Should they stay or should they go?

In November 2003, we conducted extensive research into how law firms go about winning new clients.  The study found that establishing and managing an effective business development process was often a challenge for many firms who felt their new client creation was not as effective as they hoped.  Whilst very good at building relationships with prospective clients once an opportunity arose, lawyers are finding it increasingly difficult to generate a flow of these opportunities.

So how can law firms establish plans and manage or measure the activities going into their new business development?  And how can lawyers meet their firm’s business development expectations on top of everything else they need to do each day?

Go with the flow
The PACE Pipeline model enables a law firm to identify those actions which will ensure a flow of work from both existing and new clients.  It also enables the firm to plan and manage, in a balanced way, the activities that are required to stimulate this flow.  This allows the firm to measure its business development in two ways:

  •  The business development results
  •  The business development activities that are being carried out.

The PACE Pipeline facilitates this measurement by creating a plan for business development activity so a firm can measure its performance against some form of benchmark.  It also creates an understanding of the different key activities that will produce results for the firm.

Prospecting: Defined prospects not yet marketed to
These are the prospective clients who we have consciously chosen to focus on.  If we are to market ourselves to prospective clients with a view to meeting with them and working with them, we should choose who we would wish to become our clients.

Promoting: Defined prospects – marketed to but not yet in dialogue
These people may receive regular communications from us, they may be invited to our seminars and events, but we have not had the opportunity of sitting down with a senior decision-maker to talk about their business.  We are in the process of promoting ourselves.

Projecting: Defined prospects in dialogue
These are potential clients with whom we are talking about business issues.  We are in the process of trying to find mutually acceptable ways in which our firm may be able to support them.  We are projecting that at some point in the future they will work with us.

Protecting: Current clients
Our role with our current clients is one of protection, where we must execute today’s work exceptionally well and deliver an unbeatable level of service and support.  This will prevent our best clients being ‘wooed’ by competitors and it will enable us to sell existing and new capabilities to them.

Pruning: Unprofitable clients
For those clients that are proving unprofitable for us or diverting resources away from more valuable clients, we need to take a decision whether we should continue our relationship with them.  This will enable us to concentrate our efforts on developing mutually beneficial relationships with the clients that matter to us.

The market
These could be people and organizations who are just names today, but who may provide us with work in the future.  These people live outside the circle of our Pipeline.  We cannot trust to luck that they will know on our door.  If we are going to be in control of our destiny and future client base,, we need to invest time and effort in defining the best of these prospects.  What lies inside the Pipeline are only those people and organizations that are defined to us.

Nice diagram but how does it help?
Lawyers have tremendous demands on their time and any business development activity needs to happen alongside everything else that have to do.  The PACE Pipeline prevents lawyers devoting vast chunks of time to broad-brush marketing in the hope that some potential clients will eventually surrender themselves.  Instead, it enables these professionals to manage what business development time they have to generate the greatest results.

Defining the best prospects (P1)
We have seen many cases of lawyers pursuing a large number of prospects but with no real result.  This is exhausting, demotivating and unproductive for the individual involved.  Those professionals who are more successful at business development tend to demonstrate the following methods in their approach:

Keeping it simple
They identify a small number of prospects that they would really like to work with.  These prospects are attractive for a number of reasons: their potential fee income, the type of work they would require, their kudos in a particular sector etc.

Stick with what you like
The more successful lawyers tend to target clients who are either in industries or businesses they are interested in or who require the type of work that lawyer enjoys.

Having initially identified a relatively small list of prospects, successful lawyers ‘whittle’ it down further so that the prospects they pursue are ones who are most likely to respond positively to their approach.  Many use a ‘trigger and filter’ checklist to help.  Triggers are events that make the prospective client more likely to consider the use of outside professional advice, eg an organization becoming acquisitive or subject to changes in legislation or regulations, or where there is a change of people at the top of an organisation.

Are factors which indicate that a prospect may be easier (or more difficult) to approach; they may be more interesting than other potential prospects – such as we have a god track record in their marketplace or the decision process is likely to be tangible and open to influence.

With a defined prospect list, fee-earners can use what time they have to really understand each target’s business, its key people, the industry issues affecting it, and they are better placed to understand the prospect’s needs and the solutions that the firm could provide.  In addition, firms that are proactive in managing the business development efforts of all their professionals will record and monitor the targets that are being pursued across the firm.  These should be checked against firm-wide goals.  By understanding and communicating which prospects are being targeted the firm experiences a number of benefits:

  • More relevant information about the client can be gathered.
  • A team approach can be used to win clients where the decision-making process is complex.
  • Marketing activities can be refocused to support business development activities and help generate meetings with prospective clients.
  • The risk of duplication is reduced.

Promoting the firm (P2)
When a firm has defined its target prospects, its marketing activities can be focused on this group to generate meetings, which in turn will begin a dialogue between the target clients and the firm.  These marketing activities need to work on three levels: corporate, capability and contact marketing levels.

Corporate marketing activities

  • Introduce or reaffirm the law firm’s existence and overall reputation.

Capability marketing

  • Defines what particular expertise the firm has.

Contact marketing

  • Is the direct interaction between the prospect and professional, and is the one form of marketing that creates a dialogue between the two.  See our article in the Spring 2004 issue of axiom.

In firms where marketing and business development departments are fully aware of the lawyers’ defined target prospects, marketing activities are much more focused and effective.  They play an active role in helping lawyers win these clients and in helping to build trust in the relationship.  In these firms, it is rare for lawyers to enter into a dialogue with a target without that prospect being aware of the firm and receptive to its approach.

First meetings (P3)
When it comes to meeting with the target prospect for the first time, many professionals feel pressured to rush in with solutions, without sufficient knowledge of the prospect’s business to add real value.  Some professionals feel that they need to spend the whole meeting extolling the virtues of their firm.  Neither approach is likely to start the relationship off on a strong footing.

Firms that are successful at winning clients tend to view the first meeting as a crucial step in building trust.  If the prospect begins to trust them, they are more likely to convert into clients.  Trust comes from demonstrating three key attributes:

  • Credibility – by having confidence, creating a good initial impact, being honest, delivering as promised.
  • Competence – by demonstrating knowledge, having a good track record and expertise, asking searching but non-manipulative questions.
  • Compatibility – by demonstrating genuine interest, active listening, adapting behaviour, showing we care and showing vulnerability.

In these first meetings, the emphasis should not be on saying as much about the law firm as possible.  Certainly lawyers will be expected to give a brief overview of their firm and this should be done using all the available knowledge of the prospect.

The bulk of the meeting should then focus on ascertaining in detail the prospective client’s situation.  This requires excellent questioning and listening skills, using a number of different techniques.  Many stay silent but also use positive body language or encouraging words, phrases and ‘noises’.  You could make notes and unbundled key words and phrases to check their understanding with the prospect.

Towards the end of the meeting, explain or explore a suitable way forward, one which the prospect is comfortable with.  It is important that the way forward involves commitment from the prospect, otherwise the lawyer may be simply wasting their time.  Potential ways forward will depend on the prospect and the meeting, but could include:

  • Agreement to a meeting or presentation at the lawyer’s office
  • Agreement that the prospective client will prepare and send a specification for the task / project discussed
  • Agreement to a further meeting – with the prospect responsible for inviting other interested parties.

Moving forward (P3)
Having now obtained commitment to a next step, the professional need to map out a campaign to win the prospect and concert that organization to client status.  This will ultimately rely on identifying the key people in the organization who can have any influence on the decision to appoint their law firm.  Those professionals and firms that are successful identify these key people and endeavour, through their own colleagues, to form relationship with each one.  This often results in ‘matchmaking’ people in the prospect organization with those in the firm, according to personality, expertise, interests and knowledge. 

By matchmaking firms are able to put together a comprehensive picture of:

  • What issues are facing the prospect
  • What their needs are
  • What they really want
  • What the decision-making process is
  • What people’s roles and functions are
  • What key people’s motivations are
  • How they view the law firm and their competition.

Protecting (P4)
Once a client has been won, it is hopefully the start of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.  To ensure this is the case, the fee-earners must continue building trust and planning and managing the client relationship as proactively as they did when trying to win the client in the first place.  If the client is going to remain loyal they need to believe that they gain value from their relationship with their law firm, so continue reaffirming your understanding of their needs.  Client planning meetings are very valuable in this respect as they enable both the firm and the client to gain a better understanding of each other’s needs and capabilities.  They lead to mutually beneficial solutions being explored.

Pruning (P5)
Often, professionals inherit or acquire clients that prove more hassle then they’re worth.  When faced with clients who continually dispute fees, affect your profitability or prevent you working on more valuable, rewarding and enjoyable clients it is worth considering whether a termination of the relationship would be best.  Why would a firm want to prune a client?

  • Their work is low volume / low revenue
  • Their work is unprofitable or produces insufficient cash
  • The client or type of work doesn’t fit with your current or future strategic direction
  • The client is unpleasant to deal with
  • Working with them causes low staff morale
  • The client causes constant hassle – often needing remedial action.

Once identified, consider how your client can best be demoted.  The most suitable method will depend on the current strength and level of relationship involved:

  • Let the relationship wither
  • Conduct a ‘let’s be honest’ meeting
  • Set ‘minimum’ fees
  • Delegate the client
  • Service ‘at a distance’
  • Pass to a partner organisation.

Know your limits
The biggest limiting factor in many lawyers’ success is in building the most profitable client base in what little time they have.  By using a process to help manage that time, each fee earner can be confident that the time invested in business development will achieve the greatest return.  The key messages are:

  • Select a small number of prospects to target.
  • Develop knowledge of potential clients and get to grips with the issues affecting them.
  • Use the firm’s marketing activities to build a positive image of your firm and its capabilities.
  • Ensure marketing activities lead to opportunities for dialogue between professionals and prospect.
  • Plan and handle first meetings well.
  • Follow up meetings with a campaign to convert the prospect to client.
  • Establish key client plans to protect existing clients from competitors and ensure they are able to purchase a wide range of services for us if they want.
  • Prune those clients that divert valuable time away from clients you want to work with.

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