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How to design feedback loops in your firm to make better buying decisions

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February 27, 2024

I was recently listening to the radio when the broadcast turned to a story about honeyguides, a species of bird native to sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a species that developed a highly unique mechanism to survive, and even flourish, in harsh environments. But it captured my attention for a different reason—I couldn’t help but think how the honeyguide, of all things, represents a perfect example of a simplistic but highly effective feedback loop. It’s the same type of feedback loop that powers effective software startups and can also drive innovative teams at law firms. Let me try and connect the dots.

Feedback loops are essentially the process of getting feedback from customers and responding to that feedback. While relatively important in every industry, in the the context of SaaS startups, it’s critical. As consumers, we like to believe that new ideas and software applications are hatched in a single moment of brilliance. That they instantly transform a dated process and deliver the future. That the founders know exactly what solutions a user wants. But more often than not, these companies simply begin with a small (or sometime large) pain point and a founding team dedicated to tugging at the threads around that pain point. They speak with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people who experience the pain and with that information, begin to form an hypothesis on how to solve it. Then they test that hypothesis with early versions of their service, learn from it, revise it and begin anew. But by the time most of us touch the software, it has been through so many iterations that the solution just feels like magic.

This type of iteration within a vacuum is fairly simple and straight forward—if you keep improving something, eventually someone will like it. But both startups and law firms face the real-world constraint of time to deliver that outcome that delights the end user. User input is the catalyst that enables effective iteration within a set of time constraints. No one understands the pain point better than the end user and no one is better positioned to provide feedback on how well incremental changes to a solution are easing that pain. And the best startups establish customer feedback loops to increase their user feedback and ramp up their ability to effectively iterate. A quote from Paul Graham (founder of Y Combinator) really sums up this concept: “Over-engaging with early users is not just a permissible technique for getting growth rolling. For most successful startups it's a necessary part of the feedback loop that makes the product good.”

I like to think of the feedback loop having four distinct steps, what I call a RAMP. It starts when companies Reach Out to users in an incremental but regular cadence to collect feedback. As the repository of user input grows, the company needs to effectively Analyze it and then undertake a process to Make It Better. And not to be overlooked, the company must ensure that it is able to Pass It On back to the users who provided the feedback.

Reach out. Analyze. Make it better. Pass it on.

Implementing a feedback loop is likely a topic for another post, but I want to highlight the magical effect of a successful feedback loop. When effectively implemented, feedback loops become self-perpetuating. That is to say, when users provide feedback and companies make thoughtful improvements to their platforms in response and they share those changes with the originating users, those users then feel empowered and begin to proactively provide more feedback. Now the company has even more data to make better decisions and the cycle continues to grow. Both parties continue to get rewarded; the user gets a better product and the company grows because their product gets better at addressing user pain points.

You might be wondering what this has to do with a story about honeyguides, so let’s get back to the bird talk—or rather, a talk about the birds and the bees (couldn’t help myself). You see, honeyguides seek out beeswax as an important part of their diet, while humans living in the sub-Sahara rely heavily on honey as a source of nutrition. Scientists aren’t sure how it happened, but humans developed vocal calls that summon the honeyguides. The honeyguides show up and lead the humans to a beehive they wouldn’t otherwise be able to locate. Then the humans clear the hives using distinctly human methods, like smoking, and remove the honey. When they’re done, the honeyguides get to feast on the remaining beeswax (in presumably a much more enjoyable dining experience than one without human intervention).

This concept in naturalism is a type of symbiosis called mutualism. Mutualism exists when two species living close proximity to one another each receives a net benefit as a result of their interaction. And mutualism is precisely what occurs between a startup and and its users when it successfully implements a feedback loop—both provide a service to the other that results in a net benefit to themselves. The company gets more feedback (honey!) and the user gets a product that more precisely addresses their pain points (beeswax!).

A company can reach a state of mutualism with its users by paying attention to what motivates the user. We can think about the first honeyguides and humans as an example. Each only know what they wanted—beeswax or honey—so their interactions were happenstance. Only when they started paying attention to the interests of the other could those interactions become purposeful. When humans saw that honeyguides sought beeswax, they could track them to find a beehive. Where honeyguides noticed that the humans cleared hives to take the honey, they could lead them to new hives. Now they implement intentional patterns, like communication, to increase the frequency of that loop.

Companies can learn something else from the honeyguides—a feedback loop that works for one product or user base might not work for another. Native tribes in different regions the sub-Sahara actually developed their own unique honeyguide calls. And research has shown that honeyguides do not respond as well, if at all, to the calls from other regions. Companies need to pay attention to what users want and experiment with how they communicate with users in the feedback loop. You will see a B2B platform use different communication patterns than a B2C platform, and even varied patterns for similar platforms in different industry verticals. This is especially true for legal technology companies or those working with attorneys. A consumer utilizing a streaming subscription clearly prefers to communicate differently than a lawyer with a 2,000 hour billable requirement. But more on that shortly.

To quickly recap, customer feedback loops are the process of providing feedback and responding to feedback. When implemented effectively, feedback loops create a state of mutualism between those involved. Each party makes a contribution to the process yet still receives a net benefit. When mutualism is achieved, it becomes self-perpetuating—both parties feel more incentivized to keep contributing to the loop and improve their individual outcomes.

To create a successful feedback loop, it’s important to understand the interests of all of the people involved. Only by understanding what the other party wants out of the relationship can you forge a feedback loop that delivers a satisfying outcome. And finally, a feedback loop should also account for how a person prefers to communicate, not only the outcome they are interested in.

How to build successful feedback loops within the legal KMI function

Working closely with law firms, Knowledge Management & Innovation (”KMI”) professionals and attorneys over the last 7 years—and as a former M&A attorney myself—I’ve learned a lot about building effective feedback loops in the legal industry. As a product team at SimplyAgree, we’ve also observed the many parallels between a technology company developing a feedback loop with legal practitioners and KMI teams doing the same. Both are ultimately trying to deliver more effective solutions to the attorney or paralegal.

Our experience has shown us that effective KMI teams establish a repeatable feedback loops with their attorneys and legal professionals. We hear many examples of feedback loop patterns that are successful at law firms and those that fail to find traction. Here are a few practices that we emphasize at SimplyAgree and have seen successful KMI teams implement when building feedback loops with legal professionals.

1. Speak to the source

This may sound obvious, but when creating a feedback loop, it’s essential to speak to the people that have the underlying problems. For example, at SimplyAgree, that means active lines of communication between us and the end users, like attorneys and paralegals. We do this through individual product training sessions, live deal walk throughs, NPS feedback and follow-up, support interactions, webinars, product development partnerships or even just emailing a user and asking if they’d be willing to share some insights about an action they took in the application. Though certainly helpful, we cannot rely solely on feedback from KMI or IT groups if we want to deeply understand user problems.

For KMI teams, it’s a similar story, with an added caveat. While there must be active communication between the KMI group and the attorneys who experience the pain points in their practices, KMI teams may have an added pressure to be respectful of attorney time. That time, at the end of the day, is extremely valuable and it is the bottom line of the business. But KMI teams should also consider that implementing inadequate or cumbersome solutions for attorneys is worse use of their time, at great scale. And it also undermines confidence in the KMI team.

Instead, prioritize engagement and consider regular but short interactions with attorneys. Collecting feedback doesn’t need to be in the form of an hour-long meeting or a lunch and learn. Generally a Teams message or quick email for perspective on a particular issue or use case will go a long way. Over time it builds a repository of user feedback and establishes a relationship with the end user. The smaller asks will also improve response rates—just be intentional about designing interactions so responses generally take less than .1 billable hours.

2. Ask the right questions

Bad questions tend to be easy questions, but they don’t get you the valuable information that contributes to the feedback loop. These might be overly broad questions such as “What do you think about a product that does X?” or “What are your biggest pain points in practice?”

Instead, the right questions are those that demonstrate an existing (and deep) understanding of a particular process and seeks to uncover additional insights about that process. When a question can demonstrate a more detailed understanding of an attorney’s role, it builds trust with the attorney that they are speaking to the right person to implement real improvements. This is a great place for for KMI attorneys to take advantage of their subject matter expertise.

One strategy that we love to use here at SimplyAgree is having attorneys say their process out loud. When they talk through their workflows step-by-step, they often surprise themselves at the pain points they uncover! Here are a few sample prompts we like:

  • I heard that you trying to accomplish [X] and I’m trying to really understand your workflow. Can you tell me the steps you took to get that outcome?
  • You mentioned you did [Y] in this process, and I’ve heard several of your peers mention a similar approach. What was the reason you took this particular step?
  • I’m really interested in what you said about [Z], but admittedly I don’t know enough about this process. Can I reach back with a few more questions once I gather a little more context?

3. Trust is your biggest carrot

The incentives that many tech companies rely on for feedback from customers—like gift cards, free lunches or entry into a drawing—are typically not great incentives for attorneys. At SimplyAgree, we’ve come to understand that the greatest incentive for an attorney to provide feedback is the trust that the feedback will lead to a meaningful improvement in their experience.

Early in the feedback loop, this means coming into the conversation prepared. If you don’t have the necessary context to digest the feedback, it will be apparent to the attorney and will undermine their confidence. That does not mean you have to the answers—in fact, you shouldn’t—but you need enough background to understand their words in context so you can probe a little deeper.

Later in the feedback loop, it’s important to close the communication loop. Summarize what you heard from the attorney in your earlier communications, and detail what decisions or outcomes you made as a result. Just as importantly, make sure to touch on why you didn’t address certain feedback—that could be because there was a different path to solve the problem or it’s still in the pipeline. Either way, closing the loop builds the trust for the next cycle!

4. Get feedback early

Attorneys are compensated for delivering expert advice and solutions to their clients’ legal challenges. So it’s natural that we see a mentality to “show up with solutions” converge into the ethos of KMI groups at law firms.

A successful feedback loop, however, begins long before the solution implementation. KMI professionals should be prepared to engage with legal professionals early in the evaluation process. Rather than bring potential solutions to the conversation, they should focus on engaging with informed curiosity. Learn deeply about the workflow and ask good questions to get at the real pain points of the attorney. Follow-up to show the attorney that the investment of their time is building subject-matter experts advocating on their behalf. This feedback loop is beginning to build that state of mutualism with the end user.

And mutualism pays dividends when it’s time to evaluate a solution. KMI already has a relationship with the user base that is experiencing the pain point. They have engaged and listened and are now bringing a potential solution back to the attorney to make solve their pain. Attorneys know that KMI has taken the time to deeply understand their workflows, so they are more open to—and even seeking—an opportunity to evaluate technology during a pilot.

Time and time again, the mistake we see law firms make is meaningfully engaging with attorneys only after they identify a solution. This results in both difficulty identifying pilot users and maintaining pilot momentum. When pilot participants are identified, they often view it as additional work on their plate and not a mutually-beneficial endeavor.

KMI teams are often better served by engaging early, establishing a feedback loop and reaching a state of mutualism before the pilot begins. When done right, we’ve witnessed the KMI dream: pilot participants lined up and not enough spots in the pilot!

See SimplyAgree in action during one of our weekly webinars.