How can you work smarter?

“You’re working too hard.  Why don’t you look for ways to work smarter?”  That was a key element of the feedback I received during this quarter’s mastermind meeting.  After hearing my colleagues’ suggestions, I put some new practices in place to help me work smarter, and I do believe I can already see a difference.

And you’ve no doubt heard this distinction before.  All sorts of management experts talk about how to work more efficiently, more effectively, maximizing the results of time.  Some of them even have good ideas.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to say that practicing law is hard work.  I don’t have any question that it is challenging and demanding, for reasons that I’ve mentioned numerous times.  When clients question whether it’s possible to “work smart” in practice, my answer is a resounding yes.

Working smart means managing your physical environment.  If you take the time to keep your desk clear, so it’s always easy to locate the files and the resources you need.  Nothing wastes time like clutter.  The simple act of taking an extra 5-10 minutes to clear and tidy your work area at the end of the day can yield significant time savings.  I had to learn this the hard way, but having learned it, it’s become a standard for myself in the office.

Working smart means managing energy.  If I’m exhausted and I try to power through rather than resting, chances are good that it’ll take me more time than usual to accomplish anything.  I’ll make more mistakes, and I won’t be as creative as I might otherwise be.  I’ve put structures in place to take advantage of my energy rhythms (you’ll often find me at my desk working at 6 AM, but only rarely after 6 PM) and I’ve been working to enhance my energy with enough rest, enough exercise, good hydration and nutrition, and fun.

Working smart means managing commitments.  It’s easy to say yes to every demand, but it just isn’t smart.  Making intentional and purposeful decisions about which commitments to accept and which to decline allows me to avoid the frazzled, frantic pace that undermines good work.  By the same token, I aim to prioritize my work so that I accomplish what’s most important first.

Working smart means managing people.  Good delegation enhances effective work.  Whether it’s requesting research or asking an assistant to draft routine communications for my review and editing, delegation frees my time so I can concentrate on doing the things that others can’t do.  (Thanks to our global marketplace, getting help is easier and less expensive than ever before.  I’m hiring.  Should you?) 

It’s important to note that what’s smarter for one person will be useless for another.  You must identify what makes sense for your practice, your preferences, and your clients.

Does any of this mean that it’s possible to take shortcuts and reap the rewards of practice without putting in plenty of time and effort?  Absolutely not.  But attention to smart management will make the time and effort you put into your practice pay maximum rewards.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!

All in Good Time

One of the top concerns for most lawyers is time management.  We all have so much to accomplish in so little time, and it often seems that we’re always trying to cram more activities (whether professional or personal) into the non-negotiable 168 hours we have each week.  Most of my coaching clients bring time management issues to the table at some point, and time pressures are largely responsible for the high levels of stress that many lawyers face.

One distinction, “urgent” versus “important,” can form the basis for effective time management.  Urgent vs. important is a simple distinction that applies equally to the substance of a lawyer’s work as well as to practice or career management.  Stephen Covey has written about time use and devised a four-quadrant chart to help us judge where we spend most of our time:

QUADRANT I
Urgent and Important
:  Crises, problems, deadline-driven projects.  Preparing for a client meeting that will occur in a few hours is a Quadrant I activity.  Hallmarks of Quadrant I activity include intense focus, high stress, and limited opportunity for review and reflection.

QUADRANT II
Not Urgent, but Important
:  Preparation, problem prevention, planning, relationship building, values clarification, true recreation (”re-creation”).  Preparing for a client meeting that will occur in several days is a Quadrant II activity.  When you’re operating in Quadrant II, you’ll likely be focused (because your task is important) but you’ll feel less pressure and you’ll have more opportunity to consider all aspects of what you’re doing simply because you’re not staring down the barrel of a deadline.

QUADRANT III
Urgent, but Not Important:
Interruptions, some phone calls, some meetings, some email.   When you’re forced to deal with something that’s not especially important at a certain time, you’re in Quadrant III.

QUANDRANT IV
Not Urgent, Not Important:
Junk mail, spam, busywork, trivia, “escape” activities, mindless web surfing, etc.  We all spend time in Quadrant IV, but spending time on those activities produces little or no meaningful results because the activities by definition are not meaningful.

Where do you spend most of your time?  While it’s undeniable that Quadrant I requires attention and Quadrant III calls for attention (though the call may be illusory), Quadrant II is the critical zone.  That’s where the real work occurs that truly moves us forward.

Clients appreciate lawyers who work in Quadrant II.  All too often, lawyers send important documents to their clients and request a fast response.  That’s disrespectful of the client’s time.  It creates the impression that the lawyer simply couldn’t get his or her act together in time to plan in advance and complete the work early enough to allow the client time for meaningful review.  Clients appreciate lawyers who handle matters during an emergency, but they tend to resent those who act as if every event is an emergency.  Living in Quadrant II will increase the quality of your client service.

I worked with a client I’ll call Sheri, who was having a great deal of trouble getting everything done that she needed to in the office.  She found herself staying at the office later and later, then going in earlier and earlier, and before long she was exhausted and angry that her personal life had disappeared.  We started with the urgent/important distinction and looked at the kinds of tasks on her “to do” list through that lens.

After our first conversation, Sheri cut Quadrant IV activities completely and worked to get better at identifying Quadrant III activities so she could eliminate as many of those as possible.  And then she looked at the Quadrant I tasks she’d listed to see whether any could be delegated or otherwise handled.  And then our focus shifted to Quadrant II.

Sheri developed a schedule that guaranteed her planning and strategizing time (pure Quadrant II activities) and found that by spending time on those tasks, she was able to prevent problems and facilitate the orderly accomplishment of important aims.  Her stress level decreased, as did the number of hours she had to spend putting out fires.  Most importantly, when she did have to put out a fire, it was a real emergency, not a self-created one.

Your assignment for the week: look at how you spend your time.  Review this week’s task list and mark every item according to its quadrant.  If they’re all Quadrant I, you have plenty of room for improvement.  And then, take a moment at the end of each day to look back at how you actually spent the day.  Did you spent 30 minutes looking for a file or other document?  Did you spend so much time sending “one quick email” that you didn’t even get to your top five tasks for the day?

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate!

Task Management – simplified!

Have you ever had this experience?  You’re lying in bed, just about to go to sleep, drifting off even, until it hits you.  That thing that you meant to do today?  You forgot.  Suddenly, your brain is on full alert, and you’re promising yourself that you’ll remember to do it tomorrow.  Just like you promised last night.  You lock the task in your memory and then lie there, unable to relax, just hoping that you don’t forget it again tomorrow..

We all face challenges, and managing time and tasks is probably one of the most universal.  When you’re juggling work to be completed for clients, business development activities, administrative work, professional development and training, plus personal tasks, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially if you don’t keep a running, written “to do” list.

Chances are, you’re a bright person with a good memory.  You may even rely on your memory more than you really should.  If you’re keeping a running list of things you need to accomplish in your head, not on paper, you’re committing a foundational mistake that will cost you peace of mind – and it may even cost you clients.

The solution?  An easy 3-step process:

  1.  Keep a running list of all tasks, both business and personal.  (You’ll need to accomplish all these tasks, so why separate those lists?)  Whenever you think of something you need to do, it goes on the list.  Every.  Single.  Time.
  2. Create a list of weekly “to do” items from your master list.
  3. At the end of each day, draw up a daily “to do” list from your weekly list, supplemented with whatever additions are necessary.

By writing down every task as it arises, you free yourself from the mental “to do” list that will float around the back of your mind, distracting you from what you’re actually doing or, perhaps, chiming in too late to get the task done.  You must train yourself to write everything down.

Create a system for capturing your task list that matches your life.  If you do most of your work in a single location, you might create a word processing document or spreadsheet that lists the project (by client name or number, for example), the specific task, the category (client work, administrative, vacation planning, etc.), and the due date.   Be sure you can sort based on each of these so you can know at a glance, for instance, what’s due when or how much work you have to do for each client.

If you frequently travel, you’ll want to look for a more robust solution that will sync your computer and wireless devices.  A few that I’ve used or that clients have recommended:

Finally, since looking for a new “to do” list organizer likely wasn’t on your task list for today, try this handy gadget for marking those web pages for later comparison.

Taking Risks

Failure is often a difficult topic for high performers. After all, those who achieve much do so by making it a habit to avoid failure.  More than a few times, when I’ve talked with my own coach, the conversation has ended up with me saying, “Well, that’s fine, but failure just isn’t an option for me.  I don’t do that.” How ridiculous – and also, perhaps, how familiar.

I’ve failed plenty of times. When it comes to business, my goal is to fail quickly if I’m going to fail.  When a task is important, failure often leads to a better-informed next attempt, which usually leads (directly or not) to success.  So, when failure is inevitable, fast failure is the way to go.

And yet, failure is still unpalatable to me.  Is it to you, as well?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a client and out popped what I believe to be a truism: You cannot succeed unless you’re willing to fail.  This was reinforced in a story I read recently about a ne’er-do-well door-to-door salesman.  He’d march up to someone’s doorstep, extend his finger to press the doorbell, and then pull back, muttering, “She won’t buy anything.”  And he’d turn around, guaranteeing his failure on that potential sale.  No wonder he was a ne’er-do-well.

Now, most of us don’t do door-to-door sales, but the principle is just the same. You must take a risk to have any chance of success.  Whether it’s reaching out to a potential client, asking a current client how they think things are going, or stepping onto a stage (literal or figurative) to make a presentation to some of your ideal clients, if you don’t risk, you don’t get.

Where is your aversion to risk causing you to stop? After I talked with my client, I challenged myself to write down all of the things I’m holding back on doing because I realistically think I might fail, and then to come up with a way to mitigate that risk.  I quickly produced a fresh to-do list.  Even though I might fail, I also may succeed on my first shot with those items, thanks to this five-minute exercise.

Today, I invite you to do this quick exercise yourself, specifically in the realm of business development: 

  1. What are you avoiding for fear of failure? List three to five items, both general (attending a networking luncheon) and specific (calling the promising contact you met last week who promised to call you but didn’t).
  2. What are the consequences if you do fail? Consider the financial, professional, reputational, and emotional risks.  Don’t overstate them; despite your first response, chances are good that you won’t actually die.  However, if a misstep could constitute professional suicide (with an ethics violation, for example), you need to get absolute clarity before you move forward.
  3. How might your mitigate the risks? Consider steps such as running a limited test, having a conversation to try out your idea on clients and/or former clients, or launching your idea in phases.  If you’re not sure what to do, seek help from a mentor or consultant.
  4. Choose one or two actions to take, with the modifications you made in step three. 

I don’t encourage failure. However, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  Take some calculated risks. If you fail (as sometimes you will), make it your practice to just back into action quickly, with a better appreciation of what you might do differently so that each attempt increases your chances of success.

What’s the Problem?

When you aren’t achieving the results you want to see from your business development activity, you almost certainly have one of three problems. Identify the problem, make a thoughtful shift, and you will likely see your results change. (The difficulty, of course, is in knowing what change to make, but that’s another topic for another day.)

So, what are the three problems?

  1. Not enough quality potential clients (directly or by referral). You may not be having enough conversations that lead to a “getting the business” conversations, or you may be having plenty of conversations, but with the wrong people. For instance, if you’re having numerous business conversations that don’t intersect with your area of practice, you have a “leads” problem. (Unless, that is, those conversations lead to your bringing business to a colleague and getting an origination credit even though you personally aren’t doing the work.)
  1. Not enough sales conversations, or not being able to close the sale. Your connections may stall short of an opportunity to discuss a specific legal problem that your prospective client has and to offer your services, or you may find that you’re unable actually to land the work. You won’t be able to grow a sizable or a stable book of business until you solve a sales-related problem.
  1. Poor client service. If you don’t serve your clients well (in what you do for them as well as how you provide that service), you’ll have dissatisfied clients. Studies show that unhappy clients often don’t communicate their dissatisfaction but simply take their business elsewhere, leaving the former service provider unclear on what happened. If you’re losing clients often, if you aren’t receiving referrals from your clients, or if your clients have repeat business that doesn’t come to you, you have a problem with client service. Although this problem will initially affect your work with current clients, it will eventually undermine your opportunity to secure new work.

Do you have a problem in one (or more) of these areas?  Identifying the problem gives you an opportunity to identify an appropriate solution. 

Why bother?

Social media is among the hottest activities online.  It comes in many different flavors: the “big 3” (LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter), Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+, and many others.  When done in a way that generates conversation and connections, blogging becomes one of the most effective social media platforms available.  And yet, using any of these platforms takes time and effort.

The biggest question I encounter about social media is, Why bother?  It’s a fair question, especially given the number of lawyers who complain publicly about the lack of results from marketing via social media.  The three key reasons to use social media, however, also suggest how to use it effectively and why you should bother.

  1. Use social media to build connections.  Depending on the platform you use, you may build collegial connections to serve as a sounding board for tough practice questions or you may build connections within your target market industry or individuals.  As with in-person connections, social media contacts may refer clients to you, request co-counsel assistance, or point you toward opportunities that you might otherwise miss.

    Isolation is bad for practice building.  Social media allows you to build a wide web of connections that reaches beyond geographic limits, without requiring the time and travel required for in-person meetings.  However, don’t assume that an online-only connection holds the same value as an offline connection.  Take valuable contacts to face-to-face or telephone meetings so that you can cement relationships.  You may also use social media to further develop offline relationships through repeated exposure.

    Remember to put the “social” in social media.  Engage and interact rather than simply shouting about your latest adventure.

  2. Use social media to build your expertise and develop others’ perception of your knowledge.  Answer questions (exercising, of course, due care as you do so), share relevant articles or blog posts you’ve written, and share slides from helpful presentations.  Doing so not only assists your social media contacts, but it also builds a digital footprint that helps others to assess your knowledge in your area of practice.

    Even in the absence of interaction (for instance, the vast majority of blog readers will not post comments or otherwise interact with the author), creating and sharing content related to your practice elevates the perception of your expertise.  Rather than being someone who simply recounts experience that suggests skill, you have the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and insight.  If you use social media for this purpose, your top task is to curate information, selecting what’s likely to be most relevant for your readers, and to provide the “so what” analysis that goes beyond mere reporting.

  3. Use social media to let others “meet” you before they even decide to contact you.  Social media creates the opportunity to build relationships that facilitate in-person relationships.  For example, I recently met a new client face-to-face for the first time.  Although we had not met previously, we felt as if we had because we’d seen each others’ social media postings and videos.  Social media had given us the opportunity to experience one another without actually meeting, and our first face-to-face meeting had an air of familiarity as a result.

    Especially if your clients may be a bit leery of contacting you, this opportunity offers significant advantages.  Social media exposure gives the potential client the opportunity to get to know, like, and trust you without ever interacting with you.  That familiarity with you (especially when it’s buttressed by evidence of your relevant knowledge and skill) creates comfort that may be lacking otherwise.

Social media has many additional purposes, but these three are foundational.  If you’re using social media, you should be fulfilling at least one of these purposes and preferably all three.

What’s your social media plan?  And how consistently successful are you in implementing it?

To all my readers in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving

Mix Work & Play for Fun & Profit

Clients often tell me that they socialize with friends and acquaintances who would make wonderful clients and/or referral sources.  And yet, no one wants to be that awful person who’s always shilling for business from social contacts, missing the “leave me alone” vibes.

But what a waste to nod along with a zipped lip when you might be able to benefit your contact and yourself by bringing business into the conversation.  We’ve all had the experience of wishing we could turn up some help with a thorny issue, and if you can offer the help, shouldn’t you?

The truth is that it’s easier to stay silent and avoid any chance of giving offense.  But what if you could briefly share what you do and suggest that you might be able to help, then turn back to pure socializing?

Mastering that art will benefit you, in getting a new opportunity, and benefit your contact, in finding a useful resource.  So, how can you talk business at a social gathering without risk?

  1. Discover the opportunity.  When you hear something that makes you think you might be able to help, listen for whatever your contact is sharing.
  2. Share your observation.  Whether you’re talking to your best friend or a complete stranger, there’s a good chance that she doesn’t know or hasn’t realized that what she’s discussing has any overlap with your practice.Your comment can be as quick as, “You know, I handle issues like that for my clients all the time.”  Or in a referral-related setting, perhaps you’d say, “It sounds like there’s some overlap in the kinds of clients we serve (or issues we address).”
  3. Watch the reaction.  You may get an unmistakable “tell me more” signal that invites you to proceed with business conversation right then.  Or you might get a polite, “Oh, is that so.”
  4. Offer to meet at anther time to talk about your shared interests.  Even if the person with whom you’re talking wants to go into a deeper business conversation on the spot, I suggest that you make an appointment to meet at a later time for that conversation.By doing so, you’ll separate business from social conversation, avoid having someone overhear a private conversation, and eliminate the risk of offering free, off-the-cuff advice.  Even if you agree to step outside the party or to move to your host’s home office, be sure to create a physical separation.

    A simple invitation is sufficient, such as “This isn’t really the time or place, but I’d love to talk with you and see if I might be able to help with that.”   You’ll gauge your next steps (exchanging cards, setting an appointment to talk again, or moving to another location) based on your contact’s response. 

  5. Approach the business conversation as an extension of a social relationship.  Even though you’ve moved to separate the business context from the social, your conversation will likely retain some familiarity.   At the same time, your business relationship must exist apart from a social relationship, and it’s likely up to you to set the appropriate professional boundaries.

As you move into summer socializing (whether that’s now or in six months from now), look for opportunities to spring from pure social contacts into business, and look with a light touch.  When done deftly, you’ll find that all of your relationships benefit as a result.

Set Yourself Apart

Sometimes I review lawyers’ marketing materials and get bored because “professional” is so often misinterpreted as a straightjacket.  Everyone has “years of experience” that will “create value” for their clients through “excellent client service.”  Important, necessary, but oh-so-very-dull, isn’t it?  In today’s economy, if that’s all you can say about yourself and your practice, you’re in trouble.

Do you ever feel that you’re just one lawyer in a large sea of clones?  Many lawyers wonder how to distinguish themselves from the hundreds or thousands of other lawyers occupying the same niche. Though the question may fade through development of specific expertise in a niche, it almost always re-emerges when a lawyer is preparing to grow her practice or is considering some shift in substantive areas.

Differentiation from other lawyers and law firms is important in marketing and business development conversations.  (A copywriter friend who’s helping me to prepare a new website has the fantastic tagline: It’s ok to fit in, but it’s better to stand out.  So true!)  As professionals, there are certain rules to follow and certain statements you must include, but looking like everyone else will do you no favors.

How can you differentiate yourself? While the options are potentially limitless, three examples may help you to create your own ideas.

  1. My background is in patent litigation, and when in practice I often referred to the Patently-O Blog by Dennis Crouch. Patently-O is known for, among other things, its full coverage of every patent case decided by the Federal Circuit. It is the go-to reference for patent law developments. I was astonished when I learned that Dennis started the blog less than a year after being admitted to practice. Crouch has since moved on to academia, a move that was quite likely assisted by his blogging efforts as well as his other credentials.It is overstatement to say, “blog it and they will come,” but blogging provides a platform through which a lawyer may share resources, analysis, and enough personal content to become known to readers. Blogging is a good way to build your reputation as an expert in your field. It’s also a good way to begin to form relationships with other bloggers and, perhaps, with your readers. Of course, there’s work to be done (in defining the scope of the blog, writing the posts, and engaging with others) but if done correctly, it’s a fabulous avenue. Read more here from the masters of legal blogging, LexBlog.
  1. Create a unique experience for your clients. What can you offer clients that other lawyers can’t, or don’t? The opportunities vary widely by practice area, but any value-added service is a good step toward differentiation.And remember: how you practice is just as important as what you do in practice. Be attentive to the habits that may set you apart from others. Opportunities to set yourself apart abound: quick responses to telephone calls and emails, regular case updates, and educational resources on topics such as how to prepare to give deposition/trial testimony or what to consider when getting ready to make estate plans, to give a few examples.

    Another idea: introduce your client to every member of your legal team who will be involved with the representation. Even something as quick as an introductory letter identifying other lawyers, paralegals, and office assistants (complete with contact information) that is signed by each member of the team can offer a client comfort when contacting your office. Consider, of course, what is appropriate for your practice: what will impress a family law client may be radically different from what will impress the CEO or general counsel of a multi-million dollar corporation. (Or it may not.  Think!)

  2. Beyond adding value for your clients, look for ways to create value for them. If your clients’ children often accompany them for visits to your office, have some books and toys in a kid-friendly corner. If you become aware of a new issue or development that your clients need to understand better, create a presentation or an article that you can use to educate them, about the development and (more importantly) what it means for your clients and what they need to do in response. What can you bring to an engagement that others can’t or don’t?
  3. Become active and visible in the community. Volunteering, serving on boards, or working with non-profits in other capacities is a good way to become known. It provides a context and opening for conversations that reluctant networkers may find more comfortable. Your pro bono work may even present you the opportunity to offer guidance and suggestions that serve as a taste of the service you offer clients. Moreover, you may have opportunities to speak or write through these channels, both of which will serve to raise your profile.

Get clear about what makes you different and communicate that. If you want to differentiate yourself from other practitioners, it’s imperative to connect with an internal compass that will point to what does indeed make you different. If you don’t know what that is, you won’t be able to convince anyone else.

 

Trading on a margin?

When I shifted from practicing law to consulting and coaching, I realized that it’s critical for me to protect my own time and energy.  I began to get a deeper understanding that in a very real way, I am my own product and I must protect that product.  The irony, of course, is that the same was true when I was in practice.  My hunch is that if I’d come to this realization sooner, I would have been less stressed out and I probably would have accomplished more.

One of the tools that’s been most important to me is building margins into my schedule.  Rather than scheduling myself back-to-back, I leave gaps throughout the day so that I can catch a breath, handle the small fires that inevitably arise, and take advantage of new opportunities that pop up.  The gaps can be fairly small, such as leaving 15 extra minutes on either side of an appointment so I don’t need to worry if we run a few minutes long.  Sometimes, a gap can be as simple as a pause between calls to grab a glass of water, stretch a bit, and breathe deeply to get the oxygen and energy flowing.

When working on a big project, though, a big margin is helpful.  That’s why I shudder a bit when a potential client calls me and tells me that it’s urgent to build his clientele because he has only two months of expense money in the bank or because she’s expecting to be up for partner in the next year.  Is it possible to build a solid book of business quickly?  Of course.  Is it probable?  Not on a tight deadline.

Resolve to add margins into your plans.    How?  Consider these approaches:

  1. Wherever possible, build time between appointments into your schedule.  When that isn’t possible, make a conscious decision to move your body and your mind between appointments to create a shift in your own energy.  Doing so will improve your ability to take on the next appointment with a fresh mind.
  2. When you’re working on a big project, estimate the amount of time it will take and add up to 25% of that time as a cushion.  If your goal is to design and host a client seminar and you expect to need six weeks as lead time, allow yourself eight weeks.
  3. Use project management principles to plan out all of the steps in your project and take advantage of technology so that you can shift the steps and schedules as necessary.  At times, despite your best effort, you will need to adjust your schedule or your project despite building in margins.  Using a task management system that automatically shifts intermediate deadlines when a project deadline changes will minimize the time you’ll need to spend on designing the deadlines so you can maximize your time on the project itself.
  4. When others are involved, communicate not only the deadline but also the margin – but do so selectively.  If a team member is a relentless procrastinator, you might choose not to include your margin when discussing timelines.
  5. Underpromise and overdeliver, especially with clients.  This has become something of a cliché in recent years, but its validity is beyond reproach.  If you promise a client or a potential client something, be sure to allow yourself extra time just in case your plans go awry.  Far better to promise a deliverable for Friday and provide it on Wednesday than vice versa.

When you add in margin, you increase the chances that you will be able to stick to the schedule, you create opportunities to respond to intervening circumstances as they occur, and you set yourself up for reduced stress.  Will margins always work?  No.  Projects sometimes go haywire.  “No fail” software systems fail.  Critical team members get sick.  When that happens, you’ll have to adjust, but building in a margin in advance means that your magnitude of adjustment will be less.

Where do you need to build margins into your schedule?

A Tale of Two Sales

I went shopping a few weekends ago.  I’m in the market for a new car, and I need a dark rose or burgundy tablecloth for my dining room table.  I haven’t purchased either just yet (though I’m moving closer), but two very different sales experiences have offered plenty of insight.

Saturday afternoon, I went to the home department of a local department store and asked for tablecloths.  The sales associate (Michele) told me that the store no longer carries tablecloths in the stores, only online.  Great, I said, turning away, I’ll take a look.

But Michele wasn’t done.  She asked what size my table is, and what color and fabric I was hoping to find. Michele suggested that I send her the dimensions on my table and offered to make the first cut of the hundreds of tablecloths I’d find online to narrow down to the ten or so that I might actually consider.  I can’t wait to see what she finds.  It’s an extra step, but how nice to have someone willing to shepherd me through the search and guide me based on my needs.  That’s service.

What was right about this sales experience: Michele’s questions and suggestions were directed toward helping me get what I want and need with the least amount of effort and trouble on my end.  As a result, I left feeling that she was helping me, not just out to get a sale, even though I’m sure she’ll get a commission if I order through her.  Our exchange wasn’t about the sale.  It was about the service.

Next story: Sunday afternoon, I went to the car dealership where I take my almost 14-year old car for service.  It’s time for a new car, and my only questions were regarding the model, and whether I could find a color I’d like.  I’d done some nosing around online, so I just needed to drive the cars and to get a little more information.

A salesman walked up right away, and I told him I was interested in model XYZ.  I mentioned that I’d looked at it online.  The salesman said that online research would give me the most information, and he invited me to come back when I was ready to place an order.  A bit surprised, I asked whether he was telling me that he’d recommend I decide based on my online experience only, and he said yes.  He also told me that stock of the car I’m interested in was limited, so I would need to place an order within the week.  As he started to walk away, I mentioned that the colors shown online were rather dull (several shades of grey, black, white, and just one blue) and that there was some suggestion that other colors might be available.  I don’t control colors, he said, what you see online is what there is.  And with that, he walked away.

After doing a bit of looking at the models in the showroom to glean what I could about the differences, I returned to my computer and did a search to see what each dealership in my area had in inventory.  And there, in stock at the dealership I’d visited, was a car I loved: “passion red” exterior, beige interior, all the options I’d want plus a few I wouldn’t object to.  It was a bit more than I’d expected to pay, but if the salesman had shown me that car, chances are reasonably good that I’d own it right now.

What was wrong about this sales experience: where do I start?  First, the salesman sent me back to the Internet without even offering to point me to the most helpful parts of the website or to help me through the page after page of details.  He told me, in so many words, that his role was limited to taking an order.  And, most tellingly, he didn’t ask the basic questions that would have allowed him to discover that there was a car on his lot that matched what I was looking for.

What can you learn from these stories?

  1. If you’ve ever dreaded feeling “salesy” when offering your services to someone, consider how helpful it is to take a potential client by the hand to help him sort out his needs. What could be more of a service than helping someone to accomplish something they want to do, whether that’s buying a new car or developing an estate plan to care for her family?  Being in service and getting paid for it is not the same as selling something that’s unnecessary in an effort to make money.
  2. The Internet offers an ideal way for clients to get information before they speak with you, but chances are good that they need to know more before purchasing. Think of your website as an introduction of your “product” – and for attorneys, your product is a combination of your legal skills and how you bring them to the table.  But remember that even the best website is only a conversational opener, not the end of the conversation.
  3. When you speak with a potential client, be sure you ask enough questions to get a sense of her real needs. Not only will you discover what needs you need to address in talking about your service, but also you’ll show your client that you seek to meet her needs rather than offering a “one size fits all” approach that may not be a good fit.