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12 December 16

The Word of Gold: to win work consistently, patience is not just a virtue, but a necessity

by Stephen Gold

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.
(Dr Samuel Johnson)


In a recent interview, Prime Minister Theresa May recalled how she had to wait until 6pm one Christmas Day to receive her presents, while her father, the local vicar, tended to a family who had been bereaved by a car crash. The rewards of patience, she said, had been a valuable lesson. It is a lesson which applies in spades to the grisly business of winning work, where the journey from first hello to success can seem like a game of snakes and ladders designed by the Devil.

It was one I learned early on in my career. The firm developed a specialist practice acting for retail mortgage lenders, and our first client was a building society, once a conservative bastion of the West Yorkshire financial community, now sadly deceased following the crash of 2008, which exposed its lunatic foray into the sub-prime mortgage market. It first came to us in a crisis, and was delighted with the job we did. We would, it assured us, be its sole advisers in Scotland from then on. Naively, we took this at face value. It took over three years for it to make good, such were the entrenched relationships in various parts of the organisation with other firms.

No shortcuts

It is the lot of rainmakers everywhere to be faced with teeth-grinding situations like this. Looking back over a period of 25 years selling the firm, it is hard to think of a major client who took less than 18 months to shake hands, or as they might put it, be battered into submission. Yet it is vital to understand that selling professional services, particularly to the business community, is a long haul. Trust cannot be built overnight. There will be established relationships in place, and incumbency is a tremendous advantage. Few businesses welcome change, unless there is a compelling reason. The ubiquity of panels, put in place typically for at least two years, is a further barrier, even where the target is willing. As a rule of thumb, the larger the organisation, the more tortuous the journey, with numerous “stakeholders” feeling entitled to have their tuppenceworth, even though tuppence may grossly exaggerate the value of their input.

Over the last few years, I have worked with a wide variety of firms on how to sell more successfully. It is remarkable how often they fall short for no other reason than that their people give up too soon. A few weeks or months of “doing the right things” – networking, entertaining, social media, or other activity – does not lead to the promised land, so they conclude they are no good at it, or that it is pointless, and retreat into the comfort of their files. There is a name for this: the “J curve”, illustrating that so many people stop just before the “J” curves upwards, whereas had they persevered, they would have gone on to reap rewards for years to come.

Preparing to pop the question

Patience and perspective are necessary, but not sufficient. The third vital ingredient is process. Rainmaking is not an aimless ramble, but a thoughtful, carefully planned journey. What are your targets’ needs and priorities? How well do you understand their sectors? Who are the incumbents? What is so distinctive and different about your proposition? What are the likely objections to instructing you, and how will you surmount them? There is little point in setting off unless you have first thought deeply about these questions.

The likelihood of a long journey means you need to plan to keep the momentum going. If a target cannot or will not commit early, at the very least do your best to secure an agreement to meet again, say in three or six months. Use the time between to establish your authority, for example by briefing them with relevant, good quality content, not just about the law, but general business issues they are likely to find interesting. Invite them to seminars, conferences, briefings or events, making clear it’s on a no-obligation basis, giving you a chance to know them better and them an opportunity to form a better impression of the firm.

And – did I mention this? – there comes a point when you need to take a deep breath and ask the question: “What would it take to win your business?” A long journey is one thing; a voyage into eternity quite another. Do not fear rejection. Nobody dies. You will have learned from the experience and have more time for pursuing better prospects.

As we stagger into the allegedly festive season, I wish you all a very happy holiday, good health, good hunting and great success in the year to come.

Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally.
e: stephen@stephengold.co.uk; t: 07968 484232; w: www.stephengold.co.uk; twitter: @thewordofgold