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Business Development

To Build Business, Forget the Funnel and Think of a Garden

By Tom McMakin

No matter how big (or not) your firm is, or how high (or not) you’ve climbed up the ladder, the key question is not “How can I reach a mass audience?” Instead, it is “How can I identify and cultivate the relatively small number of clients to build business that can blossom into a thriving practice?”

The allusions to gardening are intentional because most lawyers didn’t go to business school. What they do know about marketing has usually been picked up through osmosis and popular culture.

Build Business: What’s So Bad About That?

The bad thing is that popular culture tends to focus on business-to-consumer marketing (B2C), where the dominant metaphor is one of a funnel. As in, there are lots of leads at the top of the funnel … try to convert those leads into qualified leads … convert those into pitches … and convert those into closes.

While the B2C lead generation model might apply to certain practice specialties, for the vast majority of lawyers there are not unlimited leads that can go to the top of the funnel. That’s why the garden is a much better metaphor: We have identified 200 people who could use our services. We’re engaged with five of them. If we could get 25, it would make our career.

Unlike a cellphone or other tangible product, which is sold on its price and features, traditional professional services are more often sold on relationships, referrals, and reputation. And so the central question is: How do you drive those business relationships proactively?

Related: “It’s All About Relationships (Not)” by Mike O’Horo

The key is to get to know those 200 people, to begin to understand where they are in their careers, what they do for their companies, and the idiosyncratic challenges of their company. Then, over time, deepen those relationships by adding value — understanding that if you tend them properly, over time you’ll be able to harvest them.

How do you do that?

Build Business With One-to-One Conversations

Narrowcasting trumps broadcasting in the world of expert service providers.

What you want to be doing is having one-to-one conversations about the challenges of the professionals you’re seeking to serve, to understand where their needs are. No amount of one-to-many type of communication can substitute for that one-to-one.

To facilitate those conversations, my advice is: Start small.

One Mistake Lawyers Make Is to Ask Too Much Out of the Box

Think about the matchmaking service “It’s Just Lunch.”  You start with a light lift (coffee) and earn the right to have dinner.

Translating that to your business development, here’s an example. Numerous law firms try to stand out via a three-day summit at someplace like the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, and it’s a lot. The general counsel of a company you want to serve is probably already working with somebody else. There’s an incumbent and they probably have their own summit.

Instead of the glitzy event, host a roundtable and then a cocktail hour on the day before the industry conference that “everyone” attends. Or, if others are holding cocktail events there, you could do something different and say: Hey, I’ve rented a room and there’s just going to be 15 of us. I thought I’d peel off all of us in the [insert your practice area] world and we could just sit down and compare notes.”

The ability to connect with true peers is a rare opportunity for most professionals, and they will truly appreciate you for putting it together. Ahead of the event, chat with all the invitees to get a sense of the type of questions they have and the issues that are top-of-mind. That way, when you’re facilitating the group conversation, it’s not improv.

As an alternative to a live event, I love setting up conference calls the old-fashioned way. The key: Don’t get hung up on the technology; make it easy for people to participate. If people get together by phone, then you’ve earned the right to say, “At the next XYZ conference let’s spend time together.”

More Listening, Less Talking

The biggest obstacle for most lawyers in these get-acquainted sessions is getting over themselves and avoiding over-talking. Do more listening than selling and ask a lot of thoughtful questions — especially follow-up questions. You’ll be amazed at how really smart you will appear to be.

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

Categories: Business Development, Law Firm Marketing, Rainmaking
Originally published March 5, 2020
Last updated March 17, 2021
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Tom McMakin Tom McMakin

Tom McMakin is the Chief Executive Officer of Profitable Ideas Exchange (PIE), an outsourced business development service focused on helping professional services firms build a bridge from their expertise to those they can most serve. He is the author of  “How Clients Buy: A Practical Guide to Business Development for Consulting and Professional Services” (Wiley 2018) and is currently writing a second book, “Never Say Sell: How the World’s Best Consulting and Professional Services Firms Grow by Expanding Client Relationships,” due out from Wiley in late 2020. Tom often speaks at partner meetings, describing the latest trends in professional services business development.

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