Turning Telephone Inquiries
With the legal market being as competitive as it is, prospective clients are shopping for attorneys more than ever. For this reason it is critical that telephone inquiries be handled quickly and effectively. If you wait too long, the prospective client will probably retain someone else. If you handle the call improperly, you may lose a client you could have otherwise secured. These tips will help you improve your skills at turning inquiries into clients.
Time is of the Essence
It is crucial that inquiries be handled immediately. Give inquiries your immediate attention. If you are out of the office and an inquiry is among your telephone messages, return that call first. The urgent nature of legal matters in the prospect’s mind causes the search cycle to be very short. Most mass market prospects seeking an attorney retain one within 48 hours of their first inquiry. Most corporate and institutional prospects hire a lawyer for litigation within 14 days of their first inquiry unless they already have counsel. If they are looking to replace counsel, they generally want the process completed in 30 to 60 days. The competition for the better corporate clients can be fierce and the faster you respond, the better you will be perceived by the client. In the prospect’s mind, your responsiveness to the inquiry process portends your responsiveness during your working relationship.
Your Objectives In Handling A Telephone Inquiry
Unless the prospect is calling from out of town, your objectives in handling a telephone inquiry are twofold:
- Qualify The Prospect
- Schedule An Appointment
Qualifying the Prospect
Qualifying the prospect means determining whether the prospect has a matter that you can or want to handle. Clearly, you don’t want to bring a prospect in for an appointment if the matter is undesirable or inappropriate to your practice. You also don’t want to waste an inordinate amount of time on the phone with such a prospect. Therefore, it is important that you qualify the prospective client quickly.
The first step in qualifying the prospect is defining who your target client is and what type of matters you want to take. You should make a list of key questions based on your focus and target, and quickly ascertain if the prospect is the right type of client with the right type of matter.
The next step is to decide who will qualify the client. Depending on the type of practice you have and the staff you have available, you may want to qualify the client yourself or have your secretary, paralegal or associate do it. As a general rule, a mass market practice (one that deals with the general public such as, criminal, divorce, personal injury, bankruptcy, etc.) should have prospects pre-qualified by a staff member.
Since this type of client is going to be less sophisticated in his/her knowledge of the law and the legal process, the prospect is less likely to be calling the right attorney. This is especially true if the lead is coming from a search engine or other advertising media. Lawyers (especially plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers) waste countless hours talking to clients who have no case or have called the wrong type of attorney. Qualifying these prospects is a task better done by a staff member.
Make sure your staff screener is very clear on what you are looking for. Give the screener a list of questions to ask the prospect and review with the screener the types of clients and matters you are seeking. If this is not a client in your area of practice, always attempt to feed your network to increase goodwill and reciprocation.
If you deal with corporate clients, institutional clients, or even a high asset divorce client who is well defined and has a higher level of sophistication than the mass market, you will probably want to qualify the prospect yourself. In this case, the staff member asks some very basic questions to ascertain the prospect is of the right type, and then you take over.
Scheduling the Appointment
The most important concept to remember about telephone inquiries is that the overwhelming majority of local clients will not hire you until they have met you. If you can’t get an appointment, you almost certainly will not land the client.
Once it has been ascertained that the prospect is desirable, your next objective is to schedule an appointment. This can be done by a staff member if you are not available, but it is always a good idea for you to handle this portion of the call yourself. It improves the likelihood that the prospect will show for the appointment if he/she has spoken with you personally.
The first rule of getting the appointment is to control the conversation. The way to stay in control of the conversation is to ask questions. Prospects are prone to asking all types of questions in an attempt to make a decision without having to make a trip to meet you. You must not allow them to do this.
From the moment you get on the phone you should grab the initiative and start asking the prospect questions. If the prospect asks you a question, you should tell him/her that before you can answer the question you need more information. Alternately you should tell him/her that you will discuss that fully when you meet face-to-face.
Once the client has been qualified, you should move to scheduling as quickly as possible. Below are the cardinal don’ts in handling telephone inquiries:
- Don’t spend more than 10 minutes qualifying the prospect.
- Don’t get deeply into the details of the matter.
- Don’t give legal advice on the phone.
- Don’t quote fees.
It is generally true that the longer the prospect keeps you on the phone, the less likely he/she is to make or keep an appointment.
The stickiest topic for most lawyers is the fee . Most lawyers are self-conscious about their fees. Many are deathly afraid that their fee will scare the prospect away if it seems too high, and lose the prospect’s respect if it is too low. Despite these misgivings though, they always feel compelled to give their fees over the phone when asked.
The biggest reason they do this is that they fear the prospect will not come in unless the lawyer quotes the fee. This is exactly the opposite of the truth. In a service business, the prospect is more likely NOT to come in if you DO give prices on the phone. Let’s examine why.
Any prospect who asks the price on the phone is telling you he/she is price sensitive. Price sensitive prospects usually have a number in mind that they have decided is the right amount to pay an attorney. Regardless as to whether that number is realistic, if you give them the wrong number, you’re dead.
There are two types of price sensitive prospects. The first type is the prospect that makes the assumption that all lawyers are pretty much alike, so it makes good sense to just pick the least expensive one. This is a prospect you can secure if you are able to differentiate yourself. These are good potential clients who simply have a mistaken notion about attorneys. These prospects can be convinced to schedule an appointment without getting a price on the phone.
The second type of prospect has limited financial resources or is naturally parsimonious. This is almost certainly a leading indicator of a client who will dispute your bill or become a collection problem somewhere along the line. These prospects are not particularly desirable to start with. Such people will seldom make an appointment unless they hear the right number.
Quoting your fees over the phone will likely frighten off both types of price sensitive prospects. Withholding your fees until the meeting will only frighten off the undesirable prospects. It therefore makes more sense to refrain from quoting fees on the phone. If you get a fee hound on the phone, hold your ground. If the prospect hangs up without making an appointment, you have spared yourself a difficult client and probably saved yourself some wasted time.
When scheduling the appointment, take the initiative and be assertive. Let the prospect know when you are available. Here is an example:
I am interested in talking with you further about this matter. I suggest we meet. I have some time available on Wednesday at 3:00 PM and Friday at 11:00 AM. Which would be better for you?
This is an assumptive close with a forced choice. You assume the client wants to come in and then get the client to choose between two times of your choosing. This closing technique eliminates a lot of questions and objections, because the prospect gets focused on the choice of dates and not on the choice of whether to come in or not. This is far more effective than simply asking the prospect, “Would you like to make an appointment?”
An objection is any statement by the prospect that stands in the way of making the appointment. The most frequent objection will be a fee objection. That should be handled this way:
I can’t quote you a fee based upon our telephone conversation. I need more detailed information and that requires a meeting. So which day would be more convenient for you; Tuesday or Friday?
Alternatively, you can focus on the initial consultation fee:
My fee for the consultation will be $350.00 (or free if you give free initial consultations). It is difficult to give you an idea of the actual fee for the matter until I get more detailed information about your case. So, would you prefer to come in Tuesday or Friday?
For the fee hound who then asks you for a ballpark figure or to reveal your hourly rate you say:
It is meaningless for me to quote you a fee until you can get a clear picture of what you are paying for. My hourly rate tells you nothing about the total fee, and to estimate that I need to review your matter more closely. So would Tuesday be better, or Friday?
If the prospect continues to hound you for your hourly rate just tell him/her frankly that you do not quote your hourly rate over the phone and prepare to hear, “OK, thank you . . . CLICK.” Then sigh and say “good riddance.”
Most other objections can be handled with:
We can discuss that more fully when we meet. Is Tuesday better, or would you prefer Friday?
It is important to remember that whenever you overcome an objection, you should return immediately to the scheduling of the appointment. Always end with a question to stay in control. If you end with a statement, you can be sure you will be answering another question.
It is very important to get the prospect’s telephone number upon making the appointment. You should have your staff call the prospect the day before to confirm the appointment if the appointment is scheduled more than two days in advance.
Approximately one-third of all appointments with mass market clients will be no-shows. You can cut that rate in half or more by systematically confirming your appointments. Also, if a prospect no-shows, you should have a staff member call that prospect to point out that the appointment was missed and to schedule another appointment. Though your chances are not much better that the prospect will show for the second appointment, this will often produce an additional client that would have been lost otherwise. Anyone who misses two appointments should not be pursued further.
Should I Charge A Consultation Fee?
I get asked this question frequently, and the answer depends on your practice. The factors that determine this are the types of clients you deal with, the customary practices of your competitors, and how busy you are.
Generally, for business clients I recommend free consultations. Most business clients will be worth the time investment if you land the client, either through large litigation matters or continual transactional matters.
For mass market clients, I recommend an hour free and then your normal hourly rate thereafter. Generally, prospects are more expeditious when they know there is a limit to the free time. Mass market prospects will try to pump you for free legal advice during free consultations. During the first hour you should concentrate on ascertaining what needs to be done. You should refrain from giving the prospect too much advice during that time if he/she hasn’t retained you. If an hour has passed and you haven’t been able to land the client, give all the advice you deem appropriate to lend credibility to your competence and give the prospect a comfort level. If this fails to land the client at least your time will be compensated.
Another important consideration is how busy you are. If you are currently at full capacity and you are trying to upgrade your client base, it might be worthwhile to inform all prospects that the clock begins ticking when you shake hands. This will scare off any prospects that are remotely price sensitive and will generally produce clients that will pay their bills with few objections and in a timelier manner. Conversely, if you are trying to build your practice and you are far below your capacity, you might want to offer unlimited free consultation time for the initial meeting to get as many prospects in the door as possible.
My discussions with lawyers lead me to the conclusion that they squander 25% to 50% of telephone opportunities due to slow responsiveness, lack of control of the conversation, and poor technique in handling fee requests. In addition, most lawyers waste a great deal of time handling inquiries and come away with no appointment.
The techniques I have outlined above will not land every prospect. Nothing will do that. However, they will improve your chances of landing the better prospects and avoid wasted time and opportunities.
Copyright © Art Italo, 2018. All Rights Reserved
Other Articles by Art Italo:
Starting a Small Firm or Solo Practice
How to Set Your Retainers and Fees
Marketing for the Small Firm and Solo Practitioner
Art Italo is a consultant working exclusively with attorneys in the areas of legal marketing, strategic planning, law practice management and success coaching since 1992.
He has developed and refined the concept of Leveraged Networking after over 15,000 hours of individual consultations with attorneys. He has personally consulted with over 500 attorneys in Atlanta and across the U.S. with practices ranging from solo practitioners to partners with major firms. Art has more than 35 years of marketing and management experience and holds an A.B. from Brown University and an M.B.A. from Pace University.
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