When lawyers first started exploring the uncomfortable process of “selling” as early as the 1980s not long after the 1977 Bates decision allowing lawyers to advertise, it was uncomfortable and seen as unseemly even sleazy. Over the decades, consultants have adapted sales approaches shifting from the traditional model into consultative selling. This approach has proven effective for professional service providers who, in addition to being subject matter experts serving clients, also have to do their own selling. In recent years, the consultative selling model has incorporated insight selling – the ideal approach for lawyers.
Traditional Sales Sequence and Process
Traditional sales conjures an image of the typical car salesman – high pressure, all about the sale, and a wheeler-dealer on the price, basically someone who is manipulative and not to be trusted. When lawyers first started hearing they may have to learn how to become salespeople, they understandably had a strong aversion to the idea.
Initially, lawyers and other professional service providers, relied on the sales methods taught by renowned sales gurus like Sandler and Dale Carnegie. Their methods usually followed a sequence:
- Prospect to find leads
- Qualify needs and identify problems and pain points
- Demonstrate your value
- Address and overcome objections raised through buyer’s remorse
- Ask for the business
- Close the deal
This approach puts the salesperson in control of the conversation but not in control of the sale. Lawyers who adopted this approach tended to “pitch” and jump to the “close” rather than listen and explore. This may have been effective when clients were less sophisticated consumers and when law firms were in the driver’s seat. Times have changed over the past few decades and the balance of power has shifted. Now clients drive decisions and want to be fully engaged throughout the sales process.
Lawyers who learn and practice consultative selling become much more effective in the prospecting and selling process. As detailed in our article How to Sell: Stop Pitching and Start Listening, consultative selling places an emphasis on first understanding the needs of the prospect; from what the problem is, to exploring its history (learning the client’s prior experience in addressing the problem), determining the action imperative and urgency, as well as identifying the decision-makers and any barriers to a successful engagement. While lawyers often are too quick to jump in too soon to talk about themselves and their firms and to sell their services, consultative selling, if done correctly, disciplines lawyers to do what they already do in their legal engagements – ask a lot of questions, ascertain the context and the objectives, determine roadblocks (and competitors) and define a successful outcome from the prospect’s perspective. Consultative selling focuses on the client/prospect, their needs and objectives, not on pitching or cross-selling the lawyer’s services.
We recommend an 8-Step process to effective consultative selling:
Step 1: Prepare (set the stage for informed questioning.) Learn as much as you can about why the prospect is meeting with you. Talk to the referral source (this may be another partner in your firm) and others you know to get as much information as you can about the company, the person you are meeting with, who prospect uses and why the change. Run a conflict check. Do some research:
- Company web site, bio(s) of prospect, products, businesses, locations, values, mission, 10K
- Litigation, M&A deals, law firms used
- LinkedIn profile, company LinkedIn page
- Competitor research (web sites, pricing models)
- Industry background, prospect’s top competitors
Develop a list of 6-10 relevant questions and bring to the meeting; determine a specific objective for each meeting or interaction.
Step 2: Build rapport and test chemistry. Meet with the prospect at his/her preferred location. Engage the prospect and find areas of mutual interest. If applicable, remind the prospect of who referred you. Reiterate the reason for meeting to set the stage but ask if his/her agenda has changed or whether s/he would prefer to focus on something else.
Step 3: Explore needs and determine the action imperative. Ask good questions to assess current needs, problems and business or legal priorities. Determine the urgency and action imperative: What is this prospect’s highest priority and what would they be willing to pay for? Resist the pitch at this point even if the prospect asks. Don’t jump in too soon with your solutions or credentials.
Step 4: Probe for additional details – don’t assume anything. What will success look like for the prospect in terms of the engagement, the relationship, the result and how will this be evaluated? What will get in the way of our success? Who else in the company or on the board cares about this problem? What other firms serve this prospect? What does the prospect like or not like about them?
Step 5: Assess prospect’s commitment to action. What is the cost or risk of inaction? Does the prospect have the capability to handle this in-house, completely or partially? Ask about starting dates, deadlines and timeframes. Ask about the budget, how important fees are to engagement (vs. efficiency, results, partner access.) Ask what matters most about the pricing/cost: rates, total cost, staffing, technology and efficiencies, predictability, risk sharing? Verify the current fees they are paying. Be prepared to discuss their views and preferences for alternative pricing.
Step 6: Identify decision-makers and influencers. How/by whom/when will buying decisions be made? Determine who controls the money/budget, user of services, other internal influencers, e.g., procurement officer, committees, outside influencers or potential saboteurs, e.g., someone on Board, outside adviser especially if a private equity firm is involved. Get the support of any internal “advocates”/allies to help you win support.
Step 7: Focus now on connecting. Propose a solution. Only now will you “sell” what you can do. Introduce what the best solution is for the prospect’s needs, deadline and desired outcome; your credibility and proposed strategies; present yourself as a resource. Clarify mutual interest, understanding and commitment. Define your next step and the prospect’s next step.
Step 8: Close the sale (should be a non-event by this stage.) You may be asked to prepare a proposal at this point. Hopefully, it will be an engagement letter instead. Listen for the signals, e.g., “how soon could your team get started on this?” “How would you staff it?” Don’t be afraid to tell the prospect you would love to work with them.
The shift from consultative selling to insight selling is not dramatic, more of a modification, but one that again inures to the benefit of lawyers’ natural skills as experts and resources. In the past ten years, we have seen social media and digital platforms create a seemingly unlimited number of opportunities for lawyers to become thought-leaders, share their subject matter expertise and their insights. Clients and prospects have come to rely on intelligence and insights shared through client alerts, blogs, articles, webinars, podcasts and programs offered in-house. One of the most frequently offered and effective value add for clients today is the offer to come in a do a “briefing” for clients, a look around the corner in their industry or in a particular functional specialty and a sharing of insights gleaned from other companies like the client’s.
Insight selling subtly shifts from the lawyer being a consultative seller and functional expert to one who proactively seeks information, trends and insights from clients and prospects and then uses that as a strategic consultant to provide insights in return. It is an important part of building a longer-term relationship that imbeds value in interactions and discussions. According to the Mike Schulz and John Doerr of The Rain Group, “Sellers provide insight into how a business can be successful – they give away ideas for free.” Lawyers have been doing this for a long time already but somehow didn’t always convert this into part of a sales process.
In their publication, Your Guide to Insight Selling Success, the Rain Group suggests five steps in the insight sales process:
Collaboration. Genuinely ask clients/prospects for input on an idea, trends, potential approaches and to gauge what they are seeing in the marketplace. This first step is laying the foundation for collaborating with the prospect.
Exploration. Embark on discovery – don’t make assumptions. Instead explore issues and ideas fully, looking at the bigger picture and broader implications.
Definition. Delve deeply and look at multiple aspects of the problem including causes, impacts and effects. This may result in you deciding the prospect doesn’t have a need for your services or solutions at the moment. That is ok.
Roadmap. Devise a plan of potential approaches, solutions and timeframes, without pushing yourself or your firm onto the prospect. Develop this path together so that the prospect helps create the visions and approach.
Ownership. As in all good sales and service, let the client/prospect think they developed the idea or solution. This will make them more invested in it and sell it internally.
As long as lawyers have to play the dual role of service provider and salesperson, they will strengthen relationships, deliver value and grow their practices by continuing to share their insights with clients but also by more proactively and regularly seeking and incorporating clients’ insights into their servicing, expanding and cross-selling efforts.