Three tips to improve your lock-up

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“Around £4 billion is owed to the top 50 law firms at any one time”*

Lock-up as in….unpaid bills, debtors, or un-billed work in progress. Talk to many Finance heads in the professions about these issues and expect grimaces with much teeth-gnashing. In a recent survey by accountants Smith & Williamson, nearly 70% of firms think that performance improvement in this area will be an important source of funding*.

In the rest of the business world, getting paid for what you do is extremely important. For a lot of lawyers and other professionals, it seems not to matter much despite the considerable problems caused (having to fund borrowing, lack of ability to pay themselves or invest in growth). In a market that is more dynamic by the week, old-fashioned views about money being a dirty word are not just outmoded – they are becoming more and more dangerous to continued health and survival.

This must change and soon. For everyone (not just partners or senior staff). Here are three things that can help.

Accountability where it matters. Let’s start at the top. How motivated are the owners of the business to making it happen? Here’s a clue – only 23% of firms surveyed have Lock-up as one of the three principle measures of partner performance*. Start to change this for the better, see it through robustly when remuneration assessment occurs, and things will begin to improve. What gets measured and rewarded gets done.

“It’s the way we do business”. This is a message that has to come from those at the top (cf. Accountability above) that is then applied and reinforced for everyone – associates, managers, anyone earning money working for clients. Engagement letters must include Service Level Agreements, with an agreed billing process written into the client contract. Time sheets are completed on time and invoices issued promptly. Underperformance in these areas is not just ignored or tolerated: reward and career progression at all levels depend upon being successful.

Professionalise the process. This is all about culture change. Often it needs some additional help, particularly early on. So if you haven’t already – as well as measuring, compiling, and sharing data on what is (not) happening where – make it someone’s job to provide material assistance in ‘doing it’ where needed…and empower them to act. If you think you already have this and debtor days are still in three figures, you haven’t.

“Number one, cash is king; number two, communicate; number three, buy or bury the competition” Jack Welch.

Your firm is a business so it needs to be treated like (number) one.

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, interim, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones. http://www.peoplescope.com.

* 22nd Annual Smith & Williamson Law Firm Survey 2016

Three tips for getting more referrals

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Life is nearly always tougher when it comes to landing new clients. Trying to do more business with or through existing ones makes much more sense, potentially, because taking risks with new suppliers is still tricky for a fair number of buyers. So why are so many professionals so meek when it comes to asking for referrals?

Well, some people just don’t ‘get it’. What they don’t get is that they can and indeed should be asking their contacts for introductions to others who they can help. Others associate ‘it’ with the conduct of networking and other outgoing business development pursuits – from which they habitually run a mile. Both attitudes are business-limiting. So here are three tips to help make the most of your referral opportunities.

Recognise the potential. “Who could I possibly ask?” are the first words on some lips, as if the universe of potential referrers was but a small table of reluctant speed-daters. Just tot up who you know!  When you analyse it, the potential number of referrers for most professionals is often extremely large consisting of:

  • existing clients – both specialist (e.g. members of the legal team, Finance Directors) and in other disciplines (Sales, Marketing, HR etc.)
  • similar contacts who we have worked for (but may not be currently)
  • a bewildering array of third parties (e.g. intermediaries, other professional providers, relevant people in associations and other industry/sector entities).

Of course, not all of them are going to be ‘live’ referrers so..

…Select the best.   Prioritisation of referrers is a matter of applied common sense. So here’s an applied common sense quiz. In our selection:

  • Should we focus on a) new clients/contacts or b) those with whom we have an established track record?
  • Do we give priority to a) clients who are happy with us and/or the service we provide or b) those who have a gripe or for whom the last transaction did not go so well?
  • Finally, should we direct our efforts to a) those who are well connected both within and without their organisations or b) the work equivalents of Billy or Bertha No Mates?

When to ask.  When and in what circumstances to pop the dreaded question? Make it easy by doing it:

  • At the end of a meeting, the business having been successfully concluded.
  • Over lunch or coffee making best use of informality.
  • At a post-transaction or relationship review meeting using, as a platform, the wider discussion about the client’s current/planned business activities.

Of course, how the question is popped is another matter….

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, interim, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones. http://www.peoplescope.com.

Three tips for keeping in touch

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Thanks to social media, everybody is “in touch” these days….aren’t they? Well, sort of.

Certainly there is now a burgeoning mass of communication – but it is conducted largely in one-way, remote broadcast mode. It is no substitute for meaningful dialogue and actual contact: this remains the best way to keep front-of-mind with clients and prospects so that business has a real chance to flow. So what to do – once you’ve “done” lunch or entertainment? Here are three ideas to help you keep properly engaged.

Get out there!  It is difficult enough to uproot many professionals from their offices to visit clients. But, if this can be done, why not go a step further and get them to spend this time on the shop floor, experiencing what it is really like to be at the sharp end of the business?  It is a point of policy for many service-orientated businesses that senior managers do this on a regular basis.  Asking to go along for the day with them could prove an especially powerful relationship and knowledge-building pursuit.

Come and tell us like it is  “We’re all so focused on assignments and delivering to deadlines that we rarely give ourselves the chance to look wider”.  For professionals this can mean understanding what it is like to be in the client’s shoes.  One walk for this particular talk is to get good clients to come and speak with the team about what it is like to be on the receiving end of your things.  The results can be very productive: like the startling revelation that a one page board report is all that is required, rather than the 100 page ‘whopper’ which regularly hits their desk!

Matchmaking for bench marking  This is about applying a bit of lateral thinking: looking beyond the narrowness of transactions at the key professional/technical or business processes that underpin the operations of client organisations.  Clever professionals are always on the look-out for clients in these important areas who display excellence and those who are experiencing issues or problems.  Why?  Because if they are non-competing, one party can learn from the other – and as the matchmaker for this bench marking exercise you are positioned strongly as a trusted professional for both parties.

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, interim, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones. http://www.peoplescope.com.

 

Three tips to improve feedback

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“I don’t think partners are as good as they should be in giving praise and recognition”*

There seems to be more trending than ever for the giving of proper feedback and recognition to staff: as an important plank in the edifice of employee engagement and a strategy to retain and grow better the Y Generation that is reaching maturity in the workforce.  Sadly, the picture is far from rosy when it comes to best practice.

Talking to an experienced colleague recently, she concluded that “probably no more than 20% of senior management professionals I have come across seem to really get and do it well” – despite feedback’s increasing visibility on the organisational agenda of many firms.  Part of this can be attributed to the “clinical, detached, analytical attitude”* that some of these people managers bring to it: small wonder perhaps then that 40% of UK senior associate lawyers in a recent survey regretted their choice of profession.  It isn’t all just down to the long hours.

Things need to change: here is a modest start, with three tips that can oil the wheels of better feedback.

It’s meant to be nourishment not target practice  Traditionally, the annual appraisal is the preferred and sometimes only forum for feedback.  In many cases, our detached brethren simply pull out the ‘rap sheet’ and apply forensic analysis to what the accused has done wrong.   This concept and its philosophy needs to move on and the clue is in the name.  Feeding is a process of nourishment, precious little of which occurs in many appraisal conversations.  It is time to really feed back to our employees rather than just point the critical gun at them.

Immediate, regular, committed  Contextually, once or even twice a year appraisals are not the ideal feedback medium, which is why more and more firms are abandoning such infrequent formality.  One of the reasons for this is that recognition has most impact on the receiver when it occurs as close to the event as possible.  If you manage people, when did you last tell a member of your team what specifically they had done well at or near the time it occurred? The best deliverers also build into their schedule regular ‘sit downs’ with staff to talk, two way, about work and performance – and they stick to them despite the heavy pressures applied by clients, work, and other organisational commitments.

Be clear and supportive  If you are serious about providing good feedback, then communicate to your team that you are and what your expectations are when it comes to their performance and the process of development. From experience, too many senior professionals never have such meta-conversations, often because they are not committed to performance management and development in the first place.  Staff are left in the dark and have to learn (sometimes painfully) on the job what the minimal contact rules of the game are.

And of course not all feedback is about a job well done.  But having the ‘difficult’ conversation about something that could have gone better – assuming it happens at all – should be about supporting the individual’s development rather than just telling them what to do next time: make it a chance for them to reflect on what they could have done differently.  This is about both mind-set and learnable skill/ability.

* Legal Week “Best Legal Employers” 2015

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, interim, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other technical specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones. http://www.peoplescope.com.

 

Three things to help you delegate and be more productive

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Delegation increases average professionals’ earnings by 20% 

Almost anyone with a job and colleagues can delegate…..in theory.  In practice, the picture is not so rosy.  Those who can’t or won’t because they believe “it’s quicker to do it myself”, are overly insecure, or who enjoy ‘doing’ too much and the task of efficiently running their departments or work portfolios too little.

Which is a shame because delegating well can make a big difference – up to 50% in improved earnings for the most highly-skilled senior individuals willing to take the plunge*.  Not to mention a beneficial reduction in the number of stressed-out task junkies, frustrated juniors who are not allowed to develop (and so leave), and in the worst cases, clients who are also dissatisfied and go elsewhere.  The strong desire of professionally-trained people always to want to do the best possible job is perfectly understandable.  But there should be no dilemma if this is at the expense of personal, business or staff health.

Here are three tips that can help your delegation work properly – and more profitably.

It’s not an egg…..one of the biggest sins is to sit on a piece of work, perhaps for days or weeks, only delegating at the last moment.  This presents the recipient with a double challenge: coping with the work delegated and juggling their often heavy existing workload and commitments.  Reluctant delegators sometimes perceive that such a tactic will somehow stimulate the poor recipient into glorious action as “it’s an emergency!”.  It won’t.  More likely, it will only inspire future dread of the same thing happening again and a ‘run for the hills’ response.

Be SMART  Assuming that a task has been appropriately delegated, nine times out of 10 it will only go wrong if instructions are not made clearly or comprehensively enough.  Here, the old management saw of SMART needs to be applied.

Make sure first that you are Specific – it is very easy to give vague instructions that can be misinterpreted. The task must also be Measurable, so define clearly what successful performance will look like and result in; then Agreed (the recipient contributing to what is agreed rather than being just told); Realistic (giving unreasonable targets does not set people up for success: it is what is realistic for THEM not YOU); and finally Time-bound, with clear, specific deadlines and milestones.

Take the buck  You can delegate authority but not responsibility.  Overcoming the psychological barriers to delegation is the biggest challenge.  Doing it is the second.  Then recognising that we must still take responsibility for what is delegated is the final achievement – whether the job is successful or not.  If it’s a success, take and hand out the plaudits; if not, be brave enough to take the rap (rather than pass it).

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other technical specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones. http://www.peoplescope.com.

* Harvard Business Review, “Research: Delegating More Can Increase Your Earnings”, Thomas N. Hubbard, August 2016

 

Three ways to use the proper power of persuasion

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“I don’t need to persuade anyone.  The quality of what I do is self-evident”

So runs the mantra for a number of professional specialists we have met. Somehow, the world (which includes clients and prospects who may not be able to experience the intangibility of what they offer) will see the light. Of course, most often they don’t.

Either this, or they associate persuasion with a stereotypical vision of the “pushy” sales man or woman – and may then try to “sell” by talking endlessly about themselves or their firm. Neither attitude works or is representative of the proper power of persuasion. This is an art that can be learnt, and which has some underlying basic principles: here are three of them.

Give before you get  A tough one this, in that it involves unravelling years of conditioning for those who have had it drummed into them that hours and minutes are ALWAYS TO BE CHARGED FOR. Most people want to return a favour, so if you give them something they will usually want to give something back. We have heard many variations on this theme when trying to attract new clients. “For the trial piece of work, deliberately, we gave them more than we were paid for; they recognised it, liked our attitude, and they are now a significant and very profitable client 10 years on!”.

Three more Ps  This is about Positive Peer Pressure. Those who do business with the public sector see the power of this one. Some people (in fact, many professionals) are better convinced to do something if others are seen doing it. The more local authorities that you work or have worked for, the more powerful appears your case. And in the private sector, if the firm’s name is associated with successful industry authorities (e.g. market leaders), then you can get a double whammy.

Seek out common ground  People do more business with those they feel they like. A large part of such liking is about the amount of common ground that is established between them. Successful professionals know this: which is why golf, cricket, rugby, football etc. are such common pursuits. Sadly, many do not venture outside of these, their own obvious likes. Successful networkers know that it is possible to establish common ground with just about anyone. But it needs this realisation and then practice to achieve.

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other technical specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones. http://www.peoplescope.com.

Three tips to keep your pipeline flowing

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 How many initial contacts do you need to gain one new client?

When asked, the answers of many professionals are often hopelessly optimistic. And they wonder why their Business Development efforts aren’t amounting to much. The fact is that moving prospects in our target markets from initial contact to converted client is usually a lengthy process with several stages, where at any point, we can be screened out: hence, the analogy for the process as a pipeline. In most professional environments, this attrition means that initial contact numbers usually have to be significantly higher than a few (dozen).

Here are three things to address the “pipeline peril” and make it a safer, more productive bet.

Keep your tap on  It isn’t just the length of the pipeline that is important; it is the speed of migration down it. It can take YEARS for some business contacts to result in a trading relationship. The long game approach required to be successful at this sits ill with the short-term, ‘fees, fees, and fees’ focus of many professional lives.

“We are very busy so no-one’s doing any selling at the moment”

Turn off the tap that keeps your contacts flowing and you risk future famine. This requires a contact strategy to maintain profile with potential clients. Do you or your professionals have one?

Count, plan and monitor  How many business development professionals know the number of contacts they have in their pipeline and at which stage they are at with any conviction? In our experience, these experts are few and far between. Because they don’t recognise the dynamics of the pipeline or perhaps take it seriously, they cannot begin to control its flows. Assessing where you are is the first step to deciding what should be done (plan) and doing it (see below), plus then monitoring to ensure that sufficient new client work is being delivered at the other end.

You cannot be serious! …and sure enough, too many of us are not when it comes to planning and doing it. Do we schedule time for business development activity as carefully and in as much detail as the professional work that is done? Most professionals’ Outlook diaries are full of transactional actions and deadlines. But BD ones??!

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other technical specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones. http://www.peoplescope.com.