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When selling, lawyers get anxious about how to obtain a sufficient understanding of a prospective client’s problem, and share enough of their knowledge to motivate her to hire them, without giving away the store or over-investing in what could turn out to be a dry hole.

Based on how often I’ve been asked this question by lawyers throughout my decades in BD coaching, this seems a pretty universal problem.

The scenario

You’ve been referred to a potential client. During your initial call, she explains her situation and you learn about her problem. She wants to know what it will take to solve it, and how much it will cost. Fair questions.

How much information should you share for free? You fear explaining the solution too thoroughly, only to have her assign the work to in-house staff, or engage incumbent outside counsel.

It’s worse if you’ll have to invest meaningful time to research and analyze the situation to reliably answer the “how” and “how much” questions.

Contrary to your fears, most buyers aren’t cynically trying to cheat you by picking your brain, only to award the work to someone else. They’re pursuing clarity, which they require to gain the confidence to make a decision about whether they must do anything at all, if so what, and then to accept the associated risks, commit funds, and take action. That’s often a pretty high bar. Which makes helping her surmount it valuable.

How groups of people make decisions

Few corporate decisions are made by a single person. It’s almost always a group decision. But even if she’s the sole decision-maker, the two of you constitute a group. Group decision-making is comprised of four stages:

  1. Shared awareness of the problem

  2. Stakeholder alignment

  3. Directional planning

  4. Implementation

Group Decision Dynamic graph related to sales..jpg

It looks like the graphic at right →

Your two-person group’s first task is to make sure you’re both describing the problem the same way. Without that, progress is impossible. You’d be talking about different problems, or different versions of the same problem. That can’t work.

In the more common situation, in which there are multiple people with a stake in the problem and any solution decision, a shared awareness is critical because it’s the foundation for stakeholder alignment (which simply means getting everyone on the same page).

“Understanding” requires the greatest effort

As you see from the vertical axis, achieving a shared awareness of the problem faces the greatest resistance, and requires the most effort and time. However, when that enables stakeholder alignment, resistance and effort drops and progress accelerates.

Unschooled salespeople impatiently try to jump almost immediately to step three, solution development -- “Here’s what we can do for you.” That’s why their incidence of no-decision is so high, and why they overinvest in strengthening the relationship (friendship, really), erroneously believing that’s the weakness in the sale.

Few buyers understand the group decision process. A deeper friendship won’t change that. Personal trust, enhanced by friendship, is different than “decision trust,” which is the product of facilitating a decision process that leads to confident decisions.  

When you expedite a good decision, that’s valuable, and prospects recognize it, if only at a gut level. It requires skill and expertise, which is what you sell, so why not present it as “work product” and get paid for it?

How to get paid for facilitating decision clarity

When your prospect asks how you’d solve the problem, and what it will cost, you must first give them a categorical answer that’s useful. “Broadly speaking, we’d do A, B, and C, and over ___ months legal fees would likely be in the range of $50,000-100,000.”

This provides a useful frame of reference, i.e., it’s not a few thousand and it’s not a million, but the range is still too broad. Buyers want greater precision in a cost estimate.

To come up with a specific engagement plan and a reliable cost estimate, you figure it will take you 10 hours or so. At $500/hour, that’s $5000. By default, most buyers might view this as your cost of sale and be reluctant to pay.

They’ll need a plan no matter what

However, consider that, if you were hired as counsel for this matter, your first task would be to prepare a detailed engagement plan and budget, and you’d charge for it. So, make that your first sale.

Separate obtaining reliable clarity from any counsel-selection considerations.

What if this same buyer proposed hiring you to analyze the engagement and come up with a project plan and budget. Let’s say that the client seeks absolute objectivity, so you’d be ineligible to be considered to perform the resulting work. They wouldn’t expect that plan to be free. It would have value independent of the subsequent legal work and counsel selection. For $5000, they’d get a detailed solution map with a specific budget anchored by clear assumptions. They could use that output to assign the work to anyone.

Shrink the initial decision

The idea is to enable the buyer make a smaller decision and investment that objectively informs the larger one.

Set aside the idea of you being ineligible to do the legal work; that would be an unusual requirement.

Depending on the economic value of the engagement vs. the cost of the clarity, as a sweetener you might offer to credit the $5000 cost of the analysis if you’re chosen for the larger engagement. You know that if you presented a client a bill for $100,000 and they requested a $5000 discount, you’d agree to that 5% without a second thought. Instead of an after-the-fact discount that gets you little, use that value on the front end.

Mike O’Horo