Mar 02, 2009

Marketing Through Testimonials: Giving and Receiving

Most of us lawyers know that inside a courtroom, there's nothing quite as compelling as testimony, a personal narrative of events from witnesses with personal knowledge of the facts of the case.  So it's surprising, then, that few lawyers recognize the value of a related marketing concept -- the testimonial -- wherein a lawyer's clients or colleagues endorse or recommend a lawyer's service or qualifications based on personal impressions formed during their professional relationship.

Like testimony in court, testimonials are compelling because they're personalized.  In contrast to the cookie-cutter jargon that most lawyers include in brochures and websites about being compassionate or caring or responsive or aggressive advocates, the best testimonials convey those same concepts through examples drawn from an individual's personal experience.  In addition, testimonials frequently focus on points that matter to potential clients, but that a lawyer might not recognize as important.  For example, some testimonials I've seen compliment lawyers on their staff's friendliness -- a significant benefit for harried or stressed clients, but not necessarily a feature that most lawyers would think to highlight in their marketing materials. 

On the other hand, just like the witness whose testimony goes south in the courtroom, a poorly executed testimonial can do far more harm than good.  Testimonials from fellow lawyers that simply state "nice guy, great lawyer" aren't worth the bandwidth they require, while testimonials that are clearly reciprocal -- i.e., where one lawyer endorses a colleague and the colleague returns the favor without any useful information -- can damage a lawyer's credibility.  In addition, testimonials that aren't truthful or that violate client confidentiality rules can put lawyers in trouble with the bar.  In fact, as discussed below, lawyers should consult their respective bar rules prior to seeking testimonials from clients -- or even other lawyers -- because some bars do prohibit the practice.

Below are some how-tos for getting effective and compelling testimonials from clients and lawyers and using them in marketing materials.  But when it comes to testimonials, many lawyers find that giving is just as important as receiving -- and I'll also detail some ways to offer testimonials to colleagues and service providers to generate ancillary benefits for yourself.

A.  Getting Testimonials

1.  What Is Appropriate for a Testimonial?

Testimonials are appropriate for virtually any type of service that you provide.  If you are marketing a divorce or bankruptcy or criminal practice, then testimonials from clients on everything from their satisfaction with your work or your personality and demeanor are appropriate.  On the other hand, if you're trying to generate more referral-based work from other lawyers, then testimonials from lawyers who've worked with you and are familiar with your skills and reliability make the most sense.

But you're not limited to testimonials about your work.  If you write a great blog or produced an e-book, why not ask for endorsements from other readers?  A testimonial about your online materials can help them stand out from the avalanche of information available on the Internet.

2.  How Do I Use Testimonials?

You can incorporate testimonials into your marketing materials in a variety of ways.  For example, you can include testimonials in written brochures and at your website.  As noted, many online lawyer listing services like Avvo or LinkedIn allow users to post testimonials as well.  Finally, some lawyers choose not to publicize testimonials and make them available to prospects on request instead.

3.  Consult the Bar Rules

Before you go to the trouble of seeking testimonials, consult your respective bar's ethics rules.  The ABA maintains an online list of state bar rules on advertising, including those states that prohibit or restrict testimonials.  On the other hand, don't go overboard and assume that because restrictions apply that you can't obtain testimonials at all.  Some bars, for example, prohibit client testimonials but do not limit testimonials from colleagues and/or other lawyers.  Other bars maintain general proscriptions against testimonials that include information that cannot be verified (e.g., "Joe Jones was the best lawyer ever!").  However, this type of restriction would not prohibit testimonials with verifiable, factual information, such as, "Joe Jones timely filed all my pleadings" or "Jane Doe returned my phone calls".  And in fact, if you think about it, it's this kind of specific detail that makes testimonials far more compelling than one that consists of conclusory statements -- just as in a court room.

Bear in mind that bar rules on confidentiality may also prohibit you from disclosing the identity of clients.  Therefore, be sure to obtain appropriate authorization to use a client's name in connection with their testimonials.  Where a client declines to be identified, you may still post the testimonial but indicate that the client's name has been withheld to preserve confidentiality.  In no circumstances should you post a testimonial with a fake name -- that would undermine its credibility.   

4.  Gathering Testimonials

In some rare cases, clients will offer an unsolicited testimonial or express so much satisfaction with your work that they'll offer to provide a testimonial.  In some instances, a client may also post a favorable assessment of your work on Avvo, an online lawyer listing service that lets clients provide feedback. 

But in most cases, you'll probably have to request a testimonial yourself, which, understandably, may be awkward since you are asking a client to toot your horn for you.  Many lawyers avoid the potential discomfort of making individual requests for testimonials by routinizing the process through incorporating it into an office procedure, like a client survey or exit letter.  For example, once a lawyer completes work on a matter and sends the client a "close-out package" (specifying that engagement is complete, information on document retention, etc...), he might also include a client survey soliciting feedback on performance and asking for a testimonial.  In cases where lawyers maintain an ongoing relationship with the client, they could include a request for testimonials as part of an annual client survey.

Seeking testimonials from other lawyers is far easier, particularly because sites like Avvo or LinkedIn enable you to simply send a request for endorsement via computer.  Lawyers can get busy, however, so if you don't hear back, follow up every few weeks.

5.  Written Testimonials Aren't The Only Option

Written testimonials aren't your only option, however -- you can also ask clients or lawyers to tape a testimonial for you either through some of the free conference call services (such as Free Conference Call) or web-based services that will record sound over the Internet.  Schedule the call and have your testimonial-provider give a quick oral synopsis of why he or she enjoyed working with you, and why and how you brought value to the relationship.  You can post the recording on your website.  And with video gaining traction all over the web, you might also consider video-taped testimonials.

6.  What Should A Testimonial Say?

In my opinion, the best testimonials give specific illustrations of how a lawyer assisted with a case.  As mentioned above, broad platitudes -- such as "greatest lawyer ever" -- may not pass muster with most bar associations, but even if they did, they're not very credible.  Most lawyers have a general sense of how to provide a compelling testimonial, but clients may need more guidance.  Though you can't tell clients what to say, you can include questions in your survey such as "Was the staff friendly?" or "Was this lawyer responsive?" to get clients focused on those topics when they reach the testimonial section of the survey.

Of course, some of the best testimonials that I've seen don't just shower the lawyer with praise, but also honestly assess what some might perceive as drawbacks.  I've read testimonials from clients who rave about their lawyer, but caution that the attorney has a naturally brusque attitude or seems overly accommodating but that ultimately, that approach worked.  These testimonials carry so much detail as to enhance their credibility -- and they also help you attract clients who are more likely to appreciate your approach.

7.  The Importance of Transparency

For testimonials to carry any value, they must be truthful.  Frequently, in an effort to help colleagues or business affiliates build up a list of testimonials, many lawyers often violate rules of transparency. 

For instance, I've observed groups of lawyers on listservs privately agree to endorse each other.  And there's nothing inherently wrong with that (indeed, I've done it myself with a private group of lawyers with whom I interact) so long as lawyers truthfully disclose the nature of their relationship. So if you want to provide a testimonial to a listserv colleague whom you've never worked with or even met in person but who routinely contributes valuable advice on the listserv, then state that in the endorsement.  ("I have never met Jane Jones personally, but have grown acquainted with her over the past year through the TrialLawyers Listserv.  She consistently offers astute advice and has helped me resolve several knotty procedural problems in complex cases.")  Likewise, if there's a lawyer who runs a great blog or video series that you've found valuable in your practice, by all means, endorse the lawyer at a site like LinkedIn or Avvo, at least for the limited purpose of highlighting their online offerings.

You must also disclose any business relationships or affiliations with colleagues who you endorse.  In many instances, I'll see a lawyer recommending a lawyer marketing program without mentioning that the lawyer is a program affiliate and receives a percent-based commission for sales made.  When you derive a financial benefit from a testimonial, transparency requires that you disclose your interest.  

B.  Giving Testimonials

Getting testimonials aren't the only option, however.  Giving testimonials to other lawyers or service providers carries benefits as well.  Not only does giving a testimonial offer a chance to show appreciation for someone who's helped you, it can also enhance your reputation as a "go to" person. Plus, you can also draft a testimonial that includes information that can promote your practice as well.

For example, let's say that you are arguing your first federal appeal.  Since you aren't familiar with the procedural rules of the court, you hire an appellate printing service to format, proof, cite check, and produce in brief in a manner that complies with court rules.  The service performs heroically, shepherding you through the process and even pointing out errors that you'd have otherwise missed.  Sure, you could provide a testimonial saying, "ABC service completed the work promptly and efficiently."  But consider instead giving some context:

I am an lawyer in XYZ City and I was retained to handle a major First Amendment case in the Third Circuit.  Though I've handled appeals in other circuits, this was my first case in the Third, and at the recommendation of several colleagues, I hired ABC Service.  The staff assigned to my case were prompt and efficient and ensured that my brief complied with all of the relevant rules.  Moreover, they took care of all matters, from formatting to citechecking and service so that I could focus on the case itself -- and my client ultimately prevailed.
With this testimonial, the lawyer displays his expertise, which other lawyers may come across in visiting the site.  And the details are not gratuitous either -- they make for a more compelling and credible testimonial.

Even if you don't realize any marketing benefits from obtaining or giving testimonials (and I assure you that you will), there are still other reasons to do so.  Soliciting testimonials and other feedback from clients helps you stay in touch with existing clients and gather information that can help you serve all of your clients more effectively.  In addition, there's also a psychological boost that comes from finding a testimonial note in your mailbox from that balky client  who said he didn't trust any lawyers -- but wrote that you were always forthright and honest.  Or the email notice of a LinkedIn testimonial from your old boss -- the one whose firm fired you years ago -- who praised your talent and legal acumen in tough cases.  At the end of the day, simply learning that you served clients well or aided a colleague with a difficult matter -- or offering those same words to someone else -- is enough to make the practice of law worthwhile.