Getting Chosen: No matter how effectively your branding strategy positions your firm and you in buyers’ minds, your investment will be wasted unless you make an equally serious commitment to improving your selling skills. The overarching strategy gets you found. Selling gets you chosen.
Wherever your firm is on the branding spectrum – from modest pilot efforts focused on a single practice area to serious institutional commitment with high-profile marketing communications and PR – your purpose is to attract and acquire new high-value clients and keep the ones you have now. Unless you arm your lawyers with professional selling skills, you’re counting on luck to finish the deal.
You’ve launched your program to brand both your firm and your lawyers. The early feedback is encouraging: The buzz suggests that you’re shaping perceptions and your brand message is getting some traction. Your lawyers are being noticed, short-listed, invited for consideration, etc.
So, who’s going to convert positive perceptions into hard dollars?
Based on their actions, it appears that many firms’ opportunity conversion strategy is to hope for exceptionally good luck. How else can you interpret six- or seven-figure branding investments to attract prospective clients to the table, with no meaningful help preparing their lawyer-salespeople to convert those opportunities?
Albert Einstein is said to have defined insanity as: “Continually repeating the same process and expecting a different result.” In the modern law firm, the continually repeated process is what I call the Gang of Four Human Brochure Pitch:
- A partner prevails on a friend or contact to arrange a meeting with an executive at a company he wishes was a client, and declares this an “opportunity.”
- He assembles a Gang of Four, who take turns telling the prospective client about the firm and themselves for a couple of hours. (One of my clients’ competitors actually subjected a company to a four-hour dog & pony show.)
- Back at the office, they conclude that things seemed to “go well” (read: the prospect was gracious).
- They send a weighty package of brochures and other materials – now redundant as a result of their human-brochure presentation – topped with the obligatory packing slip letter that says, in effect, “We enjoyed taking your time to talk about us, and we’ve enclosed stuff to remind you what we said about us. We’re really good lawyers.” It concludes with the compelling, “We look forward to hearing from you.”
- About a month later, they anxiously debate next steps. Should we call? Write? No one has an answer because there was never any action point, and really no purpose to the meeting other than the lawyers’ desire to let the executive know that they’re around and are very good at what they do.
While this may read like a caricature, it’s not. This is what happens far too often. The irony is that, by agreeing to meet with you, the client virtually stipulates that you’re capable lawyers and a credible firm. (After all, your branding campaign is working.) Yet this is what you waste all his time talking about. If you were him, how much value would you say you got from making time out of a busy schedule for this human-brochure meeting? What type of follow-up could possibly improve that perception? More information about the firm? Very doubtful.
This is the major threat to your branding investment. Your leadership is taking organizational heat and spending serious money on a branding program to get you found by corporate executives and counsel, to positively influence those executives’ perceptions of the firm, and to increase their receptivity to meeting with your lawyers. Making your firm and its lawyers better known and getting them in front of more prospects without giving them a reliable means to convert those opportunities is insane. It adds to cost of sales, but not sales.
Preparing Lawyers To Convert Opportunities
First, let’s dispel the Magic Wand Theory. There is no technique or trick that, once revealed, will enable lawyers to sell professionally. So all those who thought that the rainmakers in their firms have been holding out on them all this time, refusing to share the Secret, can hereby forget about any such hoped-for Holy Grail.
Conducted properly, selling is a profession, no less so than the law. “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary” defines a profession as:
“… a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive preparation including instruction in skills and methods as well as in the scientific, historical or scholarly principles underlying such skills and methods, maintaining by force of organization or concerted opinion high standards of achievement and conduct, and committing its members to continued study and to a kind of work which has for its prime purpose the rendering of a public service.”
Does that sound like something you could accomplish in an afternoon? It can’t be learned in a seminar during a retreat, so forget about quick-fix fantasies. Did you learn how to be a lawyer in an afternoon?
Whether or not you’re prepared to accept selling as a profession, it is important to establish that selling is not the pitching, persuading or “acting upon” that we see in our common cultural experience with telemarketers, retail sales, or secondary markets such as used cars or Pocono land deals. Sales professionals don’t exhibit any of the offensive traits endemic in those markets, nor do they employ the “telling” behaviors of the Gang of Four Human Brochure Pitch above. That is peddling, not selling.
The Litigation Analogy
The purchase of strategic legal service is a complex process, usually involving multiple executive decision stakeholders. In many ways, it’s similar to litigation.
For lawyers to have a reasonable chance to manage intricate, business-to-business sales, they need a methodology as reliable as that used in litigation. Litigators don’t prepare for a case by the seat of their pants, nor do they do it differently each time. The litigators I’ve worked with describe a refined process by which they analyze the problem, assess possible and likely outcomes, define key issues and obstacles, develop an overall strategy, plan their information-gathering scheme, determine what skills they need on their team, recruit team members, and design specific tactics to get started. Only after the case has been prepared and managed in this disciplined way can they afford to think about their closing argument (their “testimony” or presentation).
Professional selling is no different. Before you worry about testifying (“presenting”) you have to earn that right by analyzing, assessing, investigating, etc.
Developing executive selling skills requires a combination of five elements:
- knowledge transfer/conceptual understanding;
- practical application;
- oversight and coaching;
- review and refinement; and
- measurement and reward.
Because law firms appreciate the process so incompletely, they only purchase the knowledge transfer component, i.e., a seminar. The result is that their lawyers leave the knowledge transfer seminar agreeing with the concepts presented, but having no idea how to apply them in the real world. The ensuing paralysis is very discouraging to the lawyers, and they’re actually worse off now because the firm’s expectations have been raised, but they’re no more prepared to fulfill them.
A Successful Model
Law firms understand that it takes a number of years for young lawyers to learn to practice law effectively, but they have to begin practicing immediately. They arrange for oversight by seasoned senior lawyers who coach the apprentice lawyer through the practical application of what they learned in law school (knowledge transfer/conceptual understanding). They review the work product and suggest refinements in work methods, and they measure and reward progress.
It likewise takes time for lawyers to become effective salespersons, but the competitive legal marketplace requires them to begin practicing now. Why not apply a proven learning model to the acquisition of this new skill set?
Apart from the incomplete solution of investing in only the knowledge transfer part of the learning solution, the biggest obstacle is in law firms’ reward systems. Too many of them are so focused on billable hours (production) that they virtually discourage marketing and sales activity.
Beyond the cash compensation issue, which is sticky enough, law firm culture also lacks an emotional reward system for sales efforts. Lawyers rarely celebrate sales victories visibly enough to encourage others and stimulate behavior change among their peers or those still hovering on the sidelines. Worse, firms don’t recognize and appreciate the many interim victories that indicate progress within the disciplined sales methodology. For example, it’s worthwhile to celebrate when lawyers gain access to a decision-maker (for the right reasons), eliminate an obstacle, identify or neutralize internal opposition, weaken a competitor’s initial preference advantage, etc.
Cultural issues take time to resolve, but law firms can take an important step to protect their branding investments by initiating meaningful sales training now. The key word is “meaningful.” Avoid the hollow response of offering a seminar and calling it sales training; it’s a cynical Band-Aid. Instead, recognize the critical importance of selling skills and do it right.
Define the tangible strategic, operational and economic results you seek from your branding program, and commit now to a credible, ongoing training program that will enable your lawyers to convert new opportunities into high-value clients. In the process, they’ll also develop skill assets that will pay dividends to the firm and themselves for the rest of their careers.
Your lawyers and your CFO will thank you. So should prospective clients who won’t have to sit through another benumbing Gang of Four session, at least from you.