Assuming you’re not a corporate restructuring lawyer, you may have a bit of extra time on your hands in the weeks, or perhaps months, to come as the economy continues to hibernate.
You’ve likely heard mixed messages about whether you should be engaging in business development activities during this global pandemic. My take is that, yes, you absolutely should. However, it’s critical to understand what types of activities are appropriate for the moment. Just as Justice Potter Stewart struggled to define “obscenity,” the term “business development” means different things to different lawyers.
Now is not the time to try to convince people to buy your legal services. Attempts to convince often come off as desperate, unseemly and tone-deaf. Rather — and this is true in good and bad times — your business development strategy should focus on exhibiting your integrity through genuine attempts to help your clients and prospects.
Helping Is Qualitatively Different From Convincing
When you set out to help, you empower those you hope to serve. They don’t feel pressured, and you come across as a trusted advisor. When you set out to convince, you end up doing most of the talking. When helping is your only objective, you ask lots of questions and spend most of your time listening and empathizing. If the problems the client is facing, which will come to the surface through respectful conversation, require the assistance of legal counsel, you’ll naturally be in a position to assist.
If you set out to help, the client, feeling empowered, will leave the interaction feeling like she took a positive step forward, rather than uncertain of whether you just talked her into something she didn’t need or couldn’t afford. In most cases, genuine conversation marked by empathic engagement won’t immediately lead to new business opportunities. But that’s true of any business development interaction.
Business development is a long game. Resist the urge to put on the hard sell despite not knowing how you’ll get your normal number of hours billed this month. The best way to generate new business, now and once the crisis has passed, is to maintain your posture as the confident expert who is ready to serve the client on her timetable, not your own.
Unless your practice is one that thrives during counter-cyclical periods, plan for and accept the fact that you’ll likely take a hit over the next 30 days — and quite possibly longer. No one knows how long this will last. However, it’s essential to focus on what is within your control. You can’t afford to sit back and wait, nor come across as aggressive or desperate. It’s time to help, and here are some ideas for taking steps forward and setting yourself up for business development success over the next 30 days.
Focus on Less, Not More
Now is the time to organize around your strengths. Demand for legal services is contracting, so you need to differentiate yours. Set aside all the tangential practice areas you’ve dabbled in over the years, and go all-in on what you do best. When talking with clients and prospects, don’t offer them a grab-bag of services to choose from — that reeks of desperation. Instead, explore what challenges they’re facing and seek to determine whether there’s alignment between your expertise and their pain points. Regardless of the immediate outcome, the client will walk away from the conversation with a positive feeling engendered by a sense they were being advised by a discerning professional.
Action Step: Complete the following sentence: I help [clients] with [services]. Try to narrow “clients” down to those within a specific industry (or a small number of industries). If you have a consumer practice, such as estate planning, create a demographic profile of your ideal client (net worth, profession, geography, etc.). For “services,” focus on one or two of your core services — the things you do best. Organize your marketing and business development around your narrowly defined positioning.
Five Calls Per Week
Having genuine, empathic conversations in which you come across as the expert requires that you take the initiative to schedule interactions with your clients and prospects. Many lawyers are hesitant to reach out to clients to schedule business development-related calls. You shouldn’t be, as long as you’re not framing the conversation as one that involves pitching.
In times of uncertainty, especially when many people have a bit of extra time on their hands and are feeling isolated, interactions with trusted advisors are welcomed. If you’re setting out to help, not pitch, your clients will be receptive to talking with you. In some cases — though not all — these conversations can lead to new business opportunities, either now or after the world regains its footing.
Action Step: Schedule at least five off-the-clock calls every week with existing, former and prospective clients. Use email to schedule appointments, and phone or videoconferencing software to touch base. Have a series of questions ready, starting with personal inquiries (How are you and your family members holding up?) and easing toward business matters (What are some of the biggest challenges your business is facing from the pandemic?). Don’t push or nudge. Add value where you can. Listen carefully. Aim to help, which will trigger the client to ask for your help when appropriate.
Create Thought Leadership Content
When you can’t leave your house, your marketing and business development options are limited. One of the only ways to reach people at scale is by creating valuable thought leadership content. You can’t be everywhere, but your ideas can be. When someone reads something you’ve written that addresses a problem they’re facing and offers a helpful solution, they’ll be naturally inclined to think of you as the right expert to execute the solution.
Action Step: If you’re already a prolific content creator, now is the time to hit the accelerator and crank up your production. If you’re just getting started, try to write and publish at least one piece in the next 30 days. To make your efforts more effective, collaborate with a client or prospect on an article. (And here are some tips on how to write better articles during the COVID-19 crisis.)
Tap Your Network
If there ever was a time to make a respectful “ask” of your network of colleagues, friends and clients, it is now. Using your narrow positioning, specify for members of your network the types of clients you’re looking to connect with and the problems you can help them solve. And make your request reciprocal—ask your network how you can help them as well.
Action Step: Make a list of 50 people, from former colleagues to law school friends, and send individualized emails to each (no BCCing the group) asking if they might be able to put you in touch with someone you may be in a position to help. Make it easy on them by clearly spelling out the specific types of problems you can solve and for whom. Close each email by offering to help them reciprocally.
Establish New Habits
Business development is most effective when it becomes habitual. Success results from doing the right thing, at the right time, over and over. Breaking old habits is hard when you’re stuck in old routines. Since we’ve all been thrown out of our routines, now is the perfect time to establish new and better habits —the most important of which is devoting time every day to business development.
Action Step: Start investing in yourself by selling yourself one hour of your time every day to engage in business development activities.
Opportunities will be hard to come by over the next 30 days, and it will be nearly impossible to capitalize on them if you’re not remaining top-of-mind. Creating thought leadership content and scheduling phone calls are two great ways to stay visible. Still, you must supplement those with other activities, such as engaging with others on social media. Over the next 30 days, commit time every day to curate and share content relevant to your audience. Like and comment on other people’s posts. Find ways to appear in others’ news feeds by staying at the forefront of the social conversations happening in your area of focus.
Action Step: Spend 15 minutes every day on LinkedIn (or your social media platform of choice) with the objective of making one new connection, sharing one piece of content, and liking or commenting on someone else’s post.