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June 18, 2014

Business development best practices: Start with current clients

This is one of a series of occasional posts summarizing the most important best practices from my book the Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide.

When lawyers first think about selling, many immediately start planning how to find new clients.  But selling begins at home, and they will have much greater success if they focus first on the clients they already have.

According to research conducted by Harry Mills:

  • The chances of selling to an existing client are better than one in two
  • The chances of selling to a lost client are one in three
  • The chances of successfully selling to a fresh prospect are one in eight

The exact numbers will be different for your firm, but experts agree that in every business, it’s much easier to sell to people who know you than to sell to strangers.

You might think that as large law firms hire larger business development staffs and increase budgets, they would quickly get to the point where their current clients were taken care of, and not a good source for additional revenue. Perhaps this will happen someday, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet.

One way to get started with your current clients is to offer a free meeting to learn more about their business needs. At a minimum, this will help build your relationship and protect you from competitors. With a little luck, it will also lead to new engagements.

For example, when one of my first legal clients prioritized marketing action items, he decided to call a current client and offer a free meeting to discuss a new program. The client loved the idea that the meeting was free, and provided the name of a new contact he wanted to include. When my client called to schedule the free meeting, the new person mentioned a litigation that was about to be assigned to a competitor. The lawyer immediately arranged a separate meeting about that work, and got that significant engagement. The new business came in before he even conducted the free meeting.

In today’s competitive environment, other law firms would like to take your best clients, so you will need to put in more and more effort to protect what you have.

For specific suggestions, see the section on “Defensive marketing and client satisfaction” in my Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide.  After you’ve done all those things, that’s when you should start spending time on new clients. 

To achieve long-term success, every firm needs a steady stream of new clients. Even among professionals who devote their lives to selling, failure rates in finding new clients are high. In Gallup’s data on 250,000 professionals, the bottom 25% in every sales force sells very little, and actually reduces the team’s productivity by distracting valuable management time.  That’s one reason why turnover is so high in sales positions.

When lawyers try to find new clients, some will succeed and some will fail. Can anyone predict which are which? I have seen claims that some tests can, but I’ve never seen convincing data. The lawyers who are most successful sometimes surprise me, and even surprise themselves. They are the ones who find the fit between their personal strengths and the firm’s business development needs.

So when a lawyer first works on increasing sales, much of the initial effort should be aimed at existing clients. What should you do when you have one hundred percent of a client’s legal business? Work even harder to ensure that they are raving fans who cannot be tempted to switch to a competitor.  



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