Seth Godin and Freakonomics tell us today about an amazingly brilliant promotion run by a D.C. area fast-food chain: beat the cashier in a game of rock, paper scissors, and get a dollar off your meal. Why don't law firms do this?
Just kidding. Sort of. But, as always, there's a lesson here.
Being a cashier at Burger King, or whatever, has got to be one of the worst jobs in the world. The work is repetitive. The clientele is not always gracious. You often have to wear a stupid hat. And as a result, the cashiers, the front-line people, often develop this protective interpersonal shell. To the customer, they're bored, or disconnected, or just could not care less.
I saw this last night at, of all things, a Pep Boys. I was having dinner with some friends, and the husband-friend had to go retrieve his car after having some work done. It was around 6:00. Everyone who had gotten off work had arrived to get their cars, so the lines were really long. And the people behind the counter had been there for ten hours. They were tired. The customers were annoyed. The line moved slowly. And so the mood of the place was absolute, complete indifference to what the customers were going through.
Law firms sometimes do the same thing, although not as obviously. Instead, lawyers tend to adopt this professional persona. Humorless, dry, low-key, serious, a little pretentious. If you're from a really big firm, this can come across, and maybe actually be, arrogance. It's understandable. If you have to bill 1,600 hours a year, or whatever, you work like hell, you don't have a lot of spare time, and emotional involvement is not exactly a valued commodity.
But in one of the seminars I teach, on client service, I discuss the concept of Above the Line, and Below the Line. The idea here is that there are two kinds of client contacts. Imagine an imaginary vertical line cutting a client's organizational chart into two segments, and you'll get the picture.
Below the Line is where the day-to-day work of the client gets done. For these contacts, client service is all about consistent, efficient execution of the basics. These are the people who spend the budgets.
At the top, however, the view is different. The senior people, Above the Line, are the ones who set the budgets. They are concerned with strategy, and the big, long-term picture. These people are the ones who can open up the wallet and spend serious money if they think something's worth it. These are the ones who will not pressure you to lower your rates if they see value in your work. These are the really important contacts.
And the key to keeping them is developing, and strengthening, a personal relationship. Which means, over time, dropping the facade -- working to move beyond the role of Lawyer, and moving them beyond the role of Client. You need to reveal your human side, and let them see yours. You need to get to know them as people.
This has all kinds of benefits. First, it allows you to service them more effectively. You will know, for example, whether they prefer phone calls with questions returned immediately, or whether they want you to figure out the answer and call back when you've got it. Second, it allows you to cut through the crap and ask direct questions. If a proposal bombs, you can simply call your contact and say, "Donna, what was wrong with our proposal?" and get a straight answer.
Playing rock paper scissors with a cashier accomplishes this instantly. In ten seconds, your perception of them, and the restaurant for which they work, will change. It has to. Change the timeframe from seconds to months, put some zeroes behind the size of the transaction at issue, and humanizing your relationships with key clients operates exactly the same way.
I've got a white paper on this topic. Email me, and I'll be happy to forward it.