Lawyers – ask why they buy, not why they didn’t

22 08 2011

Have you ever thought about the reason people choose to buy legal services from a particular firm?

Sure, if you’re a lawyer in practice (or a business development professional at a law firm) you may have spent some time debriefing why you lost a tender, but have you actually talked to some clients to find out why they chose to use you in the first place? If you have, do you know why they continue to instruct you?

The firm's sophisticated accounting system registered another sale for the IP litigation practice

I was pondering this as a post from Mike Ames really reminded me of some of the timeless  fundamentals of the 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, and you can find the original post along with more solid business development ideas on Mike’s blog.

Strange really. We all buy things every day whether it’s a sandwich at lunchtime, petrol for your car or a £4m computer system the process is pretty similar but what makes us do it?

  1. Need. If you think about the obvious starting point is having a need that is either immediate or anticipated. Sometimes we may not be aware of that need (which is why the advertising industry exists, in case you ever wondered) and it needs to be brought to our attention.
  2. Capability. Who is going to buy anything that is not fit-for-purpose? Well actually loads of people but nobody does it willingly. So as a business developer you must demonstrate that your offering can meet all of the client’s needs. This can be tricky; a sort of a catch 22 – they won’t hire you until they know and they won’t know until they hire you. These are the ways round this dilemma: references; case studies; testimonials; site visits; risk and reward work; what you have said and written; you!
  3. Beliefs. People tend to buy from people who match the same beliefs as they hold (for more on this watch this brilliant TED video of Simon Sinek). It’s how all great brands work. They convince us that their beliefs are the same as ours and we buy. What do you believe in I wonder?
  4. Differences. Let’s face it if we were confronted buy two offerings that we could not differentiate between in any meaningful way which one would we select (drum roll) the cheapest of course. This is how commodities work: something that is purchased solely based upon its price. A nasty place to be and one to be avoided at all costs. Now being different is easy but being different in a way that benefits our clients is a lot harder however, dear readers, this is exactly what we have to do. We must show we are different from our competitors and that these differences somehow provide tangible benefits to the client. or we could just be the cheapest I guess.
  5. Value. We don’t always buy the cheapest but we all buy according to our own cost/value equation. Audi cars are brilliant: reliable, stylish, hold their value and make us feel cool but they are definitely not cheap and yet we still buy them by the boat-load (quite literally in fact). The reason is that Audi have provided those people who have sufficient money with a balanced cost/value equation – basically they are worth the money. We must do the same.
  6. Trust. Occasionally we are forced to buy from people we don’t trust. We don’t like it but we do it when we need to. What we really like though is to buy from people we trust so if you can build trust you increase the chances of getting a sale. Here are a few ideas: always deliver on your promises no matter how small; be open and honest at all times even if this is not in your best interests; be consistent. There are other contributories but these are the most powerful.
  7. Rapport. Probably not as important as you might think but having rapport with a buyer can swing the deal your way when its a close call. A lot of rapport stems from trust of course but try smiling more (recent research by Bangor University proved you will sell more if you do)  and just be you. When the American businessman Lee Iacocca was asked by a group of students what his best piece of advice was he answered “don’t fake it”.
So there you have it. To be successful at sales, find a client who has a need you can satisfy, demonstrate your credentials, show how you are different and how these differences can benefit the client, establish common beliefs and present your offering in such a way as the benefits outweigh their investment. If they trust you and there is a rapport between you start and draw up the engagement letter.




The future of law firm sales?

17 04 2011

Inspired by a recent dialogue on Twitter between Mike Ames (@Mike_Ames_Flair) and I (@intchallenge), I was struck by the similarity of some of our messages to law firms on the thorny subject of sales (talking about “client development” is much easier…). After posting some linked blog posts, we decided it was time to experiment with a social media-sales-mash-up.

James was not sure the practical sales training for lawyers was wholly relevant, but was willing to give it a try

Mike recently blogged about why lawyer’s don’t like the “S-word”, and I thought I’d add some of my thoughts to what I thought was a great post. It’s an interesting perspective, because while I’ve sold legal services, bought legal services and sold to law firms, I’m not an out and out sales person. Mike on the other hand has worked in business development for over 20 years, and has a history of both his own business development and coaching others to sell.

So, let’s mash (Italicised text is Mikes)!

Let me start by saying not all lawyers hate doing the “S” word. There are quite a few that I know who would prefer to do nothing but sales especially if meant getting away from all that tiresome law stuff and those impossibly demanding client-typesBut, whilst business development is an acceptable alternative phrase for sales (but not real work apparently) actually getting down to doing it is not top of the to-do list for most lawyers, but why?

Based upon my own coffee-house investigations (OK some of them weren’t carried out in coffee houses) these are my top 5:

  1. It takes too long – I just don’t have the time to fit it in. This is true, and the underlying cause is of course the tyranny of the chargeable hour. Maister talked years ago about the chargeable hour being today’s profit and the non-chargeable hour being tomorrow’s profit and nowhere is this truer than in the context of business development. How many other businesses would fail to recognise the importance of bringing work in to such a degree?
  2. It’s not my job – that’s what marketing are employed to do isn’t it? Sadly, the distinction between functions such as marketing communications, marketing strategy, pitch support and pure sales is often blurred in law firms, and thus the easy to understand link between sales and revenue often gets confused with other marketing-related activities that have much more difficult to calculate return on investment metrics.
  3. The law is more interesting – it’s what I was trained for and it’s what I want to do. This seems to me to be an entirely valid statement if you are working in a firm that can accommodate this approach. If not, then there may be a problem!
  4. I’m not sure what to do – I’ve had no real training or guidance. Definitely true at smaller and mid-sized firms. At the larger firms, I’d add a qualifier – the lawyers may well have had some training, but haven’t had the opportunity or encouragement to actually practice their skills and hone them. It might seem obvious, but selling is a skill – I remember first being taught Strategic Selling and SPIN selling as a circa 2 year qualified lawyer, but it wasn’t until I’d practiced them many times, often with an experienced business development professional at my side, that I began to internalise them and crucially, feel more comfortable using them.
  5. It’s just a bit grubby – I’m a professional not a used-car salesman. In my experience, while this attitude does exist, it’s dying out.

I’m not sure how close this to your own beliefs but they did crop up fairly consistently. By way of a response I would say: –

  • It is your job and is going to grow in importance. Accept it and move on. 
  • Sales is what makes the world go around – nothing happens until somebody sells something. If it helps consider yourself to be more of a facilitator. This is particularly true at the moment – you’ve cut costs, but revenues remain sluggish. Firms need revenue to grow. Of course it’s servicing the work that generates the revenue (and yes I know, managing WIP and aged debt are important too), but if you don’t sell effectively, the firm is unlikely to grow significantly – incremental growth of existing accounts in the current climate is unlikely to do the trick.
  • Like most things you can do it in a highly professional or decidedly sleazy way. You choose. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I’d go a step-further. If you are a lawyer with good client skills, the chances are you can be an excellent sales person. Professional, bright and good at asking questions, these are core selling competencies. Put some structure around them, season with a little theory, and then finish with a liberal serving of practice, and you’ve got yourself a rainmaker!
  • Once you have been trained it is easy and does not really take a lot of time. The sales cycle may vary depending on what you are selling, but importantly it will become a process that you can help shape, rather than just being on a treadmill of responding to client RFPs (requests for proposals).
  • It can actually be great fun, satisfying and very financially rewarding. Hell yeah. Closing a big piece of business can give a buzz that’s just as good as getting a deal signed, and you’re unlikely to have worked 48 hours straight to get it done!

I’m not a lawyer but I believe in the future the lawyers who get on most won’t necessarily be great at the law but they will be great at sales.

This I’d also agree with, but I’d also add some gloss. I think as more and more firms re-examine their business model, this will highlight the importance of the sales function. This may manifest as lawyers getting better at selling (more professional training, perhaps truly looking for sales skills and experience when recruiting), it may also result in the development of sales departments in law firms? Sounds a long way off? I’m not so sure. I’ve worked with firms who have business development managers who are very good sales people, and often accompany partners when they go out selling. This is a great model and it works very well. Where it falls short is of course scale, and for a large law firm (which is likely international), to have two or three really skilled sales people seems like an unnecessary restriction on revenue growth.

Now of course there are arguments that with professional services, clients are buying certain individuals, and to some degree I accept that. But even now there are challenges that can be made to that concept – when a partner pitches for work, will the client really be getting much of the partner’s time? The more efficient firms push work down to the minimum qualification level possible that will meet quality standards, and that will rarely be the partner. This of course helps keeps costs down, which translates into lower fees or higher profit margins, depending on the pricing structure.

In the IT industry, the concept of a pre-sales expert is common. This is someone with real technical knowledge who accompanies the sales force on prospect meetings to answer technical questions and demonstrate the company’s expertise. This model may need a bit of adapting for the legal profession, but I absolutely believe that the firms that invest in a highly skilled sales force, whether it’s lawyers, sales professionals or a mixture of the two, can really grow market share and win some serious business.

In that scenario, the losers? As Mike says, they’ll be those that turn their nose up at the S-word!

Mike’s website is here if you want to learn more about his approach to sales.





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.





Law firm elves (the missing skillsets)

20 12 2010

As snow continues to bathe the United Kingdom in its cold fluffiness, and our transport infrastructure predictably fails to cope, I’ve had plenty of time  to think up a suitably Christmassy post for this festive week.

The business analyst's office was a little off the beaten track

Now Santa Claus(e) is pretty busy at this time of year, arguably busier than even the most stressed managing partner. Sure, cash flow and chasing WIP may not be an issue, but he has millions of presents to procure and wrap, and then a logistics nightmare to contend with. His relentless focus on execution is impressive, but he certainly couldn’t deliver on time and on budget alone. The reindeer may get the media plaudits, but the unsung heroes are undoubtedly his legion of elves. Working quietly in the background, they make sure his ambitious plans are carried out, deal with last minute changes and generally keep things ticking over.

Maybe that’s what law firms need.

So, I started thinking, which elves could help law firms in 2011…….

1. The Sales Elf.

“Sales!” I hear you cry. Heresy! Burn him! But wait a second. Law firm business development has developed tremendously in the last decade and sales training by organisations like the PACE partnership and Huthwaite Fleming is now accepted as delivering solid business benefits. Yet I still see many business opportunities lost because a law firm doesn’t have the right sales capacity or capability. Business development directors in law firms are often in strategic or marketing-focussed roles and if they do have selling skills are rarely given the chance to use them.

Is employing a dedicated sales force going too far? Some may argue that culturally it’s a bridge too far and that professional services can’t be sold in that way? I’m not convinced. I think if you get the right fit between sales person and firm, that focus on generating new business and the skills that go with it, could really turbo charge a law firm’s performance.

2. The Analyst Elf

Outside of the very largest law firms, there is often a lack of internal business analysis capability.  There’s no shortage of raw information, with many firms taking an “arms race” approach to subscribing to market and business research services, yet often the same firms struggle to make best use of this information, with no dedicated resource to synthesise and analyse it.

For the firms looking to position themselves as experts in a particular sector, how helpful would it be to have some proprietary analysis of what was happening in that sector, and to use that to generate some real though leadership, rather than simply offering comment on a recent news item?

The skillsets needed are widely available – investment banks use them, management consultants use them, large accountancy practices use them and corporates certainly use them, yet in comparably size law firms, they are a rare species indeed.

3. The Process Elf

Talking to some legal sector recruitment specialists, this is a hot area. With downward pressure on price and the increasing rejection of the hourly rate billing model, law firms are looking for ways to maintain or improve service quality while at the same time reducing cost. Looks and smells like a Lean Six Sigma type project to me.

Process mapping and re-engineering are perhaps the most obvious quick wins, but actually having a dedicated resource to think about operational efficiency and help drive the personal and organisational change that is needed to deliver the results is essential and I don’t believe it will be achieved by someone doing the job in their “spare time”.

4. The Pricing Elf

On a recent tender exercise for a NYSE listed outsourcer the request for proposal document made it clear that the company did not wish to buy legal services on an hourly rate basis, and asked law firms for alternative pricing models for four different work types. The diversity of responses across the ten law firms was significant. Some were well advanced in their thinking, giving a variety of models, an explanation of the type of work and volumes that would make them work, and detailing how scope changes were managed. Others were being dragged kicking and screaming from their hourly-rate comfort zone, with vague promises to think about fixed price projects and retainers, provided certain caveats were discussed and agreed.

In a world where the market is requiring different pricing models, and given the very (very) direct link between price and profit, doesn’t it make sense to address this seriously? Is setting up a pricing committee made up entirely of lawyers really the answer?

5. Other elves

The need to go and do my Christmas shopping precludes a longer discussion, but some other elves to think about – the change management elf, the project management elf, the product development  elf and the innovation elf.

This is likely to be the last post before Christmas, so if you are celebrating, have a great time and I hope you’re back here again, fully refreshed, for the New Year post, which may well tackle the classic New Year topic of (s)elf improvement!