The New Normal

Our Curious Attitude Toward ‘Selling’

Posted Jun 14, 2012 2:51 PM CDT
By Paul Lippe

I read with interest the comments on my confrere Pat Lamb’s recent post “Lawyers Are Not Special”.

What struck me in particular was a deep aversion among many commenters to “selling.” I’m not sure where that aversion comes from, but seems to be rooted in a Death of a Salesman-esque view of sales as fundamentally manipulative, obsequious and deceitful, where somehow the salespeople win the business but lose their dignity, and the customer (or client) is tricked into buying something they don’t really want.

Having spent most of my career in the business-to-business commercial world, this view of sales bears no resemblance to what I’ve seen. In an environment where customers (clients) are sophisticated, salespeople can’t win anything for themselves unless they can deliver a win for the customer. The best summary of what professional sales looks like comes from a recent book I would emphatically endorse for all lawyers, called The Challenger Sale (full disclosure: the authors are affiliated with a company that has invested in Legal OnRamp).

Building on organizational behavior and economic learning from the last 20 years and some specific research by them, The Challenger Sale folks view the world of selling thusly:

• Organizations are generally decision-averse and have many cognitive biases (see e.g. Daniel Kahneman’s research) and will default to no-decision or a consensus, not especially helpful decision. This is especially true since the financial meltdown, where economic uncertainty, job risk and product complexity make organizations even more decision-averse.

• The job of the salesperson is to overcome that inertia by (a) teaching the customer about a business opportunity (enabled by the salesperson’s product or service, of course) that they didn’t know about and (b) coordinating the decision-makers and influencers in the organization to support and implement the decision.

• There are five sales profiles–relationship builders, lone wolves, problem-solvers, hard workers and challengers–but only challengers consistently out-perform the others in today’s complex and conflicted markets, because they teach the customer something they didn’t already know (which must ab initio be true) and enable them to achieve an otherwise difficult-to-achieve result.

This sounds to me like a pretty worthy description of a sales role. It’s also one that is quite similar to what the most effective lawyers do, whether they are persuading clients to take actions in their long-term interest, or persuading the client that the particular lawyer is the best one to help them.

At the root of the challenger approach is the requirement that the salesperson understand four things:

• What the customer needs;

• What the customer’s alternatives are;

• What the customer’s constraints are in getting to their needs; and

• How the salesperson’s product is best suited to help that customer address their needs.

This is all very much a “skating to where the puck is going to be” approach, neither “selling used cars” nor simply reacting, toady-like, to customer demands. What I read Pat as saying is that a lot of lawyers miss the first three of these bullets, and so think they’re “special” because they believe they should have commercial success based on good service alone. What’s always been striking to me is how much the law school (and law firm) model makes three huge assumptions (i.e., fallacies) that I’ve never found to be true:

• First, legal reasoning without understanding the client’s context will be persuasive (call it the Legal Reasoning Fallacy);

• Second, if a lawyer can persuade the leader of an organization than an action makes sense, that the leader can/will simply cause the organization overall to take that action (call it the Fallacy of the Unitary Organization); and

• Finally, that the alternative to a particular lawyer is no lawyer and legal catastrophe, as opposed to another lawyer who may be more effective and a range of possible outcomes, some of which might be better than the first lawyer (call it the Fallacy of the Unitary Lawyer).

All the people who have created successful law firms have been skilled at “sales,” and all the people who win trials, succeed at deal-making or persuade clients to do smart things are good at sales. So it may be time for us to update our mental models. It’s too bad we don’t have a find-and-replace feature in our brain, the way we do on Microsoft Word; but if we did, maybe we could find “sales = manipulation” and replace it with “sales = persuading the client both to do the right thing and that I and my firm are the best people to help them accomplish that.”


Paul Lippe is the CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering.

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