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Despite widespread recognition that the legal services business is undergoing the greatest change in its history, the industry still clings to a definition of relationships that doesn’t map to today’s reality. Different times and circumstances, as they say, call for different skills and approaches. This includes our worldview of relationships.
It’s time for us to invest in “idea relationships” and rethink our personal and professional ones. In an age in which information flows freely and everyone expects answers at the stroke of a keyboard (or voice command), idea relationships succeed because your relevance is initially determined by what you know, not who you know.
Here’s how it works.
Until the mid-1990s, lawyers got business through what I’ll call “fortuitous proximity.” Because firm partners and their clients were members of the same socioeconomic set, they played golf at the same clubs, supported the same civic initiatives, lived in the same neighborhoods, and generally enjoyed easy frequent proximity. If you spend enough time with people, it’s almost certain that you’ll enjoy a natural “presence” and be in contact with them when a need for your services arises.
I call this “social intimacy” — the growing inclination, over time, for someone to become comfortable sharing personal details with you. Proximity facilitated frequent contact and trust, and made it natural to do business with one’s friends. Since few lawyers were aggressively pursuing business, buyers weren’t inundated with approaches and pitches. It was more genteel, almost an informal keiretsu. Business relationships grew from personal friendships, which were a prerequisite.
The advent of the internet in the mid-1990s coincided with an inexorable move toward globalization and consolidation — often accompanied by a loss of local decision-making. One’s social friends no longer determined who did their company’s legal work. Increasingly, those decisions were made by strangers in distant cities, with whom there was little or no opportunity for social interaction. How were potential clients to learn about you?
Local influencers couldn’t simply tell their corporate bosses, “Hire my friend.” Lawyers now had to make a business case for keeping or getting work, which meant they had to understand the company’s business to understand its decision criteria and priorities.
Here’s a comparison:
Relationship 2.0 required lawyers to become informed about different things and to ask different questions of clients and prospects. Whereas Relationship 1.0 meant learning about someone’s hobbies, family and personal aspirations, Relationship 2.0 meant understanding the client’s industry and using that to generate a different form of trust by asking questions to learn the company-specific flavor of industry issues, along with their strategic, operational, financial and career impacts.
In Relationship 1.0, lawyers established relevance to prospects’ personal lives. In 2.0, they demonstrated relevance to their professional lives. This was healthy evolution, but it still suffered from a serious limitation: Whether personal or professional, it takes time to progress from surface topics to something truly significant. On the personal side, during your first lunch, nobody is going to tell you that their spouse is cheating on them. Nor will they tell you on the professional side that there are serious questions about the right to use a key technology in their next product. It takes many traditional relationship-building encounters to get to that level of intimacy. You might be surprised to learn just how much overhead traditional relationship-building demands.
Now the problem is that buyers have far less time to spend with you. Lunch with a friend is a luxury that too often gets canceled, a casualty of more pressing matters.
We’ve described the challenges facing lawyers’ existing relationships, where the other party’s willingness can reasonably be presumed. What about strangers? Why would they make time to meet with you or take your call? And why would they do that often enough for you to earn professional intimacy? To learn about your firm or your experience, or listen to your pitch to get some of their legal work? That’s a poor bet. The inherent inefficiency of the relationship-first approach is its downfall now.
Buyers no longer have dozens of hours to meet with the number of sellers they once had to consult with to get, and remain, informed about whatever they’re considering buying — and the internet makes it unnecessary. Now, they find the needed information online, and they subscribe to receive continuous bits of information from sources they’ve found to be relevant.
Pre-millennium sellers were the gatekeepers of information. Buyers had to consult with them and, as a result, sellers were in position to guide buyers through the traditional “sales funnel” via a series of meetings and phone calls, with the seller in the center of things. It was the seller often driving the process forward as buyers progressed downward in the sales funnel from contact to suspect to prospect to opportunity to client.
Today, the sales funnel has been replaced by “the buyer journey,” a conversation that, increasingly, is on the buyer’s terms. Various studies estimate that B2B buyers progress through 60 to 70 percent of their journey independently, online, before they’re willing to consult with a salesperson.
The journey is taking place online, and you’ve got to be part of it. Buyers may never get to know you or have a personal relationship with you. However, you can arrange for them to form an “idea relationship” with you. Here’s an example from my own experience.
In 1994, I began publishing weekly business development tips, to remind lawyers to use the telephone coaching their firms had purchased for them. They began forwarding the tips to others and, as the internet emerged, I syndicated the tips in various online channels. In the years since, I can’t count the number of coaching inquiries from firms that, when asked how they learned about me, answered, “Oh, I’ve been reading ResultsMail for a few years now.”
So, while I was working on other things, or exercising, or sleeping, they were forming opinions about my marketing and sales ideas. Over time, as they progressed toward dealing with the challenge of getting more lawyers to generate business, some concluded that it might make sense to discuss this with me. They didn’t know me, but they knew how I thought about business development challenges.
We didn’t start with a personal relationship; we started with an idea relationship.
Borrowing liberally from Joel York’s “The New Breed of B2B Buyer,” to connect with today’s connected B2B buyer, you must establish and reinforce your relevance by publishing deep and wide about the problems your prospect faces. Your content must be available whenever and wherever your prospect goes online. That means creating content ranging from short tweets and comments on others’ content to detailed white papers and videos, and then redistributing that content across a wide array of online channels: websites, social networks, blogs, opt-in forums such as JD Supra and LinkedIn groups, media-sharing sites and so on.
Strive consistently to produce content that earns you idea relationships with strangers whose circumstances obligate them to care about the problems your ideas address. Ideally, this positions you for direct contact at the inflection point in their journey when they’re receptive to it.
Once they become your client, you can choose whether or not to invest in extending your business relationship to a personal friendship.
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