To their credit, lawyers are results-oriented professionals. When we practice our craft, we think in terms of objectives, and the activities necessary along the way to achieve those goals. Clients pay for results and lawyers want to deliver on those expected results. Generally speaking, this is a great bias to have as a professional services provider – and as a lawyer. However, such a bias can muck up the business-development process.
I often find that many of my clients think very “digitally” about relationship-cultivating conversations: the discussion toggles between personal-rapport building (“So, how are the spouse and kids?”) and the ultimate “ask” (“So, how about giving me a shot at working on one of your matters; try me out . . . you’ll like it!”).
Relationship cultivation is not a process that operates at two ends of a continuum but rather is iterative, cumulative, and permission-based. It requires one to manage toward a series of tactical conversational and (often information-gathering) goals that fall well short of the ultimate goal of getting retained to do work; it is a process that – if done right – sets the table for the culminating “retention ask” without making that “ask” while you are setting that table.
In developing relationships, it takes time to get to a point where you can pitch prospects on why they should hire you. When you do get to that point, the message is pretty simple: Articulate your value proposition – i.e., answer these questions: “Why are you good? ” “Why are you different? ” “What problem will you help me solve?” “Why will we get unique business value from working with you?” However, setting the table for that discussion during the relationship-building and information-gathering phase requires you to use a different form of conversational currency; the “value proposition” isn’t relevant yet.
There are lots of reasons why persons of consequence might want to spend time in meeting with you while you’re gathering your intelligence, building a history and establishing a relationship. Below is a list of some reasons you can use to secure the next meeting:
- Mentoring – business peers love to serve as mentors; you can say to them, “As an outside lawyer I’m trying to get smarter about how sophisticated law departments manage the legal function and corporate risk; you’re smart about those issues and I’d love to pick your brain over coffee to get the benefit of your managerial knowledge . . “;
- Information – prospects are usually quite willing to offer up information on their company if you’re genuinely interested in the business; this is a good conversational space to occupy as you build the relationship before you ask for sponsorship into others or to affect a retention decision;
- Networking – all professionals think about how they should build out their network; whole conversations can be consumed with a discussion about mutual relationship brokerage;
- Humility – people love to spend time with humble professionals. You get a lot of credit for not puffing about your capabilities. Stick to the limited mission (information, mentoring, learning about the prospect’s company, taking a market survey of the in-house law department function, etc.);
- Therapeutic/cathartic/”me-ism” – sometimes people just want to get something off their chests, and they relish the opportunity to sit in front of someone and eat up all of the airtime talking about the good, the bad . . . Give these people that experience and they will reward you with future meetings as you ask for information, for sponsorship into others, and perhaps ultimately, to be hired;
- Sweat equity – referral sources will start to think of you differently if they see you helping them advance their own agendas. Put together a set of joint activities that will help you get in front of prospects of interest to both of you – that’s an equity builder. Connectors who are beneficiaries of your thinking, planning, and sweat equity to make your collaboration mutually fruitful will reciprocate and extend themselves for you; they will open their own relationship base of introductions up to you;
- Respect for the introducer – prospects who meet you through a warm introduction generally want to make the introducer happy – they generally will take the first meeting on that basis alone, even if the meeting’s purpose is relatively non-specific.
Use the above concepts to link together your interactions over time and generate conversational momentum. This momentum sets the table for your pivot to “the pitch.”
Here is an example of multi-discussion sequence with a new prospect. Notice how every conversation builds from the other, thereby creating the desired momentum:
Conversation #1 – Rapport build; establish connection; gain general industry or functional knowledge
Conversation #2 – Anecdotal survey about industry or function; benchmarking and best practices discussion
Conversation #3 – Areas of responsibility – matter types, etc.; professional pain points and areas of movement; learn about relationship-brokerage opportunities
Conversation #4 – Propose introductions; deliver value add; pre-close proposition
Conversation #5 – Pre-close and share expectations