A sound business development principle is embodied in a familiar proverb: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Existing clients can provide significant additional and future business. Numerous components are involved in establishing, developing, maintaining, and strengthening client relationships. First, doing good work is essential. Deepening your connection with your client is the next crucial step if you want to better position yourself for more business. Several other fundamental favorable actions can help solidify your relationship with existing clients and improve your chance of earning more business.
Know Your Client
Educate yourself about your client contact, client, and their business objectives and legal needs to an unrivaled level. If possible, meet key personnel to understand client operations, including internal politics. Learn your contact's insecurities and strengths so you can understand and anticipate where and when you may provide assistance. If possible, learn about your contact or client's track record with other counsel. Ascertain their likes and dislikes. Understand the client's risk tolerance.
Embed Yourself with Your Client
Immerse yourself in your client's business. Establish a plan to build a strategic partnership and strive to work effectively with your client. Your immediate or past assignment(s) provide or have provided the opportunity to establish the foundation for a long-term relationship by meeting your client's needs, earning trust, and surmounting legal challenges.
Initiate discussions regarding the client's most important needs and objectives and suggest ideas and actions necessary to achieve your client's goals. Develop an internal tracking and accountability process to ensure action and to measure advancement on new initiatives. Schedule progress evaluation meetings and make any necessary adjustments. Provide links to useful information. Refer a potential customer or service provider to help the contact with something beyond what a lawyer or firm does. When firms suggest new ideas to clients—an emerging opportunity to seize or a way to avoid potential problems—new work can result. This is to be done with no cost to the client unless otherwise agreed.
Find a meaningful reason to offer to visit the client onsite. Examining facilities to improve the representation offered, working to implement past lessons learned, or offering CLE opportunities can benefit the client and you. If you have the resources, arrange a temporary secondment with the client.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Though communicating with your client may seem obvious, practitioners often do not do it enough or at all. A breakdown in communication can detract from an established relationship and likely increase the probability of negative or unexpected results or events. In fact, it is business development malpractice to allow an existing relationship to wither due to a communication lapse. It is more difficult to initiate a conversation than to continue one.
Communicate often, whether or not you are currently handling a matter for the client. It is a mistake for a practitioner not to stay in contact with clients who have not recently sent a file. If you do not have a specific case or matter to discuss, converse about the client's business objectives, discuss industry news (including business leads), or offer educational programs of interest.
Find New Ways to Deliver Higher Levels of Service
Explore ways to enhance the service you provide. For example, implement a process for legal project management, which better serves the client and decreases the probability of a negative or unexpected outcome. Project management involves several steps. The first step includes understanding and obtaining client agreement on the matter scope and budget; defining the appropriate legal team; and effectively communicating the client's instructions with the team. Once the foundational matters are addressed, it is important to continuously track all work against the budget established at the matter's outset and address any unforeseen events by adjusting the matter's scope and budget if necessary. The last piece to effective project management involves knowing and addressing client expectations and analyzing the results obtained after the matter concludes. These steps will allow you to more closely collaborate with your client, improve communications about a legal matter, more accurately forecast budgets, better manage risk, and achieve a more predictable outcome.
End-of-Matter Meetings and Solicitation of Client Feedback
End-of-matter meetings provide practitioners and clients with the opportunity to candidly evaluate matters, outcomes, and processes, as well as to determine next steps. Practitioners and clients can compare matter outcomes to the goals initially established, review the positive and negative impacts or factors contributing to the outcome, and received feedback on team members. They can also discuss how to replicate the same favorable outcomes in future matters or avoid negative outcomes and consider ways to do things differently in future matters. Practitioners should consider sharing a comprehensive report for the client to assist internal reporting obligations.
This conversation also provides an opportunity to learn how you can fit into the client's projected course for the foreseeable future. Similar to any other meeting, you want to walk away from a client meeting with a game plan. There should be clearly stated next steps and action items, each of which should align with your ultimate business development goals with that contact. Act on any suggested changes quickly and visibly.
Finally, not all clients are external. If you are in a firm, identify key partners, associates, and professionals in your firm who are important "clients" of yours. The identical rules apply to your internal clients as to the external clients. Think of ways you can exceed their expectations with faster service, more personal investment, and by going the extra mile for their clients. Ask for feedback on what they like about working with you and also learn if there is anything they would like done differently.
Nurture and develop your client relationship as a farmer does a crop, but not at the expense or to the exclusion or detriment of other clients. Patience and persistence are key. As Calvin Coolidge said, "Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
Oran F. Whiting is executive editor for Litigation News.