Get up close and personal to improve your business development

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] February 26, 2016

Paying attention to the personal side of decision-making in law firms can help clients and employees alike, writes Trish Carroll.

When Michael Corleone says in The Godfather that “it’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business”, do not believe him. When it comes to attracting and keeping clients, it gets very personal. Even big institutions making seemingly objective, rational procurement decisions cannot completely eliminate personal emotion from decision-making. Once all the evaluation criteria has been met and exceeded, there are the subtle aspects of gut feel that are hard to ignore.

How does this proposal make me feel? How do I feel that our people will work together? Do we share common values? Do we like working with them? What has our prior experience of working with these people been like? If there is no prior experience, how do their referees speak about them? This is the personal side of business decision-making, and it should not be ignored.

Relationships count

The business of law is about a series of interactions and relationships. For clients who are buying legal services, the choice is very personal. For organisations, whether they are small, medium or large, there is also a high degree of choice. Even for the lawyers or firms who regard themselves as the best in their field, it is not always about being the best; it is about being preferred. What is likely to make you ‘preferred’ is the unique blend of your people, the way they perform and engender trust, and the affordability factor.

In law firms, as in accounting, actuarial, architectural, engineering and consulting firms, the qualifiers in most decision-making processes cover factors such as range of services, value-adds, geographic coverage, processes and systems that deliver superior outcomes, better efficiency and more cost certainty. When all these attributes are the same, or are so close to being the same that clients believe there is virtually no difference, then your people and the quality of their relationships are what will determine whether you get the ‘you’ve got it’ call or the ‘sorry, you didn’t get it’ message.

Mindset change

In Stanford, psychologist Carol Dweck’s ground-breaking work about the role of mindsets, called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explores the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them can have a profound impact on almost every aspect of our lives.

One of the most basic beliefs Dweck found in her research has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A ‘fixed mindset’ assumes that our character, intelligence and creative ability are static ‘givens’ that we cannot change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of inherent intelligence, striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs. A ‘growth mindset’, on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of a lack of intelligence, but as a heartening springboard for growth and stretching our existing abilities. If you are taking the ‘you’ve got it’ call with a fixed mindset, then you are hearing that this decision is testament to the superiority of your offering. If you have a growth mindset, you are more likely to see it as the beginning of a new challenge.

These mindsets have a dramatic effect on your personal relationship building and your business development. A fixed mindset is more likely to want to look smart and ‘sell’, while a growth mindset will have a strong desire to understand what the client is trying to achieve, what the challenges are and how to create a solution.

Long-term outlook

Growth mindsets take a long-term view, and when it comes to relationships this is the right perspective. Taking a long-term view to relationships with your colleagues and your staff is equally important to taking a long-term view with your clients. The quality of your internal relationships is usually felt by your clients. They know if the team is cohesive, collaborative and likes working together.

It is well documented that the legal profession has alarming levels of depression and anxiety. Putting aside the personal suffering depression causes, there are impacts on clients because people suffering from depression and anxiety are more likely to be struggling with concentration, decision-making and memory. This makes it harder to carry out their client-facing work with the level of proficiency and care that clients expect. It is also very hard to adopt a growth mindset. Despite the work-life balance efforts of many firms, there is still a strong streak of extreme work and presenteeism that characterises many law firm workplaces. Resourcing and capacity decisions are sometimes guided by business owners putting profit before staff wellbeing, with lawyers working long hours over many months because ‘it’s just a spike’. This type of short-term thinking or fixed thinking can create long-term problems from a number of perspectives, not least of them being for clients.

Perhaps this is why many of the procurement processes being undertaken in the past 12 months are asking targeted questions about staff retention rates and the specifics about retention strategies and incentives. A recent tender even went so far as to ask about internal referral incentive plans.

This line of questioning from sophisticated clients points to a genuine concern about the behaviours they can expect from the people inside the firms they appoint. It also points to a desire for growth mindsets. If that is not personal, then I do not know what is.

Trish Carroll is the founder of Galt Advisory, an advisory firm focused on helping firms and individuals devise successful business strategies. Trish can be contacted at trish@galtadvisory.com.au.

For people experiencing anxiety or depression, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.