A tale of two sales

A 40-something lawyer attempting a triathlon is apparently so common as to be a cliché, but I’d rather be a healthy, fit cliché than wither away uniquely.

Courtesy Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0
Courtesy Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

Two recent experiences shopping for triathlon gear prompted this post about listening and sales. Listening is a crucial part of one-on-one marketing, and a few aspects of my experience may help lawyers as well.

Store #1

I happened to visit this store while picking up a race number for a small running event. It’s a place I’ve always driven by and been interested to visit, but never actually gone into until now. While I was picking up the number, the store owner stood by. He took the first step by asking if I wanted to look at some shoes. I actually am very interested in the new super-cushioned shoes I’ve been reading about, which this store does carry. But I didn’t say that just yet. I gave a noncommital but friendly “maybe, when my current shoes wear out.” I then told him the model of my current shoes.

The response was immediate and vociferous, “Oh, we’ve got to get you out of those.” He then critiqued their design and suggested they are actually weakening my feet. He asked me if I saw a television news report with an orthopedist’s endorsement of a certain brand featured in this store.

The store owner didn’t find out that my existing brand of shoes has helped me recover my running career. He didn’t find out that I have a long history of orthopedic issues. He didn’t find out what I like in a pair or shoes, or that I was actually highly interested in a different brand of shoes that he actually does carry in the store. It appeared he had a featured brand he was selling to every runner that came in the store. I got the strong impression his initial conversation with almost any potential customer would lead to the same solution no matter what the potential customer said.

Store #2

This was a bicycle store, so potentially a much more expensive purchase. A salesperson approached me as I browsed and asked how he could help. He said he had only been working there for a few weeks and brought in a more senior sales person. She asked a series of questions. First and foremost: “What is your goal?”

After I told her, she asked some follow-up questions about my commitment to triathlons. She said she would recommend a very different bike for someone attempting a triathlon once as a bucket-list item as compared to someone who was going to ride more frequently and compete throughout the summer and beyond. It was understood I wouldn’t be walking out right then and there with a bike, but she offered to e-mail me some “eye candy” and specs on the bike she suggested. Her follow-up e-mail began with “It was a blast talking with you about bikes today” and continued with detailed information about the bike.

Lessons for lawyers

What do sales tactics in specialty sports stores have to do with marketing legal services? I saw a few potentially relevant points:

Marketing to someone you just met

I had never seen the shoe guy or the bike lady before in my life. To be fair to the shoe guy, I went into the store for a different reason (to pick up a race number), whereas the bike lady knew there’s no reason for me to be in that store other than interest in bicycles.

Either way, establishing rapport seems like a fundamental sales tactic. Others have suggested an 80-20 rule: get the other person talking 80 percent of the time. In his excellent and fun book Ditch the Pitch, marketing expert Steve Yastrow recommends a higher burden: keep the conversation on the customer 95 percent of the time.

The shoe guy didn’t ask me a question other than “while you’re here, do you want to look at some new shoes?” Once he got a quasi-positive answer, he was off and running with his pitch about the benefits of the shoes and the recommendation of an orthopedic specialist in a news report.

In that sense, he fell into a trap lawyers may face as well: the desire to show what you know. It does seem intuitive that one can sell by impressing them with your subject matter expertise. This seems especially true for discerning buyers with competitive goals and a willingness to innnovate for better results. And it is especially true when you have developed an expertise in a new and exciting approach or idea or product. But he gave the impression of being wound up like a child’s toy to release his spiel.

The bike lady asked a series of questions and didn’t talk about bikes at all until she learned more about me and my goals. After building a rapport with these questions—the equivalent of intake questions for lawyers?—she moved toward a solution that addressed the questions. At that point she selected and described a solution, i.e., a particular recommended bike. She pointed to its features and compared and contrasted it with other solutions, i.e., other bikes higher and lower in the spectrum of features and price.

Marketing to someone who has already made purchases in that same market

The shoe guy heard what brand and model of shoe I wear and immediately said, “We’ve got to get you out of those.” The message and the phrasing set a bad tone in a couple of ways.

First of all, there was no “we” at that point, since I had been in the store all of five minutes. Second, I am actually really quite happy with my shoes. It almost made me feel bad about the shoes I’m wearing. Instead I resolved the dissonance by shifting into a feeling of dislike toward the sales person.

Despite the good experiences with my existing shoes, I actually would experiment with another pair of shoes that are similar to these because I have read about great results other runners have gotten from the new super-cushioned shoes. But I’m just not going to go in a totally different direction, given the good experience I’ve had to this point. And that guy would never know this because of how he approached the entire conversation.

So, if a lawyer is talking to a potential client who has a history with a different lawyer or firm, it would seem rather arrogant to lead with “We’ve got to get you away from that [lawyer or firm]!”

Rather, the lawyer could find out more about what the potential client needs in terms of business services. What does the potential client want from a lawyer? There’s no need to trash the status quo if you can—subtly—offer an improvement on it.

Marketing what you believe to be the superior product or service in the field

The bike lady selected a model to show me and talked about its great features including how light it is, its hidden cables, its smooth gears. She pointed out how the pedals can be customized to preferred feel and functionality. She offered to let me ride it in the neighborhood. She then talked about models one step down and one step up from that model. And she mentioned that adjustments to the bike are free in the store for the life of the bike—potentially 10 years or more.

In this way a lawyer can present a client or potential client with options: the one that seems the most effective to the lawyer, even if it’s not the cheapest approach, as well as the higher-end and lower-end ways to deal with the issue, including their advantages and disadvantages.

Creating a longer-term relationship with the customer/client

Some kinds of businesses are better able to form a relationship than others. A bike needs adjustments and can benefit from various add-ons any time during its useful life. The bike lady made sure to mention the free adjustments for life that come along with any bike purchase.

Still, even a one-off sale can form a relationship. For running shoes, the chance to try on the shoes in the store could be a powerful incentive to buy because now you’ve spent the sales person’s valuable time working with you. Or the store could provide ongoing support with smaller items like running gloves, water bottles, special compression socks, and so on.

It may be disturbing to discuss similarities between marketing legal services and selling special socks. But if those socks are a reasonably inexpensive way to prevent years of injury and expensive physical therapy, then they are pretty awesome. And similarly with legal services, an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, creating a grateful client. Walking out of the running store with a $40 pair of compression socks and a positive experience would have made me more likely to stay interested in buying shoes and other gear there over the long term.

Standing by the product/service while also providing flexibility

The bike lady acknowledged that the bikes she is selling are a fairly major purchase. But, she said, if you buy it and get it home and within 30 days decide you just don’t like cycling and aren’t going to use it, bring it back. We’ll give you a refund. Or, she said, if you get it home and within 30 days decide you actually love cycling and want to get an even better bike, we’ll let you trade up into something nicer.

Legal services may offer similar flexibility given the many decision points along the way in handling a legal matter. For example, a client may be able to work with counsel to test out a particular strategy and then adjust upward or downward. By explaining some of the time frames and decision points for adopting a different strategy, the lawyer can help the client understand she is not locking herself in to one decision forever.

Conclusion

Listening seems to be a key part of all of the above. The person who took time to listen to my goals and to tease out some of my experiences with biking made a far better impression than the person who reacted to my status quo by criticizing it and trying to force his favorite off-the-shelf solution.

Of course lawyering is different than selling shoes and bikes. But the universal principles of persuasion are at work for all kinds of customers and clients in all kinds of selling environments.

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