On May 12, 2010, I’ll be on a  panel “Revving the Biz-Dev Engine:  Building a Billion-Dollar Sales Machine” at The American Lawyer’s “Law Firm and Business Development Leadership Forum” in New York City. I’ll be speaking first, and setting the stage for the 75-minute panel to follow.  Preparing for this presentation has given me the opportunity to set down some foundational thoughts formed over more than 20 years in professional services sales.  I’ll be delivering the thoughts below “off the cuff,” but have written them out in order to focus my thought process.

 Revving the Biz-Dev Engine:  Building a Billion-Dollar Sales Machine. 

The panelists on May 12 include Tracy LaLonde, partner at Akina; Deborah McMurray, CEO and Strategy Architect of Content Pilot LLC; Mike Krenn, Director of Business Development at DLA Piper; and me, Chief Client Development Officer at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, where I have focused for nine years on building and operating a law firm sales machine.  Because the panelists approach the matter from different perspectives, we expect robust debate.  Frankly, we don’t agree about everything.  However, whatever our differences, there are a number of commonalities.

  1. We all recognize that buyers of legal services – at least the kind of buyers that large firms desire — are sophisticated individuals who really cannot be “sold” anything. 
  2. We all agree that when buyers engage a lawyer or a law firm, it almost always is based on the predicate of a relationship that has been built and nurtured over time.
  3. We agree that law firm sales pursuits come in a variety of shapes and sizes – ranging from follow-ups to web inquiries, to introductions with entrepreneurs made at cocktail receptions or CLE events, to chasing opportunities identified by litigation tracking, to the more-studied identification and pursuit of designated targets, to responses to large RFPs, to consumer-product-like pitches of products and ancillary offerings, to energizing referral networks, to efforts to generate institutional relationships, to expansion of representation at existing clients.  That’s a pretty broad spectrum, and each type of pursuit has its own particular subset of skills and tools, but all of these pursuits together comprise Sales at a law firm.   A world-class sales machine needs to accommodate them all.
  4. We agree that it is possible to collapse the sales cycle through the application of systematic thinking and actions.
  5. We agree that while some law firms – in this case DLA and Womble – have nonlawyer sales forces, the sales forces at most law firms (and indeed, even at DLA and Womble) primarily comprise the lawyers themselves.   The task of the panel on May 12 will be to describe what law firms – sometimes with guidance from in-house sales professionals, sometimes not – can do to create a well-oiled sales machine.

A few  foundational observations for the 75-minute panel’s quest to explore how to build that law firm sales machine.

1.  All buyers – whether a kid buying a soda or a General Counsel buying a multiyear, multi-million dollar, sole-sourced arrangement for legal services — go through a buying process.  That’s their job, and in order for a satisfying (from their point of view) purchase to be made, they need to run the process fully, whether they know they are doing it or not. Buyers operate from a position of enlightened self-interest.  They need time.  They want to know and weigh their options.  They need to understand where their purchase fits in the grand scheme of things.  They need to prepare themselves to “sell” their purchase internally.  A big part of their execution of the buying  process is to throw up resistance, seek details and otherwise foul up the sales process. Sellers of legal services need to understand that great buyers of legal services run the process well, which makes winning their business emotionally – in addition to financially — rewarding. This chart, from Neil Rackham, the developer of SPIN selling, is one of several good illustrations of the buying process. 

The New Normal Buying Cycle

The buying cycle

2.  Buyers have their jobs, and so do sellers. The seller’s job is to encounter the buyer wherever he/she is in buying process, and then move him/her forward from that point. Depending on where the buyer is, sales could take the form of initiating, educating, illustrating, demonstrating, proving, relationship-building, addressing concerns, comparing and contrasting, or just out-and-out asking for the order. Sometimes, sellers get lucky: Sometimes, potential buyers already are aware of their own needs, are aware of the seller, have assessed alternative solutions, and are ready to get very specific with the seller about his/her offering. In this instance, we encounter sellers when they’re ready to buy…..from us. It doesn’t mean that they have skipped buying steps. It just means that the seller gets involved after a few buying steps already have been taken. At other times, sellers encounter buyers much earlier in the buying process. The buyer may not be aware of a need or an opportunity, nor the potential alternative solutions and providers. In instances like this, the seller’s job is a little longer….perhaps a bit more educational and relationship-building in its orientation, and the entire selling process is more fully expressed.

3.  For purposes of the May 12 discussion, we will assume the latter – that the kind of sales we will talk about arise from a standing start. So we are stipulating instances where potential buyers of legal services do not yet know the potential seller of legal services, in other words, they are at the very beginning of the buying process and the sales process will run fully from start to finish. At Womble Carlyle, we have a sales process, as do other firms and organizations. On May 12, we’ll utilize a graphic of Akina’s sales cycle to give a top-level view of the selling process at law firms:

DNA of a Sales Cycle

DNA of a Sales Cycle

You will note the congruity between the buying process, generally expressed in the Buying Cycle chart, above, and Akina’s sales cycle (or process.), immediately above.  It’s a good fit.  Makes sense.

In all candor, it is possible to have sales without knowing about or thinking about a formal sales process.  It is possible to have sales without doing all of these steps in the prescribed sequence.  However, I strongly believe that taking steps like these, in this order, as rapidly as possible results in a compression of the sometimes-lengthy sales cycle.   These steps are not created equally.  For instance, in Akina’s model, doing the research and preparation required to identify targets for an individual lawyer, or even a group of lawyers….and then getting the first meeting…..may take a week.   But the second step – building a relationship that will allow a triggering event to occur – may take a year or more and many – perhaps dozens – of follow-up touches.  In reality, two areas of a process like this are particularly difficult for lawyers.  I’m talking about gaining the first meeting, and keeping follow-up on track until relationships and business opportunities can emerge.  Lawyers’ difficulty in initiating relationships and keeping things on track are, I believe, the key reasons that we have seen the emergence of nonlawyer sales forces in professional services organizaitnos – first in accounting and consulting, and now at law firms.

 So, the question is:  What does a firm need to do and build to create a sales machine to drive this process?    Based on the long experience of the May 12 panelists, we have identified the key components of the sales machine.  Because the May 12 discussion is about Sales in particular, and not on Marketing, we will stipulate that the marketing machine is already at work, creating awareness and leading potential clients to the firm.  With that stipulation, here are the key components of the Sales machine:

  • Management buy-in to invest in a process and its components, including the notion of accountability
  • An internal process to help sales professionals and lawyers understand themselves and their firms
  • Product development (or at least the ability/willingness to differentiate existing offerings)
  • Training to help lawyers understand Sales and what they have to do to move through this cycle
  • Tools to help identify targets
  • Research tools to affirm the targets and identify potential ways to initiate relationships
  • Tools to help non-practicing-lawyer sales professionals manage and track the process
  • Programs and processes leading to first meetings
  • Preparations and materials (including electronic materials) for the first meeting
  • Tools and techniques for enlightened follow-up (proposal generators, go-by pitch letters, pricing templates, etc.) 
  • Tools and techniques for nurturing prospective clients during the wait for triggering events
  • Tools for project management, client-firm communications, profitability analysis, account expansion and sales ROI 
  • Compensation systems

4.  Finally, as the panel begins, I’ll reiterate that the discussion is about Sales, as distinct from Marketing.  Both disciplines are critical.  Having one without the other is like clapping with one hand.  While there are overlaps between Marketing and Sales in law firms, there also are discernible differences.  I like to utilize the following funnel chart from Miller-Heiman to illustrate the relationship between the two.   Marketing, using tools that are familiar to everyone who will be in the May 12 audience, is at its best and highest use in the transformation of the universe of businesses and individuals that might use legal services – “suspects” – into a better defined, better qualified subset — “prospects.”    Somewhere in this funnel, about halfway down, prospects become viable “leads.”  This is really where Sales as a formal discipline within law firms takes the lead.  Marketing continues to influence prospective clients and clients well down into the funnel, including after they have become clients, no doubt.  However, for purposes of the May 12 discussion, we’ll be talking about the lower half of this funnel, where a prospect becomes first a lead and then a client, whether Sales activity is being handled by lawyers, or nonlawyer sales professionals, or both working together.  Once Marketing has  transformed suspects into prospects into leads, what’s next?  What are the practicalities of building a machine that drives the Sales Cycle and moves potential buyers through the sales funnel?  That’s what we’ll talk about for the balance of the May 12 presentation.    

Managing Your Funnel

Managing Your Funnel