Business development best practices: Prioritize relentlessly
Since business development is more important than ever for lawyers, over the next few months I will be posting occasional summaries of best practices from my book the Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide. This is the first and most important.
When lawyers ask us for the single most important piece of advice in legal business development, the answer is simple: Ignore good ideas. You must prioritize relentlessly.
Before we started working with lawyers, my company coached professional salespeople. Those clients spent 60 to 80 hours per week living, breathing, and acting on sales. The lawyers we work with these days often struggle to find two or three hours per week that they can devote to business development on a consistent and predictable basis.
Lawyers are much too busy to spend time on ideas that are only good. To maximize the chances of success, each individual must focus on the very best ideas for their practice, their personality, and their schedule. This requires relentless prioritization, and constantly returning to the question, “What should I do today to increase new business?”
For example, it’s good marketing advice to volunteer for a bar association committee. It’s an easy and enjoyable way to develop new relationships that could lead to business in the future. But it is usually better advice to skip the bar association and volunteer instead in an industry organization whose members are potential clients. That way, the relationships you develop will lead to more new business, more quickly.
Even that is probably not the best advice. For most lawyers, the best place to start is with current clients. If you would have averaged an hour per week on that committee, spend it instead on your top clients. Take them to lunch. Listen. Find out what they want. Give them more. Do things for free.
But don’t make those client lunch reservations just yet, because there are no generic answers to the question of what’s best. Maybe in your unique situation the bar association would be best. Or maybe none of these three are right for you and you need to go in a different direction.
You must prioritize relentlessly and keep returning to the question, “What should I do today to increase new business?” Place the highest priority on tasks that are most likely to yield the type of clients you want to work with, and the types of matters you prefer to focus on.
For example, I often talk to lawyers who are writing articles or books in their marketing time. As a man who spends a lot of time writing, I obviously think that writing can be a good way to increase visibility. But there are several important caveats. First of all, writing is way too much fun for some of us, and it’s easy to write things that do not serve the central marketing purpose. Second, by itself publication is unlikely to bring in new business. To be an effective marketing tactic, writing must be used to build relationships, one person at a time. (One example: send copies of your article to key contacts, each with a short written note.) Third and most important: you must consider what else you could be doing with that time. If an article takes 10 hours to write, what else could you do with those 10 marketing hours? Would you get more results with current clients, or by strengthening relationships with people you already know?
Another example: Before a lawyer decides whether to attend a networking meeting, she should realistically assess how many hours it will require, including preparing, following up, and even driving to and from the meeting. Suppose a particular networking meeting requires an investment of five hours. She must then ask whether the meeting is the best possible way to spend that time. Would five hours be likely to produce greater results if she instead offered a free meeting to a current client to understand what they value most about current services, and what could be improved? What about sending personalized emails to 20 people she already knows, just to stay top of mind? Or re-establishing contact with a few friends from law school who now work for large corporations?
Still another example: many lawyers put considerable effort into responding to RFPs, without any realistic idea of the likelihood of success, or even what they should do to win. According to consultant Ann Lee Gibson, typical RFP win rates across the legal industry are “very small, probably no larger than 5%.” In other words, unless you know how to win the RFP game, 19 times out of 20 you will lose. Does that sound like the best use of your time?
The same type of prioritization should be applied to a firm’s marketing tactics. Consider your firm’s last marketing event. What was its impact on new business? Could the firm have achieved greater results if all that time and money had been used differently? Suppose that you outlined a step-by-step sales program to build relationships with a short list of decision makers and/or industry gurus. Or suppose you had redirected those resources to support individual meetings with people the lawyers already knew, focused on broadening contacts in a particular industry segment. Would the results have been greater?
Of course, business developers in every profession ask questions like these every day. What’s different about working with lawyers is that we must ask them more frequently and more rigorously, because lawyers have so little time.
You must start with enough planning to make sure you are don’t waste your time taking people to lunch who are unlikely to ever hire your firm or introduce you to others who will.
But once a basic plan is in place it is time to come up with a list of activities and get started trying them out. Review things that have worked in the past for you, for your partners, and for other firms. Do this quickly. Because every minute you spend planning is a minute you are not following up with clients.
Many lawyers would rather read about marketing than pick up the phone and call a client. If you are one of them, you must fight that tendency, and spend as little time as you can on studying.
Just jump right in and try something. And when you do, keep a written record of what you tried, and what worked. If you track short-term activity and results, you will be more likely to follow up consistently.
Developing new business is like going on a diet: There is no sense starting unless you plan to stay with it.