helpdesk.jpg

Why don't people accept expert help from seminar speakers? If you attended a seminar about knee pain, and your knee hurt, and the orthopedist-speaker offered to check yours for you at no charge, would you take her up on it? If you attended a seminar about personal finance, and the speaker offered to help you apply his advice at no charge, would you call him?

You're an IP lawyer. You're speaking to entrepreneurs about how to protect their intellectual property. You offer to discuss the particulars with them at no charge. Would you be surprised if few of them took you up on it?

I'm an entrepreneur, and if you offered to help me that way, your phone would be ringing before you left the podium. Why wouldn't I call you and get your help?

I can't speak for the whole population, but in my experience, lawyers don't. For 25 years, whenever I've spoken at a conference, or conducted a webinar, I always end with a gift for the audience. I offer to field a call from anyone who would like one-on-one help implementing the ideas that they just heard. You'd think that any lawyer who took the time to attend my presentation about marketing and sales ideas, processes, and techniques would jump at the chance to have a private session about how to apply those to their individual practice and situation. Yet, very few do. I'd put it at 2%-5%, depending on the audience size. It's become a game I play with the event organizer. When I tell them I'm going to offer this free coaching gift, they get excited and ask if I'm worried about getting buried under the response. I chuckle and tell them that, if they'd like to bet dinner, the over/under is five. (Hint: Always take the "under.")

While in one sense it's nice to have dined on this bet for so many years, I'd rather have helped the lawyers generate the kind of business they want.

You may be thinking, "Well, Mike, maybe it's you. They're OK getting help; they simply don't want it from you." Maybe it's that simple. I realize that I'm not for everyone. However, if I was sufficiently off-putting to repel 95%-98% of those who hear me, you'd think that I'd have gone out of business long ago for lack of clients.

Four weeks ago, I spoke before 125 litigators at an ABA Litigation Section event. It was the first year that they'd offered a business development program, and it was for outside counsel only. The organizer, who's known me long enough to speak the unvarnished truth, said that the members were enthusiastic at the prospect. In the weeks beforehand, I spoke with a number of likely attendees to inform my remarks, so I wasn't a stranger when I came before them, and the content, having been vetted by the audience, was reliably relevant.

By the organizers' declaration, and my own observation, the program was well received. At the end, I made my offer. This time, I asked by show of hands how many intended to take me up on it. About 80% of the room raised their hands. I said, "We'll see," and told them that four weeks hence, I'd write about the actual response in this forum.

Within a week, five had emailed me and arranged a call. That was it. About 10 days ago, I sent email to all those registered, reminding them of the offer. Radio silence. The original five remained the total.

To inform this post, I conducted some research into the question, "Why don't people take advantage of sincere offers of help from those whose expertise they've validated by attending their program?" Perhaps I used the wrong search strings in Google, but I tried a number of them and found very few direct results. What follows is what I've inferred from peripheral sources and indirect references.

  • You may hold a belief that it is a sign of weakness to reveal any problems at all to any other person. This is often a very ingrained pattern of thinking that's hard to overcome. You may be frightened of being judged, or you may have a tendency to perfectionism; both motivations can cause you to avoid accepting help for fear of failing or being seen as a failure.
  • You may feel that the offer is pro forma, not sincere, and it's socially wrong to ask (or to be a burden) for assistance. Or you're hindered by a personal fear of being judged or portrayed as weak or inferior.
  • Some people are bamboozled by the aura of their own expertise. Being trained in one field of expertise does not provide you with immunity from seeking help from people in other fields. 
  • There are those who accept advice, but do nothing with it. They never follow up. This is consistent with what I experienced with lawyers whose firms paid to include them in an integrated sales training program that consisted of a workshop, individual planning, and just-in-time tactical coaching. They all completed the first two (scheduled) components, but 80% of them never took advantage of the unlimited tactical coaching, which they had to initiate.
  • They're in denial, and so can't see the usefulness of the advice offered. They're frightened of change and are unwilling to try something different. Denial interferes with the ability to act rationally.
  • Fear of Success, which is really fear of the unknown, and it's often based on not knowing the outcome. They're hoping it will all work out anyway -- all by itself -- one way or the other. This is consistent with Dr. Larry Richard's published work about lawyers' low scores on the Resiliency scale, which measures one's ability to recover from setbacks.
  • They forget about the offer once they leave the venue. People have trouble remembering things, especially information that doesn’t directly and immediately apply to themselves.

My research shined a light on me, too. It turns out that we who offer help do so for reasons in addition to a genuine desire to help:

  • Status: Helping someone is a sign of power. Many species of primates will offer assistance as a sign of dominance. People act similarly, offering aid to boost their self-esteem and reputation.

  • Implied Reciprocity: Many relationships are based on the idea that if I help you, one day you will help me as well.

  • Product Sampling: Conference speakers are trying to establish their relevance and usefulness to the audience. Giving away free samples of what we sell is part of that.

An array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts. This tendency toward so-called "motivated reasoning" helps explain why we find our behaviors at odds with  unequivocal evidence. For example, the evidence is overwhelming that lawyers need to improve their business development skills, discipline, focus, and activity level. Most lawyers would even acknowledge that. However, expecting them to be convinced to act by such facts is doomed to fail.

We push threatening information away, applying fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

Consider those who hear new information that deeply challenges their beliefs about business development. Such was the counter-intuitive nature of what I presented to my litigator audience. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. "They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs," says Taber, "and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they're hearing." Often, that argument is subconscious.

When we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end, and includes "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find discomfiting.

Conditioned by long careers marked by enough business always showing up by means unknown, it's understandable that senior lawyers might reject anything that challenges their experience with the pitch model and the preferred "it will all work out anyway -- all by itself -- one way or the other" mindset. Accepting the evidence that we must do something different is threatening and unwelcome.

Maybe the idea of calling to accept a coaching offer is threatening. After all, the coach's job is not to applaud you clinging to outdated ways, but to urge and help you apply new ways and give you specific things to do. Perhaps it's the knowledge that you'll have to do something as a result of the coaching interaction that erects the barriers.

This is all my interpretation and speculation. Only you know why you don't accept offers of professional business development help. I'd appreciate you educating me about the reality.

Mike O'Horo

Next week, we'll publish a guest post by a litigator who explains how he overcame reluctance and other barriers to begin making real progress in developing his business.