handled reservations and payment processing at the time did not know that the ads and coupons had the “wrong” expiration date. My gut-level reply was “If you don’t train your staff on the details of a major promotion, that’s your problem and I don’t intend to pay for it.”

I continued to argue my position, and eventually the manager agreed to “make an exception” and allow my party to go on as planned (and I requested/received a confirmation e-mail from her as added insurance — don’t want to show up the day of the party with dozens giddy 1st graders just to get shaken down for more money).

So did I get my way through a blustery bluff, or does it sound like I probably had an enforceable contract?

[Note: I will not construe any responses as legal advice, or assume an attorney-client relationship. Does that help?]

Six Sigma for Law Firms: Move Over Client Surveys, Make Way for Net Promoter Scores

As I’ve written about previously, I am proud of my GE pedigree, particularly the invaluable Six Sigma and “Lean” training in operational rigor, analysis, continuous improvement, measurement and repeatable processes. So I was interested and encouraged to see Lisa Damon of Seyfarth Shaw honored as one of the ABA’s 2011 Legal Rebels for her work championing SeyfarthLean, the firm’s Six Sigma-inflected initiative to drive strategy and operational effectiveness that delivers both cost reduction for clients and revenue growth for the firm.

And earlier this week I came across a post by Darryl Mountain on the SLAW blog that discussed how to apply a standard Six Sigma DMAIC tool — the fishbone diagram — to analyze legal problems.

It seems like the time might be right for innovative firms to consider importing another quality and customer engagement tool from the business sector into law practice management: the Net Promoter Score, a customer/client loyalty metric and a operational discipline for using customer feedback to fuel profitable growth. Adopted by companies like GE, P&G, Intuit and American Express, the NPS is derived from a single question posed to customers/clients: “How likely are you to recommend [Company X] to a friend or colleague?”

Survey participants respond on a 0-to-10 point rating scale divided into three groupings:

  • Promoters (score 9-10) are loyal enthusiasts who will continue buying and
    will refer others, fueling growth.
  • Passives (score 7-8) are satisfied but unenthusiastic customers who
    might be receptive to competitive offerings.
  • Detractors (score 0-6) are unhappy customers who can damage your
    brand and impede growth through negative word-of-mouth.

To calculate the Net Promoter Score (NPS), subtract the percentage of Detractors from the percentage of Promoters. In concert with the survey, NPS companies develop an operational model to drive improvements in customer loyalty and enable profitable growth. Key elements of the model include leadership commitment, effective business processes, and systems to deliver real-time information to employees so they can respond to customer feedback.

Studies examining the NPS “loyalty effect” have shown that companies with the highest customer loyalty typically increase revenues at more than twice the rate of competitors.

Know of any law firms that have tried NPS or a similar methodology with clients?

How Yelp Is Upending Lawyer Ratings and Reviews

If it gives you peace of mind to continue investing time and money in “pay-to-play” and “claim your profile”  lawyer ratings and reviews websites, then god bless and best wishes. But the mind share these vestigial marketing tools– “basic boxes” to check — continues to command could be distracting lawyers — particularly small and solo general practice firms — from leveraging local word-of-mouth communities, Yelp in particular.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_yohVlVbEA&w=420&h=315]

Consider this quick-and-dirty case study.

As of this writing, a general search for “lawyers” on Yelp’s San Francisco community site turned up 5,557 profiles.  General litigation and estate planning attorney Michael Blacksburg showed up near the top of the results page. His 63 reviews yielded a 5-out-of-5 stars rating. In a “Michael Blacksburg San Francisco lawyer” Google search, his Yelp profile was the first listing after links to his own website. A Super Lawyers link turned up down the page, but notably absent from the first page of results were links to “basic boxes”Avvo and Martindale-Hubbell.

Interestingly, a basic Google search for San Francisco immigration law firm Van Der Hout Brigagliano & Nightingale LLP — which had a 5-star overall rating based on two Yelp reviews — produced similar results. The top search result was the firm’s own website, followed by the firm’s Yelp profile.

Why Yelp Deserves More Attention from Lawyers

  • Yelp is the online ratings and reviews destination of first resort for service businesses – While it’s not necessarily a household name, Yelp has higher top of mind awareness with the general public than lawyer review sites. Ask an average person on the street whether they’ve heard of Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell or Super Lawyers and you’ll get blank stares. Heck, ask the average lawyer and you’ll likely get the same response.
  • Yelp has monster SEO clout – As discussed above, even a modest Yelp profile is easily found through a basic name search on Google. As of June 2011, more than 53 million people had visited Yelp in the previous  30 days. That compares with Avvo’s claim of 2 million unique visitors per month. Because Yelp is a multi-category site and Avvo is limited to lawyers and physicians, the sheer volume of visitors and the resulting flow of fresh content makes Yelp’s search benefits for members practically insurmountable.
  • Positive experiences in one service category means higher propensity among Yelpers to consult the site for other, unrelated service providers – In other words, finding a plumber or HVAC guy they like increases the probabilty that a Yelper will look for a dentist or lawyer there, too.
  • Yelpers trust other Yelpers – Every Yelp reviewer has his/her own ratings — even followers and fans — which factors into the perceived authority of their opinions. It’s also important to note that Yelp’s filtering and page rank algorithms favor the contributions of established users.

Have you established a Yelp business profile? What’s your experience been so far? Any advice?

Online Ratings and Reviews: Don’t Ask for Positive Comments

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard and read well-intentioned legal marketers recommend asking clients, legal colleagues and other referral sources for favorable comments on ratings and review websites like Yelp and Avvo.

While it might seem counterintuitive, asking for favorable reviews generally is unproductive and could actually discourage positive comments.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WjTaMZyS70&w=560&h=315]

Unlike asking for a referral, where the referer can act on the request privately and selectively, asking for a public, permanent online recommendation puts your professional contacts and clients on the spot. Implicitly you’re saying “I’ll be watching, and I’m expecting it to be great.” It’s a no-win situation insofar as you risk alienating your supporters and stifling positive word of mouth, and even if they do post a recommendation it likely will be a generic expression of approval rather than a helpful precis of your capabilities and character.

But don’t take my word, here’s what Yelp’s blog has to say:

Why would an online review site discourage review solicitation?

Two big reasons:

1. Would-be customers might not trust you. Let’s face it, most business owners are only going to solicit reviews from their happy customers, not the unhappy ones. Over time, these self-selected reviews create intrinsic bias in the business listing — a bias that savvy consumers (read: yelpers) can smell from a mile away. No business is perfect, and it’s impossible to please 100% of your customers 100% of the time.

2. The solicited reviews may get filtered, and that will drive you crazy. Solicited reviews often get filtered by our automated review filter. Why do these reviews sometimes get filtered? Well, we have the unfortunate task of trying to help our users distinguish between real and fake reviews, and while we think we do a pretty good job at it with our fancy computer algorithms, the harsh reality is that solicited reviews often fall somewhere in between. Imagine, for example, the business owner who “solicits” a review by sticking a laptop in front of a customer and smilingly invites her to write a review while he looks over her shoulder. We don’t need these kinds of reviews, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when solicited reviews get filtered.

Yelp exists to connect people with great local businesses. We do this by providing people with as much trustworthy information as we can. If consumers don’t trust our content, people stop using Yelp, and everyone loses: consumers don’t have a resource they can trust to make spending decisions, would-be customers stop visiting your business listing.

How to Leverage Your Review Site Profiles and Encourage Reviews Without Directly Asking

A better way to derive value from your online ratings and reviews AND to motivate professional contacts and clients to recommend you is to let them know where to find your profiles. Display badges on your blog and website homepages, email signature and social media pages that link directly to your profile on Yelp, Avvo and other ratings and reviews websites.

Again, from the Yelp blog:

The power of word-of-mouth is that folks generally trust recommendations when they occur as part of an organic process.  There is an important distinction between “Hey, write a review about me on Yelp,” [BAD] and “Hey, check us out on Yelp!” [GOOD]. It’s the difference between actively pursuing testimonials and simply creating awareness of your business through social media outlets.

The latter allows consumers to vet your online reputation without feeling like they’re being solicited. To an established Yelp community member, a reminder of your Yelp presence can act like a dog-whistle prompting them to share their feedback about your business with fellow Yelpers.

How do you monitor and manage your online reputation via ratings and reviews sites?

Texas Wildfires: Austin Bar Offers Free CLE for Disaster Recovery Volunteers

I don’t know if this is a common response by local bar associations. If not, it should be. I’m very proud to be an Austinite.

From the Texas Bar Blog:

The Austin Bar Association is offering a free CLE training for attorney volunteers responding to legal questions and providing assistance to all those affected by the wildfires. The training will be Tuesday, Sept. 20, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. at the Austin Bar Association, 816 Congress Ave., Suite 700, Austin.

The cost is free to Austin Bar Association and Austin Young Lawyers Association members. The CLE credit for this training is 2.0 hours MCLE ethics credit.

This training will cover:

  •  Ethics & Pro Bono Service
  •  FEMA & Public Benefits
  •  Home Ownership Issues (title/mortgage, tax & fencing, barn, pens)
  •  Landlord-Tenant Concerns
  •  Insurance and Consumer Law Issues
  •  Pet and Animal Welfare Law

Read the full agenda.

Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas is providing malpractice coverage to lawyers volunteering through the Austin Bar.

To RSVP for this training, please contact Marissa Lara-Arebalo at 512-472-0279, x100 or at Marissa@austinbar.org.

Thank you to all the volunteer attorneys and donors for your support in helping evacuees affected by the Bastrop wildfires.

Ratings and Reviews: How to Respond to a Negative Comment

As a general rule, it’s a poor idea to publicly respond to negative comments on online ratings and reviews sites with anything beyond 1) an expression of regret that the commenter did not have a good experience and 2) an invitation to discuss the matter directly offline.

Why?

  • You’re highly unlikely to change the commenter’s mind.
  • You’re in effect inviting another negative post and/or argument.
  • Criticizing dissatisfied clients/customers and self-justification don’t come off well.
  • There’s rarely a clear upside.

One of the few occasions when a detailed response to a negative comment can be highly effective is when:

  1. The original less-than-flattering comment is clearly intended as a helpful critique, AND
  2. You’ve addressed the issues raised in the comments in ways that will benefit all current and potential customers/clients, not just the commenter.

I was very pleasantly surprised and impressed recently by the response of an Austin food wagon operator to a comment I posted on Yelp about my experiences with his business. My main beef (so to speak) was that while I loved the food, the wagon had few options and was often out of main ingredients, which made it hard to justify driving across town.

The response was pitch perfect:

Hi Jay,

I read your review and I thank you for your kind words.  We have been working out the issues with the running out of food and so far, everything has been working out perfectly.   It is my hope that we have everything you desire, each and every time you visit us, though limited space and unpredictable traffic flow can often throw us a curve ball, so far we’re staying ahead.

I hope you will give us another shot sometime in the future as we’ve expanded the menu to include Eggplant Parm and Turkey Pastrami specials, with several new ideas in the works.

Should you have any concerns about “do they have…today?”, please feel free to call before driving out this far at 512-516-3660.  If you do come back, please ask for me, it would be a [pleasure] to meet you.

Thanks for your time, your kind words, and your continued support.

Sincerely,
J.K. Bellucci
All City Subs

It’s a textbook model of an effective response to a negative comment because:

  • It opens courteously and maintains that tone throughout,
  • It acknowledges the issue,
  • It expresses the proprietor’s values and commitment to customers,
  • It lists specific steps taken to address the situation,
  • It respectfully offers a helpful suggestion for how to avoid the issue in the future, and
  • It closes graciously.

After that, I’d be an a** if I didn’t go back again.

PR for Law Firms: Promote the “Why” Not the “Who” in New Hire Announcements

Let’s be honest. Even in the best of times, press releases announcing new associates were a “feel good” exercise.  If they made it into print at all, they were chopped up into blurbs and consigned to “People on the Move” listings in newspapers and trade publications.  The full version of the release, which included high-sounding manufactured quotes by the managing partner, only appeared in the “Press” section of the firm’s website.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zY2o_4nlsw&w=420&h=345]

New hire announcements were not news then, and they’re not news now. But they could have new life and relevance in content marketing if you fundamentally reconceive their purpose and structure.

  • Make the headline and opening paragraphs a statement about how the hires enhance the firm’s capabilities — why clients/potential clients should care. When Todd Smith announced the addition of a new associate on his Texas Appellate Law Blog, the key takeaway was that “The firm will continue to focus on appellate matters and providing litigation support to trial lawyers.  Having Brandy [Wingate] on board and adding a presence in the Valley will enable us to better serve clients statewide.”
  • Tie the content and message of each new attorney’s mini-bio back to the top-line benefit statement in the headline/first paragraph.
  • Judiciously optimize SEO when drafting and structuring the release.
  • Include deep links into your website (bio pages, practice profiles, etc.), not just the home page.

Will these changes result in more mentions in news outlets and blogs? Probably not — As I said at the top, new hire announcements are not news. However, this approach adds value to your overall communications mix by converting a formerly inert non sequitur into a meaningful, integrated part of your master narrative.