Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Most Important Phase of the Legal Sales Process is Being Ignored – The Legal Services Buying Process.

Have you ever wondered why a company fails to engage a lawyer (any lawyer) to fix a problem for which they clearly need a solution? Or, why a company doesn’t follow through on an easy opportunity you’ve presented to them?

Have you wondered why you win some engagements quickly while others take forever to get signed? Or, have you offered to do a small piece of work, a free assessment or offered to give a second opinion only to have the company ignore your calls and emails?

Why is it that you sometimes get a large engagement from someone who hardly knows you while the person with whom you’ve developed a strong relationship doesn’t hire you for the big deals? Or, why you get the scraps but other equally or less qualified firms get the meaty projects?
Have you ever suspected that more is going on inside the company or that there are politics at work in a prospective company?

If you’ve been active in business development in the corporate legal industry, you’ve had these questions and experiences.

Selling is hard. Brutally hard. Caring, nice, smart, experienced, business savvy lawyers who proactively reach out to well qualified prospects with proven solutions still fail to close new engagements nine times out of ten. The questions above point to the frustration of selling. But they also provide a clue to an overlooked part of the legal business development process, the legal services buying process.

Legal services buyers have their own unique internal dynamics that must be addressed before they are ready to begin the legal services buying process. In some cases, and with certain practice areas, the process that a company goes through to be ready to buy occurs quickly. But in numerous other situations and legal subject areas, the process occurs slowly, in fits and starts or forces company decision makers through a great deal of internal wrangling, politicking and effort.

Businesses make decisions to hire outside counsel in ways that are unique to each individual business. A company's decisions can change course, stop suddenly, speed up or switch to new partners without warning. We assume that companies who are seeking help with their legal problems are ready to engage the lawyer when they find one that suits their needs and can solve their problems. But for a lot of selling situations, that’s simply not the case. Buyers sometimes use these sales discussions to gather information, think through their own internal challenges and gauge risk and opportunity.

As outside counsel, we don’t have a view of this internal company decision-making process. But if we did, it would explain why some engagements are signed quickly while others drag on unsigned; why some work comes from people we hardly know; why you only get small scraps of work and not the big deals; why a company doesn’t respond to genuine offers of assistance or why companies don’t seem to understand what the company actually needs in terms of legal assistance. Most importantly, a view inside the company would expose the myriad of political calculations, business decisions, and historical learnings that shapes a company’s readiness to engage outside counsel.

Not all legal work comes with the same set of motivations and objectives. Some legal work is non-discretionary. That is, the company has few options but to engage outside counsel to assist with the matter. Examples of these situations include ‘bet-the-company’ litigation, corporate filings, regulatory work or investigations. The impetus for this work comes from forces bearing on the company which gives the company little choice in how it will proceed. And in these cases, it must typically act quickly.

On the other hand, some work is discretionary. Sometimes even optional. That is, the project must be prioritized and assigned resources in the context of the business’s other pressing needs and opportunities. Outside counsel’s ability to understand these internal priorities and strategies are limited, and even then, often distorted.

​Because of this, legal business development training does not address the earliest phase of the sale funnel, the phase which occurs inside the company before it has decided to engage outside counsel. Conventional training ignores the company’s buying decision process. In doing so, several important opportunities are missed and questions left unanswered which, not only makes us less effective, but inhibits our ability to learn and improve selling methods.

The complexity of decisions drives the speed in which a company can make a decision. Companies facing complex choices must decide on the strategic importance to the company of the problem or opportunity and tease out the breadth and complexity of the implications any potential solution will have on the company, its operations, customers, partners and resources. As an example, a simple offer to revise clauses in a technical contract may appear necessary, even simple. But the consequences (or unintended consequences) of revising those clauses can have far reaching affects on the company. Both the lawyer and company stakeholders must carefully consider those implications before they can engage someone to revise those clauses.  

When lawyers call on their business contacts, they don’t typically consider the internal dynamics that must align in order to have the consensus necessary to be ready to find and vet solutions. Without this internal alignment, even the most rational and profitable decisions can languish in company politics, analysis or projections. The saying ‘paralysis by analysis’ speaks to this very problem: it is the label we give when companies can’t resolve the disconnects, gaps and competing priorities that prevents internal consensus and a company’s readiness to buy a solution.

One assumption of conventional business development training is that lawyers have little influence on the buying decision process. Instead, they focus on the buying process itself, applying a selling framework without regard to where the company is in this internal consensus about a solution. That’s a mistake. But take heart. It is a mistake made across numerous industries which sell their dynamic solutions into multinational or highly matrixed corporations.

Corporate law firms with dozens of practice and sub-practice areas often find that a single business development method is difficult to adapt to every practice area's selling situation and client type. The litigators of the firm often bemoan sales training because, well, you can’t persuade a company to get itself sued. Indeed, litigation services is a different selling situation than transactional services, which is a different selling situation from advisory services. From the company’s perspective, those that see little risk in a situation or who find the implications of an issue narrow in scope may not be motivated to act. Conversely, problems which have strategic or existential importance for the company and narrow, well understood implications are more likely to be dealt with quickly. Issues or matters which are both strategically important and which have complex and wide-ranging implications for the company will require careful study and consideration.

It may seem obvious that companies require each legal need to achieve an ROI or make a ‘business case’ in order to move forward on the project. It is not so obvious that lawyers can help in this process. But they can. And in doing so, they can significantly increase their closing ratios and reduce the number of other lawyers they compete with for that work. Some estimates project the improvement as high as 600%!

A new selling strategy offers these and other benefits for professional selling situations and is especially relevant for corporate lawyers. Decision-Strategy Selling™ is a complement to selling skills training programs and helps attorneys better understand, facilitate and navigate the prospect’s engagement decision and selection process thereby improving the attorney’s selling process. It gives lawyers a framework to better adjust their sales pursuit strategies to accommodate the unique buying experience of their practice area and of their target company prospect. And it teaches lawyers how to stay 'tuned in' to the company's engagement decision process showing them how to shift roles from decision coaching, consultative selling or contractor negotiation roles to move engagements to conclusion. In most cases, Decision-Strategy Selling™ does not replace the need for consultative selling skills training. It guides lawyers in refining their pursuits in real time to maximize their selling effectiveness and close engagements faster.

Lawyers who learn Decision-Strategy Selling™ techniques earn trusted adviser status more quickly because they learn how to facilitate decisions and avoid using consultative persuasion techniques until it is appropriate. They learn decision coaching techniques that reveal more about the company’s operations, internal relationships and strategic priorities than lawyers who only use consultative selling skills or research tools. And they gain the insights required to formulate pitches that closely align with company needs and priorities, often times eliminating the company’s need for competitive bids.
Law firms are not known for their business development savviness, let alone their ability to innovate sales methods. But Decision-Strategy Selling™ provides a methodology that is a natural extension of a lawyer’s innate capabilities such as questioning and discovery skills. And creates a new awareness of the phases of selling and the best techniques to navigate the sales process.

Conventional selling skills training suggests building authentic relationships as a condition for sales opportunities. But the byproduct of ‘selling’ is sales pressure which is destructive to authentic and trusted relationships. Decision-Strategy Selling™ eliminates the sales pressure that forms in consultative selling situations because it focuses the lawyer on coaching skills, skills that enhance relationships rather than challenging the relationship.

eLegal Training, LLC is offering free one to three-hour workshops for corporate law firms interested in exploring the selling concepts of Decision-Strategy Selling™. Workshop participants will learn a simple methodology for quickly evaluating the complexity of a legal services selling situation and how to fine tune their business development strategies. They’ll be able to explain the buying decision process and will gain new skills and questioning techniques that will enable them to move through the three main phases of a legal selling situation more effectively. And lastly, they will gain greater confidence in business development abilities through a heightened awareness of company buying decision process and their role in networking, sales conversations and the pitch process.

Eric Dewey, MBA, is the Founder of eLegal Training, which creates, produces, manages and hosts short form ‘eLearning’ courses for the legal services industry. He is the creator of Decision – Strategy Selling™, a pre-sale, non-selling process designed for business lawyers that complements and energizes conventional sales training programs. For more information or to schedule a workshop, coaching session or speaking engagement, contact or  visit