Messaging

I ran across a nice article this week that will help: How Doctors (or Anyone) Can Craft a More Persuasive Message. The article centers on the distinction between the message and the messenger, which is certainly critical, but it also offers three simple factors that you can use to form a more persuasive message.

  1. Expertise. Convey your expertise using “authority cues.” For a doctor, those cues might include a display of medical diplomas or the choice to wear a stethoscope. How does your office cue the perception that you are an authority in your field? What about your presence? Pay attention to both where you choose to have a conversation with a prospective client and how you present yourself.
  2. Trustworthiness. Generally speaking, you won’t be able to present an approach as a 100% ironclad certainty. The article suggests sequencing your message by sharing uncertainty just before delivering your strongest argument. How else might you convey that you’re trustworthy? For a potential client, think about the message you send when you’re on time for an appointment (or not), when you’re able to talk easily about your client’s business and/or legal situation (or not), and when you exhibit strong leadership presence (or not).
  3. Similarity. How can you signal that you and your prospective client are similar, without undermining your expertise? Language is important here: using legal terms of art with sophisticated legal consumers, for example, and more ordinary language with those less accustomed to addressing the legal issues at hand. You might also seek ways to demonstrate shared business values as well as other sources of common ground.

Read the article for insight on how you might communicate more persuasively. And where you have a choice in forming a team approach to a business pitch, consider especially the article’s question about who’s likely to be the most effective messenger.

Create On-the-Spot Systems for Simplifications

Quiz: what’s the task that’s on your list over and over, daily or weekly, that makes you groan every time you think about it?  Maybe it’s keeping your time, filing expense reports, updating your LinkedIn contacts, or reviewing and paying invoices.  Pick the one that nags at you the most, the one that feels like it’s always hanging over your head.

My “oh no, not this again” task is filing.  Even in our electronic age, I produce and receive a ton of paper.  Most of it gets scanned and then filed online, and accomplishing that is my most dreaded task that feels pointless yet necessary.  (Even when I’m able to delegate that to an assistant, the task is still there in some way, since I need to indicate how the filing should be done.)

My first job after law school was clerking for a federal District Court judge, and that’s where my dislike of filing began.  When I started, the senior clerk suggested taking Friday afternoons to update the case files, but I always wanted to crank out a little more “real” work to finish the week instead.  Result?  The senior clerk would face Monday morning with a clear desk and empty in-box, and I’d have a huge stack of papers and a feeling of dread.  After all, Monday is definitely for “real” work.  How and when to cram in the necessary but onerous task of filing?

Unfortunately, I didn’t master the task while I was clerking.  I always played catch-up and hated it, but not enough to change my pattern.  And then, while practicing, I figured it out: create an on-the-spot system to ensure that the necessary but annoying “non-work” tasks get done bit by bit, on a regular basis.  For filing, that means that I now tack on an extra minute or two to scan and save documents after I do the “real” work.  I rarely keep time now, but when I do, I keep a pad by my desk to make running notes and tally it up at the end of the day.  It’s ongoing (just like the annoying tasks) but it makes the irritation easier to handle because things don’t pile up.

How do you spot “on-the-spot system” tasks, and how do you create the system?  Seven steps.

  1. As you do your work, notice what “unthinking” tasks you do and dread over and over.
  2. Determine the central actions of the task.  Is it scan paper, save file, recycle paper, as with filing?  Is it categorizing receipts from a business trip?
  3. Determine how long that central action takes.  Is it something that could be accomplished “in the moment” rather than piling a lot up to handle all at once?  “In the moment” tasks are those than could be handled in one or two minutes, tops.  (Filing correspondence, yes; writing it, no.)  Is there a benefit to doing it all at once?  If so, you need a system, but not an on-the-spot system.
  4. Set aside time to clear yourself of the backlog.  Take an hour and respond to all of those LinkedIn requests or catch up on your billing.  Finish the dreaded task.  Notice the feeling of delight, and notice how quickly the next task of the same kind pops up.
  5. Create your in-the-moment system.  Starting immediately, scan and file each paper as it comes in.  Starting immediately, note your time as you work.  Starting immediately, put your receipts for business trips in envelopes labeled by client or by trip.  Whatever you do, begin it right away.  Otherwise, your system is doomed before it begins.
  6. Do the task as it arises, every time it arises.  Starting work?  Note the time and task.  Reviewing email (in your designated email review time, please) and see a LinkedIn request?  Click accept, then send a “great to connect” message, delete the email, and move on.  Whatever your task, do it without delay, and don’t let it mount up.
  7. When you slip (and you will) go back to step 4 and start over. 

One you get accustomed to your system, you’ll find it much easier to handle the small pieces of that annoying recurring task as they pop up.  You may even discover that someone else can help you and that tasks broken down to the central action are more delegable than you’d imagined.

The Romance (or Not) of Practicing Law and Getting Business

Over 10 years ago, David Maister (a now-retired advisor to professional services firms) wrote a brilliant article distinguishing the relational and transactional views of client relations.  Here’s the crux of Maister’s argument:

In The Trusted Advisor (Free Press, 2000), my coauthors and I pointed out that building trusting relationships with clients leads to many benefits: less fee resistance, more future work, more referrals to new clients, and more effective and harmonious work relationships with the clients.

However, many people have built their past success on having a transactional view of their clients, not a relationship one, and it is not clear that they really want to change. Stated bluntly, professionals say that they want the benefits of romance, yet they still act in ways that suggest that what they are really interested in is a one-night stand.

. . .

Most professional-to-client interactions involve little if any commitment to each other beyond the current deal. The prevailing principle is “buyer beware.” Mutual guardedness and suspicion exist, and the interaction is full of negotiation, bargaining, and adversarial activity. Both sides focus on the terms, conditions, and costs of temporary contact. Each side treats THEM as “different,” as “other.”

. . .

Moving from a one-night-stand (transactional) mentality to a romance (relationship) mindset is not about incremental actions, but requires a complete reversal of attitudes and behaviors. One approach is not necessarily “better” than another, but there is a real choice to be made.

 

In today’s post-recession legal economy, clients have more options than ever before. They can choose from a wide range of law firms (the size of firm and perceived expertise becomes only one factor to consider rather than the deciding factor in every instance), from numerous individuals, and even from outsourcing options that may rely on non-lawyers or technology. While transactions can be valuable, client relationships are the only certain route to building a strong foundation for a practice.

Consider this quote from the article: 

The real challenge, however, is for all of us as individuals, not as firms. Transactions are common because they involve less hard work and demand fewer skills. Ultimately, however, they are not in the best long-term interests of either professional or client. (emphasis added)

Mutual trust will allow both sides to get more of what they seek than continued mutual suspicion. Relationships are not more “noble” than transactions, but where they can be created they are much more profitable.

If you’ve never asked yourself whether you want relationships or one-night stands with clients, go read Maister’s article and ask yourself now. The topic was ripe in 2005, but it’s absolutely critical today.

Build client value

When you recognize a problem that a client is facing and you offer help, you create real value for your client. I’ve written previously about how an offhand conversation with my contractor Oldrich resulted in my purchasing property in Wyoming with his help. Making that purchase realized a long-term dream for me, and it created additional work for Oldrich and his team. Talk about a win/win, right?

In that instance, I identified the need, though I didn’t expect Oldrich to meet it. I was just asking a simple question that I hoped might take me to the next step. I was delighted when asking that question gave me not just information but real help. Oldrich created real professional value for me.

And that professional value is easy to translate to law. Whether you spot an issue as a result of a client’s offhand comment or because you happen across a new development that may impact your client, of course you know to bring that up with your client. Raising the issue is designed to bring value to the client, which may in turn bring additional fees to you. Because it’s the desire to serve your client that motivates you, this is a “no ick” opportunity. You can raise the issue without fear of appearing sales-oriented. Image to indicate offering help

(As an aside, legal or business issue spotting and offering to help with that issue is cross-selling at its best. Even though you hope that your firm might be selected to address the issue, when you start from the client’s need rather than your firm’s capability, you’re creating value rather than a sales opportunity.)

But what if you spot a personal issue? Is it ever appropriate to raise a personal issue to a client and offer to help? 

Here’s what happened in Wyoming to raise this question. Oldrich, who’s still working in Cheyenne, knew that my father was traveling with me and that he might have some challenges with the Wyoming altitude, which is more an a mile above the altitude in Atlanta. So Oldrich (who by this time is not just my contractor but my friend as well) reached out to Paul, the electrician who’d worked out the house, who also happens to be the assistant fire chief for a rural fire district. And on our second day in Cheyenne, Paul brought two canisters of oxygen to the house, showed me how to work them, and told me how to recognize signs of hypoxia.

A week after we arrived, I noticed that my father was displaying some of the symptoms Paul had mentioned, and I was able to give him oxygen while I checked his pulse rate. Although I did have to call 911 and my father did end up hospitalized, because Oldrich thought I should have oxygen handy and Paul provided the oxygen and the education, the hospital stay was short and his physical condition was much better than it would have been otherwise. I already knew that both Oldrich and Paul are highly skilled in their crafts, but this experience also showed me that they’re both thoughtful and kind, and I’m deeply grateful for the result.

How does this story apply to a law practice? It’s just the same. If you notice a way to offer personal help—sponsoring a client’s 50th anniversary celebration at your local club, introducing a client to a needed resource, even offering a recommendation for a new restaurant that you think your client would enjoy—by all means, offer it.

Be cognizant of the bounds of your relationship, but don’t overthink it. You might choose not to offer marital advice unless a client has become a good friend and has raised the issue, but you’ll rarely get in trouble for offering less charged assistance.

We’re suffering from a crisis of trust these days. We see too many politicians exploiting the public trust, too many respected athletes drugging to win their accolades, and too many businesses taking shortcuts to maximize profits despite the risk of harm to others.

Building a personal connection with your clients and offering needed help builds trust. If you aren’t skilled in your craft, personal trust won’t get or keep you hired, but when you do good work and build a relationship of trust, why would a client look elsewhere?

Here’s your action item: consider whether you want client relationships as opposed to client transactions. If you do, consider how you can build trust into your client relationships and whether, how, and when you might bring a personal dimension into those relationships.

How to deliver exceptional client service

During previous research, I ran across a nice article titled, “How to Deliver Exceptional Client Service.” Written from the perspective of a web agency, the article starts with the bold-but-obvious thesis that just doing what the client hired you to do isn’t exceptional, nor will it set you apart from your competitors.  Consider this:

“You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3 and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.”

Substitute words that are applicable to the kind of legal work you do—you’re hired to negotiate an employment agreement or to handle a divorce or to guide a company through a merger—and you do that, do it well, and do it within the budget the client expects. That’s good client service, sure. But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, exceptional.

(As a sidenote, just doing your job in any respect isn’t enough to set you apart from others. That means strategic thinking, responsive communication, and being accessible to your clients won’t distinguish you from other good practitioners. I often urge lawyers to find their points of distinction, and too many count these attributes as extraordinary when they aren’t.)

The article sets out seven ways to up-level your client service:

  1. Create real relationships. “If we do not engage with our clients in a real, personal way, then we are just another vendor….”
  2. Ask real questions. Connect with your clients.
  3. Participate in more than just projects. Go outside a pure business setting with your clients.
  4. Help them with services that you do not provide. This is where your network supports your business development work: make introductions to help your clients.
  5. Pick up the phone. In today’s environment in which a telephone call may be viewed as an interruption, you’ll want to be careful to equate good communication with a spontaneous telephone call, but the point remains: know how you clients want to receive communications, act accordingly, and do so in a way that builds your relationship.
  6. Face the bad times head on. How you handle sharing bad news says volumes about you as a practitioner and about how you view your clients and your responsibility to them.
  7. Be thankful and show appreciation. The personal touch is always appreciated, even if it’s not discussed.

Be sure to read the whole article. It’s a quick read, and well worth your time.