Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What do your clients need?

Do you know what your clients need? Which services? The problems -- business critical problems, not legal ones -- they are trying to solve? That which keeps them awake at night? How can you find out? What do you need to know? How does knowing what they need translate into more work for you?
It isn't as easy as it might seem to obtain actionable intelligence about your client from that client herself. You need to do your homework before the conversation, run the discussion like an interview, and identify and execute follow-up. My thoughts on doing it right:
  • Make a list of your favorite clients, the ones you can't wait to work for, the ones that always pay your bills. These are your target clients, the only ones you should be chasing. Prioritize them based on your assessment of the opportunity for additional work (criteria include the strength of your relationship with the client, the size and scope of the client's legal needs, your ability to respond to those needs, the percentage of the client's legal work you're already doing, etc.).

  • Spend a few hours reading as much as you can about the first client on your list. It doesn't have to be done in a day or a week, but you need to know their business, their industry, their competition, their challenges, and most of all how they define success and how well they are achieving it. 

  • Make a list of what you believe to be the five critical business issues facing that first client. Do those issues have a legal element? Is it work you can credibly do? Are there upcoming developments in the law that will impact your client's ability to do business and succeed? 

  • Have a conversation with your client, on the phone or better yet in person, at a place and time where you can have a meaningful conversation. Ask her questions about her business, her industry, her competitors, her challenges, how she defines success. Use the knowledge you learned to in your research to sound like you know her business better than she does. Ask a lot of questions without answering them yourself. Talk about the legal elements of her business issues as if you've already solved her problems. Listen to what she tells you. 

  • After that discussion, armed with everything you learned, identify three things you can do for your client that will help her be smart or happy or successful or all three. They don't have to be complicated. In fact, the more complicated they are the less likely you are to do them. Things like "send two-paragraph summary of pending labelling legislation" or "identify cross-border tax specialist with shipping expertise" or even "invite to concert in late June." 

  • Do the things on your list. Without fail. Don't put them off, don't talk yourself out of them, don't forget. Do them as soon as you can, then come up with three more and do them too. And three more after you've done those. Keep doing things for your client, things that will help her be smart or happy or successful or all of the above, and she'll soon think you're the best lawyer she's ever met, the lawyer who provides real value, the lawyer who will be getting more and more of her work. 

  • When you're at a point where you are regularly demonstrating your value to that client, move to the next one on your list. You should be working on two or three client relationships at a time, enough to keep your opportunity pipeline flowing, but not requiring so much time that you end up doing nothing or, worse yet, not meeting the obligations of your practice. The goal is to keep looking ahead, to maximize the value of your business development time, to minimize the burdens, all the while producing results.
I'm sure all of you have your own ideas that work. Please share them as comments to this post so that other readers can benefit. 
One last thought: if your clients are not having meaningful discussions with you, they'll have them with your competition. Which do you think is the better scenario? 


  1. Good advice, as always. My only comment is that your point #4 "Have a conversation with the client..." is one of the toughest tasks to accomplish due to classic "call reluctance." Without delving into the psychological background, it suffices to say that many lawyers are uncomfortable with what they perceive to be a "cold call" and many clients don't have the time for endless "What keeps you up at night" discussions with all of their present, past and future outside counsel, so they can be brusque and feed the fears of the already nervous lawyer. There's no easy answer but it helps to have a reason to call, and to build credibility before diving into the Q&A. Recently I participated in a webinar where another panelist spent the first half of his remarks pitching his product and the second half providing a fantastic overview of the market he served. Unfortunately he had lost the audience before he got to the good stuff. Had he reversed the order, he would've "bought" permission to pitch his product. Similarly, it helps for the lawyer to be armed with something helpful when making the call -- which helps his/her psyche because it's not a cold call, and the client will be more receptive to spending a little Q&A time. Again, no right or wrong approach here and mileage may vary, but it helps to be prepared. (Timothy B. Corcoran /

  2. Thanks, Tim, for the thoughtful comment. I agree both wholeheartedly and sheepishly, as I should have thought about this myself. Getting over call reluctance is tough for anyone, especially lawyers, who have been trained to know the answer before they ask the question. One way I help people get around this is to prepare for the client conversation with a comprehensive script that includes small talk, proof points, advice, questions, etc. I also try to get lawyers to think of these conversations not as BD efforts, but as opportunities to help someone they like and appreciate. If you're helping a friend solve a really important problem, it moves the conversation to a completely different level. Finally, there absolutely needs to be a reason to call, a reason that justifies the client picking up the phone, let alone taking an hour of time to talk to her lawyer.

    Thanks again for raising this point.


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