In my first column for the CMCP newsletter at the end of 2010, I wrote about my two rules of business development. The first is: it’s all about the client. The second is: it’s a face to face activity. This second rule often meets resistance from my lawyer coaching clients. When your life revolves around the billable hour and your work often requires that you spend long periods of time at your desk, it can be challenging to recognize the value of time-consuming face to face meetings.
You may recall from that column that the human brain is wired to connect with other human beings. When we talk to another person face to face, that interaction creates neural pathways in our brains. The more often we meet, the more pathways we create. Over time, these pathways make us feel connected, and our brains literally light up when we get together. No amount of texting, emailing or online chatting can create the powerful connections that occur when we share ideas in person.
You might assume that the technology companies who have given us these productivity tools would prefer digital communication among their own employees, but it turns out that they have recognized the value of face to face interactions – what I like to think of as true social networking.
In a recent article in The New York Times, author Greg Lindsay wrote about “Engineering Serendipity.” Companies like Yahoo and Google have always realized the importance of creative individuals, but they now know that great ideas are more likely to come from the random discussions that happen in hallways, at coffee machines, and at company cafes. That is one important reason why Yahoo wants its employees to work on-site. Even a strong performer may not develop an idea to its fullest extent while working at home because he or she is missing the spontaneous conversations that could lead to connections with other areas of the company. Google is aware that if it hadn’t been for lunchtime conversations among engineers in different areas of the company, Gmail, Google News and Street View might not exist today. Google has even designed its new campus to capitalize on these accidental meetings between employees, or what they call “casual collisions of the work force.”
According to the Times article, “Almost 40 years ago, Thomas J. Allen, a professor of management and engineering at M.I.T., found that colleagues who are out of sight are frequently out of mind – we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away from us as we are with someone 60 feet away, and almost never with colleagues in separate buildings or floors.” By their very design, law firms encourage solo efforts rather than facilitate the face to face meetings that foster collaboration and teamwork. If you aren’t in the habit of having face to face meetings with your colleagues, it will be even more challenging to schedule your business development meetings. These include client retention efforts, which should always be an important part of your marketing plan.
As you consider what your business development “next steps” should be, plan more frequent face to face meetings with your clients. Discuss business issues that are not related to the work you’re currently doing for them. Ask them how their companies are generating conversations about new products and services. Their ideas about creativity and innovation might inspire you to change the way you work with colleagues in your own practice group. And if you haven’t spent a lot of time getting to know those colleagues, I’ll suggest that you deliberately plan to cross paths with them. Those conversations can generate ideas and connections that aren’t possible any other way.