Category: Law firm marketing

Client developmentEmotional intelligenceLaw firm marketingLegal communicationPeople skills

Listening and legal marketing

This blog is a place where not only lawyers but all legal professionals can come together around the topic of listening. Listening helps to bind us together in productive work—or hold us apart, when we listen poorly. Legal marketing professionals have a huge contribution to make here, as they really know deep in their bones the importance of listening to the client (and the potential client) in a variety of ways. I didn’t attend last week’s annual conference of the Legal Marketing Association, but the meeting produced an excessive and interesting number of live tweets, so I decided to point out some themes of interest here on the blog.

The keynote was by Daniel Pink, and he kicked it off by invoking Alec Baldwin’s ABC moment—”Always Be Closing”—from Glengarry Glen Ross to set the stage. (I thought about linking that clip here but it is quite NSFW.)

Dan Pink suggests a new set of ABC’s for a world where the seller no longer has superior information to the buyer. Instead, the key principles to successful sales, or marketing, or whatever term makes you comfortable when it comes to finding potential clients and convincing them to use your services—which this blog fundamentally assumes to be activities of interest to most lawyers and legal professionals—are attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. If attendees got one thing from Pink’s keynote, it would be these three principles:

Each of these principles has something to do with listening, I think, with attunement at the top of the list.

A. Attunement and listening mutually reinforce each other

Attunement means being able to understand the client’s point of view. Being open to the other person’s perspective is crucial:

But it’s not the same thing as emotional intelligence:

To stress the point, what the other side is thinking is at least as crucial and probably more so than what they are feeling:

Tweets from other sessions, not the keynote, touched on attunement in different ways such as handling the pitch meeting and maintaining the relationship:

Attunement remains crucial throughout the relationship, when things are going well . . .

. . . and especially when the relationship may be going south:

One tweet pointed out the importance of attunement for legal marketers in their role as facilitators of business delivered by others:

This was an intriguing point with several interpretations. Maybe it’s necessary to understand “the service” and the providers of that service, and the strengths and weaknesses of both. As a witness in one of my first IP cases said, “My job is to make sure the sales team only sells what the engineering team can actually deliver.” Or maybe it’s necessary in the sense of how the legal marketer adds value to a law firm: legal marketers who are superior at attunement to client needs add irreplaceable value to the law firm’s team of professionals.

And this point about attunement in a three-point relationship (legal client/legal marketer/lawyer) may be expanded to the cover lawyers. Being attuned to the knowledge and expertise of the legal marketers who specialize in understanding clients and potential clients can help lawyers better understand their clients as well.

B. Buoyancy means dealing with rejection

The value of buoyancy apparently came wrapped in some generalities about lawyers’ perhaps non-buoyant personalities:

But relationships can help:

The tweets don’t say this, but isn’t it clear that listening is a great tool for anybody to build relationships with mentors and sponsors?

I’ll have to read Pink’s book To Sell Is Human to get a fuller picture of what he says on buoyancy. He also wrote the book (literally) on motivation, which leads me to expect words of wisdom on self-talk, or internal dialogue. What do lawyers and legal professionals hear when they listen to their own self-talk? To be buoyant, we need healthy ways of handling self-talk. And if our self-talk is overwhelmingly negative, we probably can’t listen effectively to others for problem-solving and relationship-building.

C. Clarity is about finding problems and curating information to help solve them

The clarity principle seems to focus on finding problems and sharing information in productive ways. Pink spoke about helping clients find problems:

The part about not being a problem solver is interesting. “Solving” problems too quickly can itself cause problems, such as not fully understanding the actual problem and not forging the relationship necessary to address it. And jumping in to answer a question, rather than fully hearing someone out, is a hallmark of bad listening.

So finding problems is part of clarity, and the most advanced way to do this is to find the problems that are hard to perceive:

The theme of information saturation plays a continuing role throughout these new ABC’s. For example, clarity is a huge part of content strategy, basically selecting and sharing what clients and potential clients really need to know:

And that brings us full circle to the role of the legal marketing professional. Revealing more about who the clients are and what they need helps everyone:

“Personas” and “key client types” may be a bit jargon-y, but lawyers and legal marketing professionals can work together to understand each other’s language and the ideas behind that language. Listening to one another in this way helps with the broader common goal of listening to the client. Listening helps with all of the new ABC’s of selling, which in turn lead to getting business, forming relationships, and ultimately serving clients in effective ways.

Pink’s keynote at LMA drew extensive on his book To Sell Is Human. For those interested in seeing him present the ideas, here’s a webinar hosted at the Harvard Business Review. And Nancy Myrland has collected all of the blog posts from the LMA15 meeting here.

Client developmentLaw firm marketingLegal communicationPeople skills

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.

Client developmentLaw firm marketingLegal communicationLegal skillsSummer associates

Steal their listening

Keith Lee’s book The Marble and the Sculptor: From Law School to Law Practice (ABA 2013) is a bracing, honest, challenging compendium of advice for new lawyers. I would strongly recommend it to upper-level law students and new lawyers. (See also his blog, Associate’s Mind, as well as his columns in Above the Law.) One chapter in Keith’s book that caught my eye is “On the Importance of Stealing.”

In addressing new lawyers, Keith advises the following:

“[S]tealing is an essential skill for you to develop.”

Not for larceny, of course, he says, but “within the framework of learning and growth.” The objects of this stealing are varied: “other lawyers, CLEs, books, anything really.” New lawyers should “steal their pattern of success.”

This is great advice. But it’s easier in some areas than others. We can look at a great legal brief and break down how each section and each sentence works. We can watch a great advocate and recognize skillful pauses and variations in tone. We can admire a senior lawyer who knows literally every statute and case in a given area of expertise and can assemble and reassemble them instantly in response to any factual question.

What about listening?

Listening is hard to observe and very hard to measure. Speaking and writing are productive – i.e. observable – communication skills. Listening is one of the two receptive communication skills, along with reading. “Listening is a hypothetical construct, something you know exists but you can’t physically see. You can see only the behavioral indicators supporting its existence.” This is from Debra L. Worthington and Margaret Fitch-Hauser’s textbook on listening.

So how do you steal from a hypothetical construct?

The behavioral indicators are a place to start.

This is a complex process: you’re observing affirmative actions such as making eye contact, using appropriate body language, asking questions, and providing “discourse markers” such as “um-hm” that encourage conversation. But you’re also observing what the listener doesn’t do: noticeably look away, check a smartphone, interrupt. Noticing what isn’t there is very, very difficult. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Daniel Kahneman tells us, “WYSIATI”: What you see is all there is.

The ease of perceiving what is there may partly explain why active listening is such a popular listening concept. It has a set of specific repeatable, measurable behaviors that go with it, such as repeating what the speaker has said. If you watch a skilled active listener, you can steal the method. But note how this is not really stealing the person’s listening skills. It’s stealing the productive act of speaking in a certain way, by repeating what the listener just heard.

The most important components of listening are hidden: being aware of and receiving the information, placing it into context with one’s previous knowledge, evaluating and (perhaps) remembering the information, and responding. These elements of listening are drawn again from Worthington and Fitch-Hauser’s MATERRS model of listening.

It’s hard to steal someone’s level of awareness. Again here, specific affirmative behaviors may be the only practical proxy. Making eye contact is a sign of awareness, for example. The educational-reform model KIPP teaches children a set of specific classroom behaviors that include “sit up,” “track the speaker,” and “nod your head.”  Body language can shape not only communication behaviors but actual brain chemistry, as Amy Cuddy famously described in her TED Talk and other work on “power posing.” 

The “s” in the MATERRS listening model stands for “stay connected and motivated.” To be a good listener, you have to want to listen.

But how can a person “steal” someone’s else’s motivation? Maybe the answer is an instrumental one: you can observe what their good listening does for them. Specifically, you can observe how you feel when you interact with a skilled listener.

In The Marble and the Sculptor, Keith Lee emphasizes communication — actually over-communication — with clients. This means keeping the client informed, of course. It also means taking time to get to know the client: “Take time out to learn the stock price, industry, day-to-day culture, players and overall goals of your client. Visit their offices and plants. Do it free of charge.”

This is one of Keith’s many kernels of advice to consider stealing. (Actually he got it from and attributes it to Dan Hull of What About Clients.) Before going on an outing to spend the afternoon at the client’s site, it’s a good idea to prepare. Study up on the client, of course. But also, consider inviting a great lawyer to lunch — someone whose client development and communication skills you know to be first rate.

And then steal their listening.

***

Note: I was grateful to meet Keith in person as he spoke to the legal blogging class I am co-teaching at Emory Law School. His advice on lawyering and legal blogging is first-rate (obviously!) and was received with great enthusiasm by the students. After seeing him interact with students, I can say Keith is not only a great speaker but also an excellent listener.

Client developmentLaw firm marketingLegal communication

Artisanal listening

McSweeney’s post last week, “I Am An Artisanal Attorney,” caused a ripple of laughter and sharing among lawyers on social media. If you have ever eaten small-batch honey from a meadery or had your mustache trimmed at a groomery or considered purchasing an ascot from an ascottery—or if you just need a laugh—stop and read it.

Courtesy Larry Hoffman/Flickr

Courtesy Larry Hoffman/Flickr

Author and very special attorney John Frank Weaver promises not just to write legal documents, but to hand-craft his own paper from local flax and write the text in ancient script using a feather quill and squid ink:

Don’t be lulled into a complacent life filled with more cheap, manufactured goods than you’ll ever need and lawsuits that don’t reflect your uniqueness. Insist on a life well-lived with food, experiences, and litigation that reflect people and skills, not factories and automation.

After I finished laughing, which took a good long time, I wanted to make a semi-serious point. Weaver’s comic post taps into anxiety about new realities and related fears such as “Here Come the Robot Lawyers.”  In contrast, an artisan is “a person or company that makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods.” How much of the legal market is and should be artisanal — or “bespoke” — and how much should be standardized or automated is a huge, ongoing, and critically important debate stoked by Richard Susskind and many others. (Here’s one article from the ABA’s Legal Rebels on Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers tapping into this debate.)

Even for those of us who, at heart, want to practice on the bespoke end of the spectrum, we might agree that lawyers don’t need to squeeze their ink out of local squids. They don’t need calling cards printed on Himalayan pressed paper. But it is a requirement of the profession to provide clients with legal services that are customized to the facts of the case. It is an ideal of the profession to tailor these services to the personality and needs of the client as well. And “thinking like an artisan” can be an excellent marketing practice for lawyers because clients may screen their lawyers based on objective criteria and then choose their lawyers based upon more artisanal criteria such as values and fit.

Drawing on what it means to be an artisan, one of the lawyer’s most “traditional methods” is quality face time with people. This relationship building is intertwined with the broader tradition of lawyer as trusted advisor. And one of the traditional techniques of the trusted advisor is listening. Listening is most often and most effectively done in small quantities, such as one-on-one meetings. It takes time and attention to focus on a client and make that client feel special. It takes skill to deploy active as well as passive listening and every other form of listening as needed in the moment. Being really listened to and understood makes a client person feel, well, special—kind of like some people feel when they sip cold-pressed juice infused with artisanal ice and nibble on a side of hand-crafted toast.

Client developmentLaw firm marketingLegal communicationPeople skills

Listening to internal and external clients

A friend recently sent me a nice compliment about the blog. She works in sales and marketing (not within the legal industry) and said she’s finding the listening skills discussed here very useful for communicating with both “internal and external customers.”

Courtesy Flickr/Elliott Brown

Courtesy Flickr/Elliott Brown

The focus on “internal and external customers” (or clients) caught my particular attention. Of course lawyers are going to want to listen intently to their external clients. One way to keep a client is to listen; conversely, a great way to lose a client — especially a senior business executive — is not to listen, such as by checking your smart phone during a meeting.

For lawyers, the idea of internal clients may be more subtle but still should be a given, especially for in-house lawyers and anyone who works in a place where client-service teams are chosen partly based on who the senior team leaders want to work with. Here’s a good post by Timothy Corcoran on better understanding your internal client. And here’s a good post with advice to associates on impressing partners — such as by treating them as an internal client.

But is effective listening different for lawyers’ internal and external clients, or should it be? Apart from what listening practices are most effective, as a descriptive matter might lawyers subconsciously listen differently in internal and external situations?

Active listening provides a focal point for exploring this question. Active listening has been defined by law professor John Barkai as “the lawyer’s verbal response that reflects back to the client, in different words, what the client has just said.”

Barkai suggests that we can evaluate active listening on at least three metrics:

  • accuracy: did the lawyer understand the speaker’s informational content and emotions?
  • intensity: did the lawyer understand the intensity of the speaker’s emotions?
  • form: did the lawyer respond with clean, simple paraphrasing — or did the lawyer use what Barkai views as potentially patronizing and unhelpful introductory phrases such as “I understand” and “What I’m hearing you say is . . .”? 

So with these metrics in mind, we can reflect on whether lawyers listen with different degrees of accuracy, attunement, and form when they are dealing with external versus internal clients. Here are two brief hypothetical case studies:

Lawyer #1 believes in the importance of listening and attempts to be a particularly strong listener with external clients. He focuses on their information and their content, and he accurately perceives the strength of their feelings. But he wants to show them how carefully he listens, and thus habitually and intentionally uses phrases such as “I understand” and “As I see it.”  Sometimes these phrases lead clients to feel a bit patronized, and as a result they may hold back. 

Lawyer #2 is at a stage of her career where she wants to show her technical lawyering skills to senior lawyers. She listens with a strong focus on the information they are sharing, and she concisely reiterates information and tasks to ensure everyone is on the same page. She is not quite as accurate at judging the emotional state of senior lawyers. Sometimes Lawyer #2 asks task-related follow-up questions too quickly. Slowing down the conversation by reiterating general instructions could allow her to glean more global, contextual information about how the senior lawyer feels about the representation and wants to approach it.

Ultimately, whatever the context, effective listening demonstrates strength at each step of the listening process — roughly attention, perception, memory, understanding, analysis, and response. (This outline is drawn very generally from listening frameworks such as Brownell’s HURIER model and Worthington and Fitch-Hauser’s MATERRS model.)

Also regardless of context, effective listeners are “uniform” in their ability to choose and tailor their approach for the particular situation. The best communicators will take the internal/external factor into account — of course. But that’s just one of many other factors such as the length of the relationship; the other person’s stress level; the complexity of the content; the time of day; and the other person’s preferred style of communication such as informal or formal, just to brainstorm a few.

In this sense listening is just like all the other communication tasks a lawyer performs: there is a very broad common framework for effectively performing each task, and the most effective listeners/speakers/writers tailor their approach within the framework to meet the needs of the client — whether internal or external.

*Thanks to Lou Spelios for comments on an earlier version of this post.

Law firm marketingLegal communicationPeople skills

Holiday parties are listening opportunities

The holiday season brings many opportunities for lawyers and legal professionals to reconnect with old friends and make new ones at holiday parties, school events, and other social gatherings. Law students may also have networking opportunities at bar events and family gatherings. Making the most of these opportunities requires good conversational skills–which require good listening skills. What not to do is to “talk” to a conversation partner while scanning the room for someone . . . else. Or respond immediately to a good story with an equally good if not even better story of your own.

Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist and business coach, writes in his book Just Listen about how to move beyond merely seeming interested and into actually being interested:

[S]top thinking of conversation as a tennis match. (He scored a point. Now I need to score a point.) Instead, think of it as a detective game, in which your goal is to learn as much about the other person as you can. Go into the conversation knowing that there is something very interesting about the person, and be determined to discover it. When you do this, your expectation will show in your eyes and body language. You’ll instinctively ask questions that let the other person fully develop an interesting story, rather than trying to trump that story. And you’ll listen to what the other person is saying, rather than thinking solely about what you’re going to say next.

Some of Goulston’s anecdotes are law-related, such the story of a mild-mannered tax attorney who adjusted his marketing pitch after losing clients to less competent “gladiator” personalities. (The connection to listening is the dissonance that his audience was experience in needing a tough attorney for a tough situation. By perceiving and understanding the audience’s dissonance, the attorney was able to address it more successfully.)

But most of Goulston’s advice is universal. This book is deceptively easy to read, but has a lot of challenging content. Choosing a behavior you want to change and then asking relatives and colleagues for two suggestions on how to do that? Perhaps painful self-improvement is better left for New Year’s Resolutions.

Client developmentLaw firm marketingLaw practiceLegal skills

What the rainmakers say about listening

When I talk to professional firms about developing their client relations skills and we go through the list of skills they could acquire or refine, most of them do not consider the skill of listening to very sexy, attractive, or even interesting. And yet, ironically, the most powerful, capable rainmakers in significant firms who have been through skills-training programs have told me that listening was the most important skill they acquired—by a long shot.

Gerald A. RiskinThe Successful Lawyer: Powerful Strategies for Transforming Your Practice 51 (2005).