Have You Seen The Orangutans? Culture And Client Service Begin In The Parking Lot

There’s a story—usually, a people story— behind every organization. It communicates who they are and what they stand for, and maybe why they do what they do. Unfortunately, management and marketing are often the only ones able to articulate the organization’s story and its relevant history, much less what the organization actually does, beyond, say, “provide legal services.” But what if everyone in the organization understood the story? What if everyone knew the elevator pitch on your expertise as a firm and your ambitions for client service in the marketplace? And what if those ambitions resonated so deeply in your organizational culture that a positive client experience began on that first phone call, or at the front door, or in the parking lot?

A few years ago, I attended a training session with a marketing consultant who shared a story about visiting the zoo. As he pulled into the parking lot, instead of encountering an emotionless, orange-vested person robotically pointing an orange stick toward a long row of already occupied spaces, the parking attendant greeted him with an enthusiastic, “Hello!” followed by, “Have you seen the orangutans? They are the highlight of the zoo and wildly entertaining. And our primate experts are known for their extensive work with these amazingly intelligent creatures.” Because of this tidbit of insider information, he and his kids excitedly made a bee line to the orangutan house where they were greeted by an equally enthusiastic zookeeper, the trusted subject-matter expert on all things orangutan.

What happened here? Rest assured, it was not by accident. Clearly zoo officials recognized that the client experience emanates from a positive underlying culture embraced by the entire organization.

Although I don’t know for certain, I would speculate that the zoo’s leadership was intentional in how it created a more powerful client experience. Still speculating here, but I’m guessing that you could do the same for your organization...and your clients. Here are some ideas.

  1. Know thyself. Begin by taking a good look in the mirror. Every organization has a culture, and that culture impacts its business. It is represented by the conversations at the coffee pot (OK the Kuerig), who attends voluntary social events and even the art on the walls. But you must decide if the culture you have is the culture you want.


  2. Be intentional and consistent. When building (or changing) your organizational culture, know what you are shooting for and why. And imagine how that culture will support the firm’s mission and business strategy.


  3. Be inclusive. Ensuring that your culture and your organizational mission include ALL of your people. As we’ve all heard, first impressions count, and if your employees believe that the organization is invested in them, they are more likely to reciprocate, stick around and live the values, and clients will be personally and sincerely engaged from the first touch.


  4. Teach and train. Educate your people on the expertise your firm offers and train them on how to communicate the resulting value clients will receive from the relationship. Just as the best restaurant servers taste the daily specials so they can speak knowledgeably, it is quite likely that the zoo parking attendant had been to the orangutan exhibit and spoken with the zookeeper. And just because senior leadership understands, embraces and can articulate the culture and mission, don’t assume the message will simply trickle down. It probably won’t.


  5. Never miss a chance to build credibility. Credibility can be imbued by most anyone. Behavioral science author Daniel Pink’s data reflects that even when promotional statements come from someone who will benefit from the client relationship (whether it is your receptionist or your partner), it has a positive impact on how that “expert” is viewed and increases the likelihood of creating, building or continuing the relationship.


  6. Make sure you can deliver on your promises. Internal processes (legal project management, perhaps) combined with subject-matter expertise must co-exist.


  7. Assume your culture matters to your clients. More and more corporate GCs are looking to align the organizational cultures of their outside counsel with those of their own. According to Joseph Otterstetter, 3M’s managing counsel and associate general counsel, he prefers to engage law firms with “moon cultures” that reflect light on others and are generally more collaborative than “sun cultures” that prefer to be at the center of the universe.

One word of caution: As you define and build your firm culture, make sure you aren’t fabricating a great story that fails to resonate with your people. They might sell it for a while, but the truth has a way of seeping through the cracks, and the orangutans in your firm might just hide out in their shelters and refuse to perform.

Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that culture and client service are not mutually exclusive. As Terry “Starbucker” St. Marie points out, “Bad cultures can’t execute well. Period.” And ultimately bad execution will likely result in no business for which to build a culture.


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