by Lee Rosen
Tourists in India feel like dollar signs.
Touts crowd around, shouting above the street noise, imploring tourists to buy whatever they’re selling.
Feeling like a dollar sign is never a good thing. Tourists don’t like it. They feel less like humans and more like objects: walking ATMs. They get nervous, say “no” quickly, and protectively hold on to their wallets.
They put up their guard.
Is that how your prospective clients feel when they sit in your office at their initial consultation?
When somebody pushes us, we push back
We don’t buy from vendors just because they’re pushy. When we feel like we’re being pushed into something, most of us shut down, especially if we aren’t sure we want the item in question.
I’ve had this experience at the tire store. I asked for mid-range tires and the salesman pushed me toward the deluxe set. It seems like every vehicle-related purchase spins out of control and becomes unpleasant.
I’ve had the same experience with home repairs and remodeling. The price keeps climbing, the details get murky, and it starts to feel better to back away than to move forward.
How many things have we not purchased—things we originally wanted to buy—because the process became a negative experience?
Tourists are a good example because we’ve all been there. We know about the restaurant hawkers trying to cajole us into their place. We know about the girl on the beach who wants to braid our kid’s hair. We know about the tour guides who want to show us the way through the ancient ruins.
Communication breaks down
As buyers, we turn into non-buyers quickly when the pressure cranks up. We find it easier to climb back into our shells than risk sticking our necks out.
We get into a defensive state of mind and stop listening. We harden and stop processing what’s happening.
We reach a point where we no longer bother saying “No” because the requests stop registering. We block out the environment. We stare blankly ahead and walk away.
That’s the last thing you want to happen to your prospective clients when they encounter you or your marketing. You don’t want them turning off to your message.
Of course, it’s easy to spot the resistant tourist. She turns her head, says “No, thank you,” and picks up the pace as she walks away.
It’s harder to see that resistance in prospective clients. It’s more likely to come in the form of an “I’ll think about it” or “I’ll get back to you” or “I’ll have to talk to my family about the money.”
Prospective clients resist with more subtlety. They don’t want to offend. They back away slowly without saying goodbye.
Everybody wants to buy, nobody wants to be sold
There’s an old saying “Everybody wants to buy, nobody wants to be sold” and it’s true.
In fact, your prospective clients call you intending to buy. When they leave without making a decision to purchase, you’ve actually turned them around. They were headed toward buying and you sent them back out the door.
What did you do? What did you say? How did you say it? What happened that turned your buyer into a prospective client for a different law firm?
Think of it like an ice cream store: A hot, tired, hungry customer approaches the counter with her eyes glued to the mounds of ice cream. She has her money gripped in her hand. She studies the list of flavors, looks at the mounds of cold, creamy deliciousness…and then unexpectedly walks out the door.
Did she suddenly realize she wasn’t hot and hungry? Did she quickly decide the fat content was too high? Did it suddenly occur to her that a salad would be more satisfying?
Nope. There was something wrong with the ice cream store.
When they leave without buying, it’s rarely them—it’s us
We don’t like to believe we did something to turn off potential buyers. We rarely blame ourselves.
In fact, we spend a lot of energy justifying why they chose not to hire us. We blame them or hunt for some logical explanation for why they didn’t need our service.
“They didn’t have a problem we could solve,” we tell ourselves, or maybe “They couldn’t afford us” or “They weren’t ready to take action.”
But these are stories we tell ourselves to feel better about the loss. They are our excuses.
Yes, sometimes there is truth to these stories. Sometimes the person sitting across from us in the initial consultation isn’t going to hire any lawyer.
But way too often, that person goes down the street and hires a different lawyer. That other lawyer found a way to let prospects who are ready to hire a lawyer do just that.
Here’s how we turn them off
There are a handful of things we do that turn prospective clients into lost opportunities.
- Messy office
Walking into your office is like entering a legal war zone. Paper everywhere, folders stacked on folders, books piled up, cords and gadgets strewn about, and framed photos hanging cockeyed on the wall.
These are troubling signs that leave prospective clients wondering if their case will be just another disorganized pile stacked on your credenza. The mess does not inspire confidence. It doesn’t make you look busy; it just makes you look messy.
- Unexpected arrival
We’ve all arrived for an appointment only to realize we’re not in the right place at the right time.
Sometimes it’s our mistake. That’s fine and we just feel stupid. But other times, it’s the business’s mistake and we wonder if they might be the stupid ones.
Why wasn’t the client expected? The paralegal quit and didn’t write it down, there was a glitch in the online scheduling system, the lawyer who booked the meeting was dealing with another client and forgot…the list is endless.
When you botch their first appointment, the client wonders how you’ll handle their case.
- Missing lawyer
Another scenario: The receptionist expects the client, the office is neat and orderly, but the lawyer is missing in action.
Where is the lawyer? Delayed in court or stuck in a meeting or having another glazed doughnut down the street?
The prospective client doesn’t really care what’s happening, or why. He simply knows that something is more important to the lawyer than his problem.
“He’s on his way,” the receptionist says. That’s nice, but it doesn’t cut it. Playing second, to anything, is going to diminish the likelihood of the prospective client becoming a client.
- Privacy hygiene lapses
I’m not talking about the dirt under your fingernails. I’m talking about lapses that cause clients to wonder about your protection of their privacy.
When you take a call in front of prospects, they wonder how you’ll treat their confidential information.
When a loud paralegal blabs secrets while you’re on the phone, prospects wonder who will hear theircase.
Even when you give out too much detail while sharing stories of past cases or leave client names visible on file tabs, prospects become nervous.
- Missing technology
Some clients will realize, before they sign your client agreement, that the technology you employ is second rate.
They’ll ask about access to their file online and you’ll hesitate. They’ll want your number so they can send a text message and you’ll explain that you prefer a voice call. They’ll make reference to a Snapchat photo that might be useful and you’ll ask “What’s Snapchat?”
Clients live in a world of advanced technology. They’re used to having the latest and greatest hardware and software at work and at home.
When you’re office is like a flashback to the 90s using a fax machine, desktop phones, and file servers, it’s disconcerting.
They wonder why their stodgy old banker gives them 24/7 access to their data, but their lawyer won’t—or can’t—do the same. They’ll be struck by their lawyer asking for a paper check when the dentist takes Apple Pay and Venmo.
They’re perplexed when their lawyer struggles with tracked changes for a document while their doctor can point and click an X-ray from one practice to another, or transmit a digital prescription in a millisecond.
- Low fees
I wanted to buy a portable speaker to pair with my iPhone. I’d been looking at one from Bose which cost a few hundred dollars. I’d read the reviews of another that was supposedly pretty good for just $30.
When the guy hanging in the doorway offered me a “great deal” on the Bose for just 1,300 rupees (about $20), I kept walking. How could he sell me a $200 item for $20? I didn’t bother to find out because the low price undermined my trust.
The same happens when you only ask for a 20% contingent fee while every other attorney wants a 33% fee, or if you’re charging $600 for something that the competition charges twice as much for. What’s the impact of your fee being half that of your competitor?
Sometimes price signals value, and you’re sending the wrong signal.
- Too much talking
Lawyers live to solve problems. Prospective clients have problems. One would think that’s a match made in heaven.
But it’s not.
Prospective clients like to talk about their problems. They like lawyers to listen.
But lawyers believe they add the most value when they get busy talking about solutions. They’re wrong.
Most clients need to get it all out—often more than once. They need to tell the story to someone who understands and cares. That’s you. When you start talking, you start losing.
I get it—I understand that feels wrong.
Why did you learn all this stuff, why did you gain all this knowledge from experience if you’re only going to keep it to yourself?
Because most prospective clients aren’t ready to hear your ideas and solutions until they trust you. They aren’t ready to trust you until you listen and understand.
You’ve got to give them time to get it all out and show them that you get it by listening hard, repeating back key phrases, and demonstrating that you fully appreciate the problem.
Repeating their story, demonstrating understanding, and letting them know you care are prerequisites to their willingness to listen to you and follow your advice.
Stop talking, start listening, and then listen some more.
- Palm out
They care about their case, not your fee. Put your hand back in your pocket.
Look at the subtle ways you put your interest in getting paid ahead of their interest in getting the problem solved.
Talking about your “Fee Agreement” instead of their “Client Agreement” tells them what you value. Slapping payment links on your website in prominent places signals your focus. Credit card logos all over the website, on printed material, and on a sticker on the door will backfire on you.
When we call a doctor, we want to believe they care about making us better. When the first question we get from the receptionist is “What kind of insurance do you have?” we get the message. The relationship starts on the wrong foot.
When your intake process is designed to build trust, you tee up the prospect to become a client at the consultation. When the intake process is a system for screening prospects and determining their ability to pay, you’ll reduce the likelihood of getting hired.
Examine your process. Study every prospective client interaction from the moment they find you until the moment they become a client. Is anything along that path having an unintended, negative impact?
Here’s the right way to turn prospects into clients
Here’s what you should do instead of pushing…
Listen like your life depends on it.
Don’t interrupt. Don’t offer advice. Don’t ask questions. Just listen until they’re finished talking.
Spend a little energy communicating that you’re listening: nod, move your facial muscles, make listening noises, and occasionally repeat back key phrases. But spend the bulk of your energy listening.
Hear the words, process them, synthesize the input, and listen some more. It’s easy to listen in your first year of practice. It’s so much harder after you’ve heard the same story hundreds or thousands of times.
Listening is the primary tool you have to build trust. You need a big balance in the personal trust account so you’ll have it when you start telling the client things she doesn’t want to hear, asking her to do things she rather not do, and charging her a great big fee.
I know you think the client wants advice. You’re right, but you’re less right than you think. They desperately want someone to listen to their story. They’re not really ready to hear what you have to say until after they’re sure you know their problem.
Your failure to give them the chance to explain it all (regardless of how painful that may be for you) is often the reason they hire someone else—someone who chooses to listen.
- Tell stories
Legal services solve life’s challenging problems. From estate planning to traffic tickets to business contracts—it’s all a big deal to the prospective client.
Your consultations are stressful for the client. These folks have stories spinning in their heads. Their stories are filled with fear of what might happen, what could happen, and what is at stake.
Even the calmest client has some anxiety about the outcome.
Tell your story of why you’re passionate about what you do. Explain how you came to be sitting in your seat and why you care about doing what you do.
Turn it into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Use your storytelling skills to make it interesting. A little drama is your friend.
But keep it short so you’ve got time to tell the more important story: the client’s story, repeated back.
Prove that you were listening, but go further. Express the feelings they haven’t articulated yet. Let them know how well you understand the emotions of a person dealing with the issues they’re facing. Give them that “fly on the wall” feeling that makes them wonder how you already know them so well.
Educating clients is less about helping them understand and more about demonstrating that youunderstand. My doctors drone on endlessly about my medical problems. I listen politely while dreaming of hookers and blow (just kidding).
Why not listen? I’m sure some patients do, but when I really want to understand the medical information, I look it up. I read about it, I dig in until I truly understand by studying the material at length.
Do I cut off my doctor and explain that I’m not listening? Nope, of course not. I watch them speak, I hear the complicated terminology, and I feel better knowing that they know what they’re doing. They talk, I dream, and I feel more confident in their ability.
The fact that they’re giving to me, instead of taking from me, makes an impression, inspires confidence, and builds trust.
When my doctor spends more time explaining treatment options than payment plans, I trust him more.
The second the doctor starts trying to sell me some crazy vitamin plan with his picture on the label, we enter the “leaving without an ice cream” zone.
You want the client to know you’re a giver, not a taker. Education is a big part of how you make that clear.
But when you’re really ready for prospects and clients to tune back in to what you’re saying and start paying attention, stop educating and start storytelling. What really gets our attention is the stories we’re told. That’s when our ears perk up and we stop daydreaming.
- Slow down
We don’t sell used cars. There typically isn’t a need to sell your services to prospects today while they’re still in your office. They won’t change their mind and their need won’t abate if we give them some time to think.
But many lawyers take a “What will it take for you to buy today?” approach to the sale. They hunt for objections to overcome with prepared responses. They are in a sell-sell-sell mode and they’re disappointed if the prospect leaves without making a commitment.
That approach often backfires. Slow down, take your time, and recognize that taking action is a big decision for a potential client.
They need to feel ready to move forward, but they’re not used to making decisions with such high stakes. Remember, what’s high stakes to them may not be the same for you.
The more trust you build, the easier it will be for them to take action.
Don’t push. Listen, tell the stories, and keep educating. That’ll help them move themselves forward. Instead of striving to close the deal, let the deal close itself by building trust.
- Follow up
We hesitate to follow up. We don’t like looking desperate. We’re willing to push when they come to us, but we hold off when we have to go to them. We avoid opportunities for rejection.
But the follow-up is essential. In many cases, it’s the only way to move a prospect from fear and anxiety into action. They need the encouragement, the reinforcement, and the push.
Most lawyers think of a follow-up call as pestering. Most clients think of a follow-up call as caring. These calls invariably end with “Thank you for your call,” not “Leave me alone.” Our fear of rejection is so powerful it sometimes gets between us and caring.
When you follow up with prospective clients, do it with their problem in mind, not your own. They’re only open to follow-ups if you’re focused on helping them move forward, not if you’re focused on wrapping up your month with a better revenue number.
It’s really easy to slip into tout mode and treat your prospects like tourists.
The minute you let that happen, you’ll experience the pullback. You push, they retreat. It may be happening so automatically that you don’t see it anymore.
They came through your door seeking help. They wanted that cold, creamy ice cream cone, but they left without taking action.
They left because they didn’t get the warm, fuzzy embrace of trust.
They didn’t feel comfortable, confident, and certain that hiring you would solve the problem.
They didn’t feel heard and understood.
They didn’t know you well enough to understand you.
They didn’t believe that your involvement was the change they needed.
When there’s a perfect match between their problem and your skill set, the decision to hire you should come automatically, but it doesn’t always happen that way.
Prospective clients must trust you before they’ll hire you. Competence, expertise, and experience don’t automatically create trust. Trust is an emotion. It’s not about objective reality.
Building trust is about avoiding the turn-offs and delivering more of the turn-ons. They’ve got a problem you can solve. The only thing holding them back is trust. To turn that prospect into a client, you need to listen, tell stories, educate, slow down, and follow up. That’s how you build trust.
It’s easy as long as you think of them as people instead of objects. They’re clients, not leads or files or dollar signs. Give them a reason to trust you.