All Advisers Should Have a Personal Marketing Plan

And it’s easy to write one…here’s how!

Firstly, why is a personal plan important? There are several reasons, but a key one is that it makes your career less open to random chance and makes you more focused on doing the kind of work that makes you fulfilled.

Strategy first, plan second

You need to be aware that a plan should follow some strategic thinking. Otherwise your plan will probably be unsustainable. It will just be a wish list.

A quick tip on strategy. It’s a matching process. Start by assessing your marketable assets:

  • What knowledge and experience do you have?
  • What are your skills?
  • Who is in your network and thinks well of you (inside your firm and outside)?

Now consider the market you are in. What areas of work are big? What areas are likely to grow? What types of work are more profitable than others? You don’t need to quantify anything. Just rank the areas as High, Medium or Low in attractiveness.

Then match your marketable assets to the more attractive sectors or areas of specialism. As you do this, ask yourself whether you feel passionate about doing this kind of work? This passion bit is important! It will have you through the tougher times.

Choose two or three areas to focus on and then write your plan.

Headings for a personal marketing plan

Many firms have long complicated documents that make planning a tedious and potentially bureaucratic process. I recommend having just four headings and you can get your plan on a single page. The headings are:

  • Objectives – ‘Smart’ objectives are important (ie specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) so you can measure your progress
  • Profile-raising activities – to make yourself the ‘go-to’ person internally and a bit famous externally
  • Key clients and target clients – make sure you don’t put too many on your list, so you’ll have enough time to invest in building these key relationships
  • Product innovations – to ensure you have something with more added value than your rivals to offer your clients and can legitimately charge a premium (eg risk-sharing pricing options, project management processes, checklists etc)

Final comments

Many professionals (consultants, lawyers, accountants etc) work in what seem like hierarchical organisations. Too many staff members believe that their role to do the work handed down by a more senior professional. I urge all professionals to be tactfully assertive on matters to do with your careers. Too many talented juniors are leaving because they are not fulfilled. The problem is that the grass is rarely greener somewhere else.

So it’s actually in the interests of professional firms to encourage staff to produce personal plans. It’ll be a win-win!

If you’d like to receive the proformas that relate to this process of producing a strategy and personal plan, just ping me an email ( and I send them to you.


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How to Deal with Objections when Selling

When selling your services, you are bound to receive objections and need to deal with what feel like tricky conversations. Here are some tips for dealing with push back from clients.

Firstly, what type of conversations am I talking about? Here are a few comments you might receive:

‘But what about x?’

‘I’m not sure that will work…’

‘That’s too expensive’

It feels like bad news to hear such comments. But the truth is that they are buying signals! They wouldn’t be bothered to have listened to you or be bothered to start negotiating if they didn’t have a serious interest in buying.

So, objections are good news and there is no need to get flustered. Stay calm, don’t get defensive and go through this simple process!

  1. Express gratitude for this feedback.
  2. Demonstrate some empathy for the client – avoid telling them that they are wrong at all costs! There may be a misunderstanding.
  3. Probe to find out more about their concern. Sometimes there is an underlying concern that the client hasn’t expressed yet. Think about objections as icebergs with 90% below the waterline. Gently probing lowers the waterline.
  4. Listen and show you understand their perception. More empathy will deepen the relationship with the client.
  5. Explore alternatives and ideally do this with the client to build a collaborative relationship.
  6. Demonstrate the value of your proposal and check understanding by the client
  7. Ask if there are any further concerns.

Sometimes a rival firm has a genuinely better proposition and it doesn’t matter how you negotiate, you won’t get the sale. Arguably, you might have recognised this earlier and avoided wasting time on a lost cause. Assess the likelihood of success before preparing your proposal.

Another tip…at the outset, consider what objections you might get and prepare your answers. You’ll get fewer objections.

Final tip…learn from each pitch so you can make a note of what works and what doesn’t. You’ll get better each time!

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Pricing for Profit for Professional Firms

Margins for professional firms are under pressure. It’s a tougher, more commercial world and clients are becoming more demanding when negotiating on fees.

Here’s the 3-step process we used in my consulting firm to improve margins:

  1. Establishing and building the value of the work in the mind of the client
  2. Working out a minimum price based on actual costs and a minimum margin
  3. Negotiating to achieve ‘win-win’, both at the outset and during the work, as well as at the point of billing

Some initial thoughts on particular factors that are relevant to these approaches are included below.

  1. Establishing and building the value of the work in the mind of the client 

Clues as to whether work should be given premium pricing include:

      • Urgency of work to the client
      • Importance of work to the client (what Americans call ‘you-bet-your-ranch’ work)
      • Expected savings to the client (tax work in particular can provide such savings)
      • The dominance of the firm in the category of work
      • Successful previous experience with the firm
      • Low level of competition for the work
      • Low level of experience working with lawyers

Factors which might lead to discounting include:

      • High level of competition (eg beauty parade)
      • Fixed client budget
      • General market expectation from experience of similar work
      • Lack of realisation in the client’s mind as to the value of the work
      • High level of experience working with lawyers
      • On-going relationship (eg Key Account)

Then there is the skill of authentically articulating the value of the work in the client’s mind. I say ‘authentically’ because you should be aiming to be seen as a trusted advisor, so the client should not perceive that you are trying to exploit them!

2.Working out a minimum price based on actual costs and a minimum acceptable margin

This probably represents your ‘walk away’ price. The prime skill here is that of a project manager who should itemise the tasks and estimate the level of resource required to carry out the task and the length of time required. The other approach to use is to review how much similar projects cost. So you have a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approach. This is a good example of using a belt as well as braces!

Other factors to consider are as follows:

  • Utilisation and mix of staff – if some staff are currently under-utilised, there may be a case for reducing the price of that resource
  • Volume of work – volume discounts may be worth considering when higher than budgeted utilisations can be achieved
  • Duration/continuity – staff can work more efficiently when working on fewer projects for longer periods of time
  • Strategic considerations – it may be desirable to work on a ‘loss leader’ in order to get some valuable experience which may then in turn provide you with profitable work (eg Securitisation work in 90’s)
  • Unusual extra costs – particularly in the areas of support staff

3.     Negotiating to achieve ‘win-win’

The ideal is to establish a basis for charging that both client and firm feel offer them good value. Factors to consider are:

  • Having the right ‘mindset’ (this is particularly important early on in the relationship when the client might not fully trust the law firm in terms of billing)
  • Having the skills to build credibility, rapport and trust with the client
  • The basis of billing – what are the advantages and disadvantages to you and the client of offering straight £/hour, estimated fees, fixed fees, contingency fees etc
  • How to respond to client counter-demands and the skills of establishing their underlying need
  • Strategies for offering concessions – always ask for something in return and the ideal is to offer those things that are really valued by the client but which cost you very little
  • How to resolve deadlock – a more senior person or a panel can play an important role if the issue needs to ‘escalate’
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Partner Interview Questions to Sort the Wheat from the Chaff

Here is a list of penetrating questions to assess whether an existing senior associate should be made a partner.

On Transition

  1. What does being a partner at this firm mean to you? Why?
  2. What do you see as your principal challenges in your first year as a partner?

On Generating Fees

  1. How will you generate a minimum of [X] in fees in your first year?
  2. How much of the [X] will be taken from existing partners and how much is extra?
  3. What value of instructions came to you directly last year and this year?
  4. Have you generated fees from clients that were not existing firm clients? If so, how much and how did you do this?
  5. What could be done to improve the profitability of your workstream? Probe use of technology?

On Business Development

  1. How would you describe your practice? How is it changing?
  2. How do you keep abreast of market developments?
  3. What clients are you focusing on and why?
  4. What business development have you done?
  5. What are the key selling messages for your practice area? How are we different to competitors?
  6. Tell us about a difficult client situation and how you addressed it?

On Team Development

  1. What are our challenges in motivating associates? What HR policies would you change to improve morale or motivation?
  2. What contributions have you made to any HR initiatives (eg recruitment)?

Tips for Senior Associates Being Interviewed

  1. Rehearse your answers – a lot!
  2. Before you go into the room, take some deep breaths, be tall (ie lift your head a bit) and envisage yourself in a positive environment (a visioning technique used by sports professionals).
  3. Walk in positively and confidently. Smile, but not inanely. Sit forward with hands on the table.
  4. Give yourself a few seconds to think before answering. That’s allowed!
  5. Try to structure your answers using ‘there are 3 aspects…’, ‘there are pros and cons…’, or tell a story starting with what the situation was, what you did and ending with what impact your action had. Use ‘I’ not ‘we’.
  6. Be honest!
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The Two Workshop Process for Developing a Strategy

Mention that you are devising a new strategy and your staff will probably be full of dread. And cynicism! After all, the last one didn’t amount to much!

Here’s my Two Workshop Process to devise a practice group strategy and plan that will be effective and that partners and staff will be committed to.

Pre-Workshop 1

For a large department (say more than 30-50 lawyers), appoint a small project group comprising some partners and associates to lead the process and a small steering group (comprising other influential partners) to act as the internal client.

At the outset consider why you need a strategy. Here’s how to address the cynicism and ‘sell’ the project:

  1. Review what work the firm has lost because it wasn’t ‘top tier’?
  2. Analyse client feedback (comments such as ‘We gave the work to a rival because it was bet-your-ranch work’)
  3. Review any macroeconomic trends to see what will affect your area of work

There are two persuasive arguments: either, look at this description of nirvana if you change (ie move up a tier), or look how bad it might get if you stay as you are!

Also, start thinking what your compelling vision might be. People will be more attracted to a strategy if the ship is sailing to Rio than some other places I could mention!

Another initial approach would be to conduct a confidential survey amongst partners and staff to ascertain concerns and aspirations.

Workshop 1

The first part of the discussion should be on data and diagnosis, such as:

  1. Where are the opportunities and threats?

You could analyse in further detail the market by looking at the sectors you are interested in to assess the market sizes (H/M/L) and likely rates of growth and profitability of this work.

You might also carry out an analysis of profitability by sector and work type before the first strategy workshop.

  1. An honest appraisal of your capability.

What are you good at? Be honest! What, if added to your capability, would make your service offering even more compelling? 

  1. Competitor activity?

Is there anything you can learn from other firms? What are competitors doing to improve their offering? Are there new potential competitors or business models to consider that might radically change the market for your services?

If you do spend time on this, of course, you should probably choose not to do what competitors are doing and deliberately do the opposite. Focus on your unique strengths! 

Output from Workshop 1

The second part of your first strategy workshop should focus on answering the question ‘so what?’. You need to provide an overall strategic focus for all associated practice groups (a sort of departmental glue!). Specific outputs should be:

  1. High level strategic goals – these could be in terms of reputation, growth (revenue and profit), geography, sectors, type of work, service offerings etc
  1. High level strategic options – what are the general approaches you need to do more of, less of or differently to achieve these goals and the opportunities in the market. Being all things to all people doesn’t work very well as a sustainable strategy.

Options are likely to include developing more distinctive service offerings and remaining flexible so the team can take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

The Project Group then presents the output to the Steering Group members. Have they missed anything? Ultimately the output should be shared widely with colleagues to get initial buy-in. What about involving some friendly clients as well?

Workshop 2

The second workshop develops the details of the strategy (ie put ‘flesh on the bones’) and addresses any feedback given.

Start the second workshop with this question: ‘In what ways is it important for us to be better than our competitors, whilst building on our strengths?’

Answers can be collected on post-its and clustered to see the themes. Project team members vote of their preferred responses. Then brainstorm creative approaches for putting these projects into action.

The following topics should probably be on the shortlist for larger firms:

  • How to be more innovative,
  • How to build closer client relationships,
  • How to get more international referrals,
  • How to stay ahead of the curve on technology etc

Champions would be sought to develop ideas. Tell them to select someone outside the project group to partner with. Champions to be given two weeks to provide more detailed and costed plans. Ideally the plans should include how to get quick wins.

Post-Workshop 2

Individual partners and senior associates should draft their personal business plans which need to be aligned with the overall plan. Progress against these objectives should be monitored and reviewed as part of the appraisal process.

If this process looks too onerous, you have two choices:

  • Do nothing and let your competitors get ahead with an effective business strategy
  • Appoint a good facilitator to guide you through it…I know a few!




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How to Walk in Your Client’s Shoes

Client’s shoes?

We all know we should try to put ourselves in our client’s shoes. But it can be hard to do that when there’s so much going on in our own shoes.

So here are some thoughts about what clients might be feeling:

  • I’m taking a personal risk in my selection of advisers
  • I like to be in control and my advisers might take that away from me
  • Will I be made to feel inadequate?
  • Will these advisers help make me look good?
  • This firm talk a good game, but will they really deliver – loads of other firms didn’t!

Here are suggestions for approaches to adopt to increase the chances of winning work from clients:

  • Show that you’re bothered to find out about this prospective client and their sector. Visit their site. Read up about their competitors and the issues in their market.
  • Don’t just think about the needs of the client as an organisation. Think about your client as a person. What are their KPIs? How can you help them deliver?
  • Spend more time asking about them and less time talking about your firm.
  • Demonstrate that you’ll be helping your client achieve greater mastery in their role.
  • Avoid just making assertions about how clever or experienced you are. Everybody else is doing that. Instead provide Tell stories about how you’ve found ways around challenging situations.

I heard a story about a lawyer who kept a pair of moccasins under his desk and every time he tried to be more client-centric he put them on! Whatever helps! But what could you do to be more focused on clients?


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Selling is About Asking the Right Questions – Try BICS

The average professional adviser talks too much in selling situations. The art to winning work is to build credibility, rapport and trust in client relationships. And the best way to do that is primarily through asking questions and demonstrating that you are listening and tuning in to what the client is saying. Easy to say. Harder to do.

So, here are some tips on the art of asking the right kind of questions. I use the acronym BICS to explain the sequence:

B – ‘Background’ questions

I –  Questions to uncover ‘Issues’

C – Questions to review the issues and build ‘Concerns’ in the mind of the client

S – Questions to draw up an action plan to provide appropriate ‘Solutions’

We are not advocating going through this whole process in one go either! A pushy style should be avoided because it will undermine the trust you are trying to build in the relationship.

Examples of Background questions

In some situations, it will be possible for you to prepare before meeting the contact, perhaps by reading recent press articles and reviewing internal databases, such as who knows whom. This allows you to channel the conversation towards particular areas (eg the German acquisition referred to below). Preparation should be possible if the meeting is planned, perhaps with the contact attending an in-house seminar. But even if you just bump into somebody at a reception, start with comfortable background questions, such as:

  • How is business?
  • How is the German acquisition going?
  • How long have you worked here?
  • What is your role?

Notice that some of the questions are about the business and some of them are about the person. Clients typically buy from advisers when they feel there is a personal connection (ie rapport). It can help if you open up a bit about yourself, such as where you live. But, because everybody is different, you need to find a way of connecting that suits the client.

I walked into a partner’s office once and saw lots of photographs of mountains on the wall. I don’t know much about mountains, but I’m a keen amateur photographer, so we talked about the pictures and started to build a good personal connection.

The discussion should not be an interrogation. Avoid the sequence question-answer-question-answer etc. Instead, try question-answer-comment, question-answer-comment, etc.

Also, you will accelerate the process if you ask good probing questions based on what the client has just said.

  • Can you say more about that?
  • In what way?

Examples of Issues questions 

Assuming you have successfully built credibility, rapport and trust during this opening phase, you will find the conversation moves on. Sometimes the client will escalate the conversation and disclose particular challenges they are facing. This might happen in your first discussion, though it usually happens subsequently.

Questions that can draw out the challenges facing the client, include:

  • What are you working on at the moment?
  • What priorities do you have over the next year or so?
  • Are there any particular challenges you’re facing?

Notice how these questions are deeper than the ‘background’ questions and require a closer relationship for the client to be comfortable answering them.

Examples of Concerns questions 

Empirical studies show that buyers don’t necessarily buy anything to address their challenges. They need good reasons to make a purchase, particularly if this involves giving work to a new firm! The most effective advisers do not offer solutions too soon. If they do, the client will probably give you a polite ‘no’. What often happens is they cancel the next meeting. This is a sign that they weren’t convinced that there was value to them in giving up time to talk about the issue further.

The most effective approach is to help the client appreciate the benefits of addressing the issue, as well as the risks or implications of them not addressing it!

Questions designed to achieve this include:

  • If you could avoid these disputes, what effect would that have?
  • What would be the impact of resolving this? On the business, on you or your department?
  • What’s the worst that has happened?
  • What could happen if this is not addressed?

A partner skilled in this technique managed to sell his services to a contact who said early on in the meeting that he used a magic circle firm and he was very happy with the service from them. The prospect of work did not look promising. However, through some skilled questioning the partner raised the awareness of the risks in not having a second string firm ‘in the wings’, in case their usual firm was conflicted out. He won some work on the basis that the client could now be assured that there would always be a firm which could help!

The other result from carrying out this phase of the selling conversation effectively is that the adviser has helped the client see the value to them of addressing their concerns. They can perceive the benefit of addressing the issue and can see the value of mitigating the risks. They now know that they are not going to pay a bargain basement fee.

Examples of Solutions questions

This phase is relatively straightforward. Questions need to be designed to move towards a solution involving you helping the client, such as:

  • Would you like to talk about ways of addressing this issue?
  • What exactly would you like to achieve?
  • Who else might need to be consulted to move forward on this?
  • Would you like to know how we could help?

Quite often the client gives you what are called ‘buying signals’ when they raise the practical aspects of moving forward.

Kipling had some wise words on this subject of questions:

“I kept six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew.  Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who”

Then there’s the old Chinese proverb:

“He who asks a question risks being seen as foolish for 5 seconds, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever!”

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