Hulcher & Hays, LLC, Client Development Consulting

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Finding Time to "Market"

Generate more work by making smart use of the initial consultation

This article was published in the April 2001 issue of Arizona Attorney magazine

Related article: "Inside Job: Turning Clients into Referral Sources"

With all due respect to motivational speakers and positive-thinking gurus (the first time someone suggested I read The Power of Positive Thinking I figured, "What the hell good will that do?"), few things can spur most people to action as quickly and decisively as fear.

Disagree? Consider this:

A member of your firm comes into your office and gives you a big pep talk about how much better your life would seem and how much healthier the firm’s cash flow would be if you’d just return people’s phone calls, line up a few referral sources and generate a little more work.

You may actually buy into that notion. But before you can act on it, a client's crisis erupts and within an hour or two you’ve lapsed back into your customary inert state. For all the good your colleague’s pep talk did, he may as well have told you about his favorite recipes that call for Cheez-Whiz.

No Work

In contrast, look at the mountains of files, documents and phone messages on your desk. Then visualize them disappearing, one at a time, until there’s nothing there. No files. No documents. No clients. No work. Nada.

Granted, at this moment that may be your idea of Utopia ... but the paranoid side of you has already started imagining life without a heavy workload:

First, other attorneys begin avoiding eye contact with you as you pass in the hall. Invitations to "grab some lunch" dry up. Then, one night as you stroll through the lobby on your way to the garage, you see every member of the firm but you huddling in the conference room. Your best friend comes to the window and watches you disappear as he closes the blinds.

The next thing you know you’re living in a trailer in a rural county seat, driving a ‘71 Maverick, wearing short-sleeved Kmart "dress" shirts and other clothing made of substances found nowhere in nature, and working as an on-call public defender for clients who would slit your throat just for the chance to fondle your Mont Blanc.

Alters your outlook, doesn’t it? Makes you want to drag your sorry self out of your chair and get out there and bring in a carload of new clients, doesn’t it?

But still ... those mountains of files, documents and phone messages are still on your desk. You don’t have time to generate more work, because you can’t find the time to do the work you already have.

So you face a quandary: How can attorneys with a full plate do their billable work and do what’s necessary to keep their pipeline from running dry? Answer: By making clever use of their initial consultations.

Necessary Evil?

If you’re like most attorneys, you see the initial consultation as a necessary evil, a rite of passage to be endured before you can crank up the old meter. And, if you’re like most attorneys, that first meeting with prospective clients seems to go something like this:

No sooner than you can say, "Okay what’s your problem?", the wretches launch into their tales of woe, gesturing toward the heavens and rending their garments, and as soon as you start making some sense of their ranting you counterattack with a barrage of the applicable legal theories, statutes, dicta and excerpts from Plato’s Republic that will allow you to pluck them from deep water.

Then you thank them for coming and head for the coffee machine.

Now, there’s not a thing wrong with this approach ... if you’re satisfied never to rise above the level of fixer, junior grade. But if you want to build your practice, to be a consistent source of work for yourself and for your firm, to be a star ... well, you’ve got to learn to use your initial consultation to milk your clients until they moo.

"Let’s Get Better Acquainted"

There are four basic components of client development: prospecting, referral source cultivation, cross-selling, and client relations.

The busy attorney can forget about prospecting, unless it’s something that comes naturally. Prospecting is a labor-intensive, high-risk activity that few lawyers ever try, much less master.

But the three other legs of the stool are essential, and you can often knock out 75% of what you need to do in those areas by simply making smarter use of your early face-to-face meetings with a client.

Step one in turning the initial consultation into a client development activity is to resist the urge to fixate on the client’s problems and solutions at the exclusion of all else. After you’ve learned what you need to know to take care of your client’s legal need, and after you’ve adequately explained what you plan to do about it, take a deep breath. Turn off your meter. Then tell them you’d like to take a few minutes to get better acquainted:

  • How did you choose me? How do you know whoever it was who referred you to me?

  • What other lawyers, CPAs, professional advisors, etc., do you use?

  • What’s it going to take to make you happy?

  • Tell me about your company.

  • Let me tell you about our firm.

"How Did You Choose Me?"

Even if your secretary or the client intake sheet has told you who sent this person to you, feign ignorance. Ask them who recommended you.

If you recognize the referral source’s name, say nice things about them. If you don’t know the referral source from Adam, come clean. Faking it ("Ah, yes" accompanied by a nod and a knowing smile) deprives you of a chance to know who's really referring work to you, lavish ethics-compliant gifts on them, and gain a better understanding of what clients put themselves through to find the right lawyer.

Then, as soon as the client is out the door, call the referral source or dash off a note or gift to thank them for the referral, and give their name and address to your secretary for future contact.

"Who Else Advises You?"

Making thorough use of the initial consultation helps you treat your clients as people, not as files, and generate more work without burning up time and money.

If your new client is a business owner or a person of means, they probably have a stable of other professional advisors. Your mission is to find out who they are so you can kiss up to – that is, establish an effective working relationship with – them. For example:

"Who’s your CPA?" Accountants can be very good referral sources, and you want to know who your clients use.

If they don’t have a CPA or think the one they use isn’t funny enough, that gives you an opening to recommend a CPA from whom you’d like to receive referrals. The beneficiary of your referral may feel duty-bound to return the favor.

If they do have a CPA, jot down his name and, after the client’s gone, call him up, introduce yourself, and let him know that you have a mutual client, that you’ll probably be working together at some point, and that you should do lunch or something so that you can proselytize his other clients, too. (CPAs are just one example. You can run the same drill with their banker or anybody they use who can send you work.)

This is a really clever technique, and you will feel like Tarzan after you pull it off. More important, you may legitimately unearth important needs that you can help satisfy, and you will upgrade your role in the eyes of your client from that of temporary hired gun to long-term professional advisor.

"What’s It Going to Take to Make You Happy?"

This is where the rubber meets the road, client relations-wise. Asking a few simple questions about the client’s expectations can help you ward off problems that kill a potentially good client relationship.

  • What do you expect regarding the outcome? If you let clients leave your office expecting to win the sun and the moon in this lawsuit, when you know they’ll be lucky to still have their butterfly collection, you need to set them straight.

  • What have you liked and disliked about your former attorneys? This gives you a chance to avoid making the same problems that prompted them to fire your predecessors.

  • What do you expect from me in the way of service? By gaining a clear understanding of what your client wants and doesn’t want from you in the way of service, communication and accessibility, you can tailor what you do to meet the expectations of that client, rather than try to make all of your clients conform to your normal way of doing business.

When the gods of the legal process frown on you, knowing and responding to what each client likes and dislikes may be the one thing that saves an otherwise doomed relationship.

"Tell Me about Your Company"

This question opens the door to major cross-selling opportunities. As clients describe their business, try to anticipate other legal services that they or their company may need at some point.

Pick the most obvious (or lucrative) other legal need and, as you walk them back to the lobby, swing by the office of the appropriate attorney for a how-do-you-do. Tell the client, "You know, some day you may need some help with (fill in the blank), and if that happens, Margaret here is the best darned (type of law) lawyer in the world."

This is not selling, and your client should not interpret it as selling. Unless you’re an utter buffoon when it comes to stuff like this, you should rack up another opportunity to show your client you care. And, in the process, more work will come to you and the firm.

"Let Me Tell You About Our Firm"

I have a theory that has yet to be disproved: Most clients assume that every attorney in your firm practices exactly the same kind of law that you do, unless you tell them differently.

As a consequence, the next time your real estate client has an income tax problem, he may not even think to ask you if your firm has someone who can help him. He’ll start from scratch and end up with some boutique full of egghead tax lawyers who send Victoria’s Secret catalogs to his CPA.

You can ward off the problems associated with client ignorance by talking about your firm. ("You should know that we have over 60 attorneys here, and we don’t all specialize in pederasty defense. We also do securities litigation and admiralty law.")

You not only lessen the risk of having clients go elsewhere out of ignorance, but you also convey pride in your firm and a spirit of collegiality. Most clients like that.

("How Can You Become a Referral Source?")

Clients are funny. If you don’t talk to them about referrals, they often figure you don’t need any. This is especially true if you’re bad at returning phone calls. Your clients can’t be faulted for assuming that if you’re too busy to talk to them, you certainly must be too busy to help anybody new.

It’s easy to solicit referrals from a client without coming across like a New York Life agent. Rather than locking them in your office until they give you the names of 10 friends who need a stay-lift, try this no-risk come-on:

"About three-fourths of my clients are referred to me by people I’ve already helped. I’m looking forward to working with you in this matter, and I’d be pleased to meet with anyone else you know who should ever need an attorney."

People, Not Files

Making thorough use of the initial consultation helps you treat your clients as people, not as files. That’s an important first step toward consistently generating more work for yourself and your firm, without burning up large chunks of precious time and money to "market" your practice.

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