Back to basics in 2020: Small changes make a big difference

By Peter George|03 March 2020

2020 will be about doing more of and getting better at what our customers tell us they want, writes Peter George.

“The thing we value – more than anything else – is the basics delivered well”. This was the unanimous feedback from our corporate customers when we reviewed our service with them at the end of last year. Everything they appreciated about CIE Legal and every improvement they sought, revolved around ‘the basics’. With this in mind, it hasn’t been difficult to agree on our priority for 2020: it will be about getting the basics right.

Purist or pragmatist?

For years, the debate has waged between big-bang and incremental change. There appear to be two sides, both equally impassioned and equally well-intentioned: the purists, who believe that change is only worthwhile if it is significant, and the pragmatists, who believe that change only sticks if it is incremental.

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The purists believe that the pragmatists effectively support the status-quo with an unambitious agenda. The pragmatists believe that the purists achieve little in reality because they’re waiting for nirvana, which never arrives. As is often the case, both sides have merit, but I have to say that, as a Managing Partner, I am increasingly coming down on the side of the pragmatists.

That’s not because I don’t see the need for significant change and reform, for modernization and adaptation: on the contrary, it’s precisely because I see it as fundamentally important , that I feel strongly about the need to focus on continuously making incremental gains that surprisingly quickly accumulate to big changes.

Busy fools

Survey after survey tells us that in-house counsel think the majority of firms are insufficiently innovative, yet hardly any survey tells us what ‘innovation’ they’d like to see. With these statistics at the back of our heads, it’s easy to be busy fools. I should know: with one foot in the disrupt-or-die echo chamber that many of us inhabit, I sometimes find it hard not to ascribe to the view that only ‘cutting edge’, novel and headline-worthy change will do.

But the thing is, that’s not the reality my firm’s customers experience (many of which are major corporate Australian businesses). They’re more concerned about whether we’re easy to deal with, whether our advice is straightforward and speak their language, whether fees match expectations and whether we do what we say we’ll do. So we must be focused about where we place our energies: our activities must be the kind that customers value.

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Tiny noticeable things

I believe these activities are ones that UK/US firm Eversheds Sutherland calls “TNT”: “tiny noticeable things”. Michele DeStefano, author of “Legal Upheaval” calls it “small, incremental changes that add lasting value” and clients simply call it “service”. I’m not the first to feel that Robert Musil’s quote from “The Man Without Qualities” sums it up perfectly when he says: “It’s easy to think in miles when you’ve no idea what riches can be hidden in a single inch”.

There’s a wonderful cartoon doing the rounds that shows two pictures. In both, a person is standing on a soapbox with a crowd beneath them. In the first, the person asks “Who wants change?” and the entire audience raises its hands. In the second, the person asks “Who wants to change?” and no-one raises their hands.

Its easy, isn’t it, to make the change about someone else’s work, someone else’s behavior and someone else’s habits. What better way to do this than to sign off significant funds and resources for a project team to implement and elaborate new tools and technologies? Far harder to make the change about everyone’s work everyday: about workflows, processes, habits and behaviours that, together, create a level of service that customers won’t want to leave.

And in this, I see our smaller size as an asset. As I’ve said in previous articles, necessity is the mother of invention and access to significant scale and resources can often distance a firm from its customers, rather than draw it closer. Working with Carl and Julian at CXINLAW, everyone in our firm is involved in identifying and implementing those TNTs that will, cumulatively, make a big difference to our customer experience.

Back to basics in 2020

So for us, a proudly small and strong firm, 2020 will be about doing more of and getting better at what our customers tell us they want, through TNTs that make their lives easier. For example, we’ve already mapped processes for several services from the customers’ perspective and ours. From this has resulted TNTs that have simplified our approach, made customers’ lives easier and reduced waste in the way we operate.

We’re also putting in place a more succinct and visual approach to our project updates and advice notes, so that clients can see the core themes “at a glance”. These are just some of the ways we’re focusing on the “basics” in 2020 and many more will follow.

Peter George is the managing partner of CIE Legal

Back to basics in 2020: Small changes make a big difference
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