Do you need a CRM?

Relationship development is a key part of any business development initiative. That’s why we put so much effort into meeting new people, getting to know them, and following up with them over time. But how do you gather and track the relevant must-know information about your contacts?

Enter the CRM: the Client (or Customer) Relationship Management system.

(One prefatory note for the rest of this conversation: if you’re working in a larger firm, you may have access to the firm’s CRM and consider that sufficient for your purposes. Before you reach that conclusion, find out how easily you will be able to extract your contacts’ information should you leave the firm. If it’s at all difficult, given the reality of today’s professional world, don’t rely exclusively on the firm’s system.)

A CRM is most often software (local or in the cloud) that organizes contacts and information about them, but it need not be highly technology-driven. Some people successfully use spreadsheets, Outlook, Evernote, or even a Word file. CRM software offers functional advantages.

Here’s a list of features and attributes your CRM system should include:

  • The system must be accessible from wherever you are.
  • The system must be secure.
  • The system must be a centralized and easy-to-update repository for contact data, including address, email, and telephone as well as business and personal interests.
  • The data within the system must be sortable (so you can identify people who are located in a city before you visit, for example).
  • The system should include a tickler function to prompt you to follow up with clients and contacts on the schedule you define.
  • The system should track your communications so you can see when you last spoke with a contact and what you discussed.
  • The system should allow for easy import and export of your data.
  • Optionally, the system may save a library of resources you can use for follow-up contacts.
  • Optionally, the system may include some automation to streamline your efforts.

Two of my favorite CRMs for small firms or for individual use are Contactually and Less Annoying CRM.

Why might you not want to use a CRM? If you won’t keep it updated, a CRM may do you more harm than good. Otherwise, a CRM is a good investment to facilitate building your network.

Lessons from an airline

Airlines have been in the news quite a bit lately, and not in a good light. As I was scanning Facebook recently, I ran across this article sharing a 2015 story about a Southwest flight that had pulled away from the gate when a passenger’s husband called the airline trying to let his wife know that their son had sustained a brain injury. The article goes on to detail the many kindness Southwest extended to the passenger.

Nice story. But how is it relevant to legal marketing?

The relevance lies in the comments to the Facebook post sharing the story. Over 1000 comments as I’m writing this article.

Comments to Facebook posts made by “news-ish” pages are generally the cesspool of the Internet. But the comments to this post are striking (and educational) because of the uniformly positive tone, with only a handful of dissenters. Two themes recur in the comments:

1.     “I would know this story is about Southwest even if it hadn’t been named!”

2.     “I love Southwest! Southwest is amazing!”

Let’s look at why each of these themes matters for you as you’re thinking about your firm.

First, “I would know this story is about Southwest” reflects Southwest’s strong branding. It tells us that Southwest has crafted itself in a way that’s instantly recognizable to the purchasing public.

There’s something about Southwest that sticks with customers. Maybe it’s the fun staff (videos of announcements on Southwest flights go viral on a surprisingly frequent basis), the kindness shown to passengers (which results from employees’ authority to do the right thing for their passengers), their no-upcharge prices (no extra fees for checked bags, no change fees, etc.), or their just-plain-niceness.  There’s a quality about Southwest that makes it instantly recognizable.

Compare this to typical law firm branding. So many firm websites use the same concepts, even the same words: years of experience, highly educated, ranked, prestigious, innovative, client-focused. In fact, a common consultant exercise takes “About us” or practice group descriptions for several firms and asks the client to identify which one is from his or her firm; the client only rarely succeeds because all the samples sound so similar.

Law firms brands on the whole aren’t instantly recognizable. 
In fact, they’re so similar that distinguishing one from another is difficult.

The problem here is that it’s impossible to stand out from competitors if you should just like they do. Your branding must speak directly to your core client and create a strong impression. Southwest has clearly succeeded on this front. Do you? Does your firm?

Second, the hundreds of “I love Southwest!” comments show that people feel strongly about Southwest. They have a relationship with the brand. Many people who commented recounted their own stories about Southwest, whether stories of dramatic kindness or more ordinary positive experiences.

This is what delighted customers do: they share their stories. (It’s also what disgruntled customers do. We don’t want that.)

You may be thinking that it’s more challenging to delight a legal services client than an airline customer, and you’re right. Free snacks and humor in the delivery of the service won’t cut it for legal services clients.

What might delight your clients? Ask yourself what the biggest snags tend to be in a representation. The most common usually revolve around time: how long does it take a lawyer to respond to an email or telephone call, how much time does the attorney leave for a client to review work product before a deadline, how long do clients wait when they come for a meeting? Iron out those snags to remove friction, and share your resolution with your clients to create positive expectations.

Then ask what your clients value. If it’s time, can you offer a streamlined communication process or even a legal-adjacent service that would save time? If it’s money, can you create a client service package that provides certainty for your clients and profit for you? If it’s information, can you spot what your clients would like to know and create a system for making sure you convey that information?

Client delight is unique, and it won’t necessarily be feasible for you to delight every client. If you work with small business clients, for example, you might aim to delight your larger or high potential clients while providing excellent, friction-free service to clients who come for smaller, routine business formation matters.

Here’s the lesson to learn from Southwest: when your clients feel strongly about your (or your firm’s) brand and when they’re delighted with the service they receive, they’ll want to talk about you. And that’s the route to a strong practice built on referrals and a long-term clientele.

To get the big biz dev project done…

One truism about practicing law is that there’s never quite enough time. That’s especially true in two business development-related instances:

  • When you’ve succeeded in securing a substantial amount of new work and you have to figure out how to get the billable work done without losing biz dev momentum, and
  • When you’re working on a large biz dev project such as completing a book chapter (or a book or even a weighty article), launching a new website or a newsletter or blog, designing client service materials, etc.

Let’s focus on the second of these challenges: the big project. Having survived law school and some years in practice, you no doubt know all the tips about breaking a large project down into bite-sized pieces, mapping out the ultimate objective and interim goals.

What if, despite your scheduling time to work on the project at the end of the day or on weekends, you just aren’t making progress? It’s time to take two steps.

First, ask yourself whether you’re committed to this project. It’s ok to change your mind, so long as you acknowledge the change and know what you’ll do instead. Having an outstanding goal that never gets closer undermines drive and confidence in the ability to reach that goal. Don’t do that to yourself.

Second, rearrange your day so that you spend at least a half-hour at the beginning of the day working on your big project. That rearrangement (while perhaps inconvenient) recognizes the priority that you’re placing on the project and ensures that you’ll make consistent progress. This is, of course, a valid time management approach for any priority project. It’s particularly useful in the context of business development because it creates a specific time slot and time pressure for an activity that may otherwise lack either. (In other words, it’s blocking space in your day for a task that is important but not urgent and, in doing so, creating some urgency around it.)

Take a look at your schedule today. Is your first task of the day one that’s important to growing your practice? If not, rearrange.

Activity or achievement?

Here’s a quote for you to consider.

Sometimes when I speak with lawyers, especially those new to business development, they share all the steps they’ve taken…And I’m left with one essential question that I always ask in a more diplomatic way: So what?

Activity is critical, of course, since accomplishment can exist only through activity of some sort. That said, it’s important to distinguish between activity and achievement to ensure that your business development activity is worthwhile — meaning that it is moving you toward the results you want to see.

For example, if you attend a conference or other meeting where you collect 100 business cards for new contacts, so what? Conversation with five well-targeted new contacts will usually yield a better business development result. That’s because you’ve had the opportunity to connect with new contacts through your on-site conversation, so follow-up activity is about deepening (not merely establishing) a relationship. However, if your objective is to be elected to a leadership position in the group, meeting as many people as possible might be more valuable. Objectives often hold the key to the activity vs. achievement distinction; other times, your follow-up controls. Without proper follow-up contact, even in-depth conversation with an ideal new contact (which could otherwise advance your objectives) is unlikely to get much in the way of results.

Take a look at the business development tasks you’ve completed over the last month and ask whether each represents activity or achievement. If you find activity, check to see what else you might do to achieve instead.

Join your clients’ team

Don’t you love it when someone else is genuinely interested in your success? We all do. And we all know when interest is genuine, as opposed to when it’s self-motivated and faked. Genuine interest is tremendously appealing, while self-serving is off-putting and even alienating.

Are you interested in your clients’ success? You don’t have to tell anyone, but answer honestly. Depending on your practice, that interest could mean anything from a years-long involvement at the most intimate business levels to a deep interest in a limited aspect of your clients’ experience that’s followed with well wishes, a farewell, and rare-to-occasional follow-up contact. If your answer is lukewarm, that’s a sign that something is out of alignment, and it deserves attention.

Assuming your answer is yes, you are interested in your clients’ success, the question becomes, how do you show your clients that you’re interested in them? When interest is genuine, it tends to flow naturally, but because life is busy, you’ll likely find it helpful to come up with some ways that you can demonstrate that interest. A few examples:

  • Use your clients’ services and products whenever possible. Even if your representation is not business-related, patronize your clients. One lawyer I know makes a special effort to host lunches at a client’s restaurant. Another of his former clients is also his insurance agent, and he purchases gifts from another client’s yoga studio. You might question how much this matters, but imagine how you would feel if you discovered your lawyer hosted a staff luncheon at other restaurants in town but not yours.
  • Where appropriate, promote your clients’ business to others. The lawyer I mentioned in the previous example does this each time he brings someone to his client’s restaurant or send out a gift from his client’s yoga studio. That’s a win/win—even more so if it’s appropriate to mention the client connection.
  • Look for opportunities to provide extra value to your clients. This might be business-related, but it doesn’t have to be. Anything from identifying a trend that might benefit your client to recommending an accountant or contractor counts. You know all those recommendations to circulate useful articles you read? That’s another example, when done well. The measure is what your client will find valuable.
  • Watch for news about your clients, and respond appropriately. If you have a low-volume practice, place Google Alerts on all of your clients; if not, place Alerts on a selected number of high-priority clients. (Either way, be sure that the results are filtered or sent to a non-primary email address.) Celebrate good news, offer condolences, or extend a helping hand.
  • Communicate. The number one complaint about lawyers is the lack of timely communication, and knowing what matters to your clients and when and how to convey that is both a professional responsibility and a way to demonstrate your interest in your clients.

These are just a few examples of how you can let your actions show your interest in your clients. The best methods, of course, are the ones that are most genuine for you and the ones that have the most positive impact on your clients. When you act from genuine and appropriate interest in your clients’ business and personal success, you join your clients’ team. That tends to create client satisfaction (maybe even client delight), recurring business, and referrals, and it also tends to become an enjoyable extension of your practice.

Three resources you should check out

A few resources to bring to your attention this week…

  1. Always looking for a better way to manage your time? Check out the Storyline Productivity Schedule. Designed to help you focus on what matters most (no brownie points for clearing your in-box of e-mail you didn’t need to read) and to arrange your days in accord with your mental energy, the schedule also helps to limit what you might attempt in a day and to remind you of good stuff to come when your work is done, thus decreasing the tendency to procrastinate. If the streamlined 1-3-5 list doesn’t work for you, give the Productivity Schedule a try.
  2. The purpose of business is to make a profit. That’s the key lesson in a recent ABA Legal Rebels article titled, What lawyers can learn from a dollar-store model.This is an obvious statement, but keeping it in mind leads to a number of less-obvious (or more easily overlooked) truths. My favorite is that “[i]nnovation in the legal sector needs to be profit-driven.” In other words, don’t innovate for the sake of innovation; focus on what will bring meaningful benefit to your clients, identify the problems they’re facing, and innovate accordingly. The article, of course, deals in oversimplification (it’s impossible to address anything as complex as the business aspects of a legal practice and the changes that may be necessary as other aspects of business change in the 12 paragraphs this author allotted) but it will get you thinking.
  3. A couple of week ago, I encouraged you to reach out to strategically-identified contacts without the expectation of getting immediate results. Seth Godin recently wrote a blog post on what prompts people to show up. The whole post is only 47 words, and it just might change how you think about your relationships.

That’s it for this time—hope at least one of these resources is useful for you.

How to make conference attendance worthwhile

This is a longer article than usual, but if you’d like a step-by-step outline on how to get value from attending meetings and conferences, it’s worth your time to read.  (1741 words, about five minutes to read)

Attending a conference can be of high value for business development, or it can be an expensive undertaking with disappointing results. Some of that is out of your control—if, for instance, conference attendance is surprisingly low for reasons neither you nor the planners could anticipate. However to a large degree, your actions and decisions control the value you’re likely to receive.

It’s tempting to wait until the last minute to decide whether to attend a meeting (especially if it’s local), but that will decrease your ability to create success. Decide as early as you can, and block the time off on your calendar. That allows you to spread out your advance activity, which increases the likelihood that you’ll complete it and also leaves room for serendipity.

For example, I recently put two meetings on my calendar. One, I will attend; the other, I likely won’t. Here are the steps I went through:

  1. Calendar the event. That’s obvious, but setting it on the calendar also let me get an idea of how far away they are and what I have going on in between, which allows me to watch for synchronicities and challenges in scheduling.
  2. Ask, what else I should schedule along with the event itself? For example, one of the events I calendared is the ABA Annual Meeting in NYC. Here’s what I thought through:
  • Should I plan to meet with anyone else while I’m in town? This is a good opportunity to visit clients and potential clients as well as various other contacts. Calendar the calls or emails to get those meetings set up.
  • Should I consider scheduling anything else during that trip? Might you have an opportunity to attend another meeting, to arrange a speaking engagement, to meet with colleagues in your firm’s local office, etc.?
  • Should I make sure to call anyone while I’m in town, even though there won’t be an opportunity to get together? Make that list now, not when you get to the conference.

3. Ask, can I make any contacts before the conference? If you know people who are likely to attend, reach out before the meeting to see whether in fact they’re planning to be there. That may be the logical next step to suggesting coffee or a meal together, or it could be a nice pre-conference connection to ease into conversation when you meet in person.

If you’re active on social media, consider sharing information about the conference online and asking if others are planning to attend. Some of your contacts might decide to join you, and strangers who have already made their plans may respond, leading to new connections. This is an especially nice tactic for introverts, because it increases the likelihood that you will know a few people before you get to the meeting, and online conversations can easily segue into face-to-face discussion. Be sure to use the appropriate hashtag for the conference, if one has been defined. Hashtags often appear in promotional materials, including the conference website and using them will help you to find other attendees.

4. Ask, who else needs to know about this conference, and how can I help spread the word? You can always share information about the meeting, though you may choose not to. The meetings that I calendared recently are offered by the ABA Section of Science and Technology, and since I’m an officer in that Section, I have both the responsibility and desire to share information about programs we host or sponsor. (Pro tip: even if you have no responsibility, if an organization with which you’re actively involved is hosting the event, share! It won’t hurt, and it might help both with attendance, which is always an issue, and with your own name recognition.)

Calendar whatever you will do to help, counting back from the date of the conference. Helping might include making phone calls or forwarding a copy of the program announcement to people who might like to attend, listing the conference in your own newsletter or blog, or contacting a local group that might want to share information about the conference with its members. Think about your help in two buckets: one-to-one invitations (conversation and emails) and group invitations (such as forwarding information to the contact for a group or sharing information on social media).

For example: the Second Annual  Internet of Things National Institute will be held in Washington, DC on May 10 and 11. Last year’s National Institute was a smashing success, and I’ve listed a number of people to invite individually to attend this year’s conference. As the time draws closer, I’ll share information about the National Institute and topics to be addressed on social media as well. I’ve also shared sponsorship information with several firms and businesses who might like to be visible to the attendees. (If you’re coming up blank with people to invite, note that many conferences have a “Who Should Attend?” section on the website or in the brochure that may help you. See, for example, the image on the right, from the 2016 National Institute.)

If you have a special connection to a sub-part of a meeting (for instance if a speaker is a valued contact), you can share that specific information. As the August ABA Annual Meeting approaches, for example, I will invite contacts who are interested in the law as it relates to technology and music to Unblurring the Lines: Navigating the Complex Relationship Between Technology, Music and Copyright Law and those interested in cyber-security to a program on that topic, to be followed by Cyber Security Scorecard for the 45th Presidency, which may also appeal to those especially interested in governmental aspects of cyber-security.

Planning this kind of outreach early is critical. It ensures that you have the relevant information ready to go and that you have the time to come up with the right people to invite. If you’re planning to share anything about the conference or subparts of it via social media, you’ll also create a buffer that gives you time to reach out to or connect with speakers on social media. Share information about a conference exclusively because you have the full expectation that it will be excellent. After all, why would you attend if that isn’t your expectation? When you do share information, especially about a specific presentation, you can tag the speaker—which allows your audience to find out more about him or her and may also let the speaker know that you’re telling others to attend, which could help you to make a useful connection.

Be sure to schedule your outreach on your calendar, so you hit the sweet spot of sharing information soon enough for people to attend or sponsor if they so choose, but late enough that they don’t delay in making a decision. Somewhere in the 4-6 weeks pre-event range is generally about right.

5. What follow-up should I plan, and what do I need to do in advance to be sure I can do this effectively? If there’s one single place where success is made or lost, it’s in the follow-up. Much of the follow-up activity you’ll do will depend on who you meet and what you discuss, but you can prepare for certain aspects.

  • Prepare any materials you might want to offer. You might want to prepare a well-formatted and branded copy of a few articles you’ve written that you expect to come up in conversation because they’re relevant to the meeting in some way. You might want to have a single-sheet description of your firm and/or practice. Or you might simply want to be sure that you have plenty of note paper for follow-up notes.
  • Calendar time to do the follow-up. That means that you need to know in advance what you’re going to do, perhaps including sending LinkedIn connection invitations to new contacts, adding new contact information to your database along with notes you made after meeting them, and sending the materials you promised. You may not know full details, but have a plan in mind. Block out time on your own calendar, or talk with an assistant in advance to plan deadlines for him or her to do the administrative part of this.
  • Set a reminder for the questions you won’t be able to answer until after the event, such as:
  1. Should I send thank-you notes to speakers or anyone else?
  2. Is there anyone who was planning to attend but didn’t make it, and should I follow up with him or her?
  3. Is there anyone who was there that I didn’t get to meet who would be a particularly good contact? How can I follow up with that person?
  4. What did I learn that would be of value to a client or other contact, and how can I best share that information?
  5. What did I learn that I could work into an article, a presentation, a newsletter, etc?

This process will complete the advance strategic planning for attending a conference, and it can take time to execute effectively. For example, if you’re hoping to add a speaking engagement to a trip to attend a conference, begin trying to arrange that at least six months in advance. Don’t give up hope if you don’t have that much time to plan, but creating the greatest opportunity for success means giving yourself that window or longer. Going through these five steps will take some time and doing the work that you identify as a result will take longer, so it’s important to give yourself as much lead time as you reasonably can.

Finally, remember to leave time close to the meeting for your tactical planning. That should include actions such as making plans for one-on-one or small group time with other attendees (even if you can’t identify them until you’re on-site), making a list of whom you want to meet by name or profile, and knowing how you want to introduce yourself.

The first and easiest step in conference attendance is deciding to attend the conference; the subsequent steps are the ones that will make that first step and the much more expensive step of actually attending worthwhile. And note that, although my suggestions in this article are directed to large conferences, you can and should use the same framework for attending even smaller, local meetings such as networking breakfasts and CLE programs. The time and intensity of effort will change, but the steps themselves are the same.

Observe yourself to improve

As a young litigation associate (about a million years ago!), I found tremendous benefit in getting feedback from a more senior lawyer who routinely observed my performance. The same was true as I moved into coaching, and even now, after more than ten years of coaching others, whenever I get feedback following observation, I always have new insight that helps me to improve.

Observation by supervisors is built in some way into almost every kind of professional role. Whether it’s business development skill, performing the responsibilities of your job, your leadership presence, or anything else, feedback is one of the fastest possible routes to improvement…

But getting feedback on business development activities can be tricky. Much of the time is spent in solo pursuits that make it difficult for anyone to have access to real-time performance. Fortunately, you can become your own observer and provide your own feedback.

Being both actor and observer can be difficult, but if you identify a single behavior that you want to improve and focus on that, you’ll likely find it easier than you might imagine. For example, let’s imagine that you’ve noticed (or someone has told you) that you have a habit of getting excited and interrupting other speakers. Your motivation may well be good, but the behavior is disruptive and can come across as disrespectful, so breaking it will likely improve your performance. You might decide to make a tick mark on your notepad each time you catch yourself interrupting in a meeting, with the goal of seeing a declining number of marks over time. Once you get a handle on that behavior, then you can identify and move on to something else.

If you have an opportunity to get external feedback, do. Meanwhile, try this exercise: choose one discrete aspect of your business development skills or habits that you’d like to improve. Then identify ways to get clear on your current performance level and ways to track improvement. Track yourself for a week to a month, depending on the magnitude of the behavior you’re observing, and see what changes you notice.

Identify people to contact

Cultivating relationships is central to business development. After all, whether you represent individuals or the largest corporations, it’s people who will retain you, and it’s people who will decide how effective your work is.

Have you ever felt like you need to bring some new people into your network but not known where to find them? Consider relationships you already have that could be revitalized and developed. Although results are never guaranteed, it’s often easier to start with someone you know and to work on taking that relationship to a deeper level than to find the right place to meet the right person and then grow the relationship.

Try this exercise to identify a handful of people you should contact today…

  1. Think of three of your professional or social circles. These could include your law school classmates, former colleagues, former clients, other parents at your child’s school, members of your running club, etc.
  2. List three people in each of those circles. Think about the people in each circle who have some connection to your area of practice. Preferably, your list will include people you know well enough to call and have a conversation. Closer connections are better (especially potential clients or referral sources), but don’t agonize to find the “perfect” contact to include on your list. If you can list more than three, even better… Just don’t call your exercise complete until you’ve listed a minimum of three people in each circle.
  3. Identify the one person in each circle who seems to have the most potential, and reach out to those people as soon as you can, in the most personal way you can. An in-person visit is better than a phone call, a phone call is better than an email, and an email is acceptable but not ideal. Your opening can be as simple as saying that you were just thinking about them, and you wondered how they’re doing. Friendly catch-up conversations that touch on business can lead to some interesting opportunities. Before you reach out, think about what you’d like to get across (are you looking to speak more often? have you recently changed firms?) and during the conversation, be on the lookout for how you can help your contact.

Use this approach once a quarter or whenever your contact list could use an infusion. The key is that you’re renewing relationships, not trolling for business. If you’re desperate for new work, this is not the right approach for you. This is an opportunity to invest in strategically-selected relationships, which will likely pay off somehow, sometime, with no certainty about when or how that will happen.