How to Overcome Six Common Fears of Client Development

Recently while channel surfing, an old Tom Hanks movie, Bonfire of the Vanities, surfaced. If you haven’t seen the film (or read the novel), Tom’s character, Sherman McCoy (a.k.a., Master of the Universe) exuded confidence and infallibility, only to be overcome by numerous fears when he is indicted for a crime he did not commit, but then bounces back when he discovers a solution. Sherman’s emotional rollercoaster is reminiscent of the stages many professionals experience when faced with the fears of having to develop their own book of business, and their relief when discovering those concerns can be overcome.

Having coached and trained thousands of professionals for nearly two decades, we have identified six common fears attorneys face when confronted with the challenge of developing a client base.

Fear of rejection.

There will be times when a prospect says “no.” The prospect may further clarify that “your firm does not offer what we need,” or “you are not known for practicing in this area of law.” While easier said than done, do not take “no” personally. The prospect is not rejecting you as a human being; they just do not need your services at this time.

In instances of “no,” continue to negotiate.  Your response might include, “Would you mind if I followed up with you in three months to see if your situation has changed?” A prospect’s circumstances and legal needs can shift at a moment’s notice. Achieve a “yes” today by committing your prospect to a future interaction.

Fear of failure.

Different from rejection, the fear of failure prevents you from pursuing activities outside of your comfort zone. Up to this point, you have likely enjoyed success—whether professionally, academically, athletically or in your personal life. What happens when you step outside your lawyering zone into the client development zone? Will you be equally successful?

If executed properly, some client development initiatives and activities will work and some will not.  using an annual business plan that maps out who you are targeting, where to network and your differentiators—specific ways your experience and background can add value different from your competition—is one tool for bettering your chances of marketing success.

Fear of success.

The “be careful what you ask for” hurdle. On its face, the fear of success seems unimaginable. You should be so lucky as to have more work than time, right? However, the thought of developing new clients when you barely have the bandwidth to service your current clients or originating work that you have to rely on someone else at your firm to complete can be daunting.

The solution? In the words of bestselling author Harvey Mackay, “Dig your well before you’re thirsty.” Build a team and a network of colleagues and referral sources whom have complimentary skill sets and to whom you can delegate. Depending on your level of client development intensity, you may even need to hire additional capacity now, before the work to keep that professional busy arrives.

Fear of interaction.

Quiet, not very social. Academic. Believes doing good work ought to be enough. Aloof about business development. Reverts to details of work in social settings. These are all characteristics of a social introvert, and according to a Wisnik Career Enterprises study, more than 60 percent of attorneys are social introverts. Are they capable of developing a book of business?

Yes—on their terms. When networking, use a wingman who may be more outgoing, or stick to smaller, more intimate gatherings where the conversation is limited and somewhat controlled. Participate in online discussion groups, on social media (e.g., LinkedIn) or write articles where your expertise and value can be demonstrated from behind the safety of a computer monitor.

Fear of identity loss.

Most of us know or have an image in our minds of the typical salesperson—that person who is overly aggressive or tenacious about convincing you to buy their product or service that you do not need or want. We have yet to find an attorney who wishes to be associated with this type of reputation.

Since the Great Recession, the definition of a successful attorney now is twofold: being an excellent practitioner and being able to successfully market your services. If you graduated from law school before 2008, you were likely taught that learning to practice law was all that was required. After all, “selling” was something that unsophisticated professionals did because they lack intellectual capacity or pedigree.

Salesmanship and problem solving are different. Compelling someone to buy something they do not need is salesmanship; overcoming a legal challenge in order for a business to move forward and grow is problem solving. Have confidence in the problem-solving value you provide.

Fear of inefficiency.

With only 24 hours in a day, time is money. What guarantees time spent on client development (and away from the billable hour) will result in new business? This is definitely problematic if your practice is currently thriving.

Especially for litigators, being busy today does not guarantee you will be busy tomorrow. A case could settle, a large transaction can close, and you find yourself with more time than work.

Have a business plan and refer to it often.  During the times you are swamped with work, plan your marketing around routine activities.  Eat lunch with a client, prospect or referral source, or make “check in” calls during your commute. If you are resolute in your marketing, nothing will keep you from accomplishing it.

In the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  All of us have tossed and turned in bed at night fearing one challenge or another—that is normal. Wake up your client development acumen by putting into practice the tools and techniques for overcoming your fears.

About the Authors

Jonathan R. Fitzgarrald and Greg Wildes are partners in Equinox Strategy Partners, which provides lawyers and law firms with strategic guidance to drive revenue and increase market visibility. Contact them at 424.277.3200 or on LinkedIn.

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