If a potential client cold-called your firm with an enquiry, how would they be treated? Ian Cooper, who presented at an Update seminar on the subject, believes most practices could do much better

What is the easiest way to increase your business without spending a penny on marketing? Conversely, could you be pouring marketing budget money down the drain because you aren’t geared up to deal with the resulting enquiries? These simple, but fundamental, questions formed the basis of the Society’s recent seminar on “Converting Telephone Enquiries into Profitable Business”.

The event was inspired by a report last year by the presenter, Ian Cooper, who surveyed more than 250 law firms around the UK by cold calls, posing as a potential client, and also discussed the subject with partners and managers in over 90 firms. He found, in a nutshell, that practices large and small must be passing up the chance of millions of pounds in extra revenue by not handling such calls properly.

“If you get three such enquiries a day, in a week it’s 15 and in a year it’s 750”, he says by way of illustration. “If the average potential fee of those transactions was £1,000, those enquiries are worth a potential three quarters of a million to that firm. But if you ask who is handling that level of sales enquiries, it will be support staff, fee earners, partners and, if you ask a roomful how many have ever had any basic sales training, I’ll bet you not more than two or three people will put their hands up.”

Missed opportunities

As reported at www.journalonline.co.uk/News/1013292.aspx, Cooper found that in 39% of cases, there was nobody immediately available to take the call; in more than a third, the call handler neither introduced themselves nor took the caller’s name; when firms promised to send something out, 38% failed to do so and, of those who did, in 56% of cases it was of poor marketing quality or “littered with errors”; and in no fewer than 97%, the call handler failed to ask if the caller wanted to go ahead or make an appointment.

“Some people think that’s being pushy,” Cooper comments on the last point. “But why? They’ve already taken the step of ringing you!” His research with firms also revealed that 70% make no attempt to track and monitor new enquiry calls and conversion rates – the proportion resulting in actual business – and that more than 90% of people handling potential client calls admit to either not being very good at it or not liking the task. More senior fee earners often believe that call handling is a low-level activity that is beneath them; or alternatively, that despite poor results, they are great at dealing with potential new clients.

“Can you think of any other sector in business that would allow its sales enquiries, worth millions, to be handled by people who have not had any sales training or understanding of the processes?” he asks. “I can’t.”

Where many firms are going wrong, in Cooper’s view, is that they haven’t made the “mental leap” to realise that these calls are really sales enquiries. “Often an enquiry as to the cost, say of making a will, will be treated as if it was an administrative task. There’s a huge difference. They’re missing an opportunity.”

It is one of Cooper’s big taboos, in fact, to assume that if people ask the price of something, that is all they are interested in. “Nonsense! We all do that,” he observes. “It’s as likely that they just have no idea. People are essentially risk averse; they want to feel in control.”

Calling the shots

Control, Cooper emphasises, is something you as call handler should aim for – control of the conversation, achieved by asking the right questions of the caller. After greeting them by name and introducing yourself, you should take charge by telling them what you will do during the call – for their benefit of course – and, once you have the gist, building a rapport with a few personalised questions that show you understand their issues. Only then do you deal with the “How much?” – by which point, Cooper says, they should have made the psychological decision that they want you, even if they finally decide they can’t afford you. Break it down (without a lecture on process) – then, if you want the business, ask the “When can you come in?” question.

No “ifs”, Cooper insists! “If you’d like to go ahead...” sows a seed that they might not, and it isn’t a question they then feel obliged to answer. While the legal profession, in Cooper’s view, finds it harder than most to give a welcoming impression, the good news part of it, as he puts it, is that even a slight improvement in performance reaps instant results, because you are making more of business leads already coming to the firm.

As Cooper explains: “The reason why I say this is so positive is because (1) it’s actually quite easy to do it; (2) it doesn’t cost a penny – all you’re talking about is opportunities that are already there, rather than spending money creating opportunities that you’re not going to convert; and (3) the results are guaranteed.”

Open goal?

If it’s a case of changing habitual behaviours, Cooper recognises that such things take time and practice but, in his experience, 90% of firms see around a 10% improvement in their enquiry conversion rate in the first three to four weeks, and typically 30-50% in six months. On even a modest number of enquiries, that should make a noticeable difference to the figures of most practices.

It’s also about playing to your strengths. Some people are naturally better at the task, and if you have different people taking calls, what are their respective conversion rates? If you track those figures, you can work out your “batting order” – who calls should be referred to as first choice if they are available, then second, and so on.

Converting phone enquiries may seem a narrow focus for a half-day seminar, but to Cooper it makes obvious sense that the number one priority for any legal firm when it comes to business development is to look at existing enquiries and opportunities and identify what more can be done to convert them into profitable business.

“Most firms start at the wrong end”, he sums up. “They will ask, what activities can we do that will generate new business, new enquiries. But if you don’t convert enough of them into business, at the right price, you are just squandering opportunities – you have lots of goalscoring chances but there’s nobody to stick them in the back of the net.”


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