Listening Your Way to New Business

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According to a German proverb, “A man has two ears and one mouth so that he hears much and speaks little.” Mark Twain followed up the thought by saying, “If we were meant to talk more than listen, we would have two mouths and one ear.” And I’ll add: We were given two ears and one mouth, and they should be used in that proportion in a new-business call.

Listening is the one sales technique that I can’t live without. It saves me from having to make a pitch. Prospects hate being pitched (see discussion below).


The way to sell effectively is to meet a prospective client and have five intelligent questions ready. The questions should demonstrate that you’ve made an effort to understand the prospect’s business. The questions are designed to get him talking. They will tell you all the things you’re supposed to look for to close the deal:

  • The prospect’s business “pain.”
  • What they want and how they want it.
  • What’s not important to the prospect.
  • Whether they have the money to hire you or buy your products.
  • Every detail that should go into your proposal.

In fact, the prospect will write the proposal for you if you ask open-ended questions (those that cannot be answered by “yes or no,” such as “tell me more about that”) and just get them talking. For me, it goes back to my early newspaper reporter days. I went out on every story with a list of questions I needed to write my story. As an honest newsman, I was forbidden from put writing my opinion into the story. However, I could quote someone to make a point, but I had to ask them a question to get them to say it.

Turning leads into new clients

When I operated my own practice, I got 80% of my leads from my Web site and the rest by referrals, from friendships I’ve cultivated and by having a good reputation. I would get a lot of calls out of the blue from someone saying, “I looked you up on the Internet.” (If they don’t say that, then I ask them: “how did you hear about me?”

My initial question is always: “Why are you calling about this today? What has brought the matter to a head?” The prospective client will fill me in on the company’s internal politics, what’s motivating them, the history of the project and why they need outside help.

To keep them talking I ask them, “tell me more about that” or “what makes you say that?” I’ll be taking notes the whole time the prospect is talking, because I will translate it directly into a proposal, if that’s what they want. I ask other key questions:

  • What have you tried before? Why didn’t that work?
  • If the decision were up to you, what would you do?
  • Who’s in charge of the project, and tell me about your role in it.
  • If everything worked out perfectly, what would that look like?
  • Tell me about your customers – what industries are they in? Describe your ideal customer. What makes them buy from you?
  • What’s the main way your company makes money? What’s your most profitable product or service? Are any of them losing money?
  • Who are your competitors? Name five.
  • Do you have a budget for this?
  • What other consultants are you talking to about this project?
  • What’s your deadline?

When I’ve got a good picture of the situation, I’ll say, “OK, here’s what I recommend we work on first.” Note that I’ve assumed the close and act as if we’re already doing business together. They I ask them the BIG QUESTION: What’s your email address so I can send you:

  • An invoice for a retainer of 10 hours of my time or for my flat fee.
  • A proposal to show the decision maker.

In-person sales meetings

Often, the prospect will ask for an in-person meeting. This is what I really want, because new business comes in person, or “belly to belly” as one rainmaker told me, who had the large belly to match his advice.

I’ll ask a prospective client to fax or email me “homework,” so that I can study the firm’s business. I’ll send them a confidentiality agreement and ask them for their most profitable services or products, any written plans or strategy, copies of all their printed marketing materials, and the names of five competing firms.

I can learn a lot by studying the prospect’s Web site, such as whether their site sucks, whether they have a logo and tagline, whether they have any points of real market distinction. I particularly read the prospect’s bio, and memorize two or three points to bring up when I see them, like, “Oh, I noticed that you’re an electrical engineer. How does that help in your business?”

I’ll build my list of questions, plus find a few simple things they can fix. I’ll describe the quick fixes to them as a “free sample” of my advice, which also demonstrates my expertise.

Key differences between a phone call and an in-person meeting

When the prospect is talking in person, I’ll take off my glasses and look them directly in the eye, and stop doing anything else (like checking my iPhone or looking for a file). I want them to know they have my full attention. At some point I’ll break eye contact to write down a note about what they said. They can tell I am really listening to them, and prospects really like that.

I’ll keep asking questions until I can form an opinion on what the solution or first step should be. At this point I’ll hand out the free samples plus my invoice for a retainer or flat fee. Then I’ll suggest what I’ll start working on next and ask if they agree that it’s the right choice.

Ask. Ask. Ask. Answer. Answer. Answer. At the end of the conversation, the new client really feels that they have participated in the solution. They do not feel that they have been “pitched” or “sold,” but they transformed from a prospect into a client. They view me as a trusted advisor, not someone who is going to cram hard choices down their throat. And I know that I’m on the same wavelength as the client.

The importance of listening

Research I conducted with market researcher Suzanne Lowe of Concord, MA, proved how important listening is. We compiled the responses of more than 375 marketers and practitioners in 12+ sectors. They told us that a key way to measure your marketing effectiveness is listening to the client and responding to what they say. Those companies that listened to their customers reported that their marketing was “extremely effective.”

At the most basic level, we’re talking here about garden variety client satisfaction surveys or client perception interviews. (Among law firms, which are my specialty, only 40% conduct client feedback surveys. This is pathetic.) At a strategic level, we’re talking about digging to find the client’s pain and responding to their needs. Why is listening so effective? One respondent at a successful construction firm told us, “Because we are listening to our clients and making adjustments based on their input. Employees have also been surveyed for their opinions and while the survey is confidential, we are able to obtain objective information.”

David Koren, Marketing Director at Gensler, a New York architecture firm, told us, “Many people think there’s a secret to marketing Gensler, that there’s some magic formula to our success. There aren’t any secrets. The magic formula, to the extent that there is one, is listening and responding to clients.”

Don’t pitch your prospects

Why do used car salesmen have the worst reputation in the field? Because they pitch you. They bombard you with facts and information, and they try to trap you in a little room. Prospects hate that. But most professionals are no better – they present their credentials, often with mind-numbing detail. They tell you how great they are and their firm is. This bores the daylights out of prospects. If you didn’t have the credentials, you wouldn’t be meeting the prospect. Again, ask questions and treat the pitch as if it’s the first meeting after you’ve been hired. This eliminates the need to pitch.

In an article in the September 2003 Harvard Business Review, “How to Pitch a  Brilliant Idea,” Kimberly D. Elsbach, professor management at the University of California, Davis, wrote about a six-year study in which she observed 50 Hollywood film and TV producers fielding scores of 30-minute pitches from screenwriters.

She showed that if you are pitching, you are probably doomed.  Those receiving the pitch make snap decisions and quickly put you into a box that fits their preconceived notion. Once you’re in the box, you can’t get out.  They apply subjective and inaccurate criteria to the salesperson, and they do it in a blink, as author Malcolm Gladwell might put it.

Imagine how much more successful the salesperson would be if they knew in advance what films made the most money for the studio, which were the biggest losers, the target audience they wanted to reach and what kind of films the studio was looking for. How would a salesperson find this out?

By asking good questions.

(photo: Shutterstock)

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  • “ask questions and treat the pitch as if it’s the first meeting after you’ve been hired. This eliminates the need to pitch.”
    This is a very intriguing idea to me, and seems intuitively good. I’ll be trying this immediately.

  • It sounds like your approach to client-getting is similar to life coaching. You ask open-ended questions, get the coachee [potential client] to give you lots of information, start asking more targeted but still open-ended questions, then get the coachee [potential client] to arrive at the solution him- or herself. At that point, you simply get paid to execute the solution.

    Nice.