Making Marketing Authentic

contributed by Diana Mercer

Most people who get into mediation or other ADR services don’t do it because they love to market their services.  For many of us, marketing has a pejorative feel to it; marketing feels unprofessional for a professional service industry.  Yet, because so much of the public is unfamiliar with the types of services that ADR practitioners offer, and with less support from litigation attorneys than we’d like, we need to find an authentic, comfortable way to market our services and mediation programs.

Developing Your Signature Style

For most of us, it’s been a long journey since we resolved to become peacemakers. Once you open your office it doesn’t take long to learn that clients don’t magically appear.  The question is how to make our commitment to peacemaking feel as authentic for our prospective clients as it is for ourselves.  How can we design marketing plans that convey the benefits of mediation and our own sincerity in a way that is also designed to sell our services?

Developing your signature style and discovering your own identity as a mediator are the key elements to begin your marketing.  After that, marketing falls into two categories, one of which works and one of which doesn’t:  spending lots of money (doesn’t work) and spending lots of time (works really well).  Chronologically, you also divide your time into two categories:  finding new prospective clients and making sure they become actual clients.  This article will cover how to be yourself while marketing and how to choose marketing techniques that will work for you and your practice.

Defining Your Signature Style:  For your marketing to work, you have to know who you are as a person and as a professional.  Be honest with yourself about what you like to do and where you shine as well as what you don’t like to do and where you’re not at your best.  If you hate networking at the Chamber of Commerce, you’re not going to come across in the way you’d hope by doing it anyway, so you’re wasting your time.  If you love to write articles but hate public speaking, focus your time and talents in writing.  If you think you hate all kinds of marketing, remember that waiting for the telephone to ring isn’t an effective client generation tool.  Maybe it’s time to think about dropping the private practice idea and start thinking about joining a corporate HR department or teaching.  Out of the different ways to market, pick only those which you’ll actually do and follow through upon.

Some people feel like marketing is selling out. Your marketing plan should never feel unprofessional.  Using public speaking to tell consumers about the benefits of mediation is a public service, and if your speech is sounding too much like a sales pitch, then revise it.  Writing articles about skills that people can use to lessen the conflict in their lives is also a public service.  Introducing yourself to others in related fields who could make referrals to you provides a service both to those professionals and to their clients because you’re a quality practitioner who will do a good job with their case. When you market authentically, you help others while growing your practice.  Stop and rethink your approach if you’re feeling uncomfortable with your marketing message.  Marketing at its finest is genuine and holds value for those to whom you’re marketing.

Your Elevator Speech and Mission Statement:  Have a clear vision of what you do.  You can’t encourage people to participate in mediation if you can’t explain what it is.  And let’s face it, mediation isn’t easy to describe in just a few words.  The first step is to develop your Elevator Speech:  a one or two sentence explanation of what you do.  It’s called an elevator speech because you need to be able to finish it by the time an elevator takes between floors.  Examples:

  • I help busy lawyers like you settle cases; or
  • I help people get divorced without losing their shirt or their sanity.

How can you describe your practice in just a sentence or two?

Next, expand your elevator speech into a Mission Statement, and think about your Brand.  You may never be Coca-Cola, but your practice and services need an identity.

For example:  Peace Talks Mediation Services is dedicated to providing a constructive, forward-thinking and peaceful ending to relationships.  Marriages may end, but families endure forever.  We provide a confidential, efficient and impartial atmosphere to help people resolve conflict and to create solutions with integrity and dignity for everyone concerned.

You may or may not share your mission statement with clients, but you need it in order to have a direction in your practice. You wouldn’t leave on a trip without a map, and you shouldn’t have a practice without a mission, either.

Your Brand is what you stand for, the kind of services that you provide, and your signature style.  For example, your Brand may include:

  • Honesty
  • Trustworthiness
  • Commitment to client education and service
  • Going the extra mile
  • Commitment to the profession of mediation

Practically speaking, your brand exemplifies your values in your practice.

Be prepared to discuss your practice in terms of value, benefits and results for clients.  That’s all they care about:  value, benefits, results.  The good news is that mediation is full of value, benefits and results for clients.  Brainstorm a list of what you perceive these to be. You’ll use this list when you talk to clients about mediation.

Choosing Where and How to Market:  Specialize.  It’s easier to market that way.  You can accept any kind of case that comes into your office, but you’re only going to market one or two specialties. You’re also going to pick your geographical area.  Marketing every service to everyone everywhere is too difficult and expensive.  The more you define your services, practice areas and geographic area, the easier it is to market.

It’s counter-intuitive, but as we’ve narrowed our services our income increased.  In 2005 gross income increased 25% yet we cut back on the services that we offer.  The less we do, the more we make.  It makes sense when you think about it, because the less you do the easier it is to describe what you do, including the value, benefits and results, and the easier it is for clients to conclude, “yes, this mediator can help me.”

Likewise, it’s important to define your mediation style.   Do you generally practice in a more narrative, evaluative or facilitative style?  Can you explain to clients how you do what you do, and why you’ve chosen to practice the way you do?  What about the other styles do you include in your practice, and what parts don’t work given your mediation style?  Being able to articulate why your particular mode of practice works will help clients have confidence in you and in your practice.  Mediation Career Guide, by Forrest S. Mosten (Wiley Jossey Bass 2001), has some great chapters on developing your signature style.

Getting Started:  You’ll learn about marketing your mediation practice with a combination of trial-and-error and professional advice.  Hopefully, this article will help you avoid some expensive lessons.  A marketing approach that worked in your previous professional life might not work for mediation and just because it worked for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you.  My best investment was using an ADR marketing consultant.  It cost money, but it saved both time and money in the long run.  Individual consultations helped me to develop marketing plans that feel authentic, professional, and comfortable to execute.  A few good books were also helpful:  Essential Guide to Marketing Your ADR Practice, by Natalie J. Armstrong (Golden Media Publishing 2001);  Selling the Invisible:  A Field Guide to Modern Marketing, by Harry Beckwith (Warner Business Books 1997); Guerilla Marketing: Secrets to Making Big Profits in Your Small Business, by Jay Conrad Levinson (Houghton Mifflin 1998); and Marketing Without Advertising by Michael Phillips and Salli Rasberry (Nolo 2003),  were all good starting points.

The strategies below range from low out-of-pocket costs and a high time investment to a high cost and low time investment. When you’re able to spend lots of time, but little cash, you’ll spend your time networking, speaking, writing, and serving before you sell.

Networking:  Educating people about mediation in a social or networking context is free or nearly so.  Connecting with another person and talking about what you do is an invaluable part of marketing for any business, and particularly for mediators.  Join your professional organizations, or, better yet, the professional associations of a gatekeeper organizations.  A gatekeeper is someone who frequently comes into contact with the demographic you’re trying to reach.  For example, as a family law mediation firm, I get referrals from therapists and accountants.  As a result, I’ve joined the local therapists’ organization and the family law section of the accountants’ organization and actively participate in the meetings and committees.  If you’re really outgoing, you can make good use of your time at their networking functions.  If you’re more of a workhorse, you can gain points by volunteering on committees.  What better way to prove that you’re honest, trustworthy, hard working and worthy of their referrals?

While joining organizations is a great way to meet people and to network,   dues can be expensive.  Try attending various associations’ functions without joining first.  Look for their calendar of events listed either in their newsletters or web site and make sure that the event is not “members only”.  It’s a great way to try out a new organization without a big cash outlay.

Wear your nametag on your right shoulder so when people shake your hand they’re staring at your name.  Make your business cards easy to reach.  If you have a name badge on a lanyard, put your cards in the back of the pouch.  Get their card because the key element to networking is following up.  After the event, follow up with a letter or call and remind your contact about who you are and what you do.  The plan is to land in their Rolodex so that when they’re asked about a mediator, they think of you first.

Maintain a database of your contacts and former clients so you’ve got all the information in one place, and make follow up calls or contacts on a regular basis.  If you’re uncomfortable telephoning, consider writing a mediation newsletter or e-newsletter to send to your mailing list, or sending an article or holiday card.  Break up the task of following up with your entire database into small pieces, like 10 calls a day, to make the task less daunting—and more likely to get done.  Contact every 60 to 90 days is ideal.

Speaking:  Public speaking is also a great free opportunity to make personal contact with specific groups that could use your mediation services.  Again, make sure you target your efforts to “gatekeepers”—those who can refer you business—or to individuals who are likely to need your services, e.g., speak to couples’ counselors if you’re a divorce mediator.  Expect mixed results with large, general membership groups like the Chamber of Commerce, and more promising responses from more targeted groups, like an HR professionals association.  A group with a focused demographic, especially one in your geographic area, is ideal.

Writing:  Writing about mediation, or mediation as it relates to another topic, like entertainment law or conflict resolution for educators, is a great no-cost high-profile way to market your services.  Most professional organizations have a magazine or newsletter and they need content.  As a result, it’s easier than you might think to get published in a newsletter.   In addition, you can submit articles to general interest and professional websites, post them on your website and reprint them in your own newsletter.  If you’re a talented writer, think big: your local newspaper or well known professional publication. If you’re just starting out, think smaller:  letter to the editor or smaller newsletter.  Make sure your topic fits your intended audience and targets your gatekeepers in a way that highlights your services without self-promoting.

Volunteer Mediations:  Demonstrating how mediation works through participation in a volunteer mediation panel is a widely-used yet controversial marketing technique. Volunteering your time to build your skills or to give back to the community is one thing. If you’re volunteering for marketing purposes, make sure your time is productively spent.

Spending a Little Money:  One reasonably low-cost marketing strategy which can be incredibly useful is building and maintaining a web site.  From my own experience, the web site has consistently paid for itself in clients generated, and has saved money because it also functions as an on-line brochure.  For more information on web sites, please read James Melamed’s article “Marketing Your Mediation Practice on the Internet” in this issue.  Don’t forget to register your name, address and domain name with major on-line yellow page style directories, like Yahoo Yellow Pages, switchboard.com and smartpages.com. Basic listings are free on many sites.  You can also use your web site for reciprocal links and strategic partnerships.  Find sites which you feel would interest your potential clients and link to those sites; ask those sites to link to your site as well.

Blogs, either on your own website or someone else’s, can work the same way.  If you start a blog on your own website, you can update the content of your website constantly, which may help your search engine rankings.  If you start a blog on a blog website, link back to your web site, which may also help your search engine rankings. Make sure that your blogging is professional and well-edited.  Don’t be fooled by the informality of blogs. Everything you post anywhere that the public can read must be your best effort.

You can use the concept of “permission marketing” on your web site and with your e-mail address list.  Each month (or whatever frequency), send out a newsletter to subscribers. The key is that the newsletter is strictly opt-in. You don’t want your newsletter to look like spam.  Web site visitors subscribe by signing up on the site and you can send it to your e-mail address list with their permission.  Keep each newsletter short and simple, less than 2 minutes to read.  Make it informational and timely.  At the bottom, include some information about your practice and services, as well as your contact information.  Encourage readers to forward the e-mail newsletter to anyone who might find it of interest. With luck, you’ll get more subscription requests from people who received your newsletter as a forward.  This is one way to use “viral marketing,” i.e., the forwarded e-newsletters do your marketing for you. If you have the time to do several different targeted newsletters, then send different newsletters to different groups.  This is a great way to develop word of mouth about your services.

Spending Money Doesn’t Work:  Spending lots of money on print, radio or TV advertising is usually a poor investment unless you’re committed to an ongoing advertising campaign, which is cost-prohibitive for most mediators.  The problem with advertising is that the person who needs your services must see the ad at the exact moment that he or she needs your services.  Your chances of hitting a target on the first few tries are slim.  Limiting your ads to publications read by your gatekeepers is more effective, but given the expense, your return on investment will generally be too small to be worthwhile. The same is true for direct mail advertising and Yellow Pages ads. Your money and time are better spent elsewhere.

Once you get your marketing plan into place, it’s time to think about how to turn those prospects into actual clients.

Turning Prospective Clients into Actual Clients

We sometimes forget that our most valuable marketing contact—the prospective client who telephones our office—is our most viable marketing prospect.

Step one is to serve before you sell. This is a concept I learned from my marketing coach at Golden Media, and the idea is that before you ever talk to anyone about paying you for your services or becoming a client, first answer all of their questions and be as helpful as possible.  Let prospective clients get to know you, your services and your practice before you ask them to become clients.  It’s good business for your practice, and it’s also good business for mediation in general. During this “serve before you sell” period you’re making sure that the case is a good fit for your practice as much as clients are evaluating your firm.  Answer questions about mediation, give a tour of your office, offer an orientation session, have articles and handouts ready to help the clients get prepared to mediate, and make them feel like they’re getting special attention from your firm.  All of this is free of charge, of course.  The serve before you sell stops with the actual mediation of the case—that’s when you go on the clock.  By the time the caller becomes a client, he or she will not only be sold on your services, but will have the confidence that your firm is dedicated to client service.

Consider how much time, effort, and money that it took to make this call happen.  Every speaking engagement, networking luncheon, article and marketing activity is designed to make the telephone ring.  Yet when it does, few of us are as prepared as we need to be to turn that interested caller into a paying client.  Forrest Mosten pointed this out to me early in my career, and convening is still the backbone of my firm’s marketing.

That ringing telephone signals the beginning of a process called convening, or getting both sides to the table.  Do you know what your call-to-client ratio is, i.e, how calls you get and how many turn into paying clients?  Knowing your call-to-client ratio from each of your sources of referrals, as well as your overall ratio, is important in order to know which marketing plans work, which are cost-effective, and where you should focus your time and money.

Telephone Calls

Who will take your telephone calls?  Is it a receptionist, unskilled at mediation and unable to answer basic questions about your services?  Is it a Dispute Resolution Associate, trained in mediation and in convening?  Will you take the calls yourself?  A general receptionist is fine if you’re taking the intake calls yourself, but your first line marketing person should know all about the mediation process.

After you’ve decided who is doing the intake, what model will you use?  Will you spend a few minutes, off the clock, and then send out your brochure, marketing materials, or a follow-up letter? Or will you do a thorough phone intake, on or off the clock?  Will you schedule an orientation session during the first call?  A critical part of your intake is where the client heard about your services.  You’ll use this information to track the efficacy of your marketing efforts.

The next piece of information you need from the caller is whether or not the other party is aware of the caller’s desire to mediate.  Is the other party even aware that the call is being placed? If not, ask how best to approach the other party.

For cases in which the parties have already agreed to mediate, your intake is then geared toward selling the potential client on your services.  What do you offer that other mediators do not?  Why should the client choose your services over someone else’s?  Write a short script or outline in case you get tongue-tied on the phone. After the telephone call, send out a “thanks for calling” letter along with some printed information about your practice. Give prospective clients a tangible reminder of having called you.

Information Packages

After a call has come into the office, send an information package to the callers.  Your information package should instill confidence in clients and differentiate your services in the marketplace.  You might include brochures, business cards, a firm newsletter, a short biography of yourself and your experience, pointers on how clients can prepare for their mediation session, or articles about mediation. Use a simple pocket folder so you can mix and match your materials for different types of cases.

Just as with serving before you sell, remember that clients are looking for value, benefits and results. Ninety percent of your brochure, information package and website should be centered around value, benefits and results for the clients.  Only 10% should be about you and your qualifications.  The same 90/10 rule holds true of all of your marketing materials, your web site, and any other descriptions of your practice or program.

When prospective clients call your office, they already believe you’re an expert. Laypeople and attorneys [generally] perceive all mediators to be equal and qualified. As a result, they don’t care much about your qualifications.  The way mediators can differentiate themselves is by describing their services in terms of value, benefits and results.

Price is not as important as you’d think.  In Western culture, people tend to believe that they get what they pay for.  If it’s free or inexpensive, it has no value.  People who are 100% price sensitive are always going to be a problem. You’re never going to build a practice on price competition.  The good news is that mediation offers so much value, so many benefits, and such great results, it’s relatively easy to compile your information packages.

Clients appreciate the fact that you’re organized and have materials to send out.  It conveys that you’re committed to client service.

Mediation Orientation Sessions

You may wish to offer a free orientation session in order to supplement the intake.  Orientations allow the parties to see the office, meet the mediators and discuss how the mediation process might work for their case.  Both the mediator and the parties can use the orientation to decide if the practice is a good fit for the case.

Thoughtful convening is the bridge between marketing and building a practice.

Client Service as Marketing

Sometimes we forget that great client service is a great marketing tool.  Simply doing a good job, being respectful of clients’ needs and questions, answering the telephone in an approachable way, and demonstrating patience with people in conflict can be a great way to get clients to refer your office to other prospective clients.

Takes time to build, however, so it’s important to jump start your practice with other marketing activities.  There’s no need to do every suggested marketing technique in this article, and, in fact, it would be counter productive.  Pick a few things that feel right and that fit your personality and budget, and start there. Evaluate your return on investment:  was it worth the time and money?  If so, do more of it.  If not, try something else.  Keep your marketing plan consistent with who you are and who you want to be in your practice and you will help you develop the kind of clientele that you can really help, and as a result, it will be the kind of clientele that will refer others to you.  That’s the best kind of marketing of all.

 

About the author:  Diana Mercer is the founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services (www.peace-talks.com) and the co-author of Your Divorce Advisor (Fireside 2001).

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