When do you ask for business?
Thank you to guest blogger Dave Bruns, Director of Client Service, Farella Braun + Martel, for providing his insights into “When do you ask for the business?”
Maybe the simplest but toughest question a lawyer will ever ask, “How do I get your business?” The Legal Marketing Association Listserve was ablaze with this topic recently.
The original post proffered a comment from a “marketing executive seated in a plane next to a lawyer” (sounds like the introduction to a bad joke). The seatmate told this lawyer that the right time to ask for work is at the outset of a meeting. According to the seatmate, this approach maintains the appropriate focus for the meeting – as if business executives will take a meeting without a defined purpose.
Sparked by the airplane-seated marketing executive’s comments, I, along with several prominent business development consultants and in-house professionals, chimed in. Virtually everyone suggested that asking for work is not appropriate at the beginning of a meeting. Several, including myself, suggested that asking for work is never appropriate until work is actually on the table. Let me explain …
Buying legal services for most corporate clients is a very sensitive exercise. Each time an in-house counsel makes a selection, they are putting their bonus and job on the line. Pressuring an in-house counsel is inappropriate, and they won’t select a lawyer that pressures them to buy. High pressure sales, often referred to as one-off sales, may be appropriate for a stick of gum or even a car purchase, when a long-term relationship is not essential to the purchaser’s success. However, the purchase of legal services requires a deep, trusting relationship and, in many cases, a clearly defined scope of work, approach and budget.
In graduate school, I studied the seven stages of the buying process (awareness, knowledge, consideration, engagement, satisfaction, loyalty and advocacy). If a lawyer jumps into “the ask” at the awareness stage, the potential client has not yet developed the trust required and will say “no” or, worse, show the attorney the door and stop responding to email and phone communications. If the lawyer takes the time and uses successful, proven marketing levers to move their prospect through the buying process, learning about their business, culture, approach, etc., when they reach the consideration phase (i.e., work is on the table and the lawyer is considered capable to handle it), it’s appropriate to offer a pricing proposal or potential scope of work for a project. Ideally, the lawyer can skip the proposal stage because the client asks for an engagement letter.
I counsel my lawyers to focus their energy on surfacing work and demonstrating that they can assist or one of their partners can assist. This takes time, and in many cases, the buying cycle for a lawyer can be six to 12 months – or more. The time period can be reduced with better questions, frequent touches and by ensuring lawyers fill their funnel/pipeline with actual buyers of the work that the lawyer wants at the fee they want to charge. Third parties can also speed people through the buying process; however, everyone, regardless of what they’re buying, needs to start at awareness and end at engagement – hopefully moving further into satisfaction and the advocacy stage.
As a business development consultant to lawyers, I ask them, “when aren’t you in a pitch meeting?” After a lawyer understands that everything they do for a client is part of the pitch for the first or next piece of work, they quickly realize the first action in the business development process is not asking for the work. I was not privy to the conversation with the seatmate, but I am sure I would have pushed back on his suggestion to jump to “the ask” because it is always better to stage “the ask” in a manner that ensures the answer will be “yes.” Until that time, “the ask” is inappropriate and could even harm a budding relationship.