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Software turns contacts into corporate capital

|Written By Judy van Rhijn

If you''ve ever thought your little black book contained your own personal goldmine of contacts, think again. Law firms are beginning to see individual lawyers'' contacts as a firm resource and are implementing relationship management software to mine e-mail traffic and other databanks for marketing opportunities.

Law firms are implementing relationship management software to mine e-mail traffic and other databanks for marketing opportunities.

While privacy concerns make some lawyers reluctant participants, the pressure is on to turn all your contacts into potential clients.

In a small firm, it's not hard to wander down the corridor, tapping on doors and asking if anybody knows anyone at a potential client's company. In a bigger firm, you might search the company's customer relationship management system, which may not have everyone entered, or you can resort to blast e-mails and sit back and hope some responses will trickle back in time.

Imagine instead a simple search that immediately provides you with a list of colleagues with their relationship with the wished-for contact ranked in terms of strength.

Mintz Levin, a large firm based in Boston, found itself in need of a solution to its growing pile of requests for information and referrals. The marketing department was overwhelmed with requests and one partner (now retired) was particularly annoyed by the blast e-mail messages. "We had a gap that needed to be filled," says Fred Pretorius, head of the information services department at the firm.

One option was to join a business-focused online social networking service, which helps professionals connect with one another through shared social contacts. The Ryze Business Network and Linked In are examples of this type of virtual business community. New members are typically invited to join by an existing user. They gain access to their sponsor's contacts and then invite their own contacts to join.

Linked In boasts that a typical user network contains about 30,000 people who can make discreet introductions. Both networks allow you to create a profile for free and then charge you for advanced services. They allow you to search for contacts by industry, geographic area, interests and current and past employers.

Linked In also offers a service that automatically updates your homepage with changes to your contacts' e-mail, job description and hiring needs.

The other option is to install social networking software. It can either connect with an established network or help you create your own network within the company.

California-based Spoke Software is one provider that does the former. It has an aggressive system that gathers data from the web, from members and leading data providers to connect over 30 million professionals across more than 650,000 companies.

Spoke mainly services the technology and manufacturing industries, assisting with sales prospecting and lead generation. It generates profiles on target buyers, including their employment history, web articles, and biographical information, then provides search engines to help members determine who you and your team know at the account who could be your internal advocate.

This sort of aggressive marketing may not appropriate for lawyers, but Canadian-born Jakki Glivicky, senior director of marketing and communication at Contact Networks in Boston, points out that lawyers are no slouches at generating new work.

"Lawyers are very much involved with extra-curricular activities where they tap former classmates and colleagues. They often try to get in the door with a pre-existing relationship." In a recent survey, Contact Networks found that lawyers typically have about 1,100 contacts each. "It's a great source of revenue generation," Glivicky points out.

An internal network was a more attractive option for Mintz Levin.

"We like to have control of all our data," explains Pretorius. "When you're charged with the security of information, and need to safeguard it through its entire life cycle, you need to be aware where the data is and where it might end up."

Mintz Levin chose to go with a Contact Networks application called Enterprise Relationship Management software. The installation took seven days.

"It was a very easy deployment," says Pretorius. "We were not in the mood for a major project. We put it in quietly and quickly and let it grow rather than making a big announcement."

The Contact Networks product mines various data sources including e-mail traffic patterns, address books, customer management systems, employment history records, and marketing contact information. The search engine brings up a list of colleagues ranked by who knows someone the best. There are 37 variables that go into determining the strength of the relationship.

"The beauty of it is that it helps everybody, whether there are 1,000 in the firm or 50," says Glivicky.

Lawyers may not feel comfortable viewing their friends and colleagues as potential cash cows, especially for everyone else in their firm, or in passing around their personal contacts. Contact Networks tries to accommodate these feelings with an entire spectrum of privacy options.

"At first there is reluctance," Glivicky agrees. "Lawyers think, 'Oh my gosh, they'll be checking my e-mails,' but there are privacy configurations that can be custom-set on three fronts. We offer a corporate level of privacy, which limits how much information is to be shown ? just the company name, first name and last name, title, or all the contact information. Then there is a layer of individual settings where the lawyers can go in and block information, including any private e-mails that they don't want visible in the system. Lastly, there is a group level which might impose restrictions for certain practice areas."

Pretorius found initial resistance faded as people saw the utility of the system, and didn't feel any damage from it. "We didn't force the option on individuals, and initially about 20 per cent opted out. That figure is now down below one per cent."

There is a risk that the bigger the network gets, the more "spam-like" the requests will become. Spoke Software applies a minimum strength of relationship threshold so that only people you know well can send referral requests. You actively specify which other members can ask you for help, and you can opt out your personal and private relationships completely.

The Contact Networks system automatically excludes addresses such as Hotmail, Amazon, or Google, or anything that looks private. "The system is intelligent in that way," says Glivicky. "It pulls up legitimate companies."

On who actually approaches the contact, Glivicky has found that natural business practice dictates that the person with the contact makes the approach. "This is a smoother way to get an introduction than calling cold with an 'I know Bob, do you know Bob?' line. Some firms put a protocol in place to this effect."

Mintz Levin is still working on its protocol, which will be mandatory when finalized.

"The aggressive marketing approach is against the culture of a large, prestigious firm like ours," says Pretorius. "We go to great pains not to alienate potential clients by pushing too hard. Once we find the contact, we leverage it subtly and quietly. The people involved get together over a drink or dinner so the introduction is more on a human level."

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