The First Time is the Most Important Time


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When you do important things, it’s easy to think that everything is equally important. But to our prospective clients–the lifeblood of many practices–some things are more important than others.

I’ve been a prospective client more than once. Let me tell you the story of one recent near-engagement.

We emailed back and forth and I scheduled an appointment. On the designated day, at the designated time, I made my way into the building. I already knew she was on the seventh floor. I entered the elevator, pressed the button, and quickly arrived on her level.

I stepped out of the elevator, looked around, and saw a sign indicating her suite number. The hallway was empty; down near the end I spotted her name on the door. I turned the knob and entered a small waiting room, with two comfortable chairs and a loveseat arranged around a coffee table. Facing the entrance was a reception area with an unoccupied desk just in front of an unmarked door.

I wondered if I should go through the unmarked door or just sit down and wait. I decided to sit. I waited quietly. Nothing happened.

So much wasted trust

I was already anxious, or I wouldn’t have made the appointment. I don’t go see a professional until I have a problem I can’t solve on my own. Most of us are only coming to your office because things have blown up, and are (at least in our vivid imaginations) out of control.

My brain was spinning faster and faster. I was sitting alone in an empty room. There was no one to tell me what to do. I wasn’t sure if I should keep waiting, knock on the back door, or announce my presence by shouting.

I kept waiting.

Maybe it was three minutes, maybe it was ten minutes; I really don’t know.

Finally, she came out from behind the closed door. She apologized that the receptionist hadn’t greeted me. She explained that I’d been left alone because she was on a conference call that had gone long, and her assistant had been called away for a family emergency.

I was fine with her story, but I had been shaken. It doesn’t take much when we’re in a vulnerable state. Everything is amplified. We can’t help over-thinking things. Our senses are heightened. Good things look even better, and bad things look even worse.

She followed up by asking me for money

I’d been thrown off by my perception of the greeting snafu. We were now running a trust deficit.

I told my story of woe. She listened attentively.

Then she gave me her pitch. Naturally, it involved her doing this and that, and me paying lots of money for her effort. I get it. We all get it. That’s the way the game is played.

I was ready to pay when I walked into the office building. Now I wasn’t so sure. I need to feel trust first in order to feel ready to pay. At that moment I didn’t know why I wasn’t feeling right; I just knew I wasn’t feeling right.

I ended the meeting with a ‘let me think about it,’ which in polite society means ‘you blew it already and I’m going to hit the reset button on this situation.’

I got in the elevator, pushed the button for the lobby, and felt relieved as I walked back out into the sunshine.

We all get it but that doesn’t fix it

Look, if a customer vomits in your restaurant, you’d better clean it up as fast as physically possible. There’s zero chance you’re selling another sushi platter until the sight, sound, and smell of the vomit are gone.

When the vomit starts to flow, you get moving, right?

If there’s a giant pile of dog shit in the hallway leading to your office, you fix that problem post-haste. You don’t wait for the conference call to end, or for the assistant to come in tomorrow.

When a prospective client shows up at your office, that needs to be a focus moment–it’s the sushi coming back up or the dog shitting on the carpet–it requires instant attention and concern, and must become the highest priority.

Everyone understands that the receptionist might have a family emergency, or your conference call might run long, or the sushi customer might have already had a stomach bug, or the dog may have lost it, but that doesn’t fix the problem. Trust is fragile. It’s easily broken.

Maybe the long-time sushi customer will come back to the restaurant again. But the first-timer, walking through the door, witnessing the eruption, won’t be back.

It’s showtime

We spend incredible energy attracting clients to our doors. We invest time and money in our education so we’ve got the requisite expertise. We turn that knowledge into a marketable service and we spread the word. We build websites, buy technology, hire staff, create systems, and spend countless hours doing the necessary work to get our business flywheel spinning.

We push hard to get positive reviews from our clients, building word of mouth marketing. We advertise, write, speak, make random comments on social media, and more.

When the phone rings our hearts are lifted. We’re excited to see it all working.

Our calendar reveals a potential client coming in, and we know we’re about to turn our hard work into money for ourselves and our families.

And then a dog shits in the hallway.

At that moment, it’s essential for the director to scream ‘cut,’ so we can all jump into action, clean up the hall, and get back to normal as fast as physically possible. We don’t have time to just wait, because the prospective client is already in the elevator heading up. It’s showtime and things have to be done right. Trust is on the line. It really is a make-or-break moment.

Be hyper-vigilant and expect disaster to strike

Trust is ephemeral. It’s hard to build and easy to damage–it’s the pixie dust of selling legal services.

You must be ready for emergencies. They’re to be expected. Things happen.

Doing the work is important too, and it’s tempting to let the work of the moment become the priority. Calls go long, deadlines create pressure, emergencies happen, clients keep calling, and on and on. But all things aren’t equally important to everyone. What’s most important to me is the most important thing–at least to me.

So when the dog shits in the hallway, things must STOP. When the customer vomits sushi in the middle of the restaurant, things must STOP.

When the prospective client walks into the office, things must STOP.

The trust you’ve worked so hard to build is on the line. This is the moment. Nothing else matters. The first time is the most important time.

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