Seller’s Market

By: Sharon Berman,

Published: Daily Journal Extra

A number of law firms are hiring salespeople, experts to lay the groundwork for new client relationships while maintaining old ones.

While “marketing” has become a watchword of many prominent law firms, the term “sales” does not have that same cachet. While many firms have hired marketing and public relations staff to manage new business development and image campaigns, many lawyers flinch at the “s” word. Can sales be the next trend?

While focusing on sales has hardly become standard industry practice among attorneys, a surprising number of law firms are hiring professional sales personnel to work as “business developers.” Some of them even use the word “sales” in their job titles. These daring firms have realized that hiring a professional salesperson can be an effective way to bring in more business and revenue. It makes sense: If law firms are businesses, which they are, why shouldn’t they sell their services through professional sales representatives?

These sales efforts differ from marketing activities, even though marketing professionals often work with practice groups, arrange speaking engagements and perform other sales-oriented tasks. The key difference is that the salesperson takes it to the front line, such as picking up the phone to follow up on a conversation at a seminar or reconnect with former clients who haven’t been contacted in a long time.

Therefore, while most in-house or outside marketing professionals do manage some sales activities, marketing and sales have definite differences. Marketing builds name awareness, increases your firm’s visibility and reinforces your credibility. Marketing creates opportunities for someone to be in front of a potential client and personally sell your firm. And although all lawyers should be doing these things (and the rainmakers do), the majority will not because of time pressures and fear of rejection. Engaging the services of a salesperson is a good way to get the job done in a professional manner.

Firms, therefore, often need both marketing and sales professionals. Although your firm’s marketing person may be adept at both marketing and sales, they are large areas to cover. Also, in most cases, a different personality is attracted to marketing than to sales. When a marketing expert works hand in hand with a professional salesperson, the combination can be extremely powerful.

Some firms considering hiring a salesperson may be hesitant because they don’t know what the salesperson will do day to day. He or she should devote the day to identifying prospective clients and additional business from current clients, developing leads, qualifying the prospects and planting the seeds for relationships, among other things.

Firms that have decided to be trendsetters and hire a professional salesperson should, however, consider a number of issues first. A firm’s lawyers may feel more comfortable working with the salesperson if he or she is a lawyer. Second, be sure to have the managing partners, marketing partners and key practice directors play a role in the hiring process.

Third, it is important to integrate your new sales professional into nearly every aspect of the firm’s business. The salesperson needs to be fully briefed on your firm and its practice areas and industry expertise. It is critical that he or she understand what you have to sell, who your clients are and where your firm is headed. This may seem obvious, but many new marketing directors have had a lunch on their first day on the job constitute their entire training. Don’t let this happen with your salesperson. Although salespeople are usually selfstarters, someone should facilitate their entry into the firm.

Once you complete the hiring, you may feel tempted to ask the salesperson to do other things, because he or she seems not to have anything pressing. Resist this temptation, however so he or she can focus on the main objective.

Sales professionals cannot be effective if they are spread too thin, so it is important to determine where the emphasis should be, such as which industry areas or practice groups need help first. Depending on where you are in the strategic planning and marketing process, that may be determined before you engage the salesperson, or it may be something you need his or her help in determining.

The hiring of sales professionals does not mean that the lawyers in the firm can just stay in their offices and work while new business is brought to their doors. Instead, the lawyers will need to be responsive, answer questions and carve out times to meet with the salesperson and with prospective clients the salesperson brings in.

When bringing on a sales professional, the firm’s management also will need to decide whether it is going to be strategically proactive or passive. For example, if management is passive, the salesperson could end up working primarily and closely with practice heads who recognize the value that such support can bring. These practice groups, however, may not be the ones with the most potential.

Management must remember that hiring a sales professional does not mean that this person should barge in and crush other business-development efforts. Those activities should continue, synchronized with those of the sales effort. Internal communication is important so that one hand knows what the other is doing, so that opportunities can be leveraged for maximum impact.

In order for existing business development efforts to harmoniously coincide with the salesperson’s efforts, the firm must have a clear picture of the salesperson’s responsibilities. His or her job is to create and build on relationships to the point where you can bring in and turn the relationship over to the partner who will do the work. While the partner has the primary relationship at that point, the salesperson can keep track of how it is going and keep the relationship connected.

One good place to start the sales process is by reviewing your list of current and former clients going back two years. Develop a target list of people for follow-up contact. Although it would be ideal to have the partner do the reconnecting, this often proves difficult. Allow a set period of time for the partner to make contact, but if it doesn’t happen, turn it over to the salesperson. It is better to have the call made by salesperson than not made at all.

Keep in mind that, just like marketing results, sales results take time. It is not unusual to spend 12 to 18 months or more to change a cold relationship with a client. It is critical to start this knowing that it will take time to see business come through the door. If your firm can’t wait this out, don’t set someone up for failure. This does not mean that you shouldn’t see some movement such as meetings set up with prospective clients. It just takes time to translate this into new business.

Accountability is also critical to success. The salesperson must report regularly to someone to show what he or she has done, whom he or she has met and what potential business is in the pipeline. Avoid making this reporting process too onerous because it won’t get done. Those who do well in sales are not usually drawn to a lot of administrative work. Let your salesperson know that someone is taking an interest in his or her progress, but don’t try to manage the person outright.

Set appropriate but flexible goals with your salesperson. This is most likely new terrain for both of you, so be sure to keep revisiting your measurement objective and adjusting it if necessary.

Compensation is also a question and can vary depending on whether the person is a member of the bar. As in other industries, some portion of the compensation should be based on the business that is brought in. Bonuses are one option.

Remember that the compensation must attract, retain and motivate the salesperson. They would not be salespeople if they didn’t believe and recognize that they can create a good portion of their income. If you engage an attorney for the sales role, keep in mind that he or she is taking a risk in leaving a legal career and that compensation needs to account for this. Remember that sales is an opportunity for your firm to be of service to your clients. Hiring a sales professional can allow you to increase the scope of clients you serve by having an expert lay the groundwork for new client relationships while maintaining old ones.

Sharon Berman is principal of Berbay Marketing & PR, a marketing and public relations firm that specializes in law firms.

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