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How Is Finding an Air Conditioning Installation Company Like a Hiring a Lawyer? 

            My husband and I are currently attempting to get estimates for installing central air conditioning into our older home in Baltimore City and also replacing our heating system at the same time.  We started doing our research which included going to the internet, asking for referrals from friends and a neighborhood email group as well as going to home and garden shows to get names and set up appointments.  We knew that the cost would not be cheap but were prepared to do it.  We had some understanding of what needed to be done but certainly did not know any of the details. 
Who knew that just getting estimates would be such a Herculean task?  As my husband and I have attempted to get estimates to make a reasoned decision, I became appalled at the disregard for what I considered to be common sense issues if you are attempting to get people to choose your business.  I can't even imagine using some of these companies (even if they could do good work at a fair price) because they were so inefficient just giving estimates. 
As we are now 6 weeks into just the estimate process, I started to think about how solos and small firm practitioners get clients and why clients would choose one practitioner over another - all things being equal. 
Here are some tips that I think solos and small firm practitioners can use to make certain you make a positive impression on potential clients and that you can turn a prospect into a client. 

            First you must develop a written policy/system for how to handle potential new clients whether they come from a referral source, referral service, a yellow page ad or just a cold call to your office.  This policy/system will differ from firm to firm depending on your staffing and practice area but there should be some systemized way to take information and make certain that you get back to the potential client within 24-48 hours.
The procedures for handling inquiries can vary depending upon how the prospective client came to you.  You may handle a referral from a respected source differently than a cold call from a newspaper ad.  The important thing is to make certain that you have a procedure in place and then follow that procedure. 

            Some suggestions include:
1.  For phone calls, you may have a form that includes all the information that you may need to make a determination whether or not you want to take time to see the potential client. 
You may have a receptionist or other staff person take this information over the phone, let the person who is calling know that the information will be given to you and that you will call back to make an appointment.
If you determine from the information that was gathered that this is NOT a case you would like to take, PLEASE have the decency to contact the person to inform his/her that you will not be taking the case.  There are good reasons for treating potential clients with this respect.  You should be telling them that you are not their attorney especially if there are statue of limitation issues.  Although this may not be a case you want (or can) handle, there may be future cases or he/she may know others who will need legal services.  It is more likely that this potential client will have negative remarks if you do not give him/her the courtesy of a reply than if you say that you cannot take the case.  The world is competitive enough without having people out there making statements about you simply because of the way they were treated. 
People care as much and maybe even more about being treated well and with respect than they do about the outcome.  It costs so little to treat everyone well and the benefits can be enormous.
If you or someone from your office is going to take information over the phone to determine if you want to take the case, make certain that you familiarize yourself with that information before meeting with the client.
My husband I spent considerable amounts of time either on the phone or in person at the home shows explaining about our house, our current heating system and what our goals for the house were.  Yet, it appeared that none of that information had been shared with the person who actually came to the house to give an estimate had ever seen that information.      At one point, I asked whether or not they were being managed well enough to do the work. 
If it appears as though the "management" of your firm is not being handled properly, this does not create a feeling of competence.  A prospective client may think that if you cannot even prepare for a simple interview, you might not be able to prepare for his/her case.  Remember, everything you do reflects either positively or negatively upon your perceived ability to handle the work this client may be bringing to you. 
2.  Be respectful of a person's time.  If you make an appointment for a specific time, be available at that time or call to explain and give the person the opportunity to reschedule.  If the meeting is at your office, make certain you do not keep the person waiting for more than a few minutes.  If it is going to be longer because of an emergency, go to the reception area to personally explain and apologize.
My husband and I scheduled all of our appointments for 8:30 AM which meant we had to take time from work.  Not one of the representatives came on time.  Not one.  Only one called to say he was running late because he was lost.  Considering they had our address for at least a week, they should have checked with Mapquest sooner. 
In addition, if you indicate that you need to get back to a potential client with a proposal, retainer agreement or other information, make sure you do it within a few days. 
It is a bad sign if you cannot get something to a potential client on time.  It will make the client think that your work will not be timely.
3.  Political correctness is a good thing when talking with perspective clients.  When attempting to get a new client, stick to legal issues or discussions/comments that are completely benign. 
When someone returned my call to set up an appointment to give us an estimate, I gave him a time I would be available and he asked if my husband was going to be there.  I asked if that was necessary and he said no, but he found that men understood these things better.  What do you think the likelihood is that I actually made an appointment with this company?  If you guessed "no likelihood", you would be correct. 
4.  It is important to explain the "process" as clearly as possible to the potential client.  I know there is a world of difference between installing an air conditioning system and performing legal work.  I also know that in many circumstances, you are not able to tell a client exactly what will happen with a particular matter.  However, it is possible to explain the legal process so that a client will have some idea of what to expect.  Most people who hire attorneys do not understand the legal system or process at all.  It is your job to help them understand in addition to performing the legal work.  This effort will go a long way in avoiding problems later.

Always remember that people are more likely to pass along negative reactions than positive reactions.  Even if you do not get the client or choose not to take a client at this time, leave the person with a positive feeling about the way you handled the process.  You never know what the person will say to others that could affect potential clients in the future.

            I was so insulted by the way we were treated by one of the companies that was scheduled to come give us an estimate, I sent a message to a number of neighborhood Email Lists and other lists simply relating the negative experience.  Don't have this happen to you because you were not professional and courteous to potential clients.  Remember, it all counts. 



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