The art of the ask: how to ask for business (and when not to ask)

How do you ask for business?  We all know intuitively (or through training) that those who don’t ask typically don’t get business.  However, many lawyers are reluctant to ask explicitly for business, and rightly so.  A flat request can disrupt a relationship if the answer is “no,” and, under some circumstances, asking can even be an ethical violation.  Even when those concerns are not in play, some lawyers may feel pushy if they ask for business.  And yet, the inner voice cautions (or should caution!), if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Know whether and how to ask for business requires you to check several considerations. A few examples are:

  • Listen to your gut… If you’re sensing that an explicit request for the business may be too pointed, you could be correct.  Try a gentler approach (something like “I’d be happy to suggest an approach for that”) may blunt the approach and yet get the message across.
  • …But notice how often your gut tells you not to ask. If your gut almost always tells you that asking would be too pushy, it’s time to do some work on your comfort level.  What conditions would have to exist for you to feel comfortable in asking for business?
  • Look for the win / win. Lawyers often use rather violent language for business development:  “eat what you kill” compensation systems, “killer instinct” in pursuing new work, and “bagging a client,” for instance.  This language casts the lawyer as the hunter and the potential client as the victim or the target.  Although few lawyers actually regard their potential clients in that way, the fear of being perceived as a ruthless hunter may prompt a lawyer to hold back. It may even prompt lawyers to ask for business so tentatively that the request implies that the potential client would be doing the lawyer a great favor by hiring him. When you issue a good request for business, you know the benefit and value you’re bringing, and you can weave it into your request.
  • Listen to the potential client’s concerns and offer some feedback, leading naturally into an offer of further help. If you take this approach, be sure that you don’t stray into giving legal advice without sufficient knowledge of the facts.  You can suggest potential avenues or approaches for consideration, though, and offer to help if your contact would like to explore them.
  • Invite a potential client to your office for a consultation, and specifically mention that you’ll discuss your engagement letter and answer any questions they may have. If you know enough about the client and the matter to be sure that you would be willing to accept it, this can be a natural way to move the conversation forward.

Asking for business requires both the right mindset and the right words or technique.  You might get hired without asking for the business, but until you master this skill, you can’t count on growing your book.

Think about your current “low hanging fruit,” or the potential clients most likely to retain you right now.  What approach would be most helpful for them? What approach will open the possibility of working with you most effectively? When have you held back from a request, and how might you recover and adjust your habits going forward?




Track Your Results, Grow Your Practice

My clients often tell me that they don’t need to track rainmaking results, that they just know what’s working and what isn’t. Keeping records may seem inconvenient and unnecessary. In reality, though, simple tracking will help you to get better results in business development. 

If you’re getting new business, you know something is working, but you may not know what. If you don’t track your rainmaking activity and results, you risk three problems:

  • You may find it difficult to make a rational decision about whether to continue an activity. Without data on whether a particular effort is paying off, how can you know whether your investment is worthwhile?
  • You may overlook a valuable source of new business. For example, one of my clients reported that an acquaintance sent him three potential clients in a ten-month period, yielding income of close to $30,000. If he hadn’t tracked where that business came from, he might not have been able to express his appreciation and further develop the relationship, which in turn led to even more business.
  • You may mistake luck for skill. Beginner’s luck isn’t limited to card games, nor is it limited to beginners. Sometimes new business comes flooding in for coincidental reasons. Without tracking the source of the business, there’s a risk of overlooking the coincidence, focusing on the results, and reducing activity. The consequence? A drop in business when luck dries up and skill has not taken its place.

Many lawyers believe that having a sense of how new business comes to them is good enough. And for a handful of lawyers, that may be true. In most cases, though, an informal, memory-based, qualitative system for tracking results is not dependable.

Memories fade and may be inaccurate. Just as mental tracking is unreliable for balancing a checkbook, it is insufficient for making decisions about business development activity. Every lawyer must have a client intake routine that includes determining how that client became aware of you and your practice.

Remember this insight from business performance improvement expert Dr. H. James Harrington:

Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.

If you aren’t tracking the sources of your business, start today. Here’s how: 

  • When a potential client contacts you, make sure you or your staff asks how she found you. When getting this information becomes habit, you’ll start to build useful data.

  • Incorporate questions about how the client came to contact you or your firm into your client intake form. You may find that you get clearer results if you offer check boxes for the activities you’re engaged in (speaking, a blog, or referral, for example) rather than leaving a blank for the client to complete.
  • If you are working in a larger firm that does not use intake forms, consider creating your own form. Request sourcing information as well as information about how and when a client wants to be contacted, who else should be kept apprised of the matter’s progress, and other information that will help you to deliver better client service.

Recognize too that your data probably will not be 100% accurate. Depending on your practice area, some clients may not know how they found you, and some may be unwilling to tell you. Nevertheless, any information you get will be more useful than a baseless guess.

What records will you keep to track the sources of your new business?

Productivity thrives in a clear mind

Have you ever had one of those nights, when you doze off only to be jolted awake with worry about something you need to do? Or caught yourself thinking “as soon as I get back to the office, I’ll send that email to the client,” only to realize hours later that you didn’t do it?

When you have a lot going on, things tend to get dropped or otherwise fouled up. Especially if you’re worried about something or you’re facing a difficult decision, your thoughts may be agitated by the “noise” of life. To-do items blend with ideas and interruptions into one big fog of mental chaos.

One recent example from: I was preparing for a major client meeting in between meeting with my mother’s doctors and hospice aides. On the way home, I stopped the grocery store.  By some miracle, I had a list of the items I needed to buy.  But I was so distracted that I returned to my car to find the keys in the ignition and the car engine running!  Just today, I passed by an empty car parked in a garage with the engine running, and I wondered what stress caused the driver to make that mistake.

Maybe you’ve never left a car running, but almost everyone has a story of errors, omissions, and just plain dumb moves that come from an overfull brain. An oldie-but-goodie post by Zen Habits titled 15 Can’t-Miss Ways to Declutter Your Mind can help you get clarity and focus so you can get things done.  The tactics (with clarification available in the Zen Habits post):

  1. Breathe
  2. Write it down.
  3. Identify the essential.
  4. Eliminate
  5. Journal
  6. Rethink your sleep.
  7. Take a walk.
  8. Watch less TV.
  9. Get in touch with nature.
  10. Do less.

Does this seem soft? It’s just another step to reach the focused mind described in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If what you’re doing isn’t working as well as you’d like, maybe it’s time to try another tactic.

Threat or opportunity? It’s all about perspective.

Most businesses do some sort of year-end review and lay plans for the next year.  Many client-based businesses slow down a bit at the end of the year, and you have two choices: coast along, or use the downtime to your advantage.  Surely you can guess which approach I’d advise!

When you sit down with pen and paper or cozy up with your computer, what’s the best way to look at where you’ve been this year and where you’d like to go next?  Or, for those of you who are new in business, what should you be considering as you lay your plans?

You may have heard of a SWOT analysis, which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.  SWOT analysis is taught in business schools and elsewhere as a model to distinguish your business from competitors.  It’s a helpful model, but it’s never felt like a fit to me.

I don’t find “threat” to be a helpful concept – and it isn’t because I’m an overly optimistic Pollyanna who never sees a threat.  Certainly, there are situations and circumstances out there that can pose a challenge to your business, some of which can be fatal if they’re ignored.  But focusing on “threat,” in my experience, tends to call forth a defensive response, which sets up a reactive, rather than a creative, approach.

A more powerful perspective recognizes that where an obstacle exists, there’s almost always an opportunity.  Sometimes it’s exploiting a particular market condition or a news story that’s put negative focus on something you or your clients are doing.  That’s an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade, meaning that the opportunity isn’t one you would necessarily seek out under other circumstances.

But sometimes spotting an obstacle leads you to recognize an opportunity that you would have dismissed as a problem.  A few months ago, I was talking with a lawyer whose practice centers on family law and who wanted to work with a certain slice of the celebrity market.  She’d identified a big obstacle: she wasn’t a part of the celebrity lawyer crowd.  She described a group of lawyers known to one another and to that market, and even though she had many celebrity contacts, she was an outsider to that world.  And there’s the opportunity.  Much as politicians campaign on having the “outside the beltway” perspective, she could position herself as someone who wouldn’t have the same old, same old approach already known to others in the crowd.  She could use her outsider status as a positive differentiation.  Do you see it?  Obstacle… Opportunity.

Another example: I worked with a consultant whose business was exploding at the seams.  She had a unique process to solve a particular problem, and she had a deep connection to the community of people who were struggling with the problem.  Obstacle: not enough time and energy to work with the clients beating down her door.  Opportunity: she was able to raise her fees so that she could work with fewer clients one-on-one, and she certified some associate consultants in her process, so clients who couldn’t didn’t want to pay her new fees could still work with someone she’d personally trained to apply her unique process.  The result?  She continues to serve a large community and to help them solve their problems, but she now does so in a way that provides more income without draining her energy.

What’s your biggest obstacle?  You know, the one that keeps you up at night.  The one that you find yourself worrying about even when you didn’t intend to think about business.

Turn that obstacle on its head.  Look for the (as yet) unappreciated opportunity that exists within it.  Sometimes it’s difficult to see the opportunity if you’re too close, so ask for help from creative colleagues.