December is a busy month for most law firms. In addition to the holidays and hectic schedules, it is budget and collection season for most firms, and everyone at the firm is laser-focused on closing out the year. Tensions are high, hours are long and conversations can be uncomfortable. Lawyers are pressed daily to collect outstanding invoices, and the pressure to collect is on everyone’s mind.
But similar to business development, the skill to hold uncomfortable (or theoretically uncomfortable) conversations, particularly around money/collections, is not something taught in law school. From my experiences working with dozens of law firms, leadership simply expects everyone to make the calls and gives very little training or guidance on how to navigate the calls and perhaps even use them as opportunities to deepen relationships.
Clients understand that you need to collect outstanding invoices; they are in the same position with their clients and customers. However, lawyers are often so uncomfortable that they make their clients feel uncomfortable as well. Below are a few suggestions on how to make these calls more effective:
- Change your mind set about the call. Clients have to collect money from their customers and clients as well. Stop dreading the action and see it as an opportunity to connect and learn more about their goals and focus for 2018.
- Don’t throw your firm under the bus. You are an extension of the firm and a partner, leader, associate and/or important member. It is not viewed well to throw your accounting team or executive leadership under the bus and pretend they are asking you to call. Collections are important to every business. Be business minded and be comfortable with financial conversations.
- Ask how you can make the payment process easier for them. While a more opportune time to understand their preferences is at the beginning of an engagement, ask them what you can do to make payment and processing easier on their end.
- Use year-end bills to highlight all the non-billable and value-added work you have conducted for them. Use the collection call to ask how you can highlight that work more effectively in the future and help them look good to their boss and C-suite.
- Take this as an opportunity to learn best practices. Appreciate that your clients are getting calls from many clients, customers and vendors. Ask how others handle it well and make their lives easier with different processes.
- Do not underestimate the importance of executive assistants and paralegals. They are often the ones approving and pushing the bills. Friend them early and treat them well.
- Use the call as an opportunity to set benchmarks, budgets and expectations for 2018 budgeting and billing. What do they want to change? What needs to stay the same? How can you help them meet their 2018 budget goals?
I have heard far too many stories about inappropriate and uncomfortable collection calls. Take a moment to step back, sit in your clients’ shoes and think how you would want to be treated if you were on the receiving end. Make the call more about them and less about the money you need by year end, and everyone wins.