Playing the Long Game with Business Development

The two ultimate goals of business development are getting and keeping clients. To achieve both goals, an attorney has to have a plan and the patience to play the long game.

One common rule of thumb is that 70% of your new matters will come from existing clients. That means it is easier to get new work from existing clients than it is to get new clients. Too many lawyers take existing clients for granted, assuming that they will not leave. Also, too many lawyers view each matter as an opportunity to maximize revenue in the short term, rather than seeing it as a chance to develop a long-term relationship with a client. After all, in today’s age of firm revenue metrics, where attorneys are evaluated on a yearly or even monthly basis, short-term revenue is often incentivized over long-term revenue.

With existing clients, playing the long game creates relationships that are sticky, stable, and profitable. If a lawyer provides seamless and valuable services, and the client recognizes that, the relationship will last longer. A lawyer has many ways to provide value to a long-term client. Whether a task is simple or complex, it is important to take the stress away from the client by giving them the confidence that you will get it done. The client needs to know that they may call you at any time without a time slip being created. The client needs to know that you can be a resource outside your practice area. Clients do not know lawyers in every discipline, but you do. By referring them to other good counsel, you can make the client happy and create a potential referral source in the attorney you’ve referred.

You can also add value by making sure your invoicing is clear, quick, and fair. Every communication with the client is a business development opportunity, including invoices, which should be sent as soon as practical after the services are provided and describe in detail the services performed. Discount time in the short term to maximize the long-term relationship, but make sure that any discounted time is clearly communicated to the client, so that you are credited for it. You need to make the client’s life easier, and make sure they know you are doing so. Additionally, having this kind of relationship with a client makes it easier to deliver bad news.

The more difficult task of getting new clients also requires a long game. Many lawyers complain that their business development efforts are not quickly bearing fruit. Too many give up or don’t start because of the time investment needed. Others alienate newly acquired clients by attempting to maximize revenue over the short run. Wayne Gretsky once said that he missed every shot he did not take. You will not score a goal on every shot, but you have to make sure you are shooting pucks.

Do not go into the first contact with a potential client assuming you will close the sale. Most marketing theorists say that you need to interact with someone five to nine times to get their business. These interactions or “touches” can occur in-person or electronically. If you go in assuming that you will land the client at the first meeting, you will be disappointed more often than not. You may also risk coming off as pushy or desperate.

At the first meeting, listen before advising. Too many lawyers start selling without taking time to understand the client’s real problems. Ask them about their needs and how their life can be made easier. Ask about their business, as that is always a great ice breaker. Ask them whether they are happy with their current counsel. If they are happy with their current counsel, and happy with the fee structure, then you may want to take a pass on trying to convert them, given that you will have a hard time improving that value quotient. Instead, tell them that if they become unhappy with their current counsel, you will be happy to help them. Also, ask them to think about referring you to their friends and acquaintances. People feel good when they help others. Make sure they know that if they need a lawyer, you can be a referral source for other areas of practice. If you refer them to another lawyer, you will have that lawyer as a potential referral source.

When that first matter from the new client comes in, make it seamless. Do not try to maximize revenue. Instead, focus on making them happy and well served. Whether the client’s legal challenges are simple or difficult, again, make sure to shield them from as much stress as possible by projecting competence and confidence and by communicating clearly.

Developing high-value referral sources also requires a long game. Start by letting other lawyers know that you are a resource, even if they have not yet sent you a referral. And remember that referral sources can come from outside the legal world, as well. We all know the need to network with other lawyers. But it’s also worthwhile to network with accountants, consultants, and anyone else capable of referring clients. Make sure potential referral sources know that if they refer a client to you, you will refer other work back to them. Also, let them know that if they refer a matter to you, you will handle it competently and effectively.

The short game is easy. Treat every relationship transactionally, and you’ll likely make money in the very short term. But play the long game, and you’ll achieve better long-term results and provide better services to your clients.

About the Author

Edward D. Lanquist, Jr. is co-founder of Patterson Intellectual Property Law, an intellectual property and technology law firm based in Nashville, TN. Contact him on Twitter @EdwardLanquist.

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