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August 23, 2017

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

Part 1 of this series included about a dozen questions to get clients talking.  This post contains over 50 additional questions which could help you probe into the details of client needs.  We start with the following:

  • What do you like about working with our firm?
  • What could we do better?
  • What could we do to make your life easier?
  • Can you think of any other ways we could help clients like you, or any new services we could offer?
  • Could we better use technology to be of service to you?
  • What type of status reporting do you like? Weekly? Monthly? Email or phone?
  • Would you recommend our firm to others? Why or why not?
  • If you managed a firm like ours, what would you do differently?
  • How would you rate the quality of our legal product?
  • How well do we listen to your concerns?
  • How well do we understand your goals?
  • How well do we understand your industry?
  • Do we do a good job keeping you informed?
  • Do we explain legal issues in terms that are easy for decision makers to understand?
  • Do you perceive us as genuinely committed to your business success?
  • Do you perceive our lawyers as prompt, responsive, and accessible on short notice?
  • Are our billing statements accurate and complete?
  • Do our invoices include an appropriate level of detail?
  • Do you think our fees are fair and reasonable?
  • In the past, what are some of the things that you’ve liked most about working with other law firms, and with ours?
  • What have you liked least about working with law firms?
  • When you select outside counsel, what factors are most important to you?
  • When you rate lawyers’ performance, what factors are most important to you?
  • How do you decide when to do work in-house, and when to use outside counsel?
  • What future trends in your business or industry will affect your need for legal services?
  • What are your biggest legal concerns?
  • How would you describe your overall impression of our firm?
  • What mistakes can be made when lawyers don’t understand your business and/or industry?

Note: While most of these questions address your service, they could easily be reworded to ask how clients perceive other law firms they work with. That can be an excellent way to get insights into where competitors are vulnerable.

With some clients, it may be better to start with big picture business questions, such as:

  • What are the biggest challenges that you face in your job?
  • What keeps you up at night?
  • Where do you see your industry going in the next few years?
  • What does your ideal customer look like?
  • What works best in finding new customers?
  • Who are your biggest customers?
  • What is it like to work for your company?
  • Who are the key people you work with?

Whatever specific topics you choose to explore, it is important to “master the art of the easily answered question,” as explained in Kevin Daley’s Socratic Selling.The book describes how to become an active listener by using simple prompts like these:

  • Tell me more about ____.
  • Would you elaborate on ____?
  • Give me an example of ____.
  • What else should I know about ____?
  • How does ____ fit the picture?
  • Talk to me about your experience with _____.
  • How do you handle _____?
  • What makes this urgent?
  • Why is this important right now?
  • What bothers you most?
  • How tough a position does this put you in?
  • How does this affect you?
  • Why is this important to you?
  • How does that sound?
  • Do I have it right?
  • If you were to go ahead with ____, when would you ____?
  • What else should I ask about?

To be honest, the first time I saw this list I thought it looked a little dumb.  By nature, I did not want to ask clients “tell me more,” or “do I have it right?”  I usually quickly thought I had heard enough, and of course I thought I had it right.  So I wanted to get right to the point and tell clients what I thought they should do. 

Many lawyers seem to feel the same way.  They’d like to get to the point faster by dominating the conversation. Probes like the ones above do not come naturally to many lawyers because they like to control the conversation. But guess what.  Clients do too.

Simple questions like the ones above can help clients think through a situation while assuring that they talk 80% or more of the time. 

Professional salespeople have an old saying that “Whoever talks the most will enjoy the meeting the most.” That’s one reason lawyers so often leave business development meetings thinking the meeting was very successful; they did most of the talking.   But then they don’t get the business.

If you want to improve relationships and increase new business, you want the client to be the one who enjoys the meeting more.

If you would like to create more specific questions to fit your client’s precise interests, one place to start is with Paul Lippe’s influential article, “Welcome to the Future: Embracing the New Normal.” Then use your background knowledge of the client to create specific questions about some of the trends Lippe lists: alternate staffing, predictable pricing, defined quality, client intimacy, technology, and process innovation. 

And if you want general tips on becoming a better listener, there are countless websites and books that can help.  You could even join the International Listening Association, which has members in 19 countries who “promote the study of listening… and pursue research into the ways in which listening can develop understanding in our personal, political, social and working lives.”

Or you could just start with these five steps:

  1. Establish genuine interest by asking questions that you care about.
  2. Take notes. Writing down what people say shows that what they say is important, and that you are paying attention. Just put the pen down if the talk turns confidential.
  3. Respond to the speaker’s nonverbal cues and monitor your own, including eye contact, smiling, and frowning.
  4. Keep people talking. Paraphrase, summarize, and restate what you hear. When you agree with people, they will think that you are smart. Especially if you don’t interrupt them or argue.
  5. Come prepared with good questions.

If listening does not come naturally to you, practice.  Make a commitment for your next meeting to talk no more than 20% of the time, or some other percentage. (The actual percentage will depend on the client’s needs.  There are meetings when you should talk 50% or more of the time, if the client wants to interview you about your knowledge.  The client is always right.)  Then, after the meeting, compare the percent of time you planned to listen with what actually occurred. Track the results over time, using a simple format like this:

TrackingListening_Template

Obviously, the “actual” percent will be a very rough approximation. But the National Science Foundation is not going to review these results, so an estimate is fine. The important things are to track your behavior and to improve over time.

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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