Word-of-mouth is still king when it comes to building a professional services practice but the pathway for new business is tortuous. Scarcity of time plus an abundance of choice means decision-makers take shortcuts to reduce their search effort. Anthropologists call it ‘information foraging’ (Pirolli & Card, 1999) and it affects how you profile your practice and how business gets to your door.

The Rise of the ‘Informavores’ and Their Messy Search Habits

The problem with oversimplifying the ‘word-of-mouth’ pathway (“I was recommended and so I got the gig”) is that it ignores the client’s search stage. What happened when the client or referrer explored several options?
You’ll only see the results of those who made contact, not the ones who don’t. Even after they’ve made a decision, ‘informavores’ will continue to search and validate their choice.
This brings me to the impact of third-party Directory Listings (like Chambers and Doyle’s Guide) and Industry Awards. I know these are unpopular activities – self-promotion doesn’t sit so well in Australia and New Zealand.  I’ve looked at this before and you can read more about whether these activities are a waste of time.
But these proof points play an important role for information foragers.
I saw this in 2023 when I surveyed solicitors about their use of Legal Directories when looking for a new Barrister in Sydney; their responses offered a glimpse of the way information gathering is changing, the importance of evidence in the evaluation stage, and how professionals can market their practice.
Nearly half of the 60 solicitor respondents said they never consulted the most well-known Directories. The rest were asked to rank the list in order of importance. 
> Twenty ranked Doyles Guide as their first choice
> 7 said Chambers was their first choice,
> 2 said Best Lawyers was their first choice, and
> Legal500 and Who’s Who Legal were each picked by one person as a first choice.

But the commentary revealed some extra information foraging …

If I do this, it’s generally as a result of Googling the barrister’s name, and clicking through to Doyle’s out of curiosity.
I only refer to a legal directory if all of the barristers I would usually brief are unavailable.
I ask other practitioners for referrals and then either look at Chambers website or contact the Clerk directly for someone with relevant experience.

I then asked if their use of Directories would change in the next 12 months, more than half (55%) said they don’t intend on using them at all or using them much less.

But It’s Changing Fast

Don’t pop the directories-are-dead corks just yet. Clients and their ‘information foraging’ habits are changing quickly so watch for signals like hesitancy, procrastination and re-submissions. Let’s apply this to the ‘word-of-mouth’ pathway. It used to be so straightforward until…
“Before the internet, information was limited and mostly local… With a limited set of options and sources, it was sometimes possible to look at everything. This sense of examining a problem from all angles instilled confidence, so that when a choice was made, it was with the reassurance that we’d done the best we could with the information at hand.” (Protheroe, Davis 2023: Pg13-14)
Now we’re swamped in information, the exploration and evaluation is more layered, more complex, and more messy.
Practitioners with a few decades of experience and rusted-on relationships might not be picking this up. But if you’re carving out a career, or new to a market, then my guess is you’re acutely aware of this.

Minding The Messy Middle

The experts at Google (UK) and The Behavioural Architects (2020 & 2023) identified a growing decision-making loop between the trigger for a need and purchase decision. They dubbed it ‘The Messy Middle’ – messy because it showed decision-makers switch seamlessly between the cognitive loads of Exploring options (expansive) and Evaluating options (reductive). There’s a lot of back-and-forth and starting all over again!
Sound familiar? While that research focused on consumer markets, it’s just as relevant to business markets for law firms, barristers’ chambers, consultants and any provider of professional services.
Superabundant information leaves decision-makers feeling a little less confident about their choice, so they’ll continue scanning for cues and clues to confirm they made the right one. That is where your Award, recognition or Directory listing comes to the fore.

Here’s an example from the survey …
Q: What is the primary way you find a new Barrister in NSW? That is, finding a Barrister to instruct that you’ve not worked with previously.
Personal recommendation (proactively ‘asking for’ and general word-of-mouth) was, by far, the main way solicitors said they found a new Barrister. But their hunt often involved multiple points and increasing search specificity including speaking with Clerks, checking the NSW Bar Association’s website and Barristers’ Chambers’ own website, reviewing Cases, checking out directories (which popped up in google searches) and the personal impressions they’d formed when observing them in action.
What you probably don’t know is how much foraging your clients do, how specific they are, and whether you standout or scrape in Steve Bradbury style. It’s all put in the ‘Word-of-mouth’ category.
If this search example is anything to go by, imagine the specificity for a legal service search!

Protheroe J, Davies S et al (2023) Marketing in The Messy Middle: Part 2

Four Things You Can Do to Market in The Messy Middle 

1.  Be Easy to Find Online
Simply being present in moments of deliberation can be enough to retain preference (Rennie et al 2023) so polish up your profile, be specific, and show up at each point of online search.  That’s where your articles, Linkedin activity, and recognitions help.
Also, make sure you’re happy with the completeness of your profile on your website and on LinkedIn. At the very least have contact details, areas of specialisation, and markets in which you specialise.

2.  Make Yourself Easy To Evaluate
Social proof is very persuasive – especially for time-poor professionals.  Let them see that credible others rate you. The badge of a Directory listing is an example of an extra point of evidence on your profile (no one really looks behind the curtain to explore the methodology). 
And when you list projects in which you’ve been involved, include a summary with key-words and links or further reading.
3. Make It Easy On Yourself
The good news is that improving your chances of thriving in the messy middle might only need a few reassuringly simple steps using information you already have.
For example, instead of long-winded case explanations make it easy to scan your expertise by grouping by attributes such as area of law, jurisdiction, industry sector, number of parties. And instead of deleting that email requesting nominations for next year’s guide do someone a favour and nominate them.
Finally, make sure your website is optimised for search using keywords and cross-references. Don’t tinker about – call in a specialist.

4.  Ask Your Network
Put a damper on the echo chamber or potential confirmation bias from those who know you well, and watch for changes in search, validation, and the information sources your new contacts are tuned into.
Ask someone new to your network – or new to their role about how they search. You can read more about that here – What Professionals Can Learn From Creatives.
When clients are making decisions outside their comfort zone their information foraging will switch to hyper-drive. They’ll tune in to the patterns and skim over clues that provide evidence to validate their decision. They will Google the market or ask AI for answers. And they’ll probably re-check their search.

Want More?

If you’d like to know more about building a successful practice, get in touch or book a BD45 session with Sue-Ella. As one Partner said, “It was nice to know I’m on the right track and get some ideas for the next step.”

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Sue-Ella is the Principal of Prodonovich Advisory, a business dedicated to helping professional services practices sharpen their business development practices.

She works with professional services firms that focus on positive client relationships, and with individuals who want personal, intelligent support.

©Prodonovich Advisory. This article was written by a human. Please respect our copyright and the effort taken to produce the original material in this article. This article, and any portion of it, may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author.

References and Further Reading

Budui R (2019) Information Foraging: A Theory of How People Navigate the Internet, Neilsen Norma Group

Cialdini R (2021 edition) Influence The Psychology of Persuasion, Harper Collins
and video explainer (< 6 mins)

Cialdini R (2016) Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence & Persuade Cornerstone Digital

Evans P Should My Law Firm Pay for Search Terms?

Fenko A & Pruyn A (2017) Do Social Proof and Scarcity Work in The Online Context?

Gladwell, M (2007) Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Bay Books

Rennie A, Protheroe J, Charron C & Breatnack G (2020) Decoding Decisions: Making Sense of The Messy Middle  Google & The Behavioural Architects (UK).

Protheroe J, Davies S et al (2023) Marketing in The Messy Model: Part 2

Fenko A & Pruyn A (2017) Do Social Proof and Scarcity Work in The Online Context?

Prodonovich S (2020) Legal Awards and Directories A Waste of Time? That Depends

Prodonovich S (2015) Why Your Best Seller May Not Be Who You Think It Is

Williams T (2010) “Positioning Professional Services Firms: How Professional Knowledge Firms Can Differentiate Themselves To Success” Wiley