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"It's all about relationships." This is the dogmatic mantra of legal business development. It refers to the universal belief that, before someone will hire you, you must first invest in developing a personal relationship with them. To which I say, "That's backwards."

For the 25 years I've been training lawyers to sell, I've heard the "build a relationship" dictum intoned with almost religious fervor. It's applied as a blunt instrument, i.e., too broadly.

In a previous post in this series, I argued in favor of investing in a market sector instead of individual companies as a way to diversify your prospecting risk. After all, if you can cultivate thought leadership among thousands of companies simultaneously, that's far less risky than making bets on a handful of companies.

To make sense of this, let's distinguish suspects from prospects, prospects from clients, and virtual relationships from personal ones.

1. Suspects satisfy the lowest level of qualification for even the minimum investment from you: Someone (person or organization) who, because of membership in a class or group (for example, an industry) you objectively suspect that they now experience the Door-Opener problem that drives demand for your service, or their circumstances make it likely that they will in the future. All potential buyers begin life as Suspects. Whether they progress depends on the following.

2. Prospect criteria are much higher:

  • You've made direct contact with a Suspect
  • She has confirmed that her company is experiencing your Door-Opener problem
  • She reveals a Cost of Doing Nothing that in her informed opinion is too high to ignore
  • She concludes that the company must take action to solve the problem
  • She actively helps you identify and engage the other decision stakeholders

Until all these things happen, please don't list them as a prospective client; you'll be deluding yourself, thinking that your pipeline is more robust than it actually is.

3. Obviously, a Client is someone who has hired you.

Each of these three statuses have different value. Likewise, each type of relationship justifies a different investment level. The key is to match your investment with business value, as shown in this graphic:

Ignorant of the difference between Suspects and Prospects, lawyers consider anyone they have reasonable access to a Prospect. If they know the person at all well, they over-value and over-invest in developing personal relationships with them. 

Only by recognizing and respecting the difference between Suspects and Prospects can you dial back your tendency to invest too much time and effort on Suspects.

Let's define the three types of relationships shown in the table above.

A Virtual relationship is with people you don't know. It's based on relevance. They have a relationship with your ideas. They know you only by what they've seen you write or heard you say in public forums. The relationship is almost purely electronic.

Over time, they may form an impression of you as a person, but it's conjecture. There's no personal relationship. This is your relationship with an industry. You publish articles and Tweets, comment in LinkedIn discussion groups, speak at conferences, etc. This is low-cost, low-time, efficient, one-to-many communication that keeps you associated with your Door-Opener problem among lots of people who are most likely to experience it and seek a solution, so they'll consider and consult with you when they're ready to act.

Virtual relationships generate sales opportunities, and serve as a mechanism for Suspects to give you the opportunity to convert them into Prospects. Once that happens, you up the investment level as needed to convert them into clients.

A Professional relationship results when you work together on a paid engagement. It can also develop from a collaborative effort (such as committee work) within the market sector or industry with which you're investing in a virtual relationship. Professional relationships are properly more time-intensive, requiring at least some out-of-pocket cost, travel and face time, a fair amount of phone time, and time to inform and create personalized correspondence.

Personal relationships are friendships. It doesn't matter whether they derive from social or professional contact. Once someone is your client, you want to invest heavily to facilitate a friendship to add another layer of value that enriches your professional relationship and erects additional barriers to competitors trying to convert your client into their prospect. The time-and-expense factor ratchets up a lot once it includes lunches, dinners and other social activity, but it's justified because you're paying for it out of incremental profit rather than risk capital.

"It's all about relationships" implies that the relationship is the goal. Believing so justifies the excessive investment too many lawyers make in Suspects. It's not, and you shouldn't. The goal is to enable the relationship to yield new business. Relationships have no inherent business value, only applied value. Make sure you contain your investment to the level appropriate to your purpose.

Over-investing in Suspects is risky business.

Mike O'Horo

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