Better understanding your client’s business

Paul Boag

A successful website is about more than design and build. Its about the organisation behind it. In this post, I explain how you can better understand those organisations, before helping them make the changes necessary to ensure their site succeeds.

In the first post of this series I introduced you to Wolfram & Hart, a fictional law firm who has approached you asking for help with their website.

Wolfram & Hart Offices
Wolfram & Hart are a major US and UK law firm that have come to you for help.

I explained that they need more than a great website. They also need help in making that site a long term success. I asked you to share where you would start in the comments.

As many of you identified, the first step is to gain a better understanding of Wolfram & Hart and their real requirements. After all, you cannot help an organisation unless you really understand it.

But, how do you actually achieve this? Where do you begin?

Using some basic research tools

At Headscape we have certain tried and tested methods of getting under the skin of an organisation. These fall into a number of key areas:

  • Reviewing their digital presence.
  • Looking at the competition.
  • Reviewing marketing material.
  • Speaking to staff.
  • Speaking to customers.

These are topics I have discussed before, but lets apply these approaches to Wolfram & Hart’s specific circumstances.

Reviewing Wolfram and Hart’s digital presence

If we want to understand the company we will have to visit their headquarters in New York. However, before we do lets try to learn as much as possible. This will mean we will have better informed questions when we meet face to face.

The obvious place to start is to review their website and digital presence. We normally tackle this from three different angles, done by three different people in Headscape.

  • A heuristic review. Leigh Howells is our heuristic reviewer. He has a long list of criteria with which he can judge any website. He uses the same list for every site so he can easily compare one site against another.

  • An analytical review. These are normally done by Chris Scott. With his doctorate in Physics and insane maths brain, he is able to learn all kinds of information from reviewing a site’s analytics.

  • An expert review. An expert review is similar to a heuristic review but far more subjective. It doesn’t have specific criteria by which to judge the site, but rather a ‘first impression’ of how the website performs. I am normally the guy who does these and we find that they compliment the more analytical approach of the heuristic review. It also extends its reach beyond the website, looking at the use of social media, search engine placement and in fact any digital footprint the client has.

Typically the deliverable of these exercises is either a presentation or document that run into many pages. However, let me give you the highlights of our findings for Wolfram and Hart.

  • The heuristic review flagged issues surrounding confusing content that did not clearly communicate what Wolfram and Hart offers, un-engaging design that looked similar to the competition and usability barriers for users trying to complete key tasks.

  • The analytical review revealed that an overwhelming number of users had a single aim on the site; to view an individual attorney’s biography. In fact this bias was so strong that many users searched on google and hit this page directly, bypassing the rest of the site.

  • The expert review, among other things, identified that social media was primarily being used as a broadcast tool, rather than for engagement. It identified opportunities to use services like LinkedIn to increase the network of up and coming attorneys.

After reviewing Wolfram & Harts online presence, we turned our attention to their competition.

Looking at the competition

This is where Leigh’s heuristic criteria become invaluable. The same approach that we used for the company website can also be used on their competition, enabling us to make direct comparisons between Wolfram & Hart and its competition.

However, the heuristic review is not always enough on its own. Because money is not a constraining factor on this project, we dug a little deeper by reviewing other aspects of the competitions digital presence. How do they rank on search engines, how do they engage with social media and so on?

By doing this with Wolfram & Hart we quickly saw that the entire sector is scrambling to be the most professional, conservative and trustworthy. Perhaps there is an opportunity for Wolfram & Hart to sell off of other characteristics like being innovative, approachable and dynamic.

Before those decisions can be made, we need to better understand how Wolfram & Hart is currently positioning itself. For that we need to look at all of their marketing collateral, not just the online stuff.

Reviewing offline marketing collateral

There is nothing very scientific about our approach here. Basically we would asked Wolfram & Hart to send us a cross section of all their marketing material they put out from press releases to corporate brochures.

Once we have that, we work through the material looking for…

  • Writing style
  • Design style
  • Key messages

It is also useful to find out where the company sees the website fitting in with this offline material. However, questions like that are better left until we can speak with staff face to face.

Speaking to staff

Online research can only take you so far. That is why we would build in a fact finding trip to New York and San Francisco. This would give us the chance to carry out one of the most important aspects of this kind of collaborative work; stakeholder interviews.

These are our chance to really get inside the business and understand how it ticks. Although the web team would have already briefed us their perspective will be coloured by the fact that they report into Comms.

An effective website is a lot more than just a marketing and communication tool. It can help all aspects of the business and so it is important that we speak to as many different people across the organisation as possible.

While with Wolfram & Hart we would look to arrange a series of 40 minute interviews with the CEO, departmental heads and lead attorneys. We would start by speaking to the people with an obvious stake in the website (such as marketing) but also look to talk to others in order to better understand the business and see if the website cannot play a broader role in the company.

Each stakeholder interview will be a semistructured conversation with two people from Headscape and a single person from Wolfram & Hart.

That said we are flexible about this because sometimes people work in close partnership with somebody else or there are time constraints that make group meetings necessary.

The reason we have two Headscape people present is so that one can lead the conversation and another take notes. The only alternative to this is to record the meeting, but we find that people are less communicative if you do that.

The typical conversation starts by asking the interviewee about the site and their opinions on it before broadening out to discuss their digital usage and what their job entails.

As with all our stakeholder interviews, we will be looking out for the following in our fictional meetings with Wolfram & Hart employees…

  • How digital can better support the role of the people we are speaking with.
  • Potential organisational and political issues that may need addressing in order to ensure a successful website.
  • The level of interest in supporting and contributing to the website long term.
  • Resourcing issues in supporting their digital strategy.
  • The perceived role (business objectives) and importance of digital within the company.

What we learn from our stakeholder interviews with Wolfram & Hart includes…

  • The website is perceived by attorneys as a support mechanism for their networking. It is about promoting their reputation and track record.
  • The CEO contradicted this view. He is concerned about attorneys leaving and taking their clients with them. He therefore wants users coming to the site to be exposed to the company and not just the attorneys.
  • Marketing see the site exclusively as a lead generation tool. However PR is interested in using it for recruitment.
  • Because so much work is received through networks, there is a desire to create a “friends of Wolfram & Hart” group consisting of Alumni and old clients. Nothing has yet been done on this front but we saw an opportunity to use the web to facilitate it.
  • We were surprised at how many of the attorneys use iPads as their primary device. It is therefore important the site works well on tablets.

As you can see stakeholder interviews produce interesting revelations and also highlight areas of potential conflict. The differences over the role of the site are particularly interesting and will need to be handled with care. Balancing the needs of PR and marketing should not be too difficult. However, keeping the attorneys happy, while also considering the broader business objectives may prove more challenging. This is made worse by the fact that analytics seem to indicate users want to get to the biographies quickly.

The first step in resolving this issue is to talk to users.

Speaking to customers

Finding the opportunity to speak to customers can prove more challenging than speaking to staff. This is especially true in the case of Wolfram & Hart, because their clients tend to be extremely powerful, very busy individuals.

As with the Stakeholder interviews we didn’t want to do group activities, which was fortunate as scheduling group meetings would have been impossible. However, even individual meetings proved hard and so we settled on a series of telephone calls. Although not as good as face to face meetings, it still allowed us to learn most of what we needed to know.

In these meetings our aims were as follows:

  • To understand the kinds of reasons clients would look for a law firm.
  • To understand why they chose Wolfram & Hart.
  • To discover what they would hope to find on the Wolfram & Harts website.
  • To get feedback on the existing website.
  • To better understand who the client is hiring; the attorney or Wolfram & Hart.
  • What kind of people the clients are and their attitudes to the web.

As you can see these aren’t usability sessions, they are an exercise to help us better understand the client, their needs and what influences their buying decision.

As always the findings were enlightening. They included (but were not limited to):

  • That the initial research into law firms was normally done by an assistant, rather than the actual decision maker. This person narrowed the list to half a dozen possibilities before presenting the options to the decision maker.
  • Criteria used to select the shortlist included in order; experience of specific attorneys, track record on similar cases, the depth of the bench (the number of supporting staff available), and reputation of the firm.
  • Expectations of the site included quick access to attorney bios, case studies of similar cases and content such as articles and white papers showing a knowledge of the clients particular problems.
  • Law firms were found through, personal recommendations, specific attorneys, from speakers seen at conferences, social networks like LinkedIn and google searches for specific terms like “intellectual property environmental experience law firm”.

It was apparent that users did want to get to attorney information quickly. However, this didn’t change the business need to create a connection between Wolfram & Hart and the client. This was going to be a difficult challenge.

It was encouraging to see that our opinion about social networks were backed up by users. It was apparent that LinkedIn could be a powerful sales tool and needed to be included in any strategy going forward.

A revelation was the fact that clients expected articles and white papers on the site. They almost wanted the site to be the go to place for news and advice on specific law related subjects.

The challenge of this and LinkedIn was who would produce and manage this content.

Despite the obvious challenges, we ended the exercise of knowledge gathering far better informed about what the needs of Wolfram & Hart were. It was obvious they needed a lot more than a website. They needed a digital strategy and help working out how to implement it.

The question is what would your next step be? With so much information now apparent to you, what do you do with it all?

I will tell you what our next step will be next week. However, where would you go now? Let me know in the comments.

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