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Maximizing Your Non-Billable Client Meetings

Lawyer time is valuable… and so is client time. When a lawyer has decided to meet with a client in a non-billable capacity, they are well-served by taking the time to ensure both parties receive maximum value in the exchange.

Contrary to popular belief, this value isn’t achieved by just showing up. By way of example, I worked with a lawyer who had been asked by their firm to create an annual business plan. The plan was filled with various action items under goals (or just headings, really) like “education” and “client service”. Under the heading of “business development”, they had identified a handful of clients to take to lunch in an effort to gain more work from that client.

When I followed up on one particular client lunch, the lawyer confirmed the activity had occurred. “What was the result?” I asked. “Well”, said the lawyer, “we had a great lunch and I think it really reinforced how well we get along together. I’m sure if they have more work, they’ll give it to us”.

Truth be told, if I were the client at that lunch, I’d either be feeling that it was a nice, appreciated gesture and I’d get on with my day, or wondering what the purpose was and consider whether my time could have been spent more productively. Either way, probably not the outcome desired by the hosting lawyer.

Showing Up Isn’t Enough

Having lunch with a friend is not a business meeting and wouldn’t be on a business plan. But a lunch with a client, potential client, referral source or potential referral source has a potential business goal, and business should be conducted in some way during the course of that lunch. Just showing up is not sufficient use of that time, for either party.

Incidentally, having lunch with a business colleague who also happens to be a friend is certainly more relaxed and enjoyable, but can also serve a business purpose. I have lots of client contacts with whom I meet for lunch (or otherwise) fairly regularly. I love catching up, learning about their families, vacations and other evens in their life. We also make sure to talk business for at least part of the conversation.

On the whole, it’s safest to assume that any planned meeting that takes place during a work day with someone with whom you do business in any way is presumed to be (at least in part) a business meeting. As such it should have some business goals. Arriving ill-prepared may send the business message to your guest that you have no foresight, are not strategic, and are prepared to waste their time. Think of it this way: if you are going to take time out of your very busy day – and if you are going to ask clients or contacts to take time out of their very busy day to meet with you – then do the courtesy (for both of you) of having thought through the purpose, and what you want to accomplish.

To maximize the effectiveness of the meeting, consider these three steps:

Plan Your Goals

While seeing your client or contact regularly is a great start, there needs to be more purpose to a meeting than that. Consider your overall business goals with that client/contact. What could be furthered in this meeting? Do you want to get access to more or different types of work? Do you want to learn more about their company’s future plans or current challenges? Do you want to meet anyone from their company? Do you want to tell them about a new service or program?

Develop Your Approach

Once you have your goals in place, be strategic in your preparations. If you want to get more work from them, what kind of work? Why should they send it to you instead of your competitors? What’s your value proposition in this area? If you want them to engage in a new program or process, what’s the motivator for them to do so? Develop a conversation strategy that will build logically to your ask. Realize this is about building a business case, not simply asking them to do something for no good reason. Make the arguments from their side, not yours. “Use us in this area because we’re the best and we want all of your work” is not a great motivator on their side. Figure out what their needs are, what their challenges are, and how you can meet those needs and challenges.

Carry forward the discussion by engaging them in a conversation around problem solving. Don’t tell them what they need to do: discuss options with them and work with them on a solution that you can be part of. As a game plan develops, ask them what they think the next step should be. Allow them to take the lead.

End the conversation with a summary of action items (on both sides) and time lines.

Follow Up

When you get back to the office and before the end of the day, send them a quick email thanking them for their time and reiterating where the conversation came to and what the next step is. Make a statement to show you’re committed to the plan (“I’m excited about the process we created and looking forward to building on today’s discussions”).

Incidentally, I use this process any time I expect to be meeting with clients. This includes set meetings but also instances where I know I might bump into them – at a conference or evening event, for example. It’s all about applying a bit of business discipline and thought to the process, instead of simply showing up.

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