Lori Vella: How To Take Your Company From Good To Great

An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski

Jerome Knyszewski
Nov 23, 2020 · 15 min read

As the years go on, we continue to find ways to get better. After COVID-19, we send locally-made cookies to our clients after signings as we can no longer celebrate in person. Formalizing estate planning papers is a big deal and we never want to lose sight of the need to celebrate our clients’ achievements. Before COVID, we sometimes picked up dinner if we knew the client had to miss a meal to make our appointment. Other times, we bring snack bars, fruits and drinks in our bags. Our clients are always so thankful as the rush to get to their appointments left them skipping breakfast. I do see a theme here. As the child of Sicilian parents, any “wow experience” I deliver seems to involve food!

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

During the first two years, I contemplated other paths instead of running my own law firm. I turned in some resumes, but never actually wanted those jobs. At the start, it felt isolating, taking on a new area of law and changing my legal practice area. Not having the resources to get an expensive education, I frequented the local law library, spending weekends photocopying the legal treatises on Wills and Trusts. Luckily, the subject matter fascinated me. Over time, I built a network of other lawyers/business owners practicing in the same area of law. My practical learning grew exponentially.

The fear of failure drives me daily. If this doesn’t work, I would have to find a job, put my son in afterschool daycare, and take orders from a boss. That scares the daylights out of me! I never want to rely on another person for my paycheck. As an owner, there are no business rules or arcane policies that prevent my success. To get more money, I attract more clients. When my internal drive wanes, I lean on external sources such as podcasts, conferences, motivational videos, and audio books. Those give me the boost to keep going.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Do you mean like the time I was on the phone with a potential client and sent her an immediate cash transfer rather than merely sending a money request? Lesson learned. Do not attempt two things at once especially when dealing with cash funds!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Unfortunately, I had to hire an attorney for a personal matter. In that relationship, I felt like not only a number, but an annoyance to my attorney. Every time we spoke, she knew nothing about my case and did not recall our prior talks. She did not stand by my side as an advocate, nor did she give me creative solutions. Meanwhile, every phone call and email set the clock ticking on her attorney fees, no matter how useless the communication.

Every time I create new policies to enrich a client’s experience with my own law firm, I think about that other law firm. That is exactly what we do not want to be. With us, each of our clients deserves our gratitude for trusting us, and they should be treated with respect and proper advocacy. We put our hearts into our practice with a goal of leaving each client better off for establishing a relationship with us.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Have fun! Celebrate small achievements. Take time away from your practice to disconnect. During those times, slap on a nourishing face mask and watch a movie. Soak your feet in a tub. Make exercise non-negotiable. Have a standing date with your stylist so you always look fresh and feel invigorated. To make sure you stick with your own self-care, block out vacation and self-care dates well in advance. In general, have control over your schedule without overbooking. I use a calendar scheduling system and block off certain days/hours. If a client has a special request, I open up the schedule. I’m fine working weekends or some evenings, but if you are not, then do not do it.

To maintain your balance, make sure you work productively. As business owners, we must differentiate between productive and busy. Productive work includes income-generating activities. Busy work distracts even though it may feel the same. To identify what tasks should have your focus, make a list of what needs to get done. Figure out which tasks you must personally tackle and which to delegate. Invest in acquiring people so you may reduce your hours and focus on rainmaking, generating content, or calling potential clients. Remember, there is no point in owning your own business if you do not allow yourself some freedom. Work hard on your income-generating activities, delegate the busy work, and enjoy your life.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

For me, it is more than one person. A group of people, specifically female, business-owning lawyers helped to lay the foundation to the law firm’s success. They encouraged me to take on new cases, served as mentors, and taught me to delegate/invest in new hires that had the know-how to take my business to new places.

For example, after I started my law firm, a neighbor asked for help with his mother’s probate case. I did not know where to begin, even down to what to quote him for fees. I referred him to another attorney. Fast forward a few years, and I have a network of local attorneys practicing in that area, giving advice about how to get started. With my first probate case, I met with two other colleagues that went through the documents with me, one by one, giving direction on the proper filings. I also, through my colleagues, located talent to bring onboard. Now, with my new hires, my law firm collectively can boast 33 years of experience handling probates in all Florida counties.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Just the other day, my office manager and I were talking about a case file. We were discussing how people in general should be their own advocates as it is too easy to get taken advantage of. The discussion moved to our clients. We felt that, as opposed to what people may experience elsewhere, our clients may relax knowing we will take care of them as we do our own families. The difference between a good company and a great one can be so simple. It is in the details, tweaks and seemingly insignificant improvements that lend themselves to a profound ripple effect.

The core of any successful business is the customer experience. A good company may offer a store credit while a great company may offer a refund/store credit, suggestions for another product and a 5% off coupon. For service-oriented companies like my firm, a good company may do its legal work and deliver to the client. A great company may see that as only the baseline. From that base, it also takes the extra steps to personally onboard clients, send hand-written thank you notes, make their customer feel heard, and ensure the customer is cherished from start to finish. We hope that this, along with many other extra touches, is what makes us great.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Trust: Being a loyal brand that gives back to charitable causes, preserves the environment, and delivers stellar customer service. Wouldn’t you rather buy from a company that is doing something that aligns with your principles?

Dedication: Consistently pursuing your mission will lead to results. It can be discouraging if you do not take account of your progress. Sometimes I do not see the progress until my office manager reminds me of how far we have come. I went from writing my Last Wills line by line to using sophisticated software. We started out signing documents in my home office and now we use beautiful conference rooms. Our progress shows through our daily dedication.

Leadership: The cornerstone of providing an enriching customer experience starts with your own leadership and then flows from the happiness of your employees. If you lead well, you recognize talent and surround yourself with passionate, self-driven people. Can you imagine a disgruntled employee giving good customer service? Can you belittle your employees, or undervalue them, and expect them to be kind to a customer, or creative enough to come up with workable solutions?

Service: To continue to stay on track with our mission, we need open communication with the team. For instance, we have a list of our monthly company goals and we cheer all progress, no matter how small. As to our clients, we think, are we servicing them properly? How does it appear from the client’s perspective? What else can we be for them? Are we emailing our clients too much? Are we too busy to pick up a phone and call them? Our service continues to improve with each passing day.

Heart: Make clear the organization’s core values, not only with the onboarding of a new client, but also once they use your services. We cannot assume everyone has an amazing customer experience. I plan to send out post-experience surveys to identify and improve upon potential blind spots. While you may cringe at the negative feedback, wouldn’t you rather know before it becomes a major problem?

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

It is a win-win. Customers flock to your brand, your employees passionately serve, and you usually achieve amazing amounts of success. To top it off, you can positively impact the world. The word-of-mouth marketing alone can drive your success. People like buying your story and the impact your business has on the community/world makes them feel good about the purchase. Even if you are a small business, being genuine in your mission will attract your ideal client.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Reformulate. Rebrand. Reinvent. Recall what you stand for and what moved you in the past. Analyze how that may have changed. Do you have a clear vision about your business identity or what it should be? Employees can be key here as they experience the flaws in the system. Ask for their feedback as they know the pain points first-hand. As times change and new trends develop, even temporarily (think COVID-19), our companies must adapt or die. It doesn’t mean you change your core principles, but you adapt with your client base to stay relevant.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

After reformulating your business plans and brainstorming ways to serve the new climate, any lull in business is a brilliant time to get better. For instance, when COVID-19 closures hit, our business experienced a new client freeze. We also had an on-going list of things we wanted to incorporate, if and when, we ever found the time. Presto — we got the needed time with the closures.

Instead of moping around due to the lack of new clients, we tackled a large list of marketing and business items. We created our marketing campaigns and our new policies/procedures. Focusing on things we could delegate, we found amazing talent and gave them new roles. We identified our weaknesses and found great ideas to execute. We also took this time to analyze our blind spots. We hired a business coach to review our processes and shine a light on what we were unknowingly doing to stifle our own progress. We employed new ideas such as events, workshops, webinars, courses, plans and products. It is about risk-taking and seeing what sticks or resonates with your potential client base. We also reached out to our colleagues. You should never be afraid to ask questions and make yourself vulnerable to see how others work. In turn, we learned new ways to systemize and develop workflows. We implemented the best ideas.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Fun and enjoyment. If you spend one-third of your day in the office, why waste away doing dreaded tasks surrounded by people that do not share your passion? Fun produces productivity and collaboration. Be in touch with your staff and employees to help direct the company culture. It is more than avoiding a toxic culture. It is about creating such a positive work environment that its momentum alone drives your business forward. Happy employees, happy customers.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Making the first step really easy for your potential client is crucial. When they hit your website, or get you on the phone, there should be a clear path to work with you. Beyond that, a great method is to seek the expert advice of a business coach. In that way, you will give your team better sales training. Many people avoid this step and try to go at it alone. But, if you see weak spots and your hours of personal development and self-study courses are not the fix, get more personalized, customized help.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

In order to be trusted and beloved, you must be trustworthy and loveable! That starts with giving back to the community, educating the public and at the forefront, treating people right. To treat customers well, focus on your employees. They need opportunities to grow and change. During hiring, it may help to value a good attitude and passion over experience. A key is listening well and allowing employees to make relevant decisions to attract and retain the best. Customers will enjoy the impact of your happy employees and solid leadership.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

As the years go on, we continue to find ways to get better. After COVID-19, we send locally-made cookies to our clients after signings as we can no longer celebrate in person. Formalizing estate planning papers is a big deal and we never want to lose sight of the need to celebrate our clients’ achievements. Before COVID, we sometimes picked up dinner if we knew the client had to miss a meal to make our appointment. Other times, we bring snack bars, fruits and drinks in our bags. Our clients are always so thankful as the rush to get to their appointments left them skipping breakfast. I do see a theme here. As the child of Sicilian parents, any “wow experience” I deliver seems to involve food!

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Nowadays, engagement is key. A focus on the brand, image and ideal client is always a top concern, along with a quick and focused response to any conflict. When people hear about you, they look you up on social media to see if you have a presence. They look for past client testimonials, what you post and your graphics. I do share the same concerns as to reputational risk, but on a smaller scale. At my level, bad reviews can send a small business owner in a tailspin. We work hard to give great customer service and we hope that shows up online. On a larger scale, hiring a Chief Marketing Officer and preparing the board in advance as to methods to repair reputation (if issues do negatively arise) will serve a company well.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I have seen founders overspending right out of the gate. An enormous overhead leads to gigantic monthly bottom lines. Keeping costs low helps entrepreneurs. Beyond that, a way to start earning profits is to take it off the top immediately. For example, when revenue comes in, I deposit 20% into another bank account to save for profits and annual taxes, per the book Profit First. Rather than spending first, and having the leftovers account for profit, we remove the profit to allow our resources to grow.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Our country needs to incorporate 6-week vacations, 4-day work weeks and year-long maternity leaves. It would lead to greater happiness. If not, then I say business ownership is the way to go to have the life you truly desire.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Our Instagram handler is @AttorneyLori. We love sharing our beautiful cities of Tampa, FL and Rochester, NY. We also share legal tips and business tips/strategies for entrepreneurs and Florida/New York residents.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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