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Ultimately, the meek may, indeed, inherit the earth. But history suggests that, in the meantime, meek salespeople will waste time, money and energy and miss out on the opportunities awaiting those with the vision and courage to take bold action.

By now all but the most resolute of ostriches have accepted that the embryonic law firm sales function is undergoing change at a dizzying pace. But the language of the current sales debate suggests that many participants still don’t appreciate the degree.

The word “change” understates the situation to distortion, like saying that banking has “changed” from long teller lines and limited retail hours to instantaneous 24-7 global transactions from mobile phones.  

We’re talking revolution and disruption here, not change.

Legal service selling isn’t changing; it’s being born

Any similarities between what was and what will be is coincidental. Doubters need only consider the number of law firm sacred cows – economic and cultural – that clients have already made extinct, or are now putting on the endangered species list: annual rate increases; paying for associate development; highly-paid partners without clients, and many others. To that add, “delivering business to your door with no cost or effort on your part.”

Reluctant salespeople

In the face of this, law firms have embraced “selling,” sort of, but they still resist doing it in a serious way. Too many law firm sales efforts are constrained by fear and denial. Contrast that with your corporate clients’ sales behavior. They know that product advantages are fleeting, and they invest heavily trying every imaginable way to have the best sales force as a lasting competitive edge.

Your clients are everyone else’s prospects, and no matter what size or type, they’re approached by dozens – perhaps hundreds – of law firms each year. (Fortunately for you at the moment, your competitors do it badly, too.) Most buyers perceive all established firms as sufficiently competent that claims of differentiation based on technical capability fall on deaf ears.

You’re one of far too many

That means that most lawyers are seen as one of hundreds or, perhaps, thousands in a very large, amorphous category: “capable lawyers.” No matter how cleverly packaged verbally, all versions of “we do great legal work” perpetuate this trap.

With a few high-stakes exceptions, buyers believe that, for the bulk of the legal service categories, there’s no shortage of firms whose legal work is good enough.

As they consolidate, law firms are fast approaching a condition common in mature categories (e.g., accounting, management consulting) in which the only way to differentiate is through the quality and effectiveness of your sales force. How much difference can there be in relative technical knowledge among the Big Four accounting/consulting firms, or among the largest systems integration firms?

So, what determines who wins and loses when they compete? Sales effectiveness.

Dilettante selling

Undertaking random tactics, such as lunch or Gang of Four pitches, is not selling. Nor is hosting a few me-too seminars, getting lawyers occasional publicity, or hacking together a LinkedIn profile. This activity-based, dilettante approach wastes all of the time and money committed because it produces few results other than making the lawyers occasionally feel like they are doing something.

Real selling

Here are some key characteristics of effective selling:

  • Visibly committed executive leadership
  • Systemic endeavor with clear, measurable goals of shared importance and value
  • Shaped by strategic objectives
  • Championed by the firm’s leadership and understood by all
  • Strategies defined and tactics executed by a combination of inside- and outside sales and sales-support resources
  • Related changes in support systems and processes
  • Committed sufficient time and funding to accomplish the stated goals

Real selling means:

  • Understanding what drives demand for your most important or valuable services,
  • Focusing only on companies whose strategic situation and operating conditions fit your demand trigger profile, and
  • Conducting an organized, sustained series of interactions that the relevant decision stakeholders find valuable.

Sticker shock

Many lawyers balk at talking with buyers about what it costs to solve their problem correctly, particularly when the prospect is actively considering multiple competitors.  The problem is looking only at the cost side of the equation. In absolute terms, a half-million dollars may be a lot of money, but is it a lot to a company who perceives $50 million worth of negative impact from the demand-triggering problem?  

Company stakeholders entrusted with investment decisions about hiring advisors for high-impact problems are experienced business people who have no trouble understanding the relationship between expected return, required investment, and risk.  

It is no surprise that lawyers steeped career-long in an economic system focused on one-hour increments struggle to grasp the value side of the business equation. That they are uncomfortable discussing fees should surprise nobody.

End-game-itis

With predictably disastrous results, inexperienced salespeople – not just lawyers, but in every industry – tend to outpace their buyers, jumping ahead to the “buy” at the first expression of interest or need.

Think about a social analogy: “Hi. My name is Mike. Want to get married and have children?” Go ahead, chuckle at the absurdity, but be prepared to have the same fun with, “Hi. My name is Mike. We’re a great firm and I’m a great lawyer. Hire me.”

Lack of sales management

Too many firms’ executive management purchase sales training or hire Business Development Officers, or both, then immediately go into “Pontius Pilate” mode, i.e., washing their hands of the unseemly “sales” problem. As Lou Gerstner said of the transformation of IBM in his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, “what gets measured gets done.”

Without visible, consistent oversight and attention by senior management who demonstrate their seriousness and hold the lawyers accountable, the message is clear: It’s OK not to fulfill your sales commitments. Why would busy lawyers do what it’s OK not to do?

The good news

The things that lawyers fear most about the cultural stereotype of selling – risk of rejection, aggressively persuasive behaviors, misrepresentation or outright dishonesty – are no more characteristic of professional salespeople (emphasis on professional) who manage complex, business-to-business buying decisions among senior executives than stereotypical ambulance-chasing behaviors are characteristic of business law firms and lawyers.

In fact, the irony is that the very “lawyering” skills that lawyers trust and rely on, applied without modification to business acquisition, are called “selling.” So relax. You don’t need a whole set of alien skills and behaviors. Just do – before you’re hired – what you do after you’re hired.

The bad news

Sooner or later, more law firms and lawyers will take selling seriously. How long can your firm safely wait?

That depends on your confidence in “hoping” as a strategy, i.e., hoping that an unspecified percentage of your lawyer population will voluntarily conduct an unspecified amount of undirected sales activity to generate an unspecified amount of revenue annually.

If you embrace this approach you’d be wise to keep it secret from your clients, who may begin to question your sanity.

When the telecommunications industry was reborn following the breakup of the old AT&T there emerged a cadre of huge winners, and many others who “coulda, shoulda, woulda.” Likewise, the legal service industry winners, who will control the most desirable and profitable segments of each service category, will be those who acted early, boldly, strategically, and shrewdly.  

It has been said that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. The opportunity for market leadership through sales superiority is wide open now, but this market, like banking, computers, telecommunications, and accounting services before it, will consolidate and stratify even further, with increasing numbers of new competitors who aren’t law firms. Then, it will really get difficult and expensive to try to change the pecking order. It is much easier, and far less costly to overcome fear and reluctance now.

Mike O'Horo