Spaghetti 2.0 and Law Practice – Customizing for Clients

Via Jeff Berman of Lawyer Marketing Sync, I discovered this video clip of Malcolm Gladwell discussing how Prego spaghetti sauce successfully took on Ragu by offering customers a few different sauce options – chunky, spicy and a third (which I can’t now remember).  Today, we consumers are accustomed to different varieties of products. But back in the ’80s when Ragu dominated, the food industry aspired to a one-size fits all standard – in the case of spaghetti sauce trying to create the most authentically Italian sauce – rather than devising different recipes to suit different tastes.

Jeff Berman’s take-away from Gladwell’s talk is that it demonstrates the importance of developing a niche practices (a concept that I too endorse) that cater to the differing needs of clients.  In Berman’s words:

lawyers need to find out how to become one of the “perfect sauces” rather than fighting with everyone to become the “perfect sauce.

Berman is right, but at the same time, I think there’s much more to Gladwell’s lesson than the importance of niches.  Gladwell points out that the evolution of Prego’s product corresponds to an overarching historical movement from universal to variability.  Gladwell uses the example of medicine – how doctors no longer search for “the cure for cancer,” but instead focus on a patient’s specific variety of cancer and how it differs from another.  And of course, Web 2.0 is another example of the transition from universal to variability by empowering users to customize their on-line experience.

Once again, the legal profession lags behind.  Because even in an age of customization and variability, we still cling to one size fits all representation and billing practices.  How many times have you heard a lawyer tell a client “If I take this matter, I’m going to need to depose 20 witnesses and file all of these briefs” because that’s how he’s always handled the case?  But maybe in this case, less conventional low cost alternatives exist (perhaps relying on statements from EEOC proceedings or getting information through interrogatories or admissions) that could fit the client’s budget.  In other types of matters, clients would prefer the certainty of flat fees or alternative practices to the billable hour.  Yet even now, most lawyers rarely offer that option.

So why don’t clients simply say what they want, and demand that lawyers provide those services?  Gladwell’s talk addresses that point as well.  Gladwell notes that when Prego did its extensive market studies to determine customer preferences, it didn’t simply ask customers what they wanted.  Instead, Prego performed taste tests where customers could sample chunky sauces and spicy sauces and all other versions and then identify their favorites.

Prego researched the market this way because as it turns out, people don’t always tell you what they want.  To illustrate the point, Gladwell says that when asked, people will always say that they prefer rich, dark strong coffee – but in reality, most really favor milky, weak brews.  Gladwell doesn’t explain why, but my guess is that some people simply don’t know what they want while others do and are too ashamed to admit it.

When it comes to legal services, few people are willing to admit that they want a bargain basement priced lawyer who will do just the basics.  So lawyers automatically assume that there’s no demand for those kinds of services, in spite of evidence to the contrary like the proliferation of the public opting for do it yourself services option.  By failing to take the time to figure out what clients want, we cede the market to other providers, just as Ragu’s dominance gave way to Prego.

Ultimately,  Gladwell’s spagetti sauce lesson teaches that diversity matters – not just horizontally, i.e., among lawyers through creation of niches, but also vertically, i.e., within law firms through offering of a menu of services from high grade to low end that suit all tastes.  By all means, offer custom estate planning services, but why not make a lower-grade option available at a lower cost?  Agree to handle a no-holds bar litigation matter on an unlimited billable hour budget.  But why not consider whether you can help a client achieve those same goals through a narrower scope of services for a flat fee?

Ironically, we lawyers revere precedent and yet, we always believe that we can resist history.   As society transitions from the universal to the variable – in medicine, in technology and even spaghetti sauce, lawyers can no longer refuse to tailor our services to the needs and wants of individuals clients.

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