Advice, Unchained

Much as it may surprise some, I read marketing guru Seth Godin’s posts every day.   While it may be occasionally trivial or self-serving, Godin often provides significant insight into the meaning of service. As law is a service we provide to clients, we ought to always be concerned with how we can better perform our services. And since we, as consumers as well as lawyers, enjoy or suffer at the hands of those whose services we use, we ought to be concerned with what we are getting and why.

Godin writes a “what people really want” post, which serves as a generic counterpoint to the post about what criminal defense lawyers really do.

Most of the time, people don’t want a refund or a bonus. What they really want is for you to hear them and to do the right thing. What if every manager and every customer contact in your organization bought into that?

Of course, “do the right thing” is a vague notion. My “right” and your “right” may not be the same, and we tend to see “right” based upon our own, self-serving, point of view.  After all, we understand our issues and problems far better than we understand the other guy’s.  We tend to be highly sympathetic to our own needs and demands. Others? Not do much.

So Godin provides a laundry list of things that cost nothing but, he suggests, will serve to make customers/clients more satisfied when problems arise.

Treat your employees with care and respect

Be consistent in your actions

Keep your promises

Grant others their dignity

Give credit

Take responsibility

When wrong, offer a heartfelt apology

Don’t be a jerk

Take the time to actually listen to people

Volunteer to handle the issue


To some extent, this list is really just variations on a theme: give a damn.  Unfortunately, it also reflects the confusion that gave us such magnificent concepts as the customer service rep on the telephone who, when told that their product just took grandma’s life, responds with “I apologize for the inconvenience.”

It’s easy, for example, to throw in the word “heartfelt,” but it’s very different to actually give a damn.  The question is whether we pretend to care in order to defuse anger versus honestly caring about what we do.  It’s a litmus test, for lawyers as well as everyone else who takes our money and delivers a product or service, which eventually reaches a point where we either get resolution or a tummy rub.  I don’t know about you, but I’m infuriated by an insipid tummy rub, which I take as an insult to my intelligence and an affront to my expectation that if you take my money, you give me whatever it is I purchased from you.

This doesn’t mean that it always goes the way the customer/client wants it to go.  When your iPhone lands in the toilet “by accident” after a rough night out, it’s not going to work anymore.  No amount of complaining to some genius is going to change that.  But if it didn’t end up in a toilet, there is no reason to tolerate that same genius telling you that the protective strips inside that work some of the time to let Apple know that the iPhone got wet preclude warranty repair.

Is it hard to figure out sometimes who’s right? Sure it is. It’s often a matter of acknowledging the truth, even when it’s unpleasant and doesn’t work to your advantage.  There have been times when I’ve won a case when my argument was, how shall I say this kindly, “squishy.” There have been times I’ve lost when my argument was airtight and overwhelming.

It’s the nature of law, dependent on a variable that is beyond my control.  When the client looks at me with those eyes of anger, dread and fear, I know exactly what it feels like to live in a Kafka novel. It’s brutal. It’s also our world, sucky as it may be.

The problem with Godin’s list is that it’s easy to tell people to mouth certain words or follow a script, but getting people to be truthful, to give a damn, is nearly impossible.  People who care don’t need to be told. People who need to be told won’t care.  You can’t make people give a damn.

As lawyers, we manifest our caring in two ways: our effort and our honesty.  We take the time, put in the effort, to find a way to win.  We think. We think long and hard, and often without compensation, because we have a need to consider every possibility that will serve our clients.  We may not succeed, but we must try.

The other is to tell the client the truth, whether it’s good for them or us, or not. It may not be good marketing, as honesty isn’t always what people want to hear. People want to hear the sweet lies that make them feel better despite the looming disaster, and a lot of lawyers will vehemently disagree with my view that honesty is our duty.  Why not let them be happy until the prison door slams shut?

Maybe it’s just me, but I can readily accept honest failure, legitimate problems, if someone is forthright with me.  Mind you, that doesn’t mean I will forget about the duty to resolve a problem that is resolvable, even if it means, “fair enough, your product sucks, so give me a refund or replace it with one that doesn’t suck.”  But at least I haven’t been treated  like some flaming moron by being lied to or wuss by being told, “our policy is to suck up your money and treat you like dirt for having been stupid enough to purchase our product.”

That said, I will add one line to Godin’s list: Never tell a client, after the one word verdict comes in and the cuffs are being slapped on his wrists, that you’re “sorry for the inconvenience.”  If you feel the desire to do so, you’re in the wrong profession.

12 thoughts on “Advice, Unchained

  1. william doriss

    You’re still smarting over that bum refrigerator you bought a couple of years ago. Did you ever get that lemon of a kerfuffle straightened out? Without going to court, that is! Honesty pays off in the long run, not necessarily the short run. “People who care, don’t need to be told. People who need to be told, won’t listen.” I like that.

    1. SHG Post author

      The fridge was satisfactorily resolved in my favor (with extreme prejudice) without going to court. It still sucks, but the price was right. There is nothing wrong with demanding to get what we paid for.

    2. Patrick Maupin

      > Honesty pays off in the long run, not necessarily the short run.

      Except that for an outfit of any reasonable size that’s been in business for any reasonable length of time, the long run is the short run. That is to say, they will continually be solving customers’ problems, and arguably, if they are solving them proactively, it will cost them less and generate more repeat business.

      1. william doriss

        As a busynessman, I read you load and clear. It is a nice theory, from the halls of,… Haaavad Busyness School or the MIT School of Advanced MenagerieMent. In my experience, It is a “random walk”,… where the
        right hand seldom knows what the left hand is doing behind the curtains, where honest hard-working folks clock in, clock out, collect their periodic paychecks and go home thoroughly exhausted (due to untold stresses on the job). Lost in a Lost World, shall we say?
        As for the refrigerator mentioned above, this was a v. funny post, memorable in my petty little mind and one of the reasons why I keep coming back to SJ. (If only it were so simple!?! I luv the irony.) Most of us have been there at some point in time and felt equal exasperation at the incompetence and deceit of those we we’re constantly dealing with.
        Life is a Beach, or did I get it backwards?
        P.S., IBM did NOT hire me out of college. That still bothers me. We got our revenge: My second daughter went there straight out of college in short order, thirty years later. She quit in short order. Why would you, I asked. She got a better job, she said. (I take it all on faith.)

        1. Patrick Maupin

          > It is a nice theory…

          The countervailing theory, of course, is that most customers are sheeple, and will meekly accept your first answer. This seems to work for some businesses, but I have to wonder if the cost of dealing with the people (like me) who won’t accept the first, or second, or third — or in fact, any unacceptable — answer, combined, of course, with some of the sheeple going elsewhere for their next purchase, eventually outweighs the gains to be had by stonewalling.

          Ironically, I am probably less apt to be driven completely away by bad service than some of the sheeple — since I’ve always eventually walked away satisfied*, the poor interim customer service goes on the negative side of the ledger, but doesn’t lead to the vow of “I’m never shopping there again!”

          *Except that time CompUSA had the nice policeman tell me to leave if I didn’t want to be arrested for trespassing. I still got a refund after an email to the general counsel, though, and even patronized them again after I verified the ban wasn’t permanent. Pity their sterling treatment of customers couldn’t keep them in business — they were convenient.

  2. John Barleycorn

    That imbedded link “what people really want” goes to your past post and not Seth’s blog.

    FYI, Seth has an action figure of himself out for many many years. I am not sure I am cool with guys marketing action figures of themselves though.

    1. SHG Post author

      Fixed it. Curious that you’re the first to notice.

      I wasn’t aware that Seth has an action figure of himself, but now that I see it there, I realize that I wasted my childhood on my beloved childhood GI Joe. It explains a lot.

  3. John Barleycorn

    You are getting soft and lazy in your directed hard with unchangeable through unmanageable, and just for fun, intangible bits and pieces esteemed host.

    I don’t know, but….Just when you could conclude with a whimsical quandary, you instead pull favor with whimpers of the known only to flex your jawbone rightfully and respectfully. Deflecting the tangible that never settle, with reason or no.

    I don’t know if dealing with what is, is the way to deal with what is without.

    Climbing Jacobs’s ladder? Or, WTF why nor throw a spider on the ceiling and just keep it real?

    Too easy, and you are too strong to be reflecting slivers prone to infecting soft tissue that may be inclined to yield strength without empathy.

    So be it, but it is decades below you to be exchanging perspectives as though justice or goats needing to feed with outstretched necks in a resting alfalfa field are not seeing another world.

    Trampled is not tickling hoofs, jumping fences is already folly.
    You might consider the Hegelian guard but spiders are cool. I guess.

    WANTS are rationalizations when expected. Seth is Seth. He may not be ready for the leap.

    Expectation is relative and needs elasticity not to discount your point.

    Nothing wrong with the Kool –aid…just hope we aren’t all fucked in some delirious marketing stem cell Alzheimer’s mark when the kaleidoscope makes the connection and all the souls smiles cannot be understood under laboratory conditions.

    Just to LOAD and CLEAR! Clear the U’s.
    Nostalgia for Bill Hicks and Frank Zappa, letting it hang, is not Freudian.

    ‘Bill Hicks on marketing’ and ‘Zappa The Slime’ if our esteemed host is with proper nutrition this morning enjoy.

    Don’t tell Seth.

    1. SHG Post author

      You completely lost me on this one, which means I’ll be getting those emails again. You don’t want me to get those emails again, do you?

      1. John_Barleycorn

        Who needs email?

        I am thinking this spinach that can’t grow is going to meet some fowl of the freezer burned goose variety.

        Who knows how it will turn out.

        It was there.

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