Listening Means Business
Clients and prospects want to know that you care about them, their business and their problems. The common negative stereotype about lawyers--that lawyers are arrogant, uncaring, selfish and greedy is perhaps in part a result of our listening habits. Are you a good listener? How do you know?
In law school we learn to listen for the purpose of critically evaluating what the speaker says so that we can quickly make a decision about the best course of action. We learn to take feelings out of the decision process, and focus on facts, legal principles and logic. We develop the ability to think on our feet and make quick responses as we face grilling by professors in class or make arguments in moot court competitions. Then as lawyers we interrupt to clarify and focus on facts, disregarding feelings, which we deem irrelevant. We try to control the situation by doing more talking than listening, and what listening we do has a decidedly adversarial or challenging bent.
That approach may serve us well in the courtroom, but it causes problems when we need to build rapport and trust with clients. Effective listening builds rapport because it communicates our interest and concern, and helps us reach beneath our clients’ words to learn what is really troubling them. Listening also alerts us to potential new developments in the client’s business and additional opportunities to serve the client. In short, listening is an important marketing tool.
A large northeastern law firm decided to study their most effective rainmakers to see what they did differently from other seasoned lawyers in the firm. They discovered that the major rainmakers provided more than legal services to their clients. They became trusted advisors. As a result, executives turned to them again and again as a resource, regardless of their area of specialty or expertise, even to discuss non-legal matters. Those rainmakers were able to strengthen their relationship with the client, and at the same time cross-sell additional services of the firm.
To become a trusted advisor one must be a good listener, because listening builds safety and trust. Listen without interrupting, and listen for more than the facts, legal issues and arguments to be made. A good listener notices the emotions of the client, such as fear, worry, anger, resentment, pride, hope and enthusiasm, which allow the listener to pick up on important unspoken cues and signals. Maintain eye contact with the speaker and allow him or her to speak without interruption. This demonstrates respect and concern and builds rapport. If questions come up that need to be clarified, make a note of them and come back to them when the client finishes speaking.
Get your client or prospect talking by asking open-ended questions. Remember those TV shows where one person does all the talking, then goes away thinking the listener is a great conversationalist? Here are some open-ended questions that can establish your interest in the client’s welfare, while also exploring ways your firm can be of service:
What keeps you up at night?
What issues is your company facing these days?
How do those issues impact the company?
How are you impacted personally?
What has worked with similar issues in the past?
What hasn’t worked?
What would success look like?
How would success impact you personally?
What kinds of changes in your industry or product/service are coming down the pike?
What impact will that have?
As a trusted advisor, jumping in with a sales pitch or a litany of your firm’s attributes appears inconsequential once you have listened to your prospect’s concerns and problems. After he or she has had the opportunity to tell you about his or her challenges, however, you might describe how you successfully helped someone with a similar issue in the past. Success stories are memorable and more convincing than mere claims that you can do the job well.
Sometimes merely listening provides the most valuable service you can render to the client in the moment, and that investment saves time and effort in the long run. If you are feeling impatient and wish the client would get to the point, you may need to shift your listening approach from evaluative to empathetic listening. Notice whether the client is feeling angry, nervous, hurt, worried, betrayed, distraught, disrespected, cheated or something else with regard to the events that brought him to your office. That information may help you design a better fitting solution. Make eye contact, nod, and give other verbal or non-verbal signals that you are tracking what the client is saying. Don’t jump in with problem-solving just yet. Once the client feels heard he will feel safer and will be able to more rationally and reasonably discuss the appropriate action with you. Now you can ask your evaluative questions.
In the increasingly competitive legal world, success depends on more than legal expertise. Become a trusted advisor by learning to talk less, listen more, and recognize when to shift your listening approach. You’ll know you are a good listener when the trust you engender breeds loyalty, repeat business and referrals from your clients.
Debra Bruce (www.lawyer-coach.com) practiced law for 18 years, before becoming a professionally trained Executive Coach for lawyers. She is Vice Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas, and the co-founder and past leader of Houston Coaches, the Houston Chapter of the International Coach Federation.