Confounding the expectations of a cynical audience

Susan Boyle, the unlikely-looking star of Britain’s Got Talent, reminds us that first impressions may mislead. You do not know how good something can be unless you see – or, in this case, hear – it. Your cynicism as to e-disclosure, like the judges’ expectations of Miss Boyle, may be founded on some wrong assumptions

It is nearly impossible to sell me something which I did not intend to buy anyway. I am almost immune to impulse buying and am brusque to the point of rudeness with anyone who tries to interest me in something which I did not already have a fixed intention to buy. This, I am told, makes me embarrassing company in New York shops where they simply cannot leave you alone – my son saw one assistant making frantic gestures to head off another who was about to bend my ear with his unsolicited drivel because she had just witnessed me biting the head off the last one who interrupted my train of thought. I hang up on cold-callers who do not deliver a compelling message in ten seconds (sorry all you Indian scanning and coding salesmen) and try and avoid going into my bank now that every cashier is on commission if they manage to sell me something.

This attitude dates from the time when I was IT partner at a large firm of solicitors. Every bloody salesman in London would ring me up just to see if I had changed my mind since the last time I told him to sod off. I know what you are selling, I would say, and as and when I want something like it, I know where to find you. That is not bad training for being on the other side of the fence, where my role now is try and persuade lawyers at least to take a look at the sort of things which litigation applications can do. Lawyers are cynical about attempts to impress them; they think they know what to expect from a demonstration; they are pretty sure that they are not interested and that they will not be made any more so when the salesman opens his mouth.

I have much the same attitude towards television programmes, and nothing was less likely than that I should watch clips from Britain’s Got Talent last week. Such programmes come in bite-sized chunks now, delivered when you want to watch them thanks to YouTube and BBC iPlayer (as, incidentally, do software demonstrations using Webinars and Podcasts if you decide to fix one up after reading this). If I had low expectations of the show itself, that was nothing compared with the cynicism with which the judging panel greeted the woman who took to the stage. Susan Boyle is 47 and dresses as if it were ’47. Her figure is what one might politely call “comfortable” and her hair…. well I won’t go on, but you get the picture, if not (yet) the point. She is unemployed, does charity work for her church in an obscure part of Scotland, lives alone with her cat, and has never been kissed. The mocking smiles of the panel and of the audience conveyed that they knew that any amusement to follow would be cruel.

She was wonderful.  From her first note, it was clear that she has an extraordinary talent and the judges were gracious enough to show and say that they had been wrong – not that they had any choice or could have concealed it. Watch it on YouTube here:

Well, you may say to me, all very interesting, but you have topped even your record for finding e-disclosure parallels in everything you see.  What has this to do with encouraging lawyers to find out about e-disclosure?

It is all to do with expectation. Most lawyers who are the potential buyers of litigation software have no expectation that they will see anything which will improve how they work or what they can achieve. They think that they know what a litigation support application can do, in the same way as the BGT panel were sure that they knew what to expect from Susan Boyle. No amount of description can convey what these applications can do. You have to see it to appreciate it, just as the judges had to hear Miss Boyle.

The thing to watch on the clips is not Susan Boyle but the reactions of those who were watching her, whether on the panel or in the audience. The transition from open mockery to open-mouthed wonder is almost immediate and they are standing and cheering her on within a few bars. If she was a salesman with a product to show they would have had their cheque-books out on the spot – as Simon Cowell apparently did, with the offer of a recording contract (yup, I know, should be “salesperson”, but having given a woman’s age and described her as having a “comfortable” figure, I am probably damned anyway for today).

The salesman analogy is, of course, where I am going with this apparently irrelevant excursion into amateur showbiz. Many of those who practice litigation, or who instruct those who practice litigation, or who manage litigation cases as judges, have no great expectations of technology in a litigation context. They have heard that it is all very expensive; or that it does not work; or that it is something Americans do. It is not relevant for my immediate purpose to say that these conclusions are often arrived at without comparators – of actual cost or the defects of traditional methods or whatever. My focus here is on what these applications look like and what they can do.

A typical demo (and, God knows, I have seen enough of them) starts off with a dull login screen and plods wearily through lots of worthy stuff. You might describe this as “affirmative negative foreplay”, a series of steps apparently designed to turn off someone who did not expect to be much interested in you anyway and whose preconceptions (as it were) are confirmed with every word. You save up the best bit till last – that stunning visualisation or whatever which should hit them right between the eyes – but their eyes are closed by then.

Susan Boyle converted cynics to wild enthusiasts with her first bar and they were with her all the way from there. They thought they knew what to expect and their expectations were confounded.

Although this is partly a suggestion to suppliers to consider how they approach a cold audience (some are good at this anyway, I should add), it is more an invitation to the lawyers to think it possible that they might be pleasantly surprised. Until you have seen a few demos, you cannot say that you know what these applications can do.

It will be clear from the way I opened this piece that my own jaundiced attitude to eager salesmen is inconsistent with what I am urging on you. I am guilty of that (typically male, apparently) habit of needing to weigh every option, beginning with a needs analysis and moving, via hours of Google research and a spreadsheet, to a first tentative look at the alternatives, backing off as soon as someone offers to show me something which might influence my choice. In fact most of the best things I have ever bought or done were decided on impulse.

So, two elements here. I am not suggesting that you commit to electronic disclosure on impulse, but stop analysing the principles and get out and look at something practical. And when you do, don’t let your negative assumptions stand in the way. Susan Boyle was a little unfair on herself in saying that she “looked like a garage”, but our first impressions, coupled with our assumptions as to what to expect, made her expressed aspiration to be like Elaine Paige somewhat unlikely.  We were wrong, and might never have known it.

Actually, I don’t really care if you accept the parallel which I offer here. Susan Boyle was fantastic and I am glad to help add to the several million YouTube downloads which there have been of her performance. When you have done that, pick up the phone and arrange a demo with someone – anyone whom you find mentioned on this site, or who has been recommended to you, or whose name you have heard of, or whose logo you like the look of. You don’t generally do that sort of thing, I know, just like you don’t usually watch YouTube – but you might find your preconceptions confounded.


About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Discovery, E-Discovery Suppliers, eDisclosure, eDiscovery, Electronic disclosure, Litigation, Litigation Support. Bookmark the permalink.

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