I was conducting a workshop at a law firm on how to build good client relationships. I do this workshop for the firm every year as part of their New Lawyer Training program. This is one of the larger firms in the area, and they hire about sixty new attorneys every year. The workshop content is pretty much the same from year to year, but this year, a few days before the workshop, Barry, the director of training and development, called and said, “We need you to dumb things down this year.” This is not a request I get very often, so I was all ears. When I asked what the issue was, he said, “You normally teach more advanced communication skills, but the new lawyers coming out of law schools don’t have the basic skills needed to interact in a professional environment. You see, Stevie, law firms don’t really compete with each other based on our knowledge of the law. You either know the law, or you don’t. You either win cases, or you don’t. We really compete based on how our clients feel about us. If clients feel good about the firm, we keep the client. Our firm isn’t located in one of the big three markets, but we routinely steal clients away from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This isn’t easy to do because some clients have the impression that any firm outside those areas is, at the least, unsophisticated, and at the most, incompetent.”
He continued, “When the senior members of the firm are out of the office, either gaining new business or litigating cases, the junior associates are left behind to mind the store. Every now and then, a client might be flying through town and want to visit the office of their firm of record. When they show up for a surprise visit, we have to trust that junior staff members will be the face of the firm. If our staff doesn’t look and act sharp, the client will think, ‘I guess these guys really are the hayseeds I thought they were.’ Then they take their business back to Chicago, New York, or L.A.” When I asked him about how the associates handled such challenges, Barry was blunt. “They do a horse-s*** job! They don’t know how to greet a client professionally. They don’t understand the subtleties of conversation. They don’t even know how to dress for the office. The men dress like they are going to change the oil in their car, and the women dress like they should be dancing around a pole. If our clients see this, we don’t just look bad, we lose the client; billable hours literally walk out the door.” I asked Barry why the firm didn’t simply discuss proper attire during the hiring process, but I knew the question was a waste of time. If people don’t have a clear understanding of why they are being asked to dress, or act, a certain way, regulations are worthless. Barry said they needed a workshop that would give the new staff a deep understanding of why etiquette was important.
So, I designed a workshop with Gary, a colleague of mine. We gave the new lawyers a challenge. We had the group split into tables of 6-8 people; and each person had a note pad and pen. We told them that Gary and I were going to act out a typical interaction between client and professional. Gary would play the client, and I would play an attorney. We would carry on a pleasant conversation, but I would commit certain social/professional faux pas during our brief interaction. Gary and I determined the gaffs ahead of time. At the end of the interaction, each attorney would write down every mistake they saw me commit; then the table would compare notes. The table that caught the most faux pas would win. (If you want to get lawyers’ attention, add competition to the game.)
Gary and I acted out a typical professional interaction, and I committed a range of faux pas¾not standing when he approached my table, stretching out my legs so you could see bare skin where my socks had slipped down, calling loudly to a server across the room, ordering a drink for myself without first offering something to my client¾all while Gary rolled his eyes. I ended our interaction by saying that “someone from our office will be in touch soon,” without agreeing to a firm date or time.
When we finished, we had the group compare notes to see which table caught the most mistakes. One table noticed nine faux pas, another caught thirteen, and so on. When we got to the table where the managing partner of the firm sat, he caught thirty-two faux pas. As he read the long list of mistakes, Gary and I looked at each other. We had only planned twenty four mistakes. Apparently, the manager partner should have taught the workshop. We asked him if we could have his list before we left.
The interesting outcome was, even though the younger attorneys thought it was okay for them to wear clothing to the office that was better suited for a nightclub, when they saw the faux pas I committed, they had a negative feeling about me. They reported that they thought I was not as competent, and wouldn’t want to do business with me. Barry was right; we could have lectured all day about the importance of professional conduct, but the lesson wouldn’t stick until they saw a firsthand example. One woman even admitted to the group that she had never been taught how to give a proper handshake. As shocking as that was for some older staff members, other younger attorneys echoed her sentiment. Hers was a reminder that people only know what they are taught, and if business etiquette isn’t taught at home, where will people learn? I was taught by my father how to “shake a man’s hand” (this was at a time when it was considered impolite to extend your hand to a lady, unless invited to do so), but it appears that such training will be increasingly left to employers; at least the ones who want to keep clients.
Technical skills are important, but if the person delivering those skills comes across as a lout, you risk losing business to other companies that put on a more professional face.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.