How’s Business? As so often happens, the idea of this article came from a conversation. On this occasion it was from a conversation with a new contact on LinkedIn. I normally try to have a chat with a new LinkedIn contact so that we learn a little about each other and our businesses.
So, what do you think of when I ask ‘How’s Business?’? What’s your immediate reaction? Does it momentarily cause you to reflect on your business and how things are going? Does it bring a particular issue to mind? What do you think of the person asking you the question? If you stop to think about how the question affected you then, perhaps, it might affect people of whom you ask that question in a similar way. I’d suggest that it opens the door to a possible conversation.
The next step ought to be that you listen. Amongst other things, I’ve done some training as a coach, counsellor and a mediator. One of the key things in the training is ‘active listening’. This is not just waiting for a gap so that you can express your views. It is not even listening to the content so that you may express your views on what they’ve said. It is also listening to what people are saying around the words, as well as what they’re saying, by not saying certain things. It’s deep listening. It’s listening with empathy, using your experience of life, of their sector of business, with imagination. You’re listening for the deeper things that might be driving how they’re feeling – where the stress or pain points are in what they’re talking about.
In this phase of the conversation you’re not seeking to express too much opinion. Instead you are seeking to explore. So, questions you ask should be open questions. What are those? Questions to which it is difficult to answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Typically, they are questions starting with ‘why’ and ‘how’. In a business context I personally would steer away form asking how they feel about that, as it might come across as a bit weird, but you would be listening out for the points of stress and pain.
Also, listen out for pauses. Resist the urge to fill them. The person with whom you’re speaking may have paused to think or deal with emotion before speaking. Don’t cut them off. Silence can also be a powerful tool to elicit more information. When in private practice as a litigator, I used this in negotiations – let the other side sweat after I’d made a proposal or asked a question. Often, they would feel the pressure to say something, which might cause a concession or some useful information. We feel awkward when the ball has passed to us in a conversation and there is silence. You might subtly be able to use that.
All of this might take some time and is normally best in a one to one situation. It works best, I would say, in a face to face environment, as we speak as much with body language as with our words. However, many of our conversations are now taking place by video call. Then there is the phone as well. I’m sure we have all managed to have a deep conversation by phone – so it can be done. We will have to adapt and learn how to use the medium.
So why am I going on about this? Well, I would suggest that these 2 words in the question open the door to the possibility of a conversation where you might be proactive about creating opportunities rather than reactive. I was in practice for 24 years, 14 of which as an equity partner of a mid-sized law firm. Since setting up HCL in 2014 I have worked with over 300 law firms. My perception is that most solicitors are reactive. They wait for clients to approach them with a request for assistance, effectively delivering a job to them on a plate. Yes, they may invest in advertising, which is a way of driving more requests for work to them. What most are not good at is working their own client base. Most law firms will have a gold mine of existing and past clients. These are the easiest people from whom to get work or recommendations from which to get more work. (I’ve written people on purpose, because, even in corporate and commercial work, it’s people with whom you have the relationships and who make the decisions.) Instead the firm will hunt for exciting new clients. These cost more to acquire.
As a side issue – does your firm track stats on how much it costs to acquire a new job? Not many do. It’s not something I commonly see as a report in case management systems. It would be very informative. In some practice areas, where the new work most often comes in by advertising, one might have a approximation of this. In most others it is seldom done. Take for example a new business client. Do you take into account the golf days, meetings, lunches, phone calls etc, salary and other overhead costs of the person courting of the client before they come onboard? I recently had quoted to me that a case management system provider has an average new client acquisition cost of £8,000. It makes you think. I would suggest that this should be factored into the profitability calculation of work by client, work type or practice area.
Place against this the cost of acquiring new work from an existing client. Normally much lower. At the very least firms should be sending out a regular newsletter to their client base reminding them that they exist and what they do. That can be done by email for little cost. It’s just nuts if one of your clients goes to another firm just because they couldn’t remember who they used last time they needed legal advice. What happens if your staff get into the habit of asking of their clients (where appropriate) ‘How’s Business?’? Most of their clients will work (you could change it to ‘How’s Work? In some circumstances.). It opens up the possibility that you might learn more from them. The bond you would with them will be deeper and they will trust you more for asking about them beyond the transaction with which you’re dealing. (Solicitors trade on trust.) Knowledge is Power? Well it’s certainly opportunity. You might learn of other aspects in their life with which your firm could assist – if not now, then potentially in the future (keep a note to touch base, with their permission).
Cross-referrals to colleagues. This is a subject for an article in itself, indeed a book. Again, my experience is that law firms, indeed professional services in general, are not good at doing this. I would suggest that your business will be much stronger and more profitable if you have a culture of cross referring, of working as a unit rather than lots of sole practitioners. Changing culture is another huge topic. However, visualise a firm where people are positively encouraged, perhaps even incentivised to actively look for cross referral opportunities in their client base, where the cost of acquisition is measured (work coming from an existing client will cost a fraction of the cost of acquiring a new client in most circumstances), where a regular relationship is maintained with your existing clients. Clients with whom you already have a deep relationship, handling several of their needs, are likely to be much more sticky and indeed willing to pay higher fees, as they perceive more than just price in the value that you deliver.
If this all sounds a bit daunting, you can start with small steps. We recently helped a long-standing client, a law firm which became a client in 2016. We write a monthly newsletter, so we remained in touch. They contacted us when they wanted to move offices earlier this year – a result of them reassessing their property needs in the light of the changing commercial rent environment in the Covid crisis. As well as assisting with changing their letterhead and suchlike, we helped them messaging all existing and past clients to tell them of their new address. When drafting the precedent email, I asked if I might include a paragraph listing the services they provided (which I took for their website). When I contacted my client firm 3 days after the mail merge had gone out, the owner told me that they had already taken 3 new instructions from existing clients as a result, totalling nearly £5,000 net fees!
So – How’s Business?