Not all talk is cheap...

Apr 01, 2020
John Kennedy explains how to turn a casual chat into a steady flow of high-quality clients.

A common problem that limits the success of many practices is also one of the most damaging, but happily, it is also one of the easiest to fix. In this article, I will show you how to turn an informal chat into a positive client relationship.

When you master this structure, you will be able to manage any conversation so your potential clients will understand how they will benefit from working with you.

The self-defeating spiral

A typical self-defeating spiral causes significant damage, and it goes something like this:
  • I don’t feel comfortable talking about myself.
  • When I meet potential clients, I often don’t know what to say.
  • I wish I had more clients and more high-quality clients with whom I like to work.
  • I don’t feel successful, so I lack confidence when I talk to potential clients about my practice.
For many years, I have focused on identifying what sets high achievers apart. There is overwhelming evidence that the ability to shape and structure a casual conversation is perhaps the single most crucial skill. This skill is not a result of natural talent, charisma or charm – it is a strength that is practised and learned.

Successful client conversations

It may seem obvious, but a fruitful conversation involves two people taking turns at listening and talking. Yet time and time again, when the pressure of wanting to make a good impression takes over, we make the same mistake. And, odds are, this has happened to you. 

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that your task is to list the many reasons why the other party should become your client. You say more and more about what you think you should tell them until you reach the point – and this can sometimes come frustratingly early – where you run out of things to say or, worse, you keep talking without feeling in control of the conversation as an unwelcome unease inside you begins to grow.

Mastering this skill is easier than you think. A fruitful conversation is about listening and talking. You need to understand how to do both effectively and appreciate how each fits together. So, here is the structure of a successful client chat.

1. Prepare

The first stage of the conversation takes place when you are on your own. There is no talking or listening, just thinking things through and creating an approach that works.
To master the skill of turning casual chats into client contracts, you need to structure your thoughts. You need to understand how best to probe the value your potential client is seeking, the best way to present the value you can offer, and how to propose the next step in what will lead to a long-term, mutually rewarding relationship.

2. Probe

The conversation begins here. This stage mostly involves listening and knowing how to guide the other party so that they talk about issues that move the discussion into ‘productive’ territory.

Your main task is to keep the conversation casual, interesting to your client, and moving towards an understanding of the value they can achieve by working with you. You do this by asking high-quality questions.

As you chat, gently guide the other party through a series of casual questions in a way that helps them clarify their thinking and reach a more valuable understanding of the outcome that is most important to them. The ability to do this effectively is a skill that takes time and practice. However, three fundamental questions form the bedrock of 
every successful client conversation:
  • What will success look like?
  • How will you know if we have achieved the success you seek?
  • What is most important to you about achieving that success?
You probe your potential client’s thinking by asking these – and related – questions to help them think in a more structured way about their goals. Most clients are unclear as to what they want to achieve, so helping them identify their priorities will encourage them to talk with you more. You don’t do this by telling them how clever you are or by providing all the answers. The real skill and value lie in allowing potential clients to experience your proficiency by helping them structure and organise their thinking.

When you master the skill of eliciting the most precise answers possible to these three fundamental questions, you will set yourself apart. By taking this approach, potential clients will experience the value of your expertise, and you will demonstrate that you are focused on helping them define, and then achieve, the success they seek. 
These are the firmest possible foundations for a high-value client relationship.

3. Present

Only now do you begin to talk more than you listen, and you keep asking questions to maintain focus on the critical issues. In this phase, your task is to help the client see how they will benefit from working with you. You may be inclined to talk about what you will do, but technical considerations are not very motivating for potential clients. Your critical task is to increase their motivation to the point where they decide to work with you.

You do this by giving examples, by telling stories of how you helped others facing similar issues, and by focusing on how things will improve. This evidence is already captured in your value menu, where you prepared a store of material that will help your client feel they are in good hands. The stronger they feel about the specific value they will achieve by working with you, the more you will stand out as someone they can trust.

4. Propose

In this step, you move the relationship from talk to action. By probing how the other person currently sees things, and how they would like things to be in the future, you are helping them untangle the issues and identify the outcomes about which they feel most strongly. These are the foundations of a strong, trusting relationship.

At this point, you may suggest talking further – but before then, you will send a brief note indicating how you can help achieve the success they seek (this is very different to the standard ‘letter of engagement’). The purpose of the note is to confirm that you have fully understood the outcomes your client desires. 

A succinct note about the value they will receive will move you from a casual, theoretical chat to a highly practical and highly focused discussion on the specific reasons you should both work together.

Like a road journey at night

This is likely to be very different to the path you have followed up to now. The traditional, and often ineffective, model tells you that you should outline your expertise at every opportunity; that you should see every conversation as a sales opportunity and sell from the outset. Sometimes this sales “advice” is even more aggressive with outdated jargon that speaks of “closing the deal” or trapping the potential client in the “killing zone”. This is hardly a basis on which to build a high-quality practice with the right clients and high-trust relationships.

Instead, the Practice Builder approach outlines the specific steps you should take to help a potential client identify and access the value that is truly important to them. And through a well-structured conversation, you let them experience how you are an essential element in arriving at the outcome they want. It’s like taking a road journey at night. Through your questioning, you help your client identify the destination at which they wish to arrive. You then map out the route and together, you can set off on your conversational journey. You use your questions like headlights, to light up the landmarks and road signs for the next stage of the journey.

The critical thing to remember is that you are in the driving seat, choosing the route, and setting the speed – but your client gets to adjust anything that makes the journey comfortable for them, such as opening the window or choosing the music. In this way, the conversation remains a comfortable and stress-free casual chat, but with a clear set of directions, milestones and a destination that you both reach by working together.
This approach is fundamentally about helping your client arrive at the success they most value. When you stand out as a master at this, your client will want you on every journey. And they will want to tell all of their friends about you.

This is a firm foundation on which to build a successful practice.
John Kennedy is an experienced strategic advisor who has worked with senior management teams in a range of organisations and sectors.