How to Convert Inquiries into Engagements. The Proof is in The Pudding.

Presentations to win work are at the core of the firm’s business development initiative. No other initiative is as important or as exhilarating as winning a hard-fought pitch. Preparing for these critical meetings takes time and careful thought. But a successful presentation can mean millions of dollars in billings and is worth the time and effort put into it. Unfortunately, many client presentations are tepid efforts that fail to deeply engage prospective clients.


Client presentations are nothing more than inquiries into your capabilities. In one way or another, every inquiry is a form of the general question, ‘why should I hire you?’ Those inquiries range from a casual ask in a conversation to the formality of responding to a request for proposal. Regardless of the inquiry type, the approach you take in responding matters a great deal. In fact, what matters most is your very first response to that inquiry. It sets the tone and context of the discussion and frequently influences the decision to hire you or not.


There are basically two approaches to responding to an inquiry, an extrinsic approach and an intrinsic approach. The most common approach, the 'extrinsic' approach, starts to answer that question by providing the best “evidence” the firm has for the type of work proposed. This ‘evidence’ comes in the form of awards and recognition, peer recommendations, practice rankings, case studies, deal sheets, client names, publications, speaking engagements, and other information. The ‘extrinsic’ approach draws on external evidence of quality and capability to respond to an inquiry. I call this approach the ‘start by proving’ approach.


This response is often reflexive. When asked about capabilities, lawyers send bios and practice descriptions as a first response. Often, they are sent before the exact challenges of the matter have been understood. Counterintuitively, the reliance on proving capabilities does little to differentiate the lawyer. What’s more, it reveals a subtle mindset: that you are now in ‘sales mode’ and have suspended being an advisor. You have made your initial response about you, not the prospect.


You can provide evidence of your expertise or you can provide the experience of your expertise. The second approach is much more powerful and one I have observed among most of the top rainmakers I've worked with. This is the ‘intrinsic’ approach. The word ‘intrinsic’ means “belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing.” It is an approach in which you give the prospect you. In other words, it is the strategy of demonstrating capabilities by giving prospective clients the experience of working with you. I refer to this approach as the ‘start by doing’ approach.


I am hired by large law firms to coach lawyers in business development and client presentations. Despite the sophistication of these firms, most of the client presentations I review spend the first portion of the meeting reciting firm facts, practice descriptions, awards, client lists and past matters- information which most prospects will have looked up before the meeting. The final portion of the presentation is typically left for questions and answers. And yet, it is in these question-and-answer sessions that prospects experience what it might be like to work with you. It is in the Q&As that engagement is developed and chemistry is felt.

The Intrinsic Approach inverts that sequence by encouraging dialogue first. It suggests you start by asking about the current matter, the operations of the company, how the issue arose and other questions that you would ask were you already hired to handle the matter. The point is to design the presentation, right from your first words, to create a dialogue with prospects. Leave the ‘evidence’ of your work for when it is requested or, at least, as a follow up to the discussion.


The approach works equally well in casual conversation. Even with a general inquiry (one that is not about a specific matter), the ‘start by doing’ approach is more effective than the 'start by proving' approach. Whether it is a referral inquiry from another lawyer or a casual inquiry regarding a potential issue, responding as an advisor concerned about the circumstances and challenges of the organization maintains an advisor’s gravitas. It keeps the conversation focused on the prospect and the problem. Turning the focus of the conversation too quickly toward your capabilities, your experience or even your rehearsed elevator value proposition, risks redirecting the conversation away from the prospect and putting the focus on you. That shift will feel to the prospect


like you've gone into 'sales’ mode. Keep focused on the prospect as if you are already their advisor. The longer you can maintain that focus, the more you’ll learn and the more likely you will be to get the next matter.


The Intrinsic Approach is effective because it lets the prospect client answer the question themselves of why they should work with you. By diving right in and beginning to do the work, you’ve given them the experience of what it is like to work with you. That experience of how you think, the insightful questions you ask, and the confidence of getting right down to work, makes it truly about the client and is, indeed, more compelling. It is also all they truly need to make a decision to work with you.


As the cliché suggests, the proof is in the pudding. Put aside the appearances, promises and praise – the best test of a pudding is to taste it.

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