November 26, 2014

Coach’s Corner: A No-Charge Client Visit Can Pay Big Dividends

The most cost-effective business development strategy for any firm is to expand current services with existing clients. Current clients are already in hand and don’t have to be identified and wooed. They offer great potential for leverage, as new services can be provided without significant startup costs.

But it’s not a cost-free exercise. Existing client relationships require work and planning if they are to produce additional marketing benefits.

A natural and oft-overlooked starting point is to schedule a friendly, no-stress visit to a client just to talk.

Far too often, lawyers are apprehensive about making such visits, but they should be reminded that clients will not by default be hostile or confrontational; otherwise, they would not have remained as clients. What they want is to feel comfortable with their lawyer, and the best way to make them comfortable is to get them to talk about their business. A client visit should focus on listening to what clients have to say.

Such a visit takes planning if it is going to be successful. Here are steps to consider:

  • Schedule the visit at the time most convenient for the client and for any people the client wants to involve (which broadens your own circle of relationships).
  • When the day for the visit comes, remember that you are there to learn about the client, not to pitch for new business.
  • Never put clients on the defensive with a style of questioning you would use in a deposition or when structuring a contract. Try to avoid “why” questions, which are likely to carry a judgmental tone. You want to convey empathy and rapport.
  • Make all your questions open-ended. Phrase them to give clients the opportunity to provide as much information as possible.
  • Do not feel you need to respond to everything clients tell you. Show interest and demonstrate that you’ve heard, but resist the urge to push new services or ways to help.
  • Make sure you’ve done your research. Clients want to tell you about themselves, but they appreciate the respect you show them by taking the trouble to learn more about them.

The emphasis here is on learning more about the client. Clients want to share information about themselves because they want to trust their lawyer. Clients whose lawyers ask about their plans and objectives begin to think of that lawyer as an advisor and friend, not just someone who sends out a monthly bill.

That raises another important point: A client visit and the time needed for it should appear on the next bill, but with a “no charge” notation. That’s a vivid way of showing that although an attorney’s time is valuable, the client relationship is valued even more.

Finally, don’t make the bill the last mention of the visit. As a follow-up, send a handwritten note expressing thanks for the client’s time, stating why the client relationship is valuable to you, and expressing the wish for lawyer and client to extend the relationship.

That’s the real payoff, because it paves the way for asking: “How else can I help you?” The answer stands a very good chance of equating to new business — with a freshly appreciative client.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes a syndicated legal column, Coach’s Corner, where this post originally appeared on April 17, 2012.

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