meeting of the minds

The legal marketing and sales literature is inundated with a single word: “relationships.” We’re urged to deepen, strengthen, or expand them. Whichever, it’s always about relationships. The advice is offered across the board, with no distinction drawn among suspects, prospects, clients, or former- or dormant clients. Whoever they are, whatever their circumstances, we need to have a better relationship with them. Not.

Last week, an industry friend who I respect wrote a blog post that endorsed a conference speaker’s remarks that claimed “a growing trend in sales: the movement away from more transaction-based selling toward more relationship-based selling.” From the speaker’s metaphor about giving love, my friend concluded that “by not having all that ‘support’ [commonly found in corporate sales] lawyers can approach business development in its purest form by developing deeper relationships.” He continued, “Business developer lawyers, in some sense, are in a better position to offer that ‘love’ than their sales-executive counterparts because, to a large degree, they own the whole sales cycle; from intake to point of sale to account management, they own the relationships.”

Yes, they do. And that’s the problem. They also have to pay for maintaining all those relationships with time, effort, and money.

The whole “build deeper relationships” fixation reminds me of a line from the very funny skit by Steve Martin, How to Become a Millionaire: “First, get a million dollars.” There’s no consideration of the effort or cost of that enabler, especially in relation to the payoff, or the limitations on the number of relationships you can initiate, develop, nurture, strengthen, deepen, etc., based on the miniscule amount of time lawyers have available to do that.

Define “relationship”

Nobody offers a useful definition of the term. Webster’s offers two simple definitions, neither of which is all that useful in the business development context:

  • the way in which two or more people or things are connected”
  • “the way in which two or more people, groups, countries, etc., talk to, behave toward, and deal with each other”

If you follow me on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn, we’re two people who are connected in some way. But do we have a relationship? If we encounter each other at a conference and behave toward each other graciously and talk to each other respectfully, do we have a relationship? Certainly not in the way lawyers use the term in the biz dev context, where it usually refers to a friendship more significant than mere liking.

The thousands of lawyers I’ve coached over the past 25 years all have lots of deep, strong relationships, cultivated at great effort and expense over many years -- with people who don’t buy anything from them, or who buy very little in relation to the investment. Relationships aren’t reliable predictors of buying.

Even if there was a reliable correlation between relationships and buying preference, legal service buyers simply can’t buy from everyone with whom they have a relationship.

How many relationships can the typical lawyer initiate and develop?

Let’s begin with how much time they have to do it. During individual planning sessions, I ask how many hours lawyers will commit each week (vs. try to allocate) to pursuing their goal. The overwhelming response is “three hours.” That’s roughly 150 hours per year.

How long does it take to initiate, sustain, and develop each relationship with a Suspect? To keep this simple, ignore the time it takes to meet even one suspect at a networking event; somehow, you’ve gotten one. Including travel, a single lunch at a nearby location could take 90 minutes or more, a substantive phone call 15-20 minutes, and a personalized email 10-15 minutes to craft. Just one lunch/call/email “contact trio” could easily take more than two hours. Would one lunch, one call, and one email constitute a relationship from which you might reasonably expect business? No.

So, how many such contact trios would it take to cross the relationship threshold, where we might have a realistic expectation of getting hired? A half-dozen? In What’s the True Cost of Traditional Networking, I created a spreadsheet that answers this in great detail, but let’s keep it simple for now and go with six contact trios, for a total of 12 hours per threshold relationship. Dividing our 150-hour annual BD budget by 12 yields 12.5 relationships, which we’ll call 13. If you need $500,000 in business, and you manage to convert all 13 into clients, they’ll each have to pay you $38,000 to hit your goal. If you’re good enough to convert 13 out of 13, you’re the best suspect-picker ever. You should become a venture capitalist.

The point is that investing in individual suspect relationships, while psychically gratifying, simply isn’t feasible. As the spreadsheet shows, each person you admit into your relationship-building pipeline adds to the cumulative overhead. You still have to cultivate those you admitted last year, or there was no reason to begin with them. The only way these numbers work is if each time you add someone you neglect someone else to keep it at a manageable 13 relationships. But by what criteria will you choose who to ignore? That they haven’t bought? Maybe none of them have bought yet. Or, to add one more you could dilute your investment per relationship to 10.7 hours per year to allow you to support 14 relationships instead of 13. By the 20th, though, will you still have enough impact to produce the effect you seek?

One other thing about this suspect-cultivation math. It doesn’t include any time for cultivating clients who do buy from you. That’s where your relationship-building time and effort belong.

A more practical scheme

Use your marketing communications to cultivate “idea relationships” simultaneously with thousands of people in an industry, who will self-select based on the relevance of your thinking about topics their jobs require them to care about. Allocate an hour or so each week to informing, writing and distributing those thoughts within that industry.

Reserve your personal relationship-building lunches, visits, calls and personalized emails to your clients, who have one huge advantage over the suspects in whom we so often over-invest: they already hired you once.


Mike O'Horo

Would you be more comfortable changing your approach if you had a coach to guide you, anticipate obstacles, and prepare you as you take each step? If so, schedule a complimentary exploratory call with me to see if we're a good fit, or if you want to put as much distance between us as possible.