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With legal services, like all other professional services, the buying process is highly dependent on the relationship between the buyer of the service and the provider.
As the lawyer selling the service is usually going to be delivering that service, or at least supervising others who are going to be doing the work, the buyer must trust that lawyer implicitly. They must trust that the lawyer is going to deliver the highest quality advice (and with litigation there is an expectation that the case will be won), will always act in their best interests, will provide value for money, and will be capable of providing a smooth working relationship. The higher the costs involved and the greater the importance of the matter to the buyer, the more imperative is the need to have absolute faith in the lawyer being instructed.
For this reason, winning new clients is all about building relationships with decision-makers to the point where they trust you and are prepared to instruct you. In the legal market, it must be remembered that clients usually instruct the individual lawyer and not the firm. Alright, the resources and reputation of the firm sitting behind a particular lawyer may be important in the decision-making process, but ultimately most instructions hinge around the client’s trust in the abilities of an individual lawyer. The old adage that “people buy people, not firms” still applies today.
So, when you first meet a potential new client it is important to make a good first impression to get the relationship off to a good start. Fail to make that impression and you may never get a second chance. So what tips are there for making that first impression a memorable one?
Well the obvious ones are remembering to smile, looking the person in the eye and giving a firm handshake on meeting. Also, giving attention to your personal appearance: hair combed, suit pressed, top button done up, etc.
However, I find that working with lawyers, who generally are a pretty professional bunch, all of this is usually a given. Where lawyers tend to fall down is the extent to which they research the backgrounds of those who they are meeting.
Finding common ground
In my experience, building rapport quickly with someone who you are meeting for the first time relies on finding an area of common ground and exploiting this. People feel more comfortable dealing with each other if they share/have shared common experiences. Knowing that someone used to work at the same firm as you, went to the same university, lives in the same area, or shares the same hobby are great areas for starting a conversation and successfully breaking the ice. But how many of us bother to do the ground work to illicit this information before a meeting? I know I do, but I meet plenty of lawyers who say they are too busy to do so.
These days, with access to LinkedIn and Google, it is easy to search online for key personal and career details of those who you are about to meet. As most executives now have LinkedIn profiles (admittedly some more detailed than others), there is no excuse for not swotting up on this sort of information in advance. Company websites also tend to hold CVs of senior decision-makers in the organisation.
Avoid selling your firm
When you first meet a potential new client, avoid the temptation to launch into a sales pitch for you/your firm. This can come later and preferably when you have been asked to “provide some background on your firm”. Going into “sales” mode will just turn the person off and, if you’re at a networking event, hasten the speed with which they make their excuses and leave you. Now is the time to ask intelligent questions and listen to the answers. Fact finding is the name of the game not personal broadcasting.
Raising issues you’ve seen in the media
Provided that you have done your homework and researched background on the company and individual to identify current issues that they are facing, you should be in a good position to ask questions which demonstrate your understanding of and interest in the target. By asking questions around areas where your firm might be able to provide advice, you are moving very subtly into selling mode. For example, “I see from the press that you’ve got industrial action brewing in your manufacturing plant – how’s that going? Our employment team have particular experience of dealing with this sort of union action.”
Leave an “added-value”
Even if you are the best relationship builder in the legal sector it is highly unlikely that you will get an instruction at your first meeting with a target. The objective of your first meeting should always be to get a second meeting, or a proper first meeting if you are meeting someone at a networking event. At this stage, you are just trying to create the impression that you are someone the decision-maker “can do business with”, are knowledgeable about and interested in the target’s business, and are worth seeing again to further explore how you might be of assistance. To help this process along, it is always good if you can offer to let the target have something that is an “added-value”, for example a report your firm has recently written on a relevant issue, an invite to an event or seminar, or an introduction to an industry contact who might be valuable to the target. Provided that this has real added-value, giving something for nothing always helps to strengthen a professional relationship.
Having gotten the relationship off to a flying start like this, it is then imperative that the process of researching the target’s needs and meeting to qualify how you/your firm might be able to help is sustained proactively over the coming months, because most new instructions usually come after months and years of relationship building, rather than days and weeks.
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Kevin Wheeler has been advising professional services firms on all aspects of marketing and business development for more than 30 years. As a consultant he helps firms to manage and grow their key clients as well as to win new ones. As a Meyler Campbell qualified coach he works with partners and those approaching partnership to improve their BD skills.
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