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Twenty Questions: When Dealing With Clients, It’s More Than Just a Game

I started my career working for the medical profession. During that time, I heard many teachers of medicine say to their residents, “Listen to the patients. They’re giving you the diagnosis.” Now, as a teacher of business development, my key message is: “Listen to your clients. They will tell you what legal services they need.”

I write this as I’m preparing a presentation for Mackrell International’s meeting of its referral network. My topic is “20 Questions for Prospective Clients”. As I try to ensure that I have a good reason for asking each of the 20 questions, it strikes me that:

A. the questions can just as easily (and profitably) be asked of existing clients, and
B. my main message is not so much what you should be asking your clients, but rather that you should be listening to them.

Every existing client is also a prospective client: they may be using your real estate services and now they need a will, or they’ve purchased a business and now they need employment & labour advice. Yet so often when I’m interviewing clients of a law firm and I mention that the law firm has an excellent [fill in the blank] service group, the reply is a puzzled “I didn’t know they did that”. And that’s often the response from longstanding clients!

Just as your client may not know much about your firm, there are very likely things you don’t know about your client. So even if you’ve been serving their legal needs for some time, it’s a worthwhile investment to sit down with them and ask them about their business, just as you would ask a new or prospective client.

What to ask? Often you can just get the conversation started with a simple “So tell me about your organization’s plans.” Most business owners or managers enjoy talking about their companies, especially if they’ve grown the business themselves. Some questions are much better openings for productive conversations about future legal needs than others (“Who would be an ideal client for you?” “Who do you consider to be your major competition?” “Where do you want your organization to be in five years?” “What are the barriers to getting there?”), but the important point is to be having the conversation in the first place.

When to be talking with clients? Before they make a move without consulting you first! The closing of a matter is a very productive and opportune time to ask your clients about their plans for the future. The first meeting with a new or prospective client is the best time to ask the questions listed above.

How you ask the questions is also important. These conversations are not depositions or cross-examinations: the last thing you want is for your client or prospect to feel under attack. You want them to feel that you’re seeking to understand their situation and that you have their best interests at heart. Resist the urge to tell them all that you can do for them; you don’t yet know what they need. Or maybe you know what they need, but not yet what they want.

Finally, what do you do with all that you find out about your client? That’s where you need to ask yourselves some questions and plan your next move accordingly. From what you’ve learned, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. Does the client have an opportunity or problem that requires legal services?
    Maybe they want to expand into the U.S. or maybe there’s an upcoming change in legislation that will affect them.
  2. How important or valuable is the opportunity/problem to the client?
    The more important/valuable the issue to the client, the more likely the client is to be receptive to your suggestions.
  3. What will be the business benefits to the client of exploiting the opportunity/solving the problem?
    Look at the issue from the client’s point of view: simply bringing some part of their operation into compliance is likely to be regarded as a nuisance, but preventing a major disruption of their business will be regarded differently.
  4. What will be the personal/emotional benefits to the client?
    Yes, this is your business! Sometimes an issue has major significance for a client, beyond the facts.
  5. What will happen if the opportunity is not exploited or the problem isn’t solved?
    If the answer is nothing, then it’s not important enough to make a pitch worthwhile.
  6. What legal solution can you offer to help them?
    Think outside the box here! An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
  7. Are there any barriers to you being able to assist this client?
    Obviously, the first one to think about is possible conflicts, another is likely to be a well-entrenched relationship with another firm.
  8. Are there any time, budget, or other constraints?
    Due diligence here can turn up several possible opportunities—or at least cause you to think carefully about making a pitch.
  9. Which other law firms does the client like?
    It’s always good to know who your client’s friends are within the legal profession.
  10. What can you do better than your competition?
    Careful! There are several Law Society regulations waiting to catch the unwary here. At minimum, look for services you provide that your competitors don’t.

Once you have your answers, you’re ready to craft your sales pitch, because now you know what’s important to your client, how you can help them—and why you are their best choice.

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