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The Death Of The Cookie-Cutter Mediator Is Nigh

Prospective clients are checking up on you. They’re Googling your name and your business name. They’re scanning only the first one or two pages of results. If you’ve got a website, they’re visiting it and looking around. If you don’t, they’re relying on what others are writing or saying about you.

These are the questions they’re asking themselves as they rummage about on the ‘net:

  • Does she know her stuff?
  • Can I trust him to get it done right?
  • Why should I hire her instead of the mediator down the street?
  • How can he help my clients and/or me?
  • What would working with her be like?
  • Does he offer something that I believe is a compelling solution to my problem?

For many mediators, these are the answers you’re providing online and off:

  • Images of suits at boardroom tables, the scales of justice, handshakes, doves.
  • FAQs about mediation, with the same answers as many other mediator websites.
  • A photo of yourself in front of your legal library’s bookshelves, perhaps with your attorney colleagues around you.
  • A boardroom like all others.
  • An introductory session like all others.
  • Print materials that are professional but generally boring and indistinguishable from the ADR provider next door.

Collectively, these answers are ineffective in a world where “cookie cutter” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Why Differentiation Matters

If you’re already established and bringing in all the clients you want, you’re not reading this article. You already had a toehold before competition got tough or you had such an entre into your market that you could be mediating from the moon and people would still seek you out. I’m not writing this for you.

I’m writing it for the other 95% of mediators out there.

To stand out to your prospective clients, you need to be remarkable, not average. You need to convey your fit with their specific needs, not be interchangeable with other commercial providers. You need to convey that your practice is vibrant and in demand, not boring or tired.

What does it take to stand out, to be remarkable, to be unique in what you do and/or how you do it?

Here are five actions you can take in the next 60 days to build a differentiated platform for your practice. Some are concrete actions, and some are reflective work. You’ll need to do both, because each feeds the other.

You’ll notice none of them involve building or re-building your website. That comes later because the outcomes of the exercises will guide website design, function and content.

1. Stop Running From Your Current Job

To market effectively, you need to be running toward your dream, not just away from your nightmare. Running from your present situation supplies only the desire to get away – to almost anything that will give you some relief. That’s not a great foundation for marketing, which benefits greatly from genuine passion.

When mediators tell me they want to build a private practice or prove the mettle of a mediation division within a firm, I always ask: Why ADR? With painful frequency the answer is some version of, I’m disillusioned/unhappy/tired of what I’m doing now.

I live for the days mediators say to me, I’m so excited about the potential that ADR offers that I can’t stand waiting another day for my market to see that too.

Action 1: Figure whether you’re running primarily away or toward. Be nakedly honest with yourself. If you’re running away, all is not lost. Your task is to get very clear on what you would love to run toward – paint a picture in detail, figuratively or literally. Maybe it is commercial ADR. Maybe it’s piloting commercial jets.

2. Take Off the Mask

Differentiation is, in no small part, about risk. The risk to be who you really are and show that face to your market. It’s the risk to set yourself apart in a remarkable way, instead of blending in with the crowd. And in the mediation world, it sure is a growing crowd.

When it comes time to write marketing copy, build or re-build your website, and put yourself in front of your market, you want no cognitive dissonance between who you really are and who they see, or between who they see and what your marketing says about you. You want consonance and differentiation, in tandem.

Action 2: Who are you, really? If you could relax and let your good quirks shine through, what would people see? If you took off the professional mask you think you have to wear and let your market see you in your glory, what would they see? When you’re most happy, who are you and how do you act?

3. Pick Up the Paintbrush

This is about getting very clear on your market. Your market is not everyone, even though everyone has disputes. Repeat after me: My market is not everyone. When you market to everyone, the old saying goes, you market to no one.

Your market is looking for glimpses of themselves in your marketing. They’ll look ‘til they find the person who’ll give it to them, or they’ll walk away and find another way to resolve their dispute.

Be the commercial mediator for the construction trade. Or NASCAR fans who own mid-sized businesses. Or tech startups in Silicon Valley. You can add more markets later if you wish, but understand this: Narrowing your market usually means more business, not less, because your reputation as the go-to person in that market creates word-of-mouth momentum.

Action 3: Paint a picture of the people in your market, using words or images. What do they do? Where do they live and/or work? What do they spend money on? How do they dress? Where do they hang out? What do they do in their spare time? What kinds of values do they hold deeply? What causes do they support? Do you like them as humans (please say yes or pick a different market – it’ll show)?

4. Write a Classified Ad

You’ve heard of the elevator pitch. This is like that but you get fewer words. Your market is busy, overwhelmed by information, and wants you to cut to the chase.

If you were to write a classified ad for your market, telling them who you’re seeking and conveying a few important tidbits about the real you, what would you write? Here’s an example to get you started:

Conflict makeover artist seeks high-achieving mediators who want to transform their reactions to conflict. Whiners need not apply; this is strictly for internal-locus-of-control ADR providers who want to boost their own and their clients’ success. Are you a conflict junkie or conflict doormat? Tammy will teach you how to transform your reactions in conflict and be the mediator you know you can be.

Action 4: You have 75 words max. Write the ad. It’s not about using it; it’s about the clarity you’ll get from the act of writing and limiting your verbiage.

5. Take Your Market to Lunch

Market research matters, and I suspect very few ADR providers actually do it. Market research helps you answer necessary questions like:

  1. How many people are there in my chosen market?
  2. Who is my competition and how do I stand apart from them?
  3. How do they solve problems now?
  4. Would my market buy what I’m selling? If not, why not, and how would that change the services I offer?

The Internet, the Yellow Pages, your local library, and your local Small Business Development Center (sponsored by the SBA) can help with the first two questions. But there’s no substitute for talking to people in your market if you want to answer the last two.

Those last are two of the most important answers you need. And the questions most of you will skip. Too much trouble? Afraid of the answers and the implications for your dream? Too vague about your target market to know how to find them? Too uncomfortable approaching them?

All legitimate fears and discomforts. But here’s the rub: If you don’t do your research, you’re building a business based on a hunch. That’s a pretty expensive hunch, and one that hasn’t paid handsomely for most mediators.

Action 5: Invite five people in your target market to lunch together. If you know your market really well, you’ll know the kind of place they’ll enjoy eating. The trade is this: They get a fabulous, fun, extended lunch with no obligations beyond that, and you get to be a sponge with lots of questions. Be sure you get answers to numbers 3 and 4 above. After the first lunch, rinse and repeat.

The Return on Your Investment

When I look at mediators who make it in the current business and ADR environment and those who don’t, the differentiation is clear.

  • Those with clarity about their market shine.
  • Those with clarity about what differentiates them are remarkable – and their markets notice, too.
  • Those who set aside their fears and reach out to their market for the unvarnished truth learn what will work and not work. Then they translate that information into practice.
  • Those who set a solid foundation by working through the hard questions have the best marketing materials, websites, and advertising.

If you take all five of the actions I’m recommending, you’ll spend eight hours over 60 days. That’s one hour per week. If you’re running toward your passion instead of away from your disillusionment, you can find that one hour and it will pay satisfying dividends.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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