Billable time or biz dev… Or both?

Last week, I delivered a business development workshop for an Atlanta law firm, and gave my recommendations about how much time lawyers should spend on business development.  Although the exact number depends on several factors, in general I recommend 1-5 hours a week, with more time suggested for more senior lawyers.  Some participants bristled at the idea of spending that much time on business development.

But here’s the easy-to-miss, critical distinction: done properly, time spent with clients is business development time.

That’s because, “All things being equal, people will do business with – and refer business to – those people they know, like and trust.” This quote, from Bob Burg’s excellent book Endless Referrals, sums up why it is that relationships serve as the basis for rainmaking. It also clarifies why your current clients should be your top priority for business development, followed by former clients and referral sources, then “warm” contacts, and only finally strangers.

Focus first on those who already know, like, and trust you, and then seek to expand those sources of business. That order of approach dictates, in turn, the priorities that you should set as you work to develop your book of business.

Your current clients are your “low hanging fruit.” Your top priority should be providing excellent client service to your clients. Consider these aspects of client service:

  • Communicate with your clients and observe their preferences for amount and kind of communication that they want.
  • Be responsive. Manage your clients’ expectations and ensure that your clients always know how to contact you or someone in your office.
  • Share bad news appropriately. Deliver the news as soon as possible. Explain the news, what it means, and advise the client about next steps.
  • Be reliable with cost estimates and billing.
  • When you bill, do so in a comprehensible way that’s explained sufficiently to forestall questions about what was done or why.
  • Facilitate your work with your clients. Anything you can do to make it easier for your clients to do business with you is likely to be well received by them.
  • Spend time with your clients. Consider spending time with clients in a social setting or (where appropriate) by visiting their place of business to develop a more full understanding of their business.
  • Deliver extra value to your clients. By providing some assistance, promotion, or service to your client that is over and above the legal services you’ve agreed to provide, you demonstrate the importance you place on your client relationships generally and on that client specifically.
  • Conduct client satisfaction interviews or surveys. Unless you ask, your clients are unlikely to volunteer their level of satisfaction unless they’re dissatisfied to the point of considering terminating the relationship or effusive in praise.

When you apply these priorities to your business development efforts, you’ll begin to view your billable work as a rainmaking activity as well as the heart of your practice. You’ll also begin to see relationships as the “must do” meat of your business development plan, and you’ll understand why you shouldn’t expect to move a new contact quickly from stranger to client. As a result, you’ll be able to stage the rainmaking work you do so that you put time in where it’s most effective. And over time, you’ll find that your business development work yields much better results.

Proper planning can help relieve pressure.

“Pressure is what you feel when you don’t know what you are doing.” Peyton Manning

This quote stopped me in my tracks. My first inclination was to disagree, because I sometimes feel pressure because of a deadline or because of the importance of some activity, even though I know what I’m doing.  Digging a bit deeper, though, I think Manning has a point.

When it comes to business development, the lawyers most under pressure are those who don’t have a cohesive plan, who aren’t implementing their plan consistently, or who haven’t fully committed to one or more activities that are likely to help them secure work.  Although they know what they’re doing on certain levels, there’s a disconnect between intellectual knowing and buckling down to do the work. If you know that you should request an on-site meeting with a client, for example, and you expect that you might well land more business or receive a referral or even deepen a valuable relationship, but you don’t ask for the meeting, you’re going to feel pressure.

In contrast, if you have a plan that you’re implementing consistently, though you may feel tension until you see results from your plan, that tension is different in nature. When you know what you’re doing, both in terms of the specific activities and the timing, you also know that you can shift your plan as needed to tweak your results.

You know that you have something that’s fundamentally workable. You’ve done your homework and you’ve prepared yourself and your plan.

Do you feel pressure about business development? If you do, take a few minutes today to get to the source of that pressure. You’ll probably find that it’s one of these issues:

  • You don’t know what you’re doing (you don’t have a plan or you don’t know how to implement some aspect of your plan)
  • You don’t know how to make time to implement your plan consistently (so you never have an opportunity to reach momentum)
  • You don’t know how to perform one or more activities incorporated in your plan (and so you haven’t even started)
  • You’re terribly uncomfortable about some aspect of your plan (you aren’t confident that you can engage in business development activity without harming relationships… or your ego)
  • You need to bring in new business now and you don’t yet know that your plan will work (you haven’t implemented your plan and you’re focusing on the need for business rather than on your ability to meet that need

Which of these issues underlies the pressure you’re feeling?  Once you’ve identified the problem, you’re that much closer to solving it. If you aren’t sure where to start, please schedule a complimentary consultation so we can get acquainted and mutually decide whether I can help.