Grab the fruit!

You’ve no doubt heard the advice to track “low-hanging fruit” as a part of your business development efforts.  That fruit is easy to identify if you have a hot prospect, someone who has a current unmet need that you can fill, who already knows you, and with whom you’ve already had a conversation about how you might help.  (Did you think of someone in that category?  Stop reading now and contact that person.  Quit delaying.)

But what if you don’t have any low-hanging fruit that’s quite that “ripe” yet?

Low-hanging fruit is equally valuable when it comes to identifying people you want to meet.  Most of us have unrecognized connections and introductions that others have offered.  That’s low-hanging fruit of a different kind.  Not as close to income as a potential client on the cusp of hiring you, but a valuable asset a step or two earlier in the process.

Pause for just a minute and list three or four people (or company representatives) who would be strong referral sources for you.  To the extent possible, identify people with whom you have some sort of natural affinity, by virtue of mutual business opportunity, affiliation, or something similar.

Next, strategize about how you can meet those people.  Who’s in the six degrees of separation between you?  (Have you checked LinkedIn?  Perhaps your separation is even less.)  Where are your natural points of overlap in activity?  Where can you create opportunities?

Alternatively, think about the organizations in which you’re active.  Who should you be getting to know better there?  It’s easy to slip into talking with the same people meeting after meeting, but your network will grow only as you find ways to build new connections.

When you can see a natural path to reach someone you want to meet, or a connection that can be developed, you have low-hanging fruit for networking.  By looking at your network through these eyes, you have an opportunity to step outside the everyday connections you’ve built to reach low-hanging fruit.

Simple, right?  Get started!

Plug the holes in your practice

I didn’t think I’d be the type to scream if I ever saw a mouse in my kitchen.  Turns out I was wrong.

You see, I lived in an old house (built in the late 20s) and we had mice coming in for a few months.  One time, I was standing in my kitchen and putting some food into the refrigerator when I happened to turn just in time to see a mouse flying through the air.  No, seriously, flying.  Like Mighty Mouse.  He’d jumped off a shelf in the pantry and nearly landed on my dog, then he made a U-turn in front of my other dog and went running down the hall into the dining room.  In my shock, all I could do was scream.

There’s a flying mouse in my kitchen!  SCREAM!  It’s going to land on my dog!  SCREAM!  My dog is going to catch the mouse!  SCREAM!  My dog is chasing the mouse down the hall!  SCREAM!  And so on.  Happily, sort of, the mouse made it safely into a heating register, and I didn’t have to deal with the horror of trying to pry a dog’s jaws open to let a rodent escape.  (SCREAM!!)

I called a mouse specialist the next day, and he explained how hard it is to plug all the holes into an older home.  “We can plug the ones we see, ma’am,” he explained, “but it may take us some time to find all of them and to get them completely plugged.  Until we do, you’ll have a continuing problem, but as we work on it, it will get better.”

Why do you care?  What does this have to do with business development?

You probably have some holes in your approach to business development that you should plug.  Perhaps you’re letting prospective clients slip away because you don’t have a reliable follow-up system.  Maybe you aren’t getting repeat business that you could if only you would keep in touch with your former clients.

Having a hole is hardly unusual; your task is to sniff it out and close it.  It’s unpleasant enough to let mice in.  But it’s worse to let business out.

Keep your friends close

Pop quiz: Who are your best referral sources?  List the top 10 right now.  If you are a more junior lawyer in a law firm and don’t yet have your own clients, list the senior lawyers for whom you do the most work.

How easy did you find it to make this list?  This information should be at the tips of your fingers.  If you don’t know who your top referral sources are, your activity this week is to find out.

How often do you talk with the people who most frequently send you business?  One of my clients recently realized that his top three referral sources send him seven to ten substantial matters a year, resulting in several hundred thousand dollars of business.  And then he realized that as he’d become busier, he spent less time maintaining the connections that had helped to build those referral relationships.

Sure, he sent business to his top referral sources, he attended meetings with them frequently, and he went out of his way to send a nice “thank you” every time one of them sent a new matter to him.  But he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had lunch or played golf one-on-one with these people.  The business relationship was in place with each referral source, but the personal connections underlying it had grown weak.

Relationships, like anything else, are always in flux.  Are yours growing closer or more distant?  If you don’t stay consistently in touch with your contacts, the relationships will grow weaker and you may find that the support that you enjoyed shifts to others who are more attentive.  There are no bad motives in play, but absence in business rarely makes the heart grow fonder.

Take a few minutes now to set times to check with the people who think enough of you to send you work.  Make it a point to reconnect and to find out what’s going on with them.  At the same time, express your appreciation for their referrals.  And then lay your plans so you can be sure to check in with them at least quarterly.

When life throws you a curveball…

Life has a way of throwing curve-balls.  Sometimes they come in the form of emergencies that demand attention, sometimes they’re staff departures (planned or otherwise), and sometimes they’re opportunities that you just can’t pass up, even though jumping in will eat every bit of time and energy you have.  Curve-ball or baseball photo here, please

How do you cope with those curve-balls?  You can implement three strategies now so that you can deal with curve-balls as they come your way.

  1. Create an “operations manual”.  Those of you working in large firms may have access to some sort of manual that defines how certain tasks are to be completed.  However, whether you’re in a large firm or working as a sole practitioner, you must have a document that explains how we do things around here.  How should an assistant answer your telephone, when should he schedule appointments for you, and what should he tell callers who need to reach you urgently?  What needs to be accomplished every day without fail?  It’s daunting to imagine creating such a document from scratch.  Start today.  Document every task that you complete and request your assistant to do the same.  (No assistant?  No excuse!  If everything is in your head, the need is even greater.)  The manual that you build will allow you to cut down on the time necessary to train a new employee, and if you are called out of the office without notice, the manual gives a road map to keep things running without you.
  2. Use technology well. Most lawyers now use some sort of electronic calendar and docketing system.  Who else has access to your professional calendar?  Even if you choose not to allow anyone access to that information on a day-to-day basis, you should consider creating a login that you can provide on an as needed basis to an assistant.  If you are currently working without an assistant, you should create a way for a temporary assistant to have access to your calendar so that she can contact your clients and reschedule appointments if necessary.  (In fact, it may be incumbent upon you to do so, depending on the ethics rules in place in your jurisdiction.)  Let’s hope than you’re reachable in the case of curve-ball – but if you’re hit by a bus, some mechanism must exist to meet your clients’ needs.
  3. Maintain a comprehensive “to do” list. Many of us go through our days tucking “to do” items into our memory.  This approach creates stress, as you’ve experienced if you’ve ever been lying in bed, just about to drift off, when you’re suddenly jolted to full consciousness with the question, did I send that email/make that call??  For purposes of the “what if” conversation, however, if you maintain your task list in your head and get pulled away by a curve-ball, there’s little chance that you’ll be able to sort tasks effectively to be sure every task is covered.  If the curve-ball should take you suddenly out of commission, you’ll have no opportunity to pause and download all of the tasks in your head onto paper.  Instead, use a Word document, a spreadsheet, or task management application to keep track of every task (of any magnitude), and be sure you can sort those tasks by due date, importance, client, and project.

If you use these strategies, you’ll be able to handle the curve-balls that come your way. Remember that curve-balls generally come with no notice, so assess your preparations today and begin to fill the holes you discover now.

Why isn’t it working?!

A potential client called to discuss how I might help her with her business development activities, and I asked what she’d tried.  As I often discover in those conversations, she’d tried a number of approaches, all to no avail.  On her list: writing articles, teaching seminars, advertising, attending networking events, posting her profile on various social networking sites, and so on.  But she had no results to report.  Not surprisingly, she was ready to conclude that she wasn’t meant to be a rainmaker.

If you see no results, it’s easy to conclude that it’s time to throw in the towel.  It’s discouraging to work at something — especially something as important as business development — and get poor results.

This inclination to accept failure is even more common for those who believe that rainmaking is a skill reserved for a few special lawyers.  (As a sidenote, ponder this: not every lawyer will be a superstar rainmaker.  But every lawyer can be a “mist-maker,” and depending on your practice setting, that may be all you need to shoot for.)  But should you accept failure as permanent and give up business development activity?  No.

Three mistakes are often responsible when a lawyer has worked hard at rainmaking without generating meaningful results:

  1. The lawyer is measuring the wrong thing.  New business is the clearest measurement of rainmaking success, but that’s like starting a diet and measuring success only by reaching goal weight.  There are all sorts of midpoints that indicate success: making new contacts, developing relationships, building a strong reputation in your field, and so on.  These “interim successes” indicate forward movement — assuming, of course, they’re measured as progress toward the ultimate goal of bringing in new business and not as an end in themselves.
  2. The lawyer hasn’t brought in new business. . . Yet.  “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish,” John Quincy Adams observed.  In other words, don’t give up before an activity has had time to produce results.  Networking is a key place where lawyers fall short.  A single conversation is incredibly unlikely to generate new business, and mere membership in a group without any real involvement is equally unlikely to be successful using any measure.  Whether it’s networking or another activity, hopping from one activity to another generates a lot of motion but very little forward movement.  Choosing one or two marketing tactics is almost certain to bring better results — unless. . .
  3. The lawyer is doing the wrong things, or doing them in the wrong way.  No matter how persistently the task is undertaken, if it’s fundamentally flawed, it won’t work.  Let’s take networking again.  If your idea of networking is attending meetings, talking incessantly about yourself, your skills, your qualifications, and your experience, plus pressing your business card on anyone who happens within an arms’ length, you are destined to fail.  That’s networking at its worst and it’s unattractive to just about everyone.  Similarly, well-performing activities that don’t involve talking directly with potential clients and referral sources likely won’t produce business.  Bottom line: good activity done wrong doesn’t work.

Your task this week: are you making any of these mistakes?  Check especially to see how you’re measuring your success.  Because lawyers are trained to focus on the end game (here, landing the new business), this is one of the key mistakes that I often see among new clients.