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Avoid Commodity, Distinction Is Key

Two months ago, our copier vendor called to tell us that our lease was almost up.  The purpose of the call was obvious — they wanted to sell us a new copier.  The result of the call was a business lesson that we will use to guide us over the life of our firm.

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The end of our copier lease left us with three options:

  1.  1. Pay off the lease
  2.  2. Upgrade to a new copier
  3.  3. Explore our options.

Paying off the lease would require one final payment equivalent to about 8 of our normal, monthly payments.  By month nine, absent an unexpected mechanical meltdown, we would be home free.

Our vendor (we’ll call them Oldco) clearly wanted us to choose the second option.  They were offering a lease on a newer, faster copier for a slightly lower monthly cost.  The problem was, we had no problem with the old copier.  It was fast enough, scanned well, and a slight upgrade in speed, with perhaps a better stapler, did nothing for my bottom line.

Our choice came down to either keeping the current copier or exploring our options.  Upgrading machines with no discernable benefit made no sense.

Our search for other options took us to Advance Business Systems.  We invited both Advance and Oldco to make a presentation.  (Not that we’re offering a million dollar copier contract, but whatever the money is, it’s important to us.)  Our Oldco salesman walked into the presentation with the company’s president and showed us some very nice brochures on the copier upgrade.  We could slightly reduce our monthly payments while increasing the speed of our copying and scanning.  (And maybe add a hole punch…I mean who’s to say?)

Advance, on the other hand, scheduled a meeting at their showroom after asking us detailed questions about how we run our practice.  At their office, we were ushered into a conference room where we were given a demonstration of how their copier could integrate with our practice management software while helping us achieve the kind of document control system we had envisioned.

The companies provided a stark contrast.  Oldco sold copiers.  Advance sold a document management solution that happened to work through copiers.  What became apparent was that somewhere in its development, Advance had decided that anyone could sell copiers and that anyone can claim to have reliable service.  To avoid becoming a commodity, Advance had to identify how it fit into its customers’ development.   It had to figure out how it was more important than the other guy and then make that distinction apparent to its customers.  

Therein lies the lesson.

When I now look at companies, I find myself asking:  “Are they Oldco or are they Advance?”  I’ve asked that of my own.  In so asking, I think I’ve found my answer and charted the road we, as a law firm, have to travel to ensure that we never become a commodity.

My law firm’s answer to that challenge as well as my request for feedback concerning other companies and the roads they’ve chosen, form the basis for future posts.