Are you still investing time trying to initiate and develop personal relationships as a key element of your business development strategy? If so, you’ve got it backwards.
In honor of Mardi Gras, let's borrow from a charming Cajun tradition: lagniappe. When a Cajun merchant weighs out the requested amount, he adds a little extra, saying simply, "Lagniappe!"
In business development, a personal relationship should be lagniappe, a bonus, to be welcomed but not your purpose.
During those wonderful, boom-time decades that preceded the Great Recession in 2008, relationship-based BD made sense. Since pretty much every company was buying legal services in ever-increasing amounts, and corporate management hadn’t yet gotten around to looking inside the legal-service-cost black box, there was little reason for buyers to go through a lot of mental gymnastics to choose among outside counsel of comparable pedigree. It was reliable enough simply to allocate one’s buying among one’s friends. That meant, if you wanted in on the allocation of the pie, you’d make friends with enough buyers to get what your firm needed.
For much of that time, business was also more local, with local decision-makers. Being of comparable social- and economic status as their clients, law partners had easy access to social interaction that led to friendships, and friendships became the foundation for business.
Trends don’t favor outside counsel
Fast-forward to today, when few reported trends favor outside counsel. Business is heavily consolidated, as is legal service purchasing, and far fewer buyers are local. Companies run much leaner headcounts, so buyers’ increased responsibilities don’t allow them time for rounds of golf, long lunches, sporting events, and other social niceties that were the fuel of business for so long. That makes it hard for incumbents to reinforce personal relationships, and for aspirant firms to gain a social-based foothold.
The longstanding CYA value of a law firm’s name is being challenged by data. It’s much riskier for corporate counsel to choose their friends. Many new types of competitors are bringing different forms of value to the table. Management reached the limit of its tolerance for inscrutable pricing and the resulting cost uncertainty, opening the door to new entrants who deploy analytics technology that dilutes firms’ brand cache in favor of empirical assessment of performance vs. cost.
In this environment, friendship is still appreciated, but not as the primary value, or even the starting point. Nobody has time for a long friendship-creation cycle in the hope that it will lead to innovative thinking or creative solutions. Now, your starting point must be that creative thinking. You’ll get hired because of the outcome you can produce based on that original thinking -- within the context of the client’s business reality.
Relevance → Usefulness → Value
The progression is Relevance → Usefulness → Value. Relevance equals context, which earns you participation in the industry/company conversation and the attention of those with a stake in the problem under discussion. When you’re given a chance to perform, you must produce a useful effect and positive impact, which are perceived as value. The client will hire you again to produce similar effect. If you manage to do that consistently over time, you might end up spending enough time with one or more stakeholders for a friendship to form. But it might not. There are many reasons that proximity doesn’t cause friendships. But, so what? If you do business together successfully for years, that should be enough. It’s much preferable to investing those years trying to develop a relationship and getting no business.
Strive to be relevant and useful, create positive impact, and if, over time, they like you and warm to you, and a friendship ensues from shared accomplishment, good for both of you. But nobody has time for relationship building up front. Set it aside, and focus on your real goal.