Top 5 sales FAILS (for lawyers)

9 01 2011

In a fit of New Year’s good intentions (see last week’s post on resolutions) I’ve been scouring the Internet to find out how to be a better blogger. All for your benefit my friendly reader…

Anyway, one of the suggestions I found (which I liked), was “write a list post”. I wondered what an earth a list post was, and found out that it was a post, that is based around (can you guess yet?) a list! Brilliant! So topped off with a sexy title (well I liked it), here goes…..

Although Sarah's sales figures weren't great, at least she was in the ballpark

5. No homework.

When I was in-house, I often used to start conversations with lawyers who were selling to me, with “what do you know about the company?”. This was not to be difficult (if I was being difficult, I would have asked “so, what do you think of our share price this week?”) but so I could provide some helpful context for the meeting.

The number of lawyers from well-regarded firms that crashed and burnt at this stage of the meeting was phenomenal. The smell of failure often used to be tangible, as I was faced with “I’ve, er, looked at your website” or “I think I have a high level view”……

To be honest, I didn’t expect anyone to know chapter and verse on the company (although those that were well briefed made a very good impression), but often those who had been on the website didn’t seem like they had got much further than the homepage. At that level it’s hard to see how they had started to think about our needs at all, let alone identify the current issues we were facing.

2. A barely smouldering platform

It’s often said that one of the big problems law firms face when they sell services, is that they are often a distress purchase (litigation etc) and if the client doesn’t have an immediate need, they won’t buy. While there is undoubtedly some truth in that (although I think litigators can provide a wide variety of preventative services), even for non-contentious services, the client will invariably have to have a clear need before buying.

To highlight this need, sales professionals often talk about “the burning platform”, which to my mind suggests a dialogue when a need is uncovered and the consequences explored, to the point when the prospective client realises they need to act quickly. Talking to a number of corporate counsel, a fairly common experience is that a conversation with external lawyers who are selling identifies an issue that it seems like it needs addressing, but there’s no real need to do it right now, and it goes on the “must do later” list that all in-housers have. The platform is gently smouldering, but certainly not burning.

Hardcore sales professionals may shake their head and lament of that legendary ability to “close”, but to me I think it’s often both a failure to explore the issues fully, and also perhaps a lack of familiarity of the sales process as whole, rather than a particular skills gap.

3. Capability mismatch

Often a prospect or client will articulate a need, but for a variety of reasons, the law firm is unable to meet that need. It maybe capacity, it may be capability, but it becomes clear that the lawyers selling are not the right team for the job. I’ve seen it in a number of scenarios – a solid UK firm but didn’t have the European experience for a particular project; a great sole practitioner but without the resources to tackle a larger transaction; a small office from a global firm without the local capacity to manage a set of instructions in a timely fashion.

Personally, my own preference in these situations is for the firm to identify the challenge and hold their hands up. This allows us then to work around and find a solution (e.g. the firm could work with other advisors or maybe not get the work at all, but generate a stack of goodwill by finding an alternative). Surely this must be better than over-promising and under-delivering?

2. Disregarding the relationship status

This is another personal perspective, and of course many in-house counsel (often for sound reasons) take a much more transactional approach to instructing law firms, but for me sales conversations were usually part of a much wider relationship. If indeed that is the case (and the good firms were very savvy at using client review meetings to explore my current challenges), then the overall temperature of the relationship should be considered when working out whether a sales conversation is appropriate.

I always took a realistic approach to legal work, and never expected my external counsel to churn out flawless work time after time. No matter how good your standards and quality control, the practice of law involves human judgment, often significant pressure, and input from a variety of sources. What was important is how any issues were resolved – ideally, in a pragmatic, non-judgmental way that identifies the causes, deals with the consequences and puts in place a remedial plan to stop recurrence.

While that may sound idealistic, and to some perhaps a touch understanding (think tough on the problem, not the people), I did  however take a pretty dim view of being sold to in the aftermath of a real problem. I remember one particular challenge, where members of my business had repeatedly ignored the company’s outside counsel policy, and the firm involved had ignored the legal team’s request to notify us whenever they were contacted by our internal clients. I had asked for a face to face meeting with our account partner, which given the previous discussions on the subject, meant this really was the last chance saloon. To say I was surprised when he turned up with two colleagues, to tell me about the services their departments offered, was something of an understatement.

Sadly, that wasn’t the only time it happened, but each time it did I was surprised that the firms involved weren’t able to take the temperature of the relationship before making the call.

1. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk….

Those that read this blog regularly know that I’m a big fan of the S.P.I.N. sales methodology. This is all about asking questions to uncover needs. I was always open to being sold to in this way (even though I was aware this sales method was being used) because to my mind if a genuine need was uncovered, and a law firm could help me with the need, then why wouldn’t I be interested?

The polar opposite of this is when a law firm tries to sell by talking. And boy do so firms talk……

This is how many offices we have (fascinating). This is how many partners in our Geneva office (great). This is what the directories said about us last year (really?). This is a really big we’ve recently done (which is not relevant here).

You get the picture.

I’m perhaps being overly harsh. There are of course times when it’s useful to find out some details about the law firm, but please (1) remember the client can ask if he/she wants to know more; (2) I can read, and may well have done some research on your firm – perhaps that’s the reason you are having the meeting? (3) many in-house lawyers will have been in private practice for a long time, and will know many of the firms well.

That said, one meeting sticks in my mind as the biggest sales fail of my in-house career. City firm had a meeting with me at their request. Talked constantly for about 45 minutes about their firm and how wonderful they were (I was feeling charitable, and let them use the allotted hour as they wished). At this point I asked what they knew about my company. “Very little” was the unspoken answer. I spent ten minutes outlining the company, what it did, how the legal team was structured, when we used outside counsel and what type of firms we tended to use for particular types of work, and why we valued long-term relationships with our advisors. The meeting concluded with the lead partner cheerfully saying “so, I suppose you’ll just look for a piece of work to give us a try, and then we’ll take it from there?”.

FAIL.


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5 responses

10 01 2011
Melanie Hatton

A great top 5, thank you for sharing these experiences!

11 01 2011
Intelligent Challenge

Thanks Melanie – I’m sure you’ve probably seen a few in your own inhouse career. I’ll add your site to my blogroll later on today so my readers can find you.

12 08 2011
Why law firms need a CLO (chief listening officer) « The Intelligent Challenge

[…] not just in their legal work, but also in their selling (see number one in my list of top lawyer sales fails). So whether you’re a managing partner or not, read on and reflect on how practising and […]

22 08 2011
The Intelligent Challenge

[…] process that it’s good to revisit. It’s perhaps easier to look at the reasons why you don’t make the sale than the reasons that you do. The post addresses this imbalance, and is set is below in italics, […]

23 08 2011
Lawyers – ask why they buy, not why they didn’t

[…] buying process that it’s good to revisit. It’s perhaps easier to look at the reasons why you don’t make the sale than the reasons that you do. The post addresses this imbalance, and is set is below in italics, […]

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