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Taking the human approach to business development

by Helen Hamilton-Shaw | September 22, 2021
by Helen Hamilton-Shaw, LawNet's Member Engagement & Strategy Director

Originally published in Solicitors Journal, September 2020

Listening and communicating with clients is vital in the new normal  


The Covid-19 pandemic has made itself felt across the world, reaching into every aspect of our business and personal lives.  Firms must navigate, react and adapt to accelerated change on all fronts, whether considering day-to-day tactics or longer-term strategy. 

Many have used the situation to drive through new initiatives, with the fast-moving environment encouraging buy-in from leadership and teams who might previously have been risk-averse or change-resistant.  

For those involved in business development, every touchpoint on the client journey had to be reviewed.  This has seen greater prominence for digital engagement, but although we may be forced to be physically distant, there’s no substitute for crafting an experience which is personal and enables firms to understand and respond to client needs with a ‘human’ touch. 

Early in lockdown we initiated regular online discussion sessions for special interest groups across the network, one of which was focused on business development.  This brought marketing and business development specialists and managing partners together to discuss the challenges we were facing and to sound out ideas, in live sessions which were recorded and shared among the group. 

From the outset, we saw firms embracing a major shift to digital activity, boosting the volume of online content and marketing as they seized the initiative to connect more, not less, with clients.  As clients showed they were open to innovation, firms explored new opportunities.  We saw network members introduce the necessary technology to create their own videos and deliver webinars, identifying team members with the best media skills to front such content.    Others looked for collaborative approaches to get in front of the target audience in a noisy digital space, such as teaming up with charity partners to host webinars for their supporters. 

But firms went back to basics as well, prioritising offline relationship-building activities, getting fee earners to call clients and referrers.  Listening and communication skills were emphasised, and the importance of building genuine relationships through a very ‘human’ approach.

This was not surprising, as our network is focussed on keeping the customer satisfied through the LawNet Mark of Excellence, which independently monitors and tests how firms engage with clients as part of our mandatory ISO quality standard.  

The first challenge was to reassure clients and connectors and ensure they knew firms remained open for business.  

As Laura Jones, head of client experience, sales & marketing at our West Midlands member FBC Manby Bowdler LLP explains: “We recognised that communication and visibility was more important than ever, to reassure clients across our six offices that we were available and operating.  Getting the right tone and messaging was vital, when reaching out to a worried audience in a fast-changing situation.”

That is echoed by Alex Mackie, commercial director of LawNet member Tozers LLP, with three offices in Devon:  “We set up a calling programme for key relationships, to find out how clients were coping and to ask what was important going forward.  It wasn’t about developing new business, simply cementing relationships, emphasising that we were here, not just as a trusted adviser but also to share market insights gathered through our wide-ranging dialogue with clients.”  

Both of those examples speak to key elements of client relationships today: alongside the essential element of client satisfaction, firms must demonstrate a clear stance on purpose and personalising the service proposition for their clients. 

PURPOSE – developing trust and demonstrating empathy 

Today’s consumers of legal services are looking for great professional expertise and outstanding customer service, but equally important is confidence in a firm’s purpose and personality.  We know from our own research [1] that two-thirds of new business is generated through reputation and trust, which aligns with analysis in the broader economy, such as the Edelman Trust Barometer [2].   Similarly, international research and advisory firm Forrester [3] found 57% of people were more likely to purchase and remain loyal to a brand that behaves well.

The pandemic has pushed such demands higher up the agenda: recent research [4] shows that consumers in the UK are more likely to buy from a company which takes care of the safety of its employees and demonstrates core values they can identify with. 

But however important it may be to demonstrate and communicate your purpose, and where you stand on issues such as diversity, equality, or environment, avoid ‘purpose-washing’.  When organisations draw up a purpose statement to try and convince the world they’re putting people and the planet before their pocket, if their actions don’t align with the statement they will soon be called out, whether by staff, suppliers or customers.  Honesty and accountability are essential, so speak out on issues where you have integrity.  

In a pandemic, this becomes even more important.  As Laura Jones explains: “From the outset, we stayed true to our values and focused communications on how we could help our clients and contacts and the communities we are part of, using #askfbcmb #heretohelp taglines on social media, which we continue to do.” 

In some situations, it may be appropriate to take a low-key approach, as Alex Mackie did with support for key workers in Devon.  He says: “We offered a discount to key workers, but we didn’t promote this, as it felt opportunistic.  Instead, we quietly gave the discount to clients in this category, which created greater goodwill at the point of sale, and the likelihood of referral.” 

When building trust, it’s also worth remembering that where word of mouth was previously limited to those people known to a client, nowadays digital channels have limitless audience reach and online reviews are a regular stage of the buying journey.  

We integrated the client survey benchmarking process of our Excellence Mark with the ReviewSolicitors site some time ago.  This early adoption, with clients actively encouraged to leave reviews and firms supported in developing techniques to make the most of positive feedback and manage any criticism effectively, has seen member firms dominate the rankings.  

As Mackie explains:  “We are focused on maintaining the volume of reviews and are ranked fourth nationally, which is valuable in winning new business, but equally important is how we use the reviews to create testimonials for our social media feeds.  In the current situation it’s a way of demonstrating we are open for business and progressing matters for clients.” 


As reported by the UK’s Institute of Customer Experience [5], increased personalisation goes hand in hand with trust, in defining a great client experience and delivering empathetic outcomes.  And there is every reason to invest in this, with evidence from PwC [6] showing customers will pay more when they receive personal, frictionless service.  

Fundamental to building more personal and contextually aware engagement is having a 360 degree understanding of the client experience and journey through your firm.  For our members, independent researchers act anonymously as potential clients to interact by telephone, unscheduled walk-in, web contact, live chat, bots and out-of-hours routes, taking samples across different departments throughout the year. 

Data has a part to play, as insight can be used to drive relationships, but clients will not share data if they do not trust you to look after it and use it wisely. 

Today’s working environment, where clients are often engaging from home, provides potential to capture valuable insights.  For example, when Tozers conduct matter-based conversations between fee earners and clients they encounter insights not evident or offered pre-pandemic, which can be used to tailor interactions in future.  The firm also makes use of a programme of structured, independently conducted conversations taking place with key clients. Mackie explains: “This collection of qualitative and quantitative data can uncover unexpected information when a third party asks the questions.”

But personalisation is not just about the conversations you’re having, it’s also about tailoring services to suit individual clients.  Observations in our business development group showed that many clients valued being able to access and supply information remotely, to speed the pace of communication.  This was particularly noticeable with first-time buyers, who expected to know where things stood from day-to-day, without the delay or cost of receiving written updates.  Here, online forms were used to collect data, and portals to provide user-accessed progress checks.  

Smart self-service tools like this are an attractive, frictionless solution for clients and with remote interaction likely for the foreseeable future, the more that can be completed online, the easier it is for both clients and firms.  

So it’s no surprise that we have seen increasing adoption of tech-based service solutions such as the Link App, Perfect Portal, Settify and Legl by member firms to improve efficiency and support client-facing communication and engagement.  


Building closer and more personal relationships opens the door for firms to ask what clients want, with gains to be made when you fulfil their current and future needs with a service offering to match.  

A framework for developing your service proposition in this way is Design Thinking - which has an empathetic, human-centric approach based on continual testing of ideas through dialogue with customers.  By better understanding the unmet needs of customers, you’re more likely to identify solutions that are revolutionary rather than incremental, while reducing the associated risks of trying new things. 

We had an introduction to this approach from Adam Billing of Treehouse Innovation at a recent LawNet conference and many of our member firms took part in the subsequent workshop sessions we hosted, reporting they found this a valuable and practical approach.  

Such co-creation is the way ahead and at a simple level requires a shift from “this is what we do” to “how might we”?[7].  Billing suggests “How might we (help, support, enable) our user to (do something of value to them).   

An example of this in action comes from Alex Mackie at Tozers, who says:  “We looked at the questions clients asked in the early days of lockdown and swiftly focused our resources on developing an online coronavirus help library specifically geared to our client base.  Initially covering 18 web pages this was a powerful draw, representing 75% of all our web traffic at one point and we continue to update this.”

A similar spirit underlies the targeted action on client satisfaction in our Excellence Mark programme.  Here, clients respond through an independent online portal and firms receive one-to-one feedback and in-practice training to help them respond to benchmarked findings.  The evidence shows this approach generates significant performance improvements, with client satisfaction in our member firms now standing at 97%[8], a rise of eight percentage points in a six year period and significantly higher than the sector overall, where 84% of consumers are satisfied[9].

In conclusion

This has been a punishing year to be in business, and Covid-19 has left no aspect of running a law firm untouched.  But while threats may change, and indeed multiply, so do opportunities, if we are prepared to continually re-think our offering. 

Digital transformation was ushered in overnight for many firms, and it is likely that further quantum shifts will be required in future.   What is important is that in the shift to digital, we do not overlook the personal.   We must keep the client at the heart of business development: the human heart that is essential for future innovation and success.  

Top tips:
  1. Connect and communicate : speak to your clients, ask them how things are going, share insights and stories about what you are doing to support them
  2. Empathise and engage : show your firm’s personality and purpose, and highlight your values
  3. Optimise experiences : consider every touchpoint and aim for exceptional outcomes, essential to keep clients returning and recommending
  4. Experiment and evolve : don’t be afraid to explore new ideas and adapt as you seek ways to anticipate what clients want 
  5. Be human : keep the client at the heart of everything, embracing digital solutions to release you to create stronger personal connections  


[1] LawNet Excellence Mark research 2013-2020:

[2] Edelman Trust Barometer:

[3] Forrester Consulting, on behalf of Braze:

[4] The Future Customer : 



[7] Design thinking:

[8] LawNet Excellence Mark research 2013-2020:

[9] LCSP Tracker Survey 2018