Negotiating skills can help build client happiness

by Helen Hamilton-Shaw | November 22, 2016

Lawyers need to be comfortable talking to clients about costs, writes Helen Hamilton-Shaw

In a regular series, she reflects on the key findings of the mystery shopping undertaken as part of the network’s Mark of Excellence, an audited client care programme that’s backed by the network’s ISO 9001 standard.


Many lawyers see negotiating as part of their core skill set, a fundamental part of their day-to-day business; mediating and negotiating between their client and the opposing side, whether a former spouse, employee or supplier.

But when it comes to negotiating with a client – whether on costs or simply on what will make that client happy – there’s often a big skills gap, according to our research.

The challenges should be the same, as it’s about two or more parties, with differing views, coming together to try and reach agreement on an issue, using persuasive communication or bargaining to get an outcome. Yet it seems that once lawyers themselves become one of the parties, it’s often not so simple.

One measure we track through our national mystery shopping research is “did the team member confidently overcome the matter of cost?” The purpose is to identify any gaps in sales and negotiation skills at a crucial stage in the sales process, to see whether the lawyers concerned were able to sell the value proposition for their firm, and were comfortable in addressing a challenge on pricing without resorting to discounting.    

I’ve seen the outcome regularly flagged as an area for focus by firms. But the good news is that it’s an issue that responds well to targeted action, with firms showing significant improvements in performance once they are aware of a need.

So, why not undertake a health check on how your teams negotiate with clients and see how they shape up?

Start first with skills

Many lawyers imagining that sales involves being silver-tongued, pushy and heavily persuasive. But applying pressure is not what’s needed; it’s about understanding your customer, demonstrating the benefits of the solution you are offering and how it will satisfy their needs - just like any form of negotiation….

It’s crucial that everyone fully understands the firm’s values and USP’s; and is able to articulate them confidently. Everyone also needs to demonstrate effective listening skills, empathy, tact and patience, backed up by assertiveness.   

Then, conversations can be focused on how your firm will deliver value and satisfy service expectations, rather than adopting a take-it-or-leave-it response to fees or slipping into a discounting position.

Secondly, take a look at operational issues. Are there clearly defined key stages, so staff know when they should negotiate and make agreement, before moving on? 

For example, staff should actively agree both strategy and cost estimates with clients before work begins, so that questions can be answered and issues resolved before they become a problem.

Similarly, if anything affects the original estimate as work progresses, say so swiftly, give the reason why and get agreement. Then, before sending the final bill, confirm with the client that the outcome matches with the agreed strategy and confirm how final costs match up with estimates.  If anything hasn't been possible, set out why.  This approach will generate a stronger 'emotional buy-in' from the client in readiness for the bill they are about to receive.  It may seem counter-intuitive to be using ‘selling’ skills at the end of the matter, but the happiness of that client is what will drive future work, through referrals and repeat business.

And finally, are all members of the team focused on success with a win-win attitude.  It’s important to have an integrative approach, and trouble-shooting should always take place before anything becomes a problem. 


This article was originally published in Solicitors Journal on the 27th September 2016 and can be viewed here.