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Building a Solo Practice: The Marketing Power of Yelp

December 21, 2011

This is the third post in a series on solo and small firm marketing by guest blogger Douglas Greenberg, a successful tax solo based in San Francisco, CA. The first was an intro to the subject and the second examined the promotional power of a legal niche.

In his seminal guide on solo practice, Jay Foonberg predicted that the Internet would change everything about the way consumers shopped for goods and services.  And in his opinion, the practice of law was no exception.  Today, Foonberg’s vision seems to be materializing more each day.  Consumers size up lawyers not just by their artwork and furniture but also by their online reviews at sites like Yelp.com.  Indeed, for some potential clients, searching for an attorney may be just like searching for a restaurant: pick up an iPhone and start perusing reviews (perhaps with Siri as a guide [Ed. note: at least as long as you speak without a Southern or British accent]). In fact, Yelp is one of the three main ways that clients come to me (I’ll leave the other two to future posts).

When I first began my practice, I was ambivalent about having a Yelp presence.  On one hand, I knew it was a great (and low-cost) way to gain much-needed exposure.  On the other, I feared it because it was entirely outside of my control.  Review websites are great for obtaining information, but also largely unregulated.  Despite some refinements over the years, users can go on them and say anything about anyone, anonymously, without fear of repercussions. This allows anyone with an internet connection and an agenda (including an unscrupulous competitor) to post a false or unfair reviews and manipulate ratings.  And yet, true or untrue, strangers would potentially take those reviews and ratings at face value.

This frightening truth is part of the brave new world that modern lawyers and other business owners confront.  Review websites are here to stay. As a result, your control over your reputation may not go much further than your ability to foster positive reviews and ratings on review sites like Yelp.  Ultimately, I decided to embrace the inevitable. I encouraged a client to post a review on Yelp and he did.  Since then, I have gotten a surprising amount of business from users searching on Yelp.  As time has gone on, more reviews have been posted (all of them favorable, thankfully).  And if anything, I would like to believe that the site has vindicated my honesty and good customer service.

Yet, in reality I know that this view is simplistic.  As others have attested, many reviewers are simply unfair and much of the Yelp game may be more about your likability and luck than about your competence and skill.  [Ed. note: some businesses have even sued Yelp itself for being unfair in its handling of bad reviews.] Since I began riding the wave of the modern Internet review site, I have learned a few basic tips that can help make Yelp and other websites a positive:

Encourage satisfied clients to post reviews.  Personally, I do not believe there is anything unethical about doing this.  Indeed, law practices have used testimonials for years in their advertising.  Only here, the client is telling their own story, in their own words, which I personally feel is better.

Treat everyone with respect.  Perhaps the most lasting influence Yelp will have on the legal industry is the way lawyers treat their clients.  Gone are the days when an attorney could chew out a nuisance client and kick them to the doorstep.  Such actions now risk damaging retaliation by way of nasty internet complaints.  In my practice, frankly, I am so terrified that this might happen that I treat everyone quite politely and will bite my tongue no matter how unreasonable the person is being.  Such is life in the new age. Every call or meeting is a potential review, so do your best to send the person home satisfied (or at very least not unsatisfied).

Lastly, it pays to engage clients who are having issues rather than avoiding them.  At the veterinary hospital where my wife works, they have recently begun encouraging people to come to them before posting a Yelp review.  The idea is catch problem cases before they wind up on the Internet.  Whether the strategy works remains to be seen, but the idea is important. By addressing the source of dissatisfaction as early as possible, you have the greatest opportunity to fix the problem. And, even if the problems not fixable, there’s always the possibility that if unhappy clients at least have the opportunity air their grievances to you, they will be less inclined to do so at home on their computer.

Also check out Doug’s five-part series on starting a solo practice: Part One (the decision to go solo), Part Two (choosing a specialty), Part Three (sole proprietorship, corporation or LLC?), Part Four (gaining practical experience as a young lawyer), and Part Five (preparing to go solo mid-career). Author and IP solo Evan Aidman has also recently posted on building a solo practice.

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