The Subtle Art of Business Development
Miriam Bamberger, CPCC, and Heather Bradley, CPCC, are the co-founders of The Flourishing Company, which helps emerging professionals sharpen their leadership skills to generate immediate and lasting changes in their ability to successfully manage complex work relationships. For additional information, visit: www.TheFlourishingCompany.com.
A study by the American Corporate Counsel Association (ACCA) found that 63 percent of in-house counsel surveyed said they had fired, or were considering firing, outside counsel over the next 12 to 24 months. Lack of responsiveness and poor relationships were among the top reasons companies cited for firing law firms. (Source: ACCA, AM2K-CLO Survey, November 2000.)
Developing and maintaining effective, long-term business relationships have always been essential to an organization's revenue and profitability. In the current economic environment, it is a necessity.
Business development has often been the domain of senior partners or "rainmakers" who seem to know instinctively how to generate clients, but that model is changing. Progressive firms realize every person plays an important role in making-or-breaking-client relationships. How do you contribute to this process?
One place to start is your organization's marketing department. These departments exist to support you in your business development efforts. Further, "law firm marketing departments are generally structured as a firm-wide resource…it's a logical and neutral place for lawyers to ask questions about firm protocol, its existing relationships, and to get coaching on business development," says Theresa Jaffe, chief marketing officer at Jenner & Block. "We're here to help the attorneys advance their individual and practice business development goals and to enhance the overall success of the firm."
Rather than reproduce what your marketing department can share with you, this article looks at a variety of "soft" skills that everyone can master and use to cultivate better business relationships, whether externally with new clients or internally with colleagues and coworkers.
Whew! I work in-house, so I don't need to develop business
According to the research, presented at MCCA's 3rd Annual Creating Pathways to Diversity® conference, a primary reason for going in-house is a desire to reduce business development responsibilities. While it takes a different form, business development is just as important in-house as it is in a law firm.
Although no contract is signed or fees exchanged, you must still develop "clients" within your company. These clients need to trust that in-house lawyers are a part of their team, not a roadblock to what they want to accomplish.
Kirk G. Forrest, vice president and general counsel of Sam's Club, says, "Our clients include executive team, finance, operations-all business units, and they each have their own personality. As in-house counsel, our job is to service the other departments. We need to be a full partner. Clients have to be comfortable telling us the whole story."
According to Mr. Forrest, there is little difference between business development in-house and in a law firm. The biggest difference is that in-house, you cannot choose your clients. "You can't move on if the relationship doesn't work out. You are there to service the client. You have to make it work."
Developing business is different than practicing law
While this may sound trite, many people try to develop business using the same tactics that serve them well behind their desks or in a courtroom. These skills, appropriate for delivering legal expertise, often harm business development efforts. Clear, powerful communication is the first step in securing successful business relationships.
Getting to know you
"People buy from people whom they know and trust," says Jenner & Block's Jaffe.
"The biggest mistake most lawyers make is failing to build a base for business development through establishing their own personal network and then leveraging it," says Ms. Jaffe. "One of the most frequently overlooked business development techniques is to keep colleagues, friends, family members, mentors, mentees, and existing and previous clients informed about your personal activities and those of your firm. You simply cannot assume that people know about your latest case or new area of expertise."
Ms. Jaffe recommends that attorneys begin building their personal network in law school. "As attorneys progress through their careers, they can eventually segment their personal contacts into various categories and communicate with these groups accordingly. If you wait to develop this type of personal infrastructure until later in your career, it can be put on the back burner and may not get done, leaving you at a big disadvantage," cautions Ms. Jaffe.
Whether advancing in-house or landing a client at a firm, developing business involves being seen as a solution to other people's problems. You cannot solve someone else's problem without understanding what they perceive as their problem.
Curiosity has become a casualty of our society's demand for us to know "the answer," look good, and be right. Rather than looking outside ourselves for answers, we've been trained to look only to ourselves, limiting our sources of input and becoming attached to being right or wrong. As one respondent aptly put it, "Leave your office. You have to know who does what and how they do it."
Ask powerful questions
Understand the client's needs by asking lots of questions. In How to Become a Rainmaker, Jeffrey Fox writes, "Ineffective sales people assume they already know the answers. Some actually do know the answers, but that's irrelevant."
In this context, powerful questions are the opposite of the incisive, focused, purposeful questions suitable in the courtroom. The purpose of powerful questions is to gain clarity or produce action, not to provide the "right" answer. When building relationships, your role is to be curious about the situation, not to know the answer. We refer here to probing for more information about a project or situation, so that both you and your prospective client have a clear and common under- standing of the issue.
Powerful questions grow out of curiosity. Questions are powerful when they focus on solutions, leading to greater creativity and insight. The most powerful questions are short, usually seven words or less.
- What do you need?
- What's important about that?
- What do you want to be different?
- How will you know if it works?
- What concerns you most?
- How important is this?
TIP – Avoid "why" questions. They tend to invite a long account about the past, rather than possibilities for the future. Substitute "what" or "how" questions to help clients gain clarity about their needs.
It may sound obvious to say it's important to listen, especially on the heels of asking questions. The truth is, most of us don't listen well. We're lucky if we catch the words themselves, much less the non-verbal cues that go with those words.
Listening, not only to the speaker's words, but also to the speaker's tone, pace, and energy, provides a tremendous amount of information. With more data, you will be able to understand and serve your client more effectively.
Listening, especially for these deeper, non-verbal signals, creates rapport and intimacy between you and your client. It allows you to discover unexpected information, which could lead to cross-selling opportunities or potential problems with the relationship. Listening at a superficial level may lead you to disregard or misunderstand the client's needs and concerns.
Treat non-clients as existing clients
As we noted earlier, anyone in your firm can make or break a client relationship. The same is true on the flip side: anyone at the client organization can support or sink your prospect. Fox explains, "Rainmakers know that something they did 10 years ago might result in business today. There are no 'little people' to a rain- maker….The rainmaker knows that anybody can help or hurt their cause…. Everyone is somebody's somebody." Treat everyone as you would treat your best client: You don't know who is your prospective client's mother, best friend, or child.
Your Personal Business Development Plan
|Key questions for yourself:||Key questions for your client:|
What do you want to do?
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What choices do you need to make?
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What steps do you need to take to make it happen?
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Avoid big words, buzz words, jargon
Attempting to dazzle your prospect can make you appear arrogant and elitist. If your prospective client doesn't see you as competent and knowledgeable, he or she will not do business with you, regardless of the words you use. As one lawyer emphasized, "The ability to communicate about the law in a non-theoretical style that emphasizes solutions is key."
"The problem with jargon," says Judith Humphrey, president of an executive speech-training firm, "is that it puts the responsibility for clarity on the audience's shoulders – not the speaker's or writer's. And even if your audience knows the acronyms for fuzzy expressions you're using, it takes time to interpret the letters and words."
By and large, developing relationships requires the same skills, motivation, and attention regardless of gender or race. For many professionals, it requires stepping out of their comfort zone, trusting people who are different and, trusting oneself to try something new.
Sam's Club's Forrest offers this advice: "People gravitate toward those who are similar. This is a hurdle but isn't insurmountable. Be better than those who came before you. That's the bar. That doesn't necessarily mean you need to be the best. You do need to understand and exceed the client's expectations."
Bringing it home
Building strong relationships requires not only delivering high-quality legal advice. It also involves using softer skills to forge a close connection, so your clients include your services in their core support systems. If you don't, others will.
Miriam Bamberger and Heather Bradley are the cofounders of The Flourishing Company, which helps emerging professionals sharpen their leadership skills to generate immediate and lasting changes in their ability to successfully manage complex work relationships. For additional information, visit: www.TheFlourishingCompany.com.
Throughout 2003, MCCA® is initiating an integrated strategy to assist members in taking responsibility for their professional development. This article is the third in a series that will address a collection of specific skills to assist members in proactively managing their own careers. Each article will be supported by a companion teleclass known as Diversity & the Bar® Briefs.
The business development teleclass is scheduled for Monday, June 30 at 4:00 pm (eastern daylight savings time).
Registration is on a first-come basis and will be limited. For additional information, contact MCCA at 202.371.5909.
From the May/June 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®