How to turn clients into partners
When they open the Consultative Selling Hall of Fame, Larry Wilson’s statue will be in the main hall. Lawyers could learn a lot from Wilson, especially his book Stop Selling, Start Partnering: The New Thinking About Finding and Keeping Customers.
When Wilson published the first edition in 1994, he described the business climate as “Permanent White Water.” Every vendor is surrounded by churning dangerous water, he said, as a result of globalization and the growing client perception that everything is a commodity. Those trends were felt at very few law firms when the book came out, but these days they are beginning to be felt. And although the book was written for sales people over a dozen years ago, its advice is extremely relevant today to lawyers.
On page 1, Wilson starts the book by saying that all companies need to think differently about service and create “powerful relationships with your best clients.” Selling is not about pushing services onto clients, Wilson says, but about “trying to understand and help clients solve their problems.” (p. 4). Here are some key questions to ask (p. 96):
“What are your [client’s] goals?
How do they make money?
What can you do to help them expand their business?
Who are your [client’s] customers?
How can you help add value to your [client’s] customer?”
Clients must grow into partners. Partners expect solutions, trust and value-added service – exactly what David Maister described in his classic book, The Trusted Advisor. Wilson warns that any relationship – whether a marriage, a friendship, or a business partnership – is dynamic and always changing. You’d better plan to keep working at it, so that the change is in the positive direction. Constantly ask yourself (p. 184):
“How can we improve our service?
How can we respond faster to [client] requests?
Can we change our invoicing to make it easier for the [client]?
How can we be easier to deal with?
Can we be less expensive?
How can we drive out unnecessary costs?
What have we learned?
What can we change and improve?”
Wilson also addresses a key strategic question that faces large law firms every time they respond to a new RFP: whether to focus on being a low-cost provider, or a value-added provider. It is tempting to try to answer this case by case, but as Wilson points out: “It is difficult to be both” (p. 195). If you choose to be a low-cost provider, sooner or later you will be replaced by someone who bids even lower than you. Better to be a value-added provider, who constantly discovers how to:
• Save the [client] money
• Help increase the [client’s] sales
• Add value to the [client’s] customer
Lawyers who want to become partners and provide value-added service to clients, must ask this question (p. 188) every single day: “What unexpected value can I add today for the [client]?”