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August 09, 2017

How to increase new business through active listening (Part 1 of 2)

Over the years, I’ve written quite a few times in this blog about the importance of listening. But in my opinion, this topic cannot be emphasized enough, whether you are focused on legal project management, business development, or just relating to your own family.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote, “If I were to summarize the single most important principle in the field of interpersonal relationships, listening is the key.”

In the book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman explains that effective leaders must be good listeners so that they can sense how employees feel, and then channel that energy into the most productive directions.

In the book Advanced Selling Strategies, sales guru Brian Tracy explains four reasons why “Active sincere listening leads to easier sales”:

  1. Listening builds trust. In a survey of professional purchasers, the single biggest complaint was that salespeople talk too much. If you show that you are interested in understanding what people really need, they are more likely to believe that you will provide it.
  2. Listening lowers resistance. It helps to make customers feel relaxed and comfortable instead of tense and defensive.
  3. Listening builds self-esteem. Everyone wants his or her views to be heard. So when you listen to a client, it shows that you respect their opinions.
  4. Listening builds character and self-discipline. Hopefully, this fourth point won’t come up very often. But from time to time, you may sell to a client who is, shall we say, not overly dynamic. As they keep talking, it’s easy to start daydreaming about which type of salad you should order for lunch. But the more boring your client is, the more character you will build by listening. And the better you understand what the client wants, the more likely you are to get a new engagement.

Why is listening hard for so many lawyers? Because you have to talk less. (One of the reasons I am a bit of a fanatic on this topic is that, like many lawyers, I would rather talk than listen.)

Many experts say that when you are building business relationships, you should spend 80% or more of your time listening. But when lawyers meet potential clients, many think that they should spend all of their time listing the wonderful things they can do. This is a mistake.

The client is a lot more interested in her own problems than in your capabilities. If she did not think you were good, you wouldn’t be meeting. So you need to devote most of your time to focusing on what she wants, needs, and feels. As the old saying goes, that’s why you have two ears and one mouth.

Great listeners don’t argue. That’s another reason many lawyers find it difficult. To listen effectively, you must give up the need to be right.

Improved listening is not only helpful in finding new clients, it will also strengthen relationships with existing clients. From a project management perspective, this may include not just communicating about the details of a particular matter, but also asking general questions about a client’s perception of value.

This brief series lists over 60 questions that will be helpful in preparing for client discussions. Just pick a few key questions that fit your  situation, schedule a meeting, and let the client talk 80% of the time. Do not argue or object to criticism, just listen.

You could start with these very direct questions:

  • How could we increase the value of the services we provide?
  • How satisfied are you with our services, on a scale from 1 to 10?
  • What could we do to increase our rating?
  • What do other law firms do that you really like?

For many additional questions, you could review the online resources published by the Association of Corporate Counsel.  For example, see their one page introduction to getting started with the ACC Value Challenge entitled “Meet.  Talk.  Act.”   It recommends that law firms begin by arranging “a two-hour bag lunch” with top clients “with a single question for discussion:  Working together, how do we improve the value of legal services?”

They then list seven issues that may be particularly relevant in the discussion:

  • How can we reestablish trust and improve our relationship, on both sides?
  • How can we assure an adequate flow of work so that outside lawyers understand the client better and can be more efficient in what they do?
  • How can we get junior lawyers better trained, priced at more reasonable levels, practicing law more on the front line, and less likely to leave?
  • How can we better budget and manage costs and staffing?
  • How can we better institutionalize the relationship?
  • How can we evaluate progress and performance?
  • How can we create a culture of continuous improvement, on both sides?

Part 2 of this series will list over 50 additional questions lawyers could use to improve active listening.

This series was adapted from the fifth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, a frequently updated online library of LPM tools and templates.

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