Column: Niche Communication -- A Business Development Training Design that Works

Thursday, March 7, 2019 By Susan Letterman White
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Susan Letterman White

Niche marketing focuses on a narrow slice of law for blogging, writing articles, delivering presentations and focusing your website marketing efforts. It works because its messages respond to the expectations of the target market. It’s easy to imagine a person with any legal problem, thinking about it as a personal problem and doing a web search for an answer. If that person finds a well-written, easy to understand, responsive blog post, it creates a good and (hopefully) memorable impression. Perhaps that person will call that lawyer when the time is right to move forward and take legal action.

What happens when the person speaks to the lawyer for the first time? Is the in-person impression as welcoming as the online impression?

Over the past year, at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (Mass. LOMAP), we have held four cohort-based business development programs. The Rainmakers Incubator, a four-week niche-communication series consisting of four workshops, helps lawyers figure out what to say to prospective clients -- and how to communicate it -- to create a favorable impression. In this article, I’m going to explain how you can create your own program at your law firm.

The program works because the participants are committed. Select the right people or you’re doomed to fail. They learn how to adjust their communication style to a style appreciated by the other person and to nurture a conversation about the other person’s problems instead of talking about their practice and themselves.

Graduates have seen results. One lawyer reported to her cohort that she used the techniques on a former client, who had left her firm for a less-expensive option. After their phone conversation, the client returned to her firm.

Participants’ commitment

Participants are asked to commit to attend all four workshops in advance. No exceptions. Workshops are two hours long and meet weekly for four weeks. At the first session, they are asked to commit to certain norms, including confidentiality, participating fully in all exercises, and being willing to take chances and make mistakes. They are asked to become comfortable with the idea that they are “selling” their ideas and skills as lawyers. Every group has been engaged.

Adjusting their style of “selling”

The first two weeks of the program, for a total of four hours, participants take a deep dive into their default styles of communication. I use the Social Styles Inventory assessment. Two self-assessments and discussions of results lead to personal insights. They explore whether they:

  • Talk more about themselves, their practice, the profession, an industry, current events, etc., or ask more questions about the other person
  • Control their emotions or demonstrate them
  • Talk quickly or more slowly
  • Use a loud or soft voice
  • Talk a lot or a little
  • Use their hands and, if so, how?
  • Have a relaxed or rigid body posture

They also learn to notice how other people behave and what conversation style others might find more engaging. The difficult hurdle is learning to flex to another’s style and needs.

They are given a worksheet to help them notice different conversation styles during introductions. The sheet has a list of different dimensions of style. Instead of just listening for a lawyer’s practice area, they are told to take notes of what they notice about each person’s conversation style.

As lawyers, we are much more focused on the content -- the ideas and the words and phrases chosen to express those ideas -- than the conversation process itself. The first two weeks of the program are challenging for most lawyers. They are expected to change the ingrained ways they think and behave. Developing this new skill takes resilience and a learning mindset, so both skills are introduced.

Emphasis is on developing rapport with another person. People need to feel comfortable before they pay attention to what you’re saying and are willing to openly discuss their problems. Adjusting your style to the needs of the other person reduces tension, builds and maintains comfort, and develops rapport and trust.

Adjusting what they say when “selling”

Priming for the second half of the program is through reframing what lawyers do in terms of creating, protecting or restoring value for a client. They reframe their value proposition. Most have a long history of explaining their value proposition in terms of the type of law they practice. They learn to explain it in terms of the value perceived by the client.

The second half of the program is focused on what to say and when to say it along the sales cycle. Different conversations at different points in time help evaluate whether a person is a prospect and transform a prospect into a client.

The continued emphasis is on the prospect’s perception and how to approach a conversation.

In the workshops, I emphasize that it’s easier to sell something that many people want. If a lawyer is talking to a person that doesn’t want to spend what a lawyer costs or wants to take care of things themselves and you aren’t selling a low-cost alternative, they are a dead-end. I also emphasize that not all people are decision-makers for hiring lawyers. I’ve worked with multiple clients who have spent a lot of time developing relationships with people, who neither made the decision nor influenced the decision-maker.

The next lesson is to forget about an elevator speech and avoid talking about what is new in your area of law. Instead, participants learn that asking the right questions at the right times after introducing oneself is how to transform a prospect into a client.

There are four types of questions to ask: (1) situation, (2) problem, (3) implication and (4) need-payoff. Situation questions are background questions, like the ones a lawyer might ask at the beginning of a deposition. They establish the context by uncovering facts and background about a prospect’s situation.

Problem questions ask about obstacles hindering what matters most to that person. Here, you probe for difficulties, problems, dissatisfactions and concerns with the prospect’s current situation. Each problem question invites a prospect to talk about an implied need. These questions are more strongly linked to successful sales than situation questions.

Implication questions ask about the consequences of not addressing the problems. They make any pain more acute. They increase anxiety. They strengthen the need before a solution is introduced. Even seemingly small problems can have huge implications if you follow the thread offered by the prospect. Keep digging deeper with “what if” questions.

Need-payoff questions are leading questions that suggest the value of addressing the person’s problems. These questions ask about the value or usefulness of a solution.


Most lawyers waste too much time on situation questions and then jump to need-payoff questions or just talk about what they are offering. In a workshop setting, participants learn by practicing. They practice writing their questions and then use them to see what works and what doesn’t.

They learn to superimpose communication styles over what they are learning about the content of questions to adjust how they ask questions and how long they ask a type of question. Finally, they role-play and are encouraged to practice until the way they think about what to say and do with prospects becomes habit.

Talking about capability comes easy to most lawyers. It’s where they often begin a sales conversation. However, they often focus on less persuasive ways to describe their solutions. There are three ways to demonstrate capability. You might describe the features (the facts or characteristics of your service) and the advantages (how a feature will help the prospect), or the benefits (how a feature or advantage meets a prospect’s explicit needs). Research shows that benefits are the most persuasive way to demonstrate capability. Lawyers tend to talk more about features -- what they do differently from other lawyers. In a workshop, where a lawyer can role-play a client, the mistake becomes obvious.

If you have a group of lawyers in your firm who are committed to improving their business development, carve out the time and offer them a workshop.

Susan Letterman White, J.D., MS helps lawyers and law firms improve leadership, organizational and team performance, and marketing and business development, through strategy planning, design thinking, training programs, group facilitation, and executive coaching. She is a Practice Advisor at Massachusetts LCL/LOMAP, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University, where she teaches leadership, strategic change, and communication skills, and the principal consultant at Letterman White Consulting.