The Most Important Question Service Professionals Aren’t Asking

A while back, I met with a potential client who was injured in a car crash.  He had been minding his own business and was on his way to work when someone ran into his car at a high rate of speed.  Everything about his case was one that we would be interested in: clear liability, significant injuries, terrible photos of the vehicles, and plenty of insurance coverage.  The meeting came to a grinding halt, however, when I asked him the most important question that I ask of any client:

What can I do for you?

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The most powerful question is the one that gets clients to stop and think about their motives for calling you in the first place.

Service professionals (attorneys, accountants, doctors) owe a duty to our clients from the very beginning to make sure that our goals are aligned with theirs.  If we can’t meet those goals (and can’t quickly change the client’s mind about what their goals ought to be), we should be declining to get involved.

In this case, the potential client wanted to go after a local law enforcement agency for a car chase gone bad.  From everything he had to say, I agreed with him.  The police force involved had ignored several safety rules that ultimately led to a car smashing into this man.  But police cases carry all sorts of special rules about immunity, gross negligence, and whether the police or the “bad guy” was the ultimate cause of the crash.  And anyway, because the value of personal injury cases is based on the injuries to the client and not on the conduct of the negligent party (in the vast, vast majority of cases), having the police officer as a defendant didn’t add one dollar of value to the case.  In fact, I told him, I could make a strong argument in favor of his case being worth less to a jury with the police officer as a defendant than it was with the guy he was chasing as a defendant.

Still, his primary goal was to hold the police officer accountable.  A noble cause, to be sure.  But my primary goal is to get my client’s as much money as possible in as little time as possible.  I viewed the route against the police officer as more costly, more time consuming, and ultimately less fruitful.  I was unable to convince him otherwise and we parted ways amicably.

The number one thing that I make sure to ask every potential client during the initial phone call, after they’ve told me the story of their case is,

“OK.  And what can I do for you?”

Frankly, most people are a little bit taken aback by this.  I can hear them silently thinking “You’re a lawyer.  I’ve been in a car crash.  You can help me.”

But the truth of the matter is that not everyone who has been in a car crash needs my help.  And there are many people who have been in a car crash who I don’t want to help.

I use that question – What can I do for you?  As a screening tool to make sure that the crazy people (“My case is worth $100,000 because my neighbor got $50,000 and he wasn’t even hurt.”) and to at least get the sane people to start thinking about the ultimate goal in their case.

In my experience, too many service professionals think that they know what the client’s goals should be without even asking them.  Here, I am thinking of those salesmen in the financial services industry with the one-size-fits-all sales pitch or the doctor who has learned a new modality that he believes is as a fix-all.

Hell, we’ve gone to school for 4, 7, or 10 years.  We know way more than these people, right?

Maybe.  But the time that you spend convincing them that you are correct is wasted energy.  Better to spend that time on cases and clients who you like, who like you, and who’s goals were aligned with yours from the start.

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