What it takes to win a client

Issue November/December 2017 By John O. Cunningham

Great rainmakers don’t sit in their office waiting for the phone to ring. They know that winning over new clients is all about courting them with public appearances, personal visits, phone calls, notes, social media posts, newsletters, content marketing and other forms of outreach.

Of course, courting a client is not the same as stalking one. Daily contacts or aggressive overtures are not only ineffective, they can be unprofessional. So effective legal marketing is not about getting in someone’s face.

On the other hand, a single meeting with a prospect without any follow-up is almost always just a waste of time. According to one study, less than two percent of professional sales come after one initial contact, and 80 percent of sales come only after five or more contacts, touches or impressions (touches and impressions come through content marketing, advertising or other forms of outreach that actually get through to a prospect).

Other frequently quoted studies have concluded that buyers make service purchases, on average, only after seven to 12 contacts, touches or impressions. Furthermore, it typically takes more than a year to convert a prospect into a client. This seems like a big investment of time, but legal service marketing may require even more effort because there is fierce competition for clients, and legal service procurement decisions are increasingly complex.

Ultimately, a client’s selection of a professional service provider is very much about likeability and trust, as well as reputation, and you can’t demonstrate likeability and trustworthiness in one impression.

Some lawyers mistakenly believe that experience is the only yardstick that matters to clients, but that is demonstrably wrong. As a corporate executive once told me during a client survey, “Many lawyers think the buying decision is all about their competence, but competence is just the ticket to the game.”

As he explained to me, sophisticated legal service purchasers know there are many competent lawyers to choose from now. So those purchasers are only considering competent prospective providers who exhibit emotional intelligence, flexibility with others, honesty and an ability to be a goodwill ambassador for a corporate client’s brand.

These desired qualities in legal service providers relate back to trustworthiness and likeability, the character traits that most clients cite as critical, including less-sophisticated clients who often fear and distrust the legal system.

That is why legal marketing efforts usually require some personal component to be successful. It is why highly successful lawyers who cater to ordinary consumers offer free initial consultations in person. It is why successful business lawyers visit prospects at their offices or at breakfast, lunch or dinner venues. Personal contact is a catalyst for building trust and affection.

While it is clearly important to meet prospective clients in person, it is equally important to follow up on initial personal meetings. A lawyer can become more likeable and trusted by caring enough to make a sustained, polite and patient effort to get to know a prospective client or group of clients, earning their approval over time.

It is hard to believe, but I think the best advice on how to do this comes from a song by .38 Special: “Hold on loosely but don’t let go”; A lawyer should make a courteous follow-up to any initial meeting, and every month or two, should reach out to prospective clients by sending to them a birthday or congratulatory note, adding them to a free newsletter list, sending to them a link to a story about their favorite hobby or interest, taking them to coffee or lunch when it’s mutually convenient, or volunteering a referral to them when it solves a professional need.

Some forms of outreach can and should have bits of information about the legal provider’s competence, experience and current relevance. It is fine to share news of noteworthy recent victories, awards and professional forms of recognition.

But the “sales stuff” should be like toppings on the dessert, only enough to compliment the flavor and not enough to dominate it. Otherwise, there is a risk that the prospective client views the outreach as self-centered and egotistical. In the words of one of my former corporate clients, “If someone is always talking about their awards and recognitions, it sounds like ‘I love me,’ and that’s a turnoff.”

For those who are willing to make patient but persistent efforts at making personal connections with their prospects, there is a payoff. The well-cultivated prospect will eventually become a client, a referral source, a source of business information, or just a good friend. 

John O. Cunningham is a writer, consultant and public speaker. As a lawyer, he served as General Counsel to a publicly traded company and to a privately-held subsidiary of a Fortune 100 company.

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