According to traditional stereotypes, “a good salesperson can sell anything.” That good salesperson was probably on the football team in high school, is fun at parties, mixes easily at networking events, and can quickly become anyone’s new best friend. For all people who do not fit this profile (including most lawyers and me), the logical implication is that we were not born to sell, so we should not waste our time trying.
But when the Gallup organization collected systematic data on 250,000 sales representatives over forty years, they found that the “salesperson who could sell anything” was a myth. In fact, top producers in one industry often perform poorly in another, because different types of selling require different skills. As Benson Smith and Tony Rutigliano put it in Discover Your Sales Strengths:
The strengths that make someone an excellent pharmaceutical salesperson are different from those required to excel in selling real estate, or jet engines, or strategic consulting.
Just as Michael Jordan found that basketball skills did not help him get to first base, a sales star in one industry may do poorly in another.
Gallup also found that each successful salesperson develops a unique selling style based upon their particular personality strengths. In their surveys, one of the items best correlated to sales success is the statement: “At work I get to do what I do best every day.” High agreement links to job satisfaction, effective performance, profitability, and customer loyalty. And the more strongly you agree with this statement, the more productive you are likely to be.
Think about the top legal rainmakers you know. Chances are, some of them have succeeded by providing greater value, some through public speaking, some through community involvement, some by becoming active in professional groups, and some by taking clients to football games. Each has found how to apply their personal interests and strengths.
So when you plan your business development activity, think about what you like to do, and how you can focus on your personal strengths to build relationships and provide more value.
If parts of the process lie outside your comfort zone, remember that selling is a skill that anyone can learn, like golf. Not everyone will become great, but everyone can play the game.
The most important point for lawyers is that selling is a skill. To start learning, you must identify the tactics that fit your clients and your personality, and master a few basic techniques, such as listening.
Also like golf, selling is a lot harder than it looks. The good news is that you do not need to be great to win; you just need to be a little better than your competition.
Until a few years ago, that was easy, because other lawyers were so bad at it. But these days the bar is going up.
When one law firm succeeds in training its lawyers to get new business, it usually takes the work away from a second firm. When I interviewed chief marketing officers for an article a few years ago, several mentioned that when they compete with most firms, it’s easy to take away business by providing exceptional service. But when they compete with other firms that also provide exceptional service, getting new business becomes much harder.
How can you expect to keep up, if legal sellers become more sophisticated year after year? It’s going to take more time and money, and is a kind of arms race. Most lawyers find it is more efficient to hire sales experts as coaches and collaborators, rather than to spend the time to become sales experts themselves. Great golfers have coaches, and more and more legal rainmakers do as well.
Can you really expect to compete in this arena if you are not a natural salesperson? Yes. Natural ability is overrated. Focus on your personal strengths, follow up consistently, and you will succeed.
This post was adapted from my Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide.