Cultivating the Courage to Ask for Business – Part 1
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
Many lawyers, both men and women, blanch at the thought of having to ask for business, and I don’t blame them. In my opinion, it’s often a mistake, and it should be scary to do something clumsy or annoying. Common advice about “asking for the business” may drive sales in low risk transactions, but drive away potential clients with complex and risky issues.
Nevertheless, lawyers do need to develop business, and expressing your interest in working with someone can make a difference. How do you drum up the courage to do that? In short, it’s a lot less scary if you have laid the right groundwork beforehand. To help illustrate what potential clients want to hear from lawyers, I did an informal survey of a number of in-house counsel about how they like to be approached for business. My thoughts and their responses are intermingled in this article.
Identify a Need First
A number of in-house respondents indicated that men were bolder and more direct about seeking business than women. They said men are more likely to make cold calls. Some of them have been too bold however. “A strong sales pitch makes me squirm,” said one counsel. In their boldness, some men persistently pursued work when they didn’t really understand the company’s business. “I am probably not going to respond very positively to repeated inquiry from an attorney who is trying to convince me what a great lawyer he is, but whose experience and expertise simply aren’t on point,” another warned.
Lawyers commonly trip up by making a pitch for business before unearthing a current need for their services. That feels like my acquaintance at church that turned to me and said, “Debra, I’d like to put you in a new Camry.” If he had done a little research by accompanying me to the parking lot, or if he had asked me some foundational questions, he would have learned that my car wasn’t very old, that I liked it, and that a Camry wasn’t my style. He broadcasted the message that he needed to sell a car, and unwittingly implied that my needs were irrelevant. Similarly, asking for legal business when there’s not a need can expose a lawyer’s preoccupation with her own welfare over the client’s.
All that being said, an expression of interest in working with the client, without actually pressing for work, can have a positive impact. Some counsel indicated they appreciate a parting word like “Please think of us if you have a future need” or “Don’t hesitate to call if we can be of help.”
Know the Industry
To understand clients’ needs, you must get familiar with their environment. Do your homework to get a good grounding in the industry. Every one of the in-house counsel respondents stressed the importance of industry knowledge. The absence of it is fatal, and the demonstration of it smoothes the way.
If you have a passion for some element of their business, that’s even better. If your sincere interest extends to the industry’s history, how it makes the world a better place, or some other facet of the business, bring it into the conversation. All of the respondents indicated that they seek legal expertise and a reputation for good work, but that’s really just the ante for getting into the game. They value lawyers who care about their industry and know it well enough to combine legal knowledge with practical business solutions for their company’s challenges.
You can simultaneously demonstrate your familiarity with their industry and uncover needs by asking questions like, “A lot of our clients in your circumstance experience challenges with X, Y and Z. Have any of those come up for you?” As you explore the nuances of their particular problem, it may become appropriate to say something like, “I have some experience in helping clients with that.” If they don’t take the bait, ease off a little. Don’t succumb to the temptation to press for the business just because you have uncovered a need. As one survey respondent said, the most effective business developers “recognize that forming a new professional relationship typically takes time and cannot be done overnight.”
Originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of the ABA’s Newsletter: The Woman Advocate
Click to read Part 2 and Part 3 for more tips on gathering your courage to ask clients for business.