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December 12, 2007

The most important difference in legal selling: Time (Part 1 of 2)

This piece originally appeared in the November/December 2007 issue of Strategies: The Journal of the Legal Marketing Association.

Strategies_nov_2007_jpeg Just about everyone agrees that selling legal services is different from selling used cars, and even from selling other professional services. But exactly what is different? And why does it matter?

When I first started working with lawyers, I thought that personality and temperament were the most important differences. In the twenty years I spent training and coaching professional salespeople in financial services and other industries, I don’t remember a single salesperson ever arguing with me. Notice I did not say that they always agreed with me, just that they never argued. When there was a difference of opinion, they ignored it, smiled, and moved on.

In contrast, when I started selling to lawyers, it was hard to get through the first ten minutes of a talk without someone interrupting to challenge my conclusions, or cross-question me about the underlying evidence. The experience gave me flashbacks to my days in academia, where arguing is a valued skill, and it is a matter of honor to challenge every assertion. To some professors, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as asking a pointed question that brings a colloquium speaker to his intellectual knees. That approach may be fine when you are debating the law, but every sales guru from Dale Carnegie to Larry Wilson will tell you that people who sell shouldn’t argue.

Then something happened that made me think there was another, more important difference. I offered a public workshop in which lawyers reviewed business development best practices, and picked the action items which they thought would have the greatest impact for their practice, their personality, and their schedule. I followed up over the next several weeks, to monitor their results.

One of the lawyers who attended my first workshop -- a senior partner at a 400 lawyer firm -- decided to offer a long-time client a free meeting, to learn more about their business. The client’s first reaction was skepticism; he asked whether he would be billed for meeting preparation, research, or followup. Once the client was convinced that the meeting would really be free, he became quite enthusiastic, and suggested a list of additional people who should be invited. When the lawyer from my workshop called these new contacts, he got chatting with one person who said “By the way, did you know that we are about to assign a significant litigation to one of your competitors?” “No, I didn’t,” the lawyer replied. “Why don’t I bring over one of our litigators this afternoon to see if we could help.” The end result was that his firm earned a significant litigation, before he even got to the free meeting.

I was stunned. In all the years I had trained and coached sales people in insurance, banking, and financial services, I never heard a single story of such an easy sale. Would you buy a large insurance policy because your agent agreed to meet with you for free? This event, and others like it, convinced me that the biggest difference in legal selling was not lawyers’ personalities after all, it was the competitive environment. More on that next week…


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