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According to a Biznology study, 82% of B2B decision-makers think commercial/industrial salespersons are unprepared. When Forrester talked to executives about the time they spend with salespeople, they found a lot of frustration with the level of preparedness.

  • 57 percent said that sales reps weren’t knowledgeable about their industry.

  • 70 percent said the reps weren’t prepared to answer the questions they asked.

  • 75 percent said the reps didn’t come in prepared with knowledge about their business.

  • 77 percent said the reps didn’t understand the issues they faced or how their company’s product could help.

  • 78 percent said the reps didn’t even have any case studies or examples they could share with them.

This damning data is for full-time, professional salespeople. Would it be fair to assume that lawyers, who are occasional, amateur sellers, would be judged as no better, and likely worse?

One of the most common complaints about lawyers is that they take no time to understand their clients’ businesses. That certainly relates to the utility of legal advice — abstract advice is less valuable than that given in a specific business context. But the complaint also has just as much emotional content as a “you don’t pay enough attention to me” statement in any other human relationship.

Clients see significantly less difference between us and our competition than we do ourselves.

The good news

That’s the bad news. The good news is that if the competitive bar is set that low, it’ll be pretty easy to differentiate yourself.

Uber’s Katrina Johnson, associate general counsel and head of legal for Asia-Pacific, encourages law firms to think about how they can capitalize on data to inform the way they offer clients strategic advice. “What has won some law firms work that others have missed out on is the difference between those who are really willing to invest in the relationship and understand our business,” Ms Johnson says.

The Challenger Approach

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The business bestseller, The Challenger Sale (which I encourage you to read), is based on a study of 500,000 salespersons, who tended to use one of five primary approaches. The Challenger approach outperforms the other four sales approaches by a big margin. (BTW, the Relationship Builder approach--lawyers’ favorite--is dead last in terms of effectiveness.) Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • How you sell has become more important than what you sell.

  • Challengers have a deep understanding of the client’s business and use that understanding to push the client’s thinking and teach them something new about how their company can compete more effectively (with control, diplomacy, and empathy, of course).

  • The Challenger is focused on pushing the client out of their comfort zone; the Relationship Builder is focused on being accepted into it.

  • The Challenger is focused on client value; the Relationship Builder is more concerned with client convenience.

  • Challengers win not by understanding their clients’ world as well as the clients know it, but by knowing their clients’ world better than their clients know it, teaching them what they don’t know but should.

  • Prospects are looking to suppliers to help them identify new opportunities to cut costs, increase revenue, penetrate new markets, and mitigate risk in ways they themselves have not yet recognized.

  • What sets the best suppliers apart is not the quality of their products, but the value of their insight—new ideas to help clients either make money or save money in ways they didn’t even know were possible.

  • They teach clients new perspectives, specifically tailored to their most pressing business needs, in a compelling and assertive enough manner to ensure that the message not only resonates, but actually drives action.

  • There’s vastly greater value in insight that changes or builds on what they know in ways they couldn’t have discovered on their own.

Great clients--the ones you really want--prefer being challenged

Uber’s Ms. Johnson is among those who endorse this mindset:

“I want to be tested on stuff; I want to be challenged; and I want legal advisors to have that arm’s length approach – but I also want you to get where we are going and what we are trying to solve, to encourage us to think about things more creatively,” she says.

The as-yet-unasked questions that open up the workings of our clients’ businesses (and minds) present an extraordinary opportunity for lawyers. The predicate is understanding those clients’ businesses thoroughly or, even better, helping clients themselves better understand their businesses.

Next week: How to apply Challenger principles to ramp up your success.

Mike O’Horo