I received a phone solicitation last week from an individual at an organization wishing to provide sales training for the lawyers who work at, and own, Womble Carlyle.  First, he left a voice mail indicating that he was phoning me at the recommendation of an individual in my department.  The message provided no information that would compel me to return the call, so it remained unattended in my inbox for a couple of weeks.  Finally, largely out of a sense of obligation to my colleague as well as a desire to clean out my inbox, I returned the call.  As it turns out, the person on the other end of the line was setting phone appointments for the consultant, Joe Trainer (obviously a fictional name), who actually owned and ran the business.

“Joe Trainer would like to speak with you on how to achieve more productivity from your lawyers,” the caller said. 

“What does that mean?” I asked, not even sure if I was the right person to field the call.  “What part of a lawyer’s productivity does Joe improve?  The practice of law?  The delivery of services?  Technology utilization?  Sales?”

“He helps increase the return on investment in their business development time,” came the reply.  I could tell he was hesitant to call a spade a spade and say “sales.” 

“Ah, so this is sales training.” I replied.  “Because I am so incredibly busy, I’m going to be completely candid and direct with you, and I mean no disrespect.  I have at least 10 organizations in line that would like to provide sales training to the lawyers at this firm.  In order for me to invest time in talking with Joe, I need to know why exactly you phoned me and Womble Carlyle and how the training is different from and hopefully better than that provided by other consultants.” 

“Joe Trainer has worked for several large law firms,” the caller began, naming a few. 

“Well, that’s not different,” I said.  “I hear that from every potential provider who calls.  Frankly, the needs of my lawyers are different from the needs of lawyers at other firms.”

“Joe doesn’t just come in and deliver a seminar,” he suggested.  “He maintains contact with the lawyers over time to make sure that they really implement the lessons and are successful.” 

“You’re not the first consultant to make that claim,” I said.  “Many insist that they will stay involved with those they have trained.  It’s a nice idea, but anyone who works inside a law firm knows how nearly impossible it is for outsiders to truly have an effect on a lawyer’s day-to-day activity.  You’d have to tell me how exactly Joe succeeds where so many others have not.”

“Let me help you,” I offered.  “I often make phone calls to prospective clients – inside counsel — and they are incredibly busy people.  I have learned that they won’t speak with me, nor return my call, unless I can deliver value – unless I can help them address a challenge or access an opportunity or somehow improve their lives.  In order to be able to do so, I need to have conducted research to learn as much as I can about the individual and to have at least a layman’s understanding of the company, its strategy, its risks and its opportunities.  I never call an individual without knowing the current trading price of the stock, for instance.  That’s what potential clients expect of me, so I don’t think I’m too far off the mark in asking the same of those who want to do business with my firm. 

“So,” I concluded, “what do you know about me, my challenges, this firm and the specific sales needs of its lawyers as distinct from lawyers at other firms?  How can you really help me and us?”  I then proceeded to provide the outlines of a new firm strategy and what I thought it would mean in the context of sales training.

“Thank you for that,” the caller said.  “In all candor, I don’t know much about your firm, and I just make phone calls to line up appointments.  I’m going to provide this information to Joe Trainer.  I think that he is much better equipped to answer your questions.”

“OK,” I said.  “Fair enough.  Why don’t you all learn more about us and then, when you’re ready, in a week or two, give me another call and let me know what you have learned and how you think you can help.” 

The next day I received an e-mail from Joe Trainer.  In the introductory paragraph, I noted a tiny effort to customize the communiqué.  It made note of my current title as well as one of my previous jobs, suggesting that this prepared me to understand the consulting organization’s  “unique and blended approach, which provides a very high ROI, will be customized to fit your firm’s specific needs, culture, values and is available to both partners and associates.” 

Well, I had laid out the basis for a future conversation and exactly what needed to happen.  I know that my directions were completely clear.  I had indicated that a thoughtful response was far more important than an immediate one.  Unfortunately, even with this head start, after only one sentence that pretended to address my requests, the communiqué lapsed into completely undifferentiated consultant- and sales-speak.

As a famous character from the Seinfeld show put it:  “No soup for you!”

The point of this blog posting is not to cast aspersions on an individual who probably is successful in setting appointments, nor in criticizing the consulting organization and its owner, who apparently has done many things right in creating a nationwide organization.  Rather, I want to point out that we must never allow ourselves to lapse into the rut of trying to sell by rote and repetition.  It shows. 

The individuals we would serve – in-house counsel, primarily – are as busy or busier than we are.  If we expect to make any headway, it is mandatory that we conduct advance research to ferret out problems and opportunities.  Without lapsing into verbiage that can be found on our web pages, we must be able to explain how our solutions are different from and better than solutions that others may have suggested.  We need to craft a compelling opening line, or voicemail message, that shows we’ve done our research and is aimed precisely at the individual we are approaching and his/her company.  If we are fortunate enough to engage a subsequent phone conversation and then if we receive explicit instructions on how to proceed, we need to truly engage our brains and give them more than a light touch.  Then, maybe just maybe in this ultracompetitive world of law firm sales, we will win a face-to-face audience in order to initiate a relationship that we can build over time.

Or, we can take a lot of shortcuts as did the consulting firm in this anecdote, no doubt resulting in “No soup for us!”