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How do those who buy what you sell recognize that they need you, that you’re relevant to their world and might just know something that would help them and make some part of their professional life better?

The easy part is identifying what won’t do that: Legal-service nouns. You know, the ones you identify yourself with without thinking. “Litigation.” “M&A.” “Corporate.” “Employment.” And so on.

A concrete example

Many years ago, I was working with the Products Liability practice of a big firm. At the outset of one of our meetings, a partner from the Banking and Finance practice stopped by and asked if he could take a few minutes to let them know what B&F was working on these days.

This was an attempt at cross-selling. I’m sure his expectation was that when he explained his group’s current focus, his partners would respond with suggestions of clients they should connect him with.

Instead, when he concluded his summary of current activity and focus, he got crickets. Nada. Silence. To me, it was an awkward moment, like when a comedian’s joke falls flat.

Triggering relevance

I happened to be sitting right beside him, and I was feeling for him. I said, “I’m not a product liability lawyer, and I’m not a banking/finance lawyer. In fact, I’m not any kind of lawyer. How would I recognize who needs you?”

He graciously answered me, offering examples of situations and problems that companies face acquiring capital and operating funds. “Well, Mike, when a company’s short-term borrowing surpasses 20% of their outstanding debt, to control capital cost they need to restructure the debt to…” He gave three or four different examples of situations that drove demand for B&F services.

Flipping the switch

It was like a switch had been flipped. Suddenly, the chatter started around the table, with his partners saying, “Oh, yeah, I should introduce you to Client XYZ.” And so forth. In just a few minutes, they produced a pretty impressive list of perceived opportunities they were confident it was worth exploring together.

Gone was the introduction-reluctance that’s too often an obstacle to cross-selling. These lawyers had heard their clients talking about those situations, challenges and problems. They recognized that their B&F colleague was relevant to their clients, that the introduction would reliably be welcome.

A pitch vs. help

Consider the difference in the traditional approach: “Hey, Ms. Client, I’d love for you to meet my Litigation partners. They’re really top-drawer.” What did the client hear? That you want her to put up with your colleague pitching for work. Nobody wants to hear a pitch. Should there be any surprise that colleagues don’t want to do make those lame introductions?

Now, think about the difference when you approach your electric utility client with, “It seems like utilities with nuclear generation facilities are facing an acute shortage of nuclear workers due to the shrinking of the nuclear Navy, which has been the primary training ground for those skills for decades. Is that something that your company is wrestling with?”

Unless this client is an outlier, she knows that this is a real issue that has real ramifications. Most people in her position would welcome speaking with a lawyer who offers fresh thinking about ways to deal with the problem.

Now, think of how your partner’s former reluctance to introduce you is replaced by eagerness as he anticipates the client thanking him for the introduction. This is the power of relevance.

Your action item

Think about what 80% of your work looks like. Now, engineer backward from the legal issues to the prime movers, the underlying business situations or problems that drove demand for that legal service. Replace your habitual use of legal service identifiers with those words. Begin identifying yourself as the person who solves those specific problems.

Think about how different your introductions and networking exchanges will sound, and how people will react. Instead of, “I’m an Employment lawyer,” consigning yourself to membership in a club of tens of thousands, you say, “I help utilities deal with the problem of a shrinking nuclear workforce.”

Your referral sources now know who to connect you with, and why. They, too, will be more willing, anticipating a positive reception.

Now, instead of “matter” being a noun, it’s a verb, as in, “You matter.” That’s how easy your life can become.

Mike O’Horo