Lawyers have difficulty selling their service because they believe that the nature or quality of their service and their ability to present and persuade are important to the sale. Nothing could be more wrong.
Your service, as perceived by the buyer based on his or her exposure to your reputation, or the strength of your firm’s name, influences the buyer’s willingness to speak with you. However, it is irrelevant to the sale, and will often impede sales progress. Earning buyer access and receptivity is what marketing is all about.
Marketing Is Not Selling
Selling begins only when an individual buyer acknowledges a need that triggers demand for a service solution. That’s “a” service solution, not “your” service solution. There will always be alternative solutions or solution providers, and any that satisfy the need are acceptable to the buyer.
The sale itself is driven by the buyer’s need, not the seller’s solution. To “satisfy the need,” we must fulfill all three types of needs that each buyer has:
- Service: the business effect sought
- Financial: the relationship between Value and Investment
- Emotional: self-image or ego needs; self-interest
Investigation vs. Persuasion
Like your service, presentations are irrelevant to the sale and can be counterproductive. Once you tell the prospect all about you, your firm and your expertise, she no longer sees any need to consult with you because she already knows what you think—that you’re qualified and that she should hire you. She perceives that your interest now is to persuade her of that. You have eliminated yourself from any continuing role in the decision.
Forget presentation and persuasion. Instead, remember that questioning and listening skills made you a great lawyer. Use those skills to investigate and learn what this buyer already wants to say “yes” to.
A Professional Selling Primer
Here is how to discipline yourself to discover the prospect’s highest-priority needs and professionally manage a complex, business-to-business sale at the executive level:
Know Your Demand Trigger
First, you have to know what you’re looking for. Define the high-value business conditions or problems that you can influence positively. This problem “triggers” demand for your service. For example, a securities lawyer could help a company solve the problem of attracting and retaining skilled employees in a tight labor market by creating a stock option program.
[Marketing tip: All of your marketing communications should associate you with your most important demand trigger, and position you as the owner of the solution to this high-value problem.]
Know the Demand Triggers for Each of Your Firm’s Other Practice Areas
You’re an owner of a supermarket with a number of products. You don’t know which of them relate to this buyer’s priority needs. You can only recognize their demand triggers.
Create a List of Suspected Needs
Based on your partners’ and your collective experience, industry reports and other intelligence, you should be able to make educated guesses about likely problems facing this company and executive.
Test for Demand Triggers
Probe to confirm the presence of at least one of the suspected demand-triggering conditions. If you expose multiple needs, help the prospect prioritize them. Focus only on the highest-priority need that your firm or you can satisfy. Don’t attempt to make multiple sales simultaneously.
Test for Business Effect
Determine what business result or outcome the organization seeks, e.g., reduce turnover, acquire expansion capital, eliminate liability, etc. The buyer may respond by suggesting a solution tactic, e.g., “We want to institute a stock option program.” That is a means, not an outcome. Ask, “Why do you want a stock option program?” The answer will be an outcome, e.g., “We’re having trouble attracting and keeping top sales people and engineers.”
Is this problem merely an irritant, or is it very serious? What is the direct effect of the condition? “How big of a problem is this? What percentage of your staffing requirements are vacant due to the lack of stock options?” Then ask the buyer to translate that vacancy percentage into specific business effects, e.g., product development projects behind schedule, sales opportunities not pursued, etc.
Define the Effect of a Credible Solution
“What effect do you think offering stock options would have on your 20% vacancy rate?” Buyer: “We think we could cut it in half, easily, but that half would address our most critical needs.”
Translate into Economic Value
“If you had an attractive stock option plan that enabled you to compete successfully for talent with larger companies, and you were able to cut your vacancy rate in half and fill your key positions, what economic effect would that have on your company?”
The buyer will express a qualitative evaluation, e.g., “It would be huge.” Specify: “What’s your gut-level guess as to how much?” If the buyer is still uncomfortable specifying value, define two logical economic extremes, e.g., “...well, are we talking about something incremental, like 5%, in which case, who cares, or are we talking something dramatic, like 50%?” Most people are comfortable dismissing the extremes and assigning a percentage between them. You’ve provided a framework for the buyer to answer your question usefully.
If this is really an important or strategic problem, you’ll hear a large number, perhaps many millions. The buyer has just defined the Cost of Doing Nothing as “$5 million.” Your solution is now positioned as a return on investment, not a cost.
Test for Personal Stake
“What’s in it for me?” How will this buyer personally benefit by adopting your solution?
“$5 million is a lot of money to let slip away. What would prevent you from going ahead with this stock option program today?” The buyer will describe the various obstacles—business conditions; budget considerations; people resistance; support for incumbent law firms; investor concerns—that will impede progress.
Recruit the Prospect as a Guide
Now that his or her personal stake is clear, this buyer is motivated to help you complete the sale. “Does it make sense for us to pursue this initiative together?”
Identify Internal Sponsorship
Define the level of sponsorship that will ensure victory. Enlist the Guide’s help identifying the smallest group of internal sponsors whose endorsement would assure adoption of the solution. “Who would make up the smallest group of people with the clout to guarantee rapid adoption of the stock option program?” Ask how the recruiting and retention problem likely affects each (Service Needs), and how important it is to each of these potential sponsors (Emotional Needs).
Test Sponsor Receptivity
“How would you assess each person’s likely receptivity?”
“Of that group, which one person would likely be most receptive to this concept?”
“Why do you think so?”
This sponsor will become the initiative’s internal Champion.
Arrange Contact With the Champion
At this point, the Guide’s ego is useful. Ask, “How confident are you that you could arrange a conference call with the Champion, you and me?” A conference call is low-investment and non-threatening to the Guide, avoids time and geography barriers that might otherwise delay contact, is relatively easily achieved, and begins the necessary process of connecting with all the sponsors.
You have now achieved control of the sale and created sponsor-driven momentum. With each additional sponsor or other selling influence you encounter, you repeat the investigative and confirming steps you took with your Guide, each time earning the right to advance.
After each sponsor confirms his or her willingness to help advance the sale (out of self-interest) you explain briefly how you will produce the desired outcome, and confirm that that sponsor endorses the approach and is comfortable that it will work. Offer only as many “reasons to believe” (experience, examples, success stories) as your sponsors need to satisfy themselves about their original perception that you are capable of doing the job well.
There is no such thing as “closing”, in the traditional moment-of-truth sense. When, under your facilitation, your sponsors have overcome all the barriers, express the obvious conclusion:
“It appears to make sense to move forward on the stock option plan and begin eliminating the recruiting problem so you can get your product development back on track and pursue those long-ignored sales leads. Do you agree?”
Take the First Step to Fulfillment
Suggest specific, practical steps that begin your collaboration and confirm the buyer’s commitment.
You see how relatively minor a role your service and expertise play in the sale itself. These return to their proper prominence once you go into service fulfillment mode. The role of your service and expertise in the business acquisition cycle ebbs and flows. It’s very important in gaining access to buyers, of very limited use in making the sale, and very important to the fulfillment of your new client’s expectations. Maintain this perspective and you will never find yourself “pitching.”
By doing so, you will:
- preserve your contacts’ willingness to discuss business with you;
- avoid wasting your colleagues’ and your time preparing for and delivering “Gang of four” presentations;
- more accurately assess the prospects in your pipeline and more reliably project new business revenue;
- recognize and extricate yourself from No-Win situations as early as possible; and
- recapture time wasted on pointless follow-through on empty “opportunities.”
Mike O'Horo is a serial innovator in the law business. His current venture, RainmakerVT, is the world's first interactive online rainmaking training for lawyers, by which lawyers learn how to attract the right kind of clients without leaving their desks. For 22 years, Mike has been known by lawyers everywhere as The Coach. He trained more than 7000 of them, generating $1.5 billion in new business. Mike can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.