Can Lawyers Learn From Best Buy?

 

Larry Downes in Forbes has an article on the decline and (they presume) fall of Best Buy. Other than the hagiography of Amazon.com,1 there are some very interesting points in the article.

Before you read it, though, consider what you think intuitively is Amazon's core advantage over Best Buy.

Did you say pricing?

Now go and read or at least skim the article, and then consider BigLaw as it stands today as Best Buy. (It's a thought experiment, not a perfect comparison by any means.)

A lot has been written, deservedly, about whether BigLaw is at risk from overpricing itself. I think there's certainly risk there, especially outside bet-the-company (or at least bet-the-department or bet-your-career) matters.

But Downes point, which I support, is that Amazon is beating Best Buy not primarily on price but on customer (client) service.

I know from having bought a large flat-screen TV2, a computer, a monitor, two powered USB hubs, a bunch of DVDs, and some other electronics-related items in the past six months that Best Buy is often competitive with Amazon on price.3,4 Not always, but often.

However, Best Buy's customer service is awful. The salespeople I've spoken with are as un-knowledgeable as those Downes describes in his article. They don't know what's in stock without physically walking into some back room, disappearing for minutes at a time. They know very little about their products, and sometimes cannot even find them. ("Where are your Harry Potter DVDs - all of them, not just Deathly Hallows Part 2?") And the layout of their stores is haphazard. In other words, it's almost as self-service as Amazon.com... but not as well organized.

They're not listening to their customers. They're not listening to direct feedback, and they're not "taking the temperature of the room."

Does BigLaw have a similar problem? Obviously it differs from firm to firm. I know at least a few firms that are out front in trying to understand what their clients want, even sometimes when it's no more than an inchoate client longing.

But I know many others that are in denial that there could be a problem.

Legal Project Management by itself won't make a non-client-centered firm into a client-focused one. That requires cultural change (of which LPM can be a part, of course). However, a core tenet of Legal Project Management is that the project is about the client's business needs and vision of success.

Consider the Best Buy problem. They appear deluded, according to the article, into thinking they're serving their clients (customers) well. I'm a customer5, and I don't think they are.

Where does your firm sit on the Best Buy /Amazon continuum of client service? Are you practicing the LPM principles of business need and vision? Can you do more?

As I said, Best Buy isn't a perfect metaphor (and the article itself isn't perfect).

But a metaphor needn't be perfect to be useful in stimulating thinking on an issue.

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1I'm a fan of Amazon, and I think they've done a lot of things right. (I also believe they've stumbled into a lot of this rightness, but they did have the great good sense to recognize it and build on it.) That said, they're not perfect by any means, but you'd never know it from the article.

2Yup, gave in to the kids.

3They or other brick-and-mortar options (e.g., Staples) were competitive on everything but the USB hubs, where for some reason they were charging 50% more.

4By the way, I do not check stuff out in detail at a brick-and-mortar store and then buy on Amazon. I think that's unethical, but I suspect I'm in the minority. I'd rather negotiate price with them instead if there's a significant disparity - "Can you match this if I but it today?" That said, if I know what I want, I'll certainly compare prices on line.

5When it comes to electronics, I'm a very knowledgeable customer. If they're not able to help me, how well can they help those who lack other knowledge sources to fall back on? I don't expect them to necessarily know more than I do about computers, after all those years with Microsoft and other software companies, but they certainly should know more than I do about televisions, for example. The folks I dealt with in buying our TV couldn't meet even that relatively low bar.