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Episode 75: Integrating Technology to Systematize Business Development Efforts with David Ackert, President of Ackert Inc.

Guest: David Ackert, President of Ackert Inc.

Episode 75: Integrating Technology to Systematize Business Development Efforts

Sharon:   Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is David Ackert, President of Ackert Inc. David is a business development mentor for thousands of high-achieving lawyers and a pioneer in applying technology to the business development process in law firms. Over the past two decades, David has developed and implemented revenue acceleration programs for hundreds of firms.  We’ll hear more about this today, along with his innovative use of technology. David, welcome to the program.

David:     Thanks, Sharon. Great to be here.

Sharon:   So glad to have you. Tell us about your career. You’ve done some interesting things.  How did you end up working with lawyers or with professionals in general?

David:     Well sure, it has, as you just mentioned, been a very windy road to this point. My first career was in the entertainment industry, which is what brought me out to Los Angeles from the East Coast. I was a TV actor for many years. I was the bad guy of the week in shows like CSI Miami, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, NYPD Blue and a whole bunch of other shows you’d really have to go deep into the recesses of Netflix to find anymore because they’re all on rerun at best, but that was my first career and I enjoyed that process quite a bit, but as you know, the life of an artist is feast or famine, and I also felt that I had other things that I wanted to contribute that weren’t really being leveraged in that world.

So one of the things that I ended up doing in the late ‘90s was becoming of a dotcom company where I was taught a lot about operations, marketing, business development and technology, and I got to really grow my professional skill set as that company grew. We unfortunately lost the company in the dotcom, but at that point, I felt like I was ready to strike out on my own. I had just gotten married to my wife, who’s a lawyer, and she suggested that I take this skill set that I had developed and focus on the legal industry. So with some assistance and guidance from her, we developed some curriculum, some offerings that were of interest to law firms, and over time we refined them and developed them and developed a client base that we now service in a variety of ways. I brought technology into the company about ten years ago, again pulling from those dotcom roots, and we found that that was really helpful in being able to scale what we had built as a consulting firm, but also to be able to meet the needs of firms as they continue to evolve and as the problems continue to get a little more complicated.

Sharon:   So David, I know that you work with a range of professionals, but you also work with a lot of lawyers and law firms. What is it that attracts you to those and what keeps you going in that area?

David:     Sure, well, as I mentioned, I married a lawyer, so obviously I have a personal bias there, but I think what’s attracted me to working with lawyers professionally is that they really have unique needs when it comes to business development and because we’ve had experience working with other professional service verticals, we’ve really seen this up close. Lawyers are a unique type. If you look at any of Dr. Larry Richard’s personality profiling research, he’s been able to very clearly crystallize how lawyers are an archetype that sort of operate in a particular fashion, and so we’ve been able to figure out ways to navigate those challenges and navigate the specific issues that can come up for lawyers when it comes to business development and, over the years, we’ve thrived by building the spoke technology and programs that address the unique needs of law firms.

Sharon:   You mentioned the spoke programs and I know that Ackert, Inc. has several different arms and you’ve done a lot of different things. So can you tell us about what your offerings are, and can you tell us about the business now?

David:     Sure. We started off, as I mentioned earlier, as a coaching and consulting firm. So everything we were providing in the early years was analogue. We were timekeepers. Just as the lawyers, we served as timekeepers, but we did find that there were some challenges in being able to scale a business with that model and so about ten years ago, we started to look at—OK, what are the things that we are doing that are repeated? What conversations are we having over and over again in the context of coaching or in the context of training and how can we productize the pieces so that it’s a more efficient delivery system, it’s more scalable, ultimately it’s productizable, and so the first thing that we did was we developed a series of video tutorials that teach business development to law firms and that product is now in license all over the world throughout the legal industry. Then we realized that you can’t just teach lawyers what to do—I mean that’s critical and that helps them to develop confidence so that they can go out and implement what they have learned—but there needs to be some sort of tracking system that helps them track the actions that they take based on what they’ve learned. That’s when we developed Pipeline. That’s our fastest growing product and again, it’s in license all over the world and is often complemented by the video tutorials that we developed.

Last year, we saw the need to expand our technology into the arena of data visualization and that was really an opportunistic move for us. We saw that especially marketing and business developments departments have a lot of data siloing that they’re experiencing and if they can start to see how these various threads tie together—how the CRM and the ERM and their digital content strategy and their proposals and the events that they put on—all of these various activities tend to definitely tell a story if you have a tool that pulls the data from these various actions into a centralized dashboard. So we released Practice Viewer last year and we’re now helping those law firms to kind of connect all of these various dots. Of course we still have coaching and consulting programs that run alongside many of these technologies, but really technology has become a big part of how we differentiate ourselves from other coaching and consulting firms and I would say that coaching and consulting has become a big way of how we differentiate ourselves from other technology companies.

Sharon:   So you have Practice Pipeline. Practice Pipeline is more geared to the individual lawyer would you say?

David:     Well, I would say yeah, there’s an interface for the individual lawyer, but most of our clients are larger firms who are licensing Practice Pipeline for the benefit of a group of lawyers within the firm. For instance, they will say, “Oh, we’ve got these senior associates who really need to start managing their networks better,” or “We’ve got these partners who need to work together as a group in order to pursue a particular opportunity or as part of a go-to-market strategy or as part of a client team strategy and we can’t seem to get them to use CRM,” and of course there’s been a lot of research—some of it we’ve been able to contribute to the industry on how lawyers typically don’t use CRM. It’s an over-complicated tool just for the purpose of managing lawyer pipelines and so what they’ll do is they’ll use Practice Pipeline and then integrate that with their CRM and that provides a front-end interface for either an individual lawyer or a group of lawyers to work together and for the firm to have some oversight and transparency into what kind of business development effort is being made.

Sharon:   And Practice Viewer is more for the legal marketing department would you say or law firm management?

David:     Yeah, that’s right. It’s a data visualization tool that is particularly for the departments helping to empower a lot of these business development and marketing efforts.

Sharon:   Sounds very powerful, just to be able to tie everything together. How do you overcome resistance because I’m sure you encounter resistance from lawyers and maybe every marketer in terms of using and integrating technology or a new technology? How do you overcome that resistance, or what tips do you have or suggestions or what have you found works?

David:     Yeah, it’s a great question and we encounter it all the time. Firms will look at our technology and they’ll say, “Wow, this is great,” but of course there’s this question of will the lawyers use it, and sometimes there’s even the question of will the marketing departments and business development departments use it because they’re very busy too and that’s always what gets in the way of the best-laid plans is that we get very caught up in the emergency of the moment and then being able to step back and focus on the things that maybe aren’t as urgent, but are even more important that sort of fall to the wayside. So what we found is that at the end of the day—and this is going to sound like a funny answer—but it’s important to put in place some level of intrusion. Now, it has to be constructive intrusion because we all are dealing with intrusions all the time and most of those are not constructive. So your phone suddenly buzzes because someone sent you a LinkedIn invitation. I would argue that’s not a constructive intrusion, but if you are meeting with a coach let’s say, who’s going to help you advance your objectives, that is a constructive intrusion. That’s someone who’s going to have you stop whatever it was that you were doing for whatever period of time you scheduled with them so that the two of you can focus on something else and then when that meeting is over, you go back to the daily whirlwind as it were.

Those constructive intrusions are critical to design and what we have found is that at the end of the day, they have to be customized to the various law firms that we work with because what works at one law firm—so for instance, suppose a practice group leader pulls up a Practice Pipeline scoreboard and says “OK everyone, we’re having a lunch together and we’re going to show you who’s really doing well and who’s not doing so well and we’re going to gamify it a little bit and have a constructive conversation about how we as this practice group can be more effective,” that could work very nicely at one firm, but it’s going to completely fall flat at another where the culture is simply not conducive for that kind of a dialogue. So we find that coaching, gamification, regular business development check-ins—sometimes it’s an educational thrust where there’s regular webinars or lunch and learns where people get to have discussion around new concepts. That can be very helpful. Sometimes we find that a firm needs to understand that they can manage this internally and sometimes they have to understand that they can’t. They have to bring in outside speakers or outside consultants to talk to the lawyers because they’ll get the lawyers’ attention better that way. Every firm is going to need to navigate this maze a little bit differently, simply because each culture is different and the lawyers each bring their own unique personalities and dynamics to the table, but it can absolutely be done and it really comes down to yeah, those constructive intrusions that are designed to suit the need.

Sharon:   So can you give us some examples? I know you’ve worked with a lot of firms and you must have done a lot of tailoring and modifying. Give us some examples of what you’ve seen, whether it’s technology or consulting, that has moved the firm forward.

David:     Sure, sure, so I mentioned a few: indemnification, coaching, educational programs, but there are a couple of firms that we’re working with this year that are doing something really innovative that I am enthusiastic will no doubt help them to put a construct around these constructive intrusions. One firm has set aside a bonus pool and when the lawyers complete their business development, they gain access to that bonus pool and so obviously the plans have to fit certain criteria. You can’t fill out the fields with nonsense, but as long as those plans are approved, those partners can then dip into the bonus pool and a certain number is allocated to them for completing the plan, and what that does is it creates an incentive for them to do something that they might not otherwise do. It’s another kind of constructive intrusion. The intrusion is that carrot of additional compensation dangled in front of them.

They also are using Pipeline as a means of indicating that they are taking action on those plans because of course Pipeline is a great way of pursuing the targets that are in those business development plans, and the tool assigns a score, a health score if you will, to each individual user’s business development activities. So the firm can very clearly see, “Oh, these ten lawyers are really being proactive, and these ten lawyers really are not,” and then another bonus is set aside for lawyers that reach a certain score over a particular period of time. I think that that’s a really smart way of going about this because the way most lawyers are compensated, it’s all based on lagging indicators, that is to say, “These are the hours I billed in the past and this is the revenue that I generated from the clients that I brought in and so now that’s going to reflect in my origination credit,” but those are all things in the rearview mirror.  Firms very rarely compensate on leading indicators, that is to say, “These are the things that I am doing that will lead to revenue in the future because we simply know that if you plant enough of these kinds of seeds, there will be a garden,” but most firms are in a wait-and-see mode on this and so it discourages lawyers from planting those seeds, especially when they’re already so busy. What I love about what this firm has done is they’re saying, “We’re going to reward leading indicators.”

Another firm is tying their business development Pipeline activity to a client feedback program. Again, that’s a constructive intrusion and that intrusion is, “Hey, your client says they want more of X,” or “Your client has no idea that we provide this other practice area. Let’s have a conversation with them about it.”  Now, that may not incentivize every lawyer to take a step forward, but many lawyers will respond to the fact that “Oh gosh, if my clients really want this, then that’s going to redirect my attention and perhaps get me to focus a little more on a particular course of action,” and then again, the firms can use Pipeline to monitor did the lawyers actually follow through with this.

So, these are more nuanced constructive intrusions that we’re seeing are gaining some traction at some of the firms that we’re working with.

Sharon:   It sounds like the really forward-thinking firms that are really looking ahead and saying, “OK, what are we doing now that’s going to pay off in the future?” And I love the idea of constructive intrusions because so often it’s just like, “Well, I can’t take time for that because I have to bill these hours,” but this is something that’s going to, like you say, plant seeds and bear fruit.

David:     Well, I agree with you. Those are definitely firms that are thinking along more innovative lines. If you read the latest Altman Weil report, you know that there were over a hundred mergers in 2019. Now, some of these were very small firms, but they also included some larger firms that were widely publicized, and we are in an era now where innovation is something that we really need to be thinking more seriously about. It doesn’t mean reinventing the business model necessarily. These are very manageable initiatives that I just described to you, but I think those firms that recognize that they want to be more competitive, they want to get ahead of curve.  Firms that don’t want to be number 101 on that list of mergers are taking matters into their own hands and taking action that will enable them to retain their independence.

Sharon:   And there is so much room to gain that competitive advantage, whether it’s having a client-facing salesperson or things like integrating with technology that’s going to help them move the firm forward. To me, there’s so much opportunity. It’s just—I want to say just—I mean it’s a matter of identifying it and grabbing it and persuading your colleagues that you need to do this.

So what do you see in terms of technology?  Looking around the corner, what do you see? Do you see AI playing a big role?  What do you see in terms of that and business development?

David:     I think that we’re going to see, especially a CRM that will require less and less data entry on the part of the users. There may be a cost to that and the cost is that the data that is going into the system is not being watched and is not necessarily as helpful as when the user interacts with it directly, but there’s definitely a push for that.  We designed Practice Pipeline around the idea that lawyers need to be doing as little data entry as possible through the business development process because that creates so much friction and ultimately leads to very low utilization of whatever the tool is. This is why CRM tends to suffer so much. So AI can certainly be a part of that solution, but I do think the thing that we need to continue to work toward, and we’re going to see technologies continuing to emphasize, is how can we gain insights without relying on human effort to provide them because at the end of the day, the solution has to be weighted more toward automation and less toward manual labor.

Sharon:  That makes a lot of sense and reducing the friction in terms of entering data would really make a difference now and to me that’s sort of like—when you said it, it’s sort of like we didn’t know we needed an iPhone until it came out and that’s sort of like the same thing, “Oh, yeah, that would be fabulous, not that I had really stopped to think about that before.”

David, thank you so much for being here today, and to everyone listening, we’ll have David’s information in the show notes and if you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe at iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can be a catalyst for moving your firm forward. Thank you so much for listening.

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