What greeting do your clients receive when they contact your office? Do clients feel that they’re welcome?  Or are they left with the impression that they’re interrupting something more important?

How your staff handles client contact (or how you handle it, if your practice doesn’t include staff members) will have a significant, though probably unspoken, impact on your client engagements. What’s more, whoever answers the telephone and greets visitors constitutes the first line of your marketing team, since satisfying clients may lead to repeat business and referrals.

We so easily fall into the trap  of thinking that lawyers provide client service and that receptionists, legal assistants, secretaries, and other staff members provide administrative support that really doesn’t constitute client service. While that may be true on one level, it’s wise to consider how much contact the average client has with your staff as opposed to with you.  Unless you’re a sole practitioner without an assistant, chances are reasonably good that the first person your client speaks with is a staff member.  The client will then engage with you with that first impression in mind.

It’s easy to identify and weed out those who deliver obviously unacceptable client contact. The example that comes to mind is one I overheard a few years ago while waiting for a colleague to get off a call so we could talk:  “Well, [Mr. Smith], I  know you think you’re [lawyer’s] only client, but you aren’t!”  Fortunately, someone who would make a comment like that is generally either retrained or fired with haste.

But what about the subtle effects of less-offensive but thoughtless behavior? Have you ever stepped back to observe how non-attorney staff in your office interacts with your clients?

Take a lesson from an Atlanta law firm receptionist who turns visitors into welcome guests simply by greeting each visitor as if he matters. Janette engages every person who walks in.  She knows returning clients, asks how their travel has been, and makes them feel welcome.  When she meets someone new, she exchanges a few comments with them — not the kind of chatter that can annoy someone already on edge, just some niceties that pave the way for further conversation if the visitor so desires.  Every person who walks in is greeted, made welcome, and appreciated.

Here are a few areas to consider as you question what your staff contributes to client relations:

  • Does the receptionist greet visitors with a smile and a friendly word? Especially in the last few years, many staff members have been asked to do more work with fewer resources, and stress has increased.  It’s important not to allow that stress to reach the client.
  • How are telephones answered? Answering by barking out a business name may be efficient, but it’s hardly welcoming.
  • Are clients treated as valued guests and recognized as individuals rather than being lumped together as fungible invoice-paying units?
  • Are basic courtesies observed in communications? For example, if emailing an invoice, is a cover note included thanking the client for his or her business?
  • Do you introduce clients to your staff members, or are staff members simply nameless, faceless people who interact with clients when you’re unavailable?  A simple introduction can transform a staff member from being regarded as only a gatekeeper to being viewed as a valuable resource.

Notice what’s happening when your clients and potential clients interact with your staff. If it’s a negative contribution, how can you help to create a shift?  And if it’s a positive contribution, do you acknowledge and reward it?

Book Review: UnMarketing

UnMarketing: Stop Marketing. Start Engaging.

“Marketing happens every time you engage (or not) with your past, present and potential customers.  If you believe business is built on relationships, make building them your business.”

Scott Stratten is a marketing consultant who excels in viral, social, and authentic marketing, which he refers to as “unMarketing”. His philosophy is that you can share your knowledge and expertise while engaging with those who are interested in what you do, and that you’ll be top-of-mind when a need for your services arises.  UnMarketing expands on that philosophy.

In 56 short chapters, each of which is freestanding and reads almost like an oversized blog post, you’ll get an overview of “new-school” marketing. While some of the tactics shared with you may be new to you, you’ll probably get the most impact from the book’s overall flavor.  In [very] brief:  don’t lead with a “me” focus, don’t use expensive, scattershot advertising, and don’t market to others in ways you hate to be marketed to.  Instead, learn to build relationships and share your expertise so that others come to trust you.

Stratten’s focus on relationship-building and marketing by sharing useful information (“content marketing”) is appropriate for any professional. One of the most eye-opening lessons in the book comes on page two in the form of a pyramid that illustrates how people make decisions on whom to hire to provide a service.
(You can find the graphic here, on Stratten’s Ryze page.)  If you think marketing or business development primarily means meeting strangers and convincing them to hire you, you’ll experience a seismic shift from this graphic alone — and the rest of the book will show you how to take the next steps.

One of my favorite chapters deals with “new school” networking. Stratten argues that networking is best accomplished when you’re stepping into a room of people you already know, perhaps through social media, so that “[t]he event isn’t the introduction; it’s the escalation of the relationship.”  Stratten identifies the four types of people you’re likely to meet in “old school” networking:

  • The Great One: the consummate networker, who listens, connects with others, and makes sure not to monopolize the conversation.
  • The Awkward One: someone who’s uncomfortable in networking and accordingly does everything by the book.  Because this person is so uncomfortable, they tend to attach themselves to one person, and escape is difficult.
  • The Dude with Scotch: this is the man who uses hard liquor as social lubricant with predictably disastrous effect.
  • The Card Collector: the person whose primary goal for attending a networking event is to make sure that every person in the room receives a card.  Unfortunately for The Card Collector, because there’s no real engagement, no one actually wants to receive a card.

Stratten, a heavy Twitter user, prefers to meet people online before the event so that there’s a pre-existing relationship and a conversation already underway. The best tip from this chapter is to use Twitter (or other social media) to meet people before attending a conference so that you’re among acquaintances (if not friends) by the time you get there.  If you don’t use social media in this way, consider reaching out by telephone instead for a quick “get acquainted” conversation.  You’re limited to establishing pre-meeting contact with those you already know or know of, but it can still be quite effective.

UnMarketing is a delightful read in part because of the humor that Scott weaves into the book. By sheer happenstance, I purchased a hard copy rather than a Kindle version, so glancing at the footnotes scattered throughout was simple.  These are not law review style footnotes (read:  necessary but dull).  These are asides that are fun, funny, and illustrative, the kind of comments that you might imagine being delivered sotto voce as you drink coffee and learn from a regular guy who really knows his stuff but doesn’t take himself too seriously.  This is not a “guru” book, although Stratten could easily qualify as a guru in his field.

Why should lawyers read the book? Lawyers traditionally have little or no knowledge about marketing, and there’s a great deal we can learn from marketers.  Thanks to the rise of content marketing, we can draw analogies from approaches and tactics used by a wide variety of other service providers.  Lawyers are trained to be experts, and one place we often fall short in marketing that expertise is in placing the focus on our clients rather than on our own expertise, and UnMarketing offers an eye-opening perspective on why that’s a fatal mistake and what you should be doing instead.  Plus, it’s fun.  You won’t regret picking up this book, and once you pick it up, you’ll find it difficult to put down.

Don’t Underplay Yourself

When a law firm hires me to work with a junior associate, very often one part of the engagement centers on the associate’s leadership presence and self-confidence — how he or she presents to others. (Of course, that focus is not by any means unique to junior associates.)

Although reviewers may use a variety of words such as proactive, poised, assertive, or self-assured, they’re usually looking to see to what extent the lawyer is able to present as a leader, as someone who is sufficiently self-confident to inspire others’ confidence. Such a person typically contributes to conversations, asks insightful questions, and is willing to express an opinion or espouse a position.

Interactions with someone who lacks this level of confidence tends to leave others (supervising lawyers and clients alike) uncertain of the message being conveyed.  Does a lack of contribution indicate lack of comprehension?  Boredom?  Something else entirely?  It may be difficult to interpret what’s happening, but the result is a lack of clarity and an unwillingness to rely on the lawyer whose self-presentation is found to be lacking.  The consequences can be significant, including unduly slow career progression (or even being fired) and difficulty in building client relationships.

For instance, I was working with one client (let’s call him Tom) who was hoping to make partner and entered coaching to strengthen his performance so he’ll be a strong candidate.  He’d picked up on some comments that made him question whether he was viewed as partner material.  I found Tom to be intelligent, personable, and funny.  I also noticed that when I’d ask him a question about his work, he downplayed the role he’d played.

It puzzled me, because I could tell from the kind of work he was describing that he was a heavy lifter on the cases, but to hear him talk he was simply supporting work done by others.  One day, Tom said that a particular concern he held about making partner was that it didn’t seem like anyone regarded his work as being important or notable. He explained the evidence for his feeling, and then I asked his permission to share an observation.

I told him that when he described his own work, he minimized and understated his contribution.  To hear him tell the story, he contributed little more than hours — and certainly nothing critical in terms of strategy or deep analysis.  But when I asked specifically and pressed, he’d tell me about tasks he’d done and decisions he’d made that were quite high-level.  My assessment was that because he was so careful not to overstate his contribution — and perhaps so uncomfortable being in the spotlight — he didn’t give a fair opportunity for someone to understand the kind and level of work that he was doing.

We devised a plan for Tom to share more about his work, and he discovered that when he changed his communication style and became more open about what he was doing, people began to appreciate the scope of his work and to understand what he was capable of doing. He got more and better work, and he felt that others’ perception of him was more accurate.

Michelle, another client, was upset to receive a review that indicated that some clients didn’t want to talk with her because they felt that she didn’t have a sufficient grasp of the right legal strategy to accomplish their aims. When pressed for details, a reluctant partner admitted that although he knew Michelle understood exactly what was at stake and how to advance the clients’ interests, her comments were so often peppered with words like maybe and possibly and her inflection was so often questioning that she just didn’t seem to be sure of what she was saying.

The result was that her communications undermined his confidence in her even though he knew she was almost invariably right about what she was saying. After making a concerted effort to notice the habits that the partner identified, Michelle started speaking with more authority and more clarity, which over time (and along with other changes that Michelle implemented) increased the confidence that others put in what Michelle said.

How do you know if your presence isn’t as strong as it should be? Here are three common signs:

  1. You create “wiggle room” with your word choice or with your vocal inflection.
  2. You feel the urge to speak up or to ask a question but you stop short — and then someone says what you’ve been thinking, and you feel frustrated. (Or you do speak up but your comments aren’t much noted, and then someone says effectively the same thing and gets more attention.)
  3. You find that you generally speak much less often than others in a meeting. (But this can be a sign of strong presence if, when you speak, others give significant weight to your comments.)

If you recognize yourself in these signs or if you’ve received feedback that you need to be more proactive, perhaps we should talk. While learning to project more confidence and a stronger leadership presence requires stepping outside a comfort zone, the impact can be dramatic.  Your job and your client relationships may depend on your ability to inspire confidence.  Ready to take the first steps?  Contact me to set up a time for us to get acquainted.