Most of the time billing and collection issues are an afterthought. They are issues that we handle later in the client relationship—if we must. Initially, we focus on landing the client, and assume they will respect the value in what we do and pay on time. Too often, however, we are so eager to “make friends,” that we avoid confronting issues they may raise. When we do so, we are setting the wrong tone from the start of the relationship.
From the very beginning, it is better to create a relationship that will have our clients respect our billings and pay promptly. The key is to establish the value that they are seeking, and to position ourselves as caring more about what is important to them than about “respectfully” honoring their fears, hesitations and justifications.
Business Development Conversations that Don’t Work
Here’s a scenario that firm leaders experience frequently with their clients: we are having a conversation with the client. In this conversation, we are looking to achieve a result, to reach some agreement, to start a new project, or to have the client commit to action on an existing project that we see clearly as prudent but perhaps is costly.
If we are generally skilled in having this type of conversation, we are probably asking them questions about what they want and what’s important to them, so that they clearly see ”value” in what we are proposing or discussing with them.
The conversation seems to be moving along nicely. There is a real sense of possibility and trust. This person clearly sees the value in what we’re talking about and how it fits with the things that are most important to them. Then something happens. There’s a noticeable shift in the exchange—and suddenly we are not working together, we are not agreeing about what we had hoped to accomplish, and the “sale” doesn’t “close.”
It probably was clear what they wanted and what was important to them. And yes, we were totally on the same page, on track toward an agreement about what to do next. Then, all of a sudden, they backed away, and probably gave an excuse as to why they couldn't have it that way, couldn't do it, or it wouldn't happen. Most likely, they backed away because they suddenly got scared. Fear overtook them, and that fear felt more powerful than any sense of possibility, value, and trust they were previously experiencing.
So in these situations, how do we respond? Often, the value we place on being respectful of others will cause us to respond in one of two ways: either we'll buy into their fear and just agree with them or,—out of “respect”—we don't challenge their excuse in any productive way. The unfortunate result of these common responses is that that the conversation then ends on the objection, rather than ending with a sense of possibility, an agreement about taking action, and ultimately without a commitment from the client.
The problem is, that sense of “respect” that stops the conversation is misguided. We all have moments where we get inspired, and then back away due to fear. We privately hope that in those moments people will “respect” our lame excuses, and leave us alone. So we try to train others to make this implicit agreement with us—“when I give a lame excuse, don’t ask me about it, and I won’t ask you when you do the same.” We have labeled this agreement as a form of “respect” in our own minds.
Now if we take a closer look at how we actually want to respect others, the question is: what do we really want others to respect about us? Do we want them to respect, honor and trust the visions we share, the goals and aspirations we share—or do we want them to respect and honor the fears into which we sometimes retreat?
With this understanding about how we use and tend to misuse “respect,” we can move toward learning to communicate in a way that contributes to our clients by helping or encouraging them to have what they want. Being respectful of our clients does not mean we can't challenge what they're saying—especially when it's clear that their fear, rather than their aspiration, is doing the talking. Being respectful of the person, rather than just what they are saying, requires us not to simply go along with any statement they make.
In fact, in any sales conversation, your prospect will squirm. If you don’t demonstrate that you can handle their squirming, they won’t trust you to “buy from you.” In the case of your clients, if you don’t demonstrate that you can handle their fears and stay focused on their goals, they won’t trust you to handle their matter.
How to Respect Our Clients’ Aspirations and Help Them Overcome Their Excuses and Fears, So That They Take Appropriate Action
When a client tells you what they want, and then retreats to a position or excuse based on fear, it’s important to keep your attention on what they want, and to question the 'excuse' they just put up as a road block.
In a very real sense, when you do this effectively, you are not challenging them at all. You are squarely on their side the whole time, being the advocate for them that they wanted to hire in the first place. In this instance, you are standing up for the part of them that sees what’s possible, and calling on that part to help them achieve their goal. You are helping them advocate their own position in a moment when fear has gripped them and made them forget what they want.
Client: "I would love to take action against this competitor. They have been riding on our coattails and taking market share for a long time. If I did this, I think my customers would respect me more, and my other competitors would think twice before crossing us."
You: "I agree. We have a good case, and we can accomplish a lot by litigating this. Let me do some initial research, and we’ll start preparing the pleadings."
Client: "I don't know. Litigation is going to cost a lot, and I don’t want to hurt our cash flow. Maybe we should wait and see if they don’t just stop on their own."
This situation could be handled in at least two ways. You could take the more common path and just accept their excuse:
"I understand. Let me know if you change your mind."
Or, if you heard their aspiration louder than you heard their fear about not having enough money, you might respond like this:
"I understand that you feel this is going to be expensive. You’re right, it is. At the same time, I also understand that you’re losing a lot of money by allowing this activity to continue. So tell me a bit more about what has you worried about how this might affect your cash flow. Let's see if we can figure out a way for you to get what you want."
Their fear, in and of itself, is the obstacle to what they want. Relating to them about what they want will help them to overcome their own fear. When you show that you believe they can have what they want, rather than buying into their fear, you will be helping them believe, too.
It’s rarely helpful for you to directly disprove or contradict their excuse. This can backfire, turn the conversation into an argument, and give them reason to suspect that you are NOT on their side. In fact, it’s not even necessary. Simply emphasizing the strength of their aspiration will often be enough to help them see through their own excuse, and have that excuse immediately dissolve. If they are still stuck, just remaining connected to their aspiration as you continue to talk objectively with them about it will slowly undermine the fear they are experiencing, and with it, the validity of their own excuse.
The bottom line is: being respectful of a client does not mean you can never challenge anything they say. It only requires you to be clear about what you would rather respect and honor—their fears or their aspirations.
When we respect the aspirations of our clients or our potential clients, they feel more deeply appreciated than if we just buy into their fears and allow them to back down from going after what they want. And when we do so, we leave them empowered to focus on the value we are creating. When they are clear about the value, then the bill they receive ‘feels’ appropriate to them. They will respect your billings and are much more likely to pay promptly.
Rich Goldstein, a registered patent attorney, has run IP boutique Goldstein Patent Law for nearly two decades, and has obtained more than 1500 patents for his clients. Rich has also led business, sales, and personal growth workshops and trainings to thousands of people. He is passionate about learning, achieving, and helping others achieve success and happiness. He enjoys writing about what he has discovered to work best on his personal blog www.Richgoldstein.com.