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The five-star hotel down the block from where we were staying offered more than nice rooms.
It offered “the bubble.” At least, that’s what Lisa and I are calling it now. Should you offer “the bubble” too? Maybe so!
We were in Luang Prabang, Laos. The central historic area is filled with tourists. They’re wandering from temple to temple, looking at monks, admiring the Mekong River, and shopping. Where there are tourists, there is always shopping, right? That’s true, even in Laos.
Some tourists are afraid of Laos. It’s exotic, different, and intimidating—and therefore scary.
“The bubble” is an uber-safe place for tourists who are afraid of the world. They’re afraid of people, places, circumstances, and whatever else may come along. They don’t look afraid. They wear polo shirts, khaki pants, cute dresses, matching shoes, and sunglasses. They look poised and confident, but they’re scared.
The bubble is where fearful tourists go to feel comfortable.
Inside the bubble, you get a guide and a driver. You stay in five-star hotels. You only interface with the world as you choose and, if something is less than visually appealing, it’s blocked by a beautiful screen fashioned from silk. Sounds are pleasant, and smells are floral inside the bubble.
We watched the bubble people quite a bit in the coffee shop of that five-star hotel. “What’s next?” one of the bubble people asked the guide. “We’ll go for a walk around this area and I’ll show you some of the UNESCO buildings,” responded the guide (a nice Laotian man with perfect English). The guide then paid their bill, and the three of them walked down the block with the air-conditioned van trailing slowly behind by about 30 feet.
The bubble moved slowly through the historic area. Other bubble people strolled along nearby with their own guides and drivers. It was perfectly choreographed and wonderful to watch. Somehow umbrellas appeared the instant a drizzle started. Sweaters came out if bubble people got cold. Snacks were always nearby as was very, very clean bottled water.
The bubble people are paying for the privilege. It’s worth it to them. Their anxiety about what might happen if they had to handle the local currency, speak the local language, or eat the local food creates a market for the services bubble people want to buy. They’re comfortable in the bubble.
There are lots of commonalities between the delivery of tour services and legal services.
For the moment, let’s pretend that Laos is a legal issue. Let’s pretend that tourists are clients. Let’s pretend that you’re the guide. You with me?
Lawyers are constantly telling me that no one wants the bubble. “No one would pay for that; it’s too easy,” she says. “I can’t deliver value on that because it’s something they can easily do themselves,” says another. “They can just talk and get that part resolved without us,” says a third.
Those lawyers are missing the point. They don’t get it. They don’t understand that some—many—people want to live their lives in the bubble. They’re afraid. Why? Because. They are afraid because they are afraid, that’s why.
Some people are afraid of Laos. Some people are afraid of Disney World (probably smart), and some are afraid of alligators (me!). Fear doesn’t need an explanation. It just is, and it’s an opportunity for people like you who have the knowledge and skills required to alleviate fear.
Those folks are spending more for a week traveling in the bubble then they’d pay you for the entire legal engagement. And you’re trying to convince them get out of their bubble? Why? If they want a bubble and can afford a bubble, they get a bubble. Bubble people want and deserve their bubble. Stop arguing with them. Give them a bubble.
They don’t want to schedule the appraiser. They don’t want to call the bank. They don’t want to ask the CPA. They don’t want to make a list.
They want to get in the bubble, stay in the bubble, and enjoy the bubble. The bubble is their happy place.
What can you do for bubble people? How can you put your clients in a bubble and help them stay there? Your practice area, market, and clientele will dictate the parameters, but here are some ideas.
1. Speak to others.
Don’t ask the client to speak to anyone. In fact, offer to speak to anyone who might be unpleasant. Talk to the other lawyer (of course), but also talk to the other party when permitted. Talk to family members, spouses, employees, neighbors, whatever. Do the talking if those conversations might be weird, awkward, difficult, unpleasant, or simply time-consuming. You can do the talking for them so they don’t have to experience friction.
2. Pick it up.
Legal disputes require the gathering of information and items. Just go get it instead of asking your clients to pick it up for themselves. Whether it’s a document from a government office, a tax return from the CPA, or a pile of medical records from a medical practice still using paper, just pick it up. Don’t expect someone in the bubble to touch things. Things are icky.
3. Get it signed.
We’re constantly asking clients to sign things. Or, worse, we’re sending them things to get notarized on their own. Stop! You’re popping the bubble. Go to where they are, stand next to them, explain things, and put the pen in their hand. Point your finger to the spot where the pen needs to meet the paper. Make it effortless.
4. Set the schedule.
Don’t ask them to decide where to go, what to do, or how to do it. Make the decision for them. Don’t ask; tell. People in the bubble want the guide, you, to make the call and set the agenda. “What’s next?” is not a question asking for a choice. It’s a question looking for an answer. Give it to them. “Here’s what’s next…” Then take them by the hand and walk them there with the van rolling along behind.
5. Make the decision.
Stop with the “let me present your options” talk. Just give them the decision. Tell them what they should do next. If you have some obligation to present options, then do what you’ve got to do, but tell them, nonetheless, which option to pursue. Make the path clear and simple. Eliminate decisions at every opportunity. Keep it simple. Reduce stress. Make the bubble comfortable and decision free. Will you feel responsible and will that add stress to your life? Yes. Nobody said this would be easy.
6. Vet everything in advance.
Don’t guide your traveler down a path you haven’t traveled before. The guide isn’t trying the restaurant for the first time when he’s accompanying a tourist. He tested the restaurant last week before the tourist arrived in town. Do the same with experts, court reporters, co-counsel, consultants, videographers, facilities, etc. Know, before you arrive, that the variables have been anticipated and addressed. The bubble won’t hold up if exposed to unanticipated stress.
7. Anticipate everything.
There is no one involved who understands the potential problems better than you, so anticipate the problems and be ready for them. The guide has an umbrella, bottled water, and first-aid kit and makes sure the driver keeps the van at the proper temperature. Do the same for your client. That might look like reserving a special room at the courthouse. It might mean having the number of a counselor on speed dial. It might involve having instant access to experts. You already know where the problems arise, so build the solutions into the process.
8. Control surprises.
You know what’s coming, so be sure to tell the client. But be careful of how much you reveal and when you reveal it. The special table visit from the chef isn’t as cool if your client already knows it’s coming. The element of surprise, used sparingly and effectively, can enhance the experience. It makes no sense to alert the client beforehand that this judge always gives that little speech praising counsel (regardless of how bad they may actually be) at the close of the evidence. Think it all through in advance, and decide what to reveal and when to reveal it.
9. Manage expectations.
Results matter, and your client’s perception of the result is dramatically colored by your assessment of possible outcomes. Be careful to evaluate the situation and determine the likely result. Then factor in the unknowns and unknown unknowns. Then notch it back a click or two before giving your client a sense of where things are going. Yes, this is art, not science. The good tour guide is more than a logistics expert. The good tour guide has people skills and is a bit of an artist.
10. Stick with your role.
Sometimes it’s tempting to go all sotto voce and give your tourist a glimpse behind the scenes. Don’t do it. Let your client stay in the bubble. The bubble is real to those inhabiting it. They want to maintain their belief that the bubble is real. They don’t want out. They don’t even want to know there’s a world outside the bubble. Leave them happy and satisfied with their existence and let them believe they survived on the mean streets. You’re the guide to what’s inside the bubble. Maintain the bubble, and don’t poke even the tiniest hole in that delicate bubble wall.
Of course, different strokes for different folks. I don’t want to be in the tourist bubble. I kind of like seeing a rat run through the cafe. I like the stories I can tell and the way I feel when I overcome challenges in some faraway place. But that’s me and it may not be you. And, more importantly, it may not be your client.
Some clients want to be in a bubble just like some tourists. Others would prefer a more “real” experience. Reality is, of course, subjective, and it’s valuable to assess the reality tolerance of your clients and then put them in the appropriate bubble. It’s all complicated and tricky, and it involves careful evaluation of what a client needs to have the right “experience.”
Clients requiring the bubble are more likely to pay premium fees. They’re more likely to refer other clients to refer other clients willing to pay premium fees. There’s a reason the bubble is observed in the five-star hotels and not in the three- and four-star hotels where I typically stay. The bubble gets the tour guide and the traveler what they want. Both sides win and end up feeling good about the arrangement.
Give considerable thought to the experience you provide for your clients. Everyone who visits Luang Prabang sees the temples, the monks, and the river. But every tourist sees it differently. Each of us decides how we choose to visit the world.
We guide our clients through their legal journey. Different clients make different choices, spend differing amounts, and have different ideas about what their experiences should look like, what they should feel like, and how they should feel at the end. Expert guides are good at sizing up the situation and delivering the right trip at the right time in the right way. That is our challenge.