Relationships 3.0: The “Idea Relationship” era

In Relationships 3.0: The “Idea Relationship” Era Mike O’Horo argues the “sales funnel” has been replaced by the “buyer journey,” a conversation that is increasingly on the buyer’s terms.

Despite widespread recognition that the legal service business is undergoing the greatest change in its history, one that requires lawyers and those who support them to rethink every aspect of strategy, operations, finance, and roles, the industry still clings to an outdated definition of relationships that does not map to today’s reality.

Different times and circumstances, as they say, call for different skills and approaches. This includes our worldview of relationships. It’s time for us to invest in “idea relationships” and rethink our personal and professional ones.

In a digital age in which information flows freely and everyone expects answers at the touch of a screen, “Idea Relationships” succeed because your relevance is initially determined by what you know, not who you know. Here’s how it works.

Relationship 1.0: Personal friendships first, then business: “proximity and social intimacy”

Until the huge wave of business consolidation in the mid-1990s, decision-making was much more local. Lawyers got business through what I’ll call “fortuitous proximity.”

Because law partners and their clients were members of the same socio-economic set, they played golf at the same clubs, supported the same civic initiatives, lived in the same neighborhoods, and generally enjoyed easy, frequent proximity. If you spend enough time with people, it’s almost certain that you’ll enjoy a natural “presence,” and be in contact with them when the need for your service arises.

I call this “social intimacy,” i.e., the growing inclination, over time, for someone to become comfortable sharing personal details with you. Proximity facilitated frequent, relaxed contact, which facilitated trust, and made it natural to do business with one’s friends.

Since only a small percentage lawyers were aggressively pursuing business, buyers weren’t inundated with approaches and pitches. It was more genteel, almost an informal keiretsu. This informal network was often centered on a locally-owned-and-managed bank, and linked by social connections in which everyone tacitly agreed to do business with each other.

Business relationships grew from personal friendships, which were a prerequisite.

Relationship 2.0: Business connection first, then (maybe) friendship: “professional intimacy”

The advent of the Internet in the mid-’90s coincided with an inexorable move toward globalization and consolidation — usually accompanied by a loss of local decision-making authority. One’s social friends were no longer in control of who did their company’s legal work. Increasingly, those decisions were made by strangers in distant cities, with whom there was little or no opportunity for social interaction. How were potential clients to learn about you?

Local influencers couldn’t simply tell their corporate bosses, “Hire my friend,” so lawyers now had to make a business case for keeping or getting work, which meant they had to understand the company’s business to understand its decision criteria and priorities. Here’s a comparison:

Industry focus

Relationship 2.0 required lawyers to be interested in and become informed about different things, and to ask different questions of their clients and prospects. Whereas Relationship 1.0 meant learning about someone’s hobbies, interests, family situation and personal aspirations, Relationship 2.0 required them to understand the client’s or prospect’s industry, and use that to generate a different form of trust by asking questions to learn the company-specific flavor of industry issues and challenges, and their strategic-, operational-, financial-, and career impacts.

In Relationship 1.0, lawyers established relevance to prospects’ personal lives. In 2.0, they demonstrated relevance to their professional lives. This was healthy evolution, but it still suffered from a very serious limitation: Whether personal or professional, it takes time to progress from surface topics, questions, and answers to something truly significant.

On the personal side, during your first lunch nobody is going to tell you that their spouse is cheating on them. Nor will they tell you on the professional side that there are serious questions about the company’s right to use a key technology in their next product. It takes many traditional relationship-building encounters (lunches, dinners, golf outings, and sporting event attendance) to progress to that level of intimacy. You might be surprised to learn just how much overhead traditional relationship-building demands.

The problem now is that buyers have far less time to spend with you. Everyone’s responsibilities have been expanded; they have to do more with less. Lunch with a friend is a luxury that too often gets cancelled, a victim of more pressing matters. Playing golf, or attending a sporting event or cultural event? After a long day, people are less inclined to grant you that much time at night, and almost never during the business day.

What about strangers?

We’ve described the challenges facing lawyers’ existing relationships, where the other party’s willingness can reasonably be presumed. What about strangers? Why would they make time to meet with you, or even speak with you by phone? And why would they do that often enough for you to earn professional intimacy? And for them to devote time to learn about your firm or your experience, or listen to your pitch to get some of their legal work? That’s a poor bet. The inherent inefficiency of the relationship-first approach is its downfall now.

To connect with today’s connected B2B buyer, you must establish and reinforce your relevance by publishing deep and wide about the problems your prospect faces.

Joel York, The New Breed of B2B Buyer

Relationship 3.0: Relevance first: An “Idea Relationship”

Buyers no longer have dozens of hours to meet with the number of sellers they used to have to consult with to get, and remain, informed about whatever they’re considering buying, or to define their solution options, and the Internet makes it unnecessary. Now, they search online to find the information they need, and they subscribe to various online feeds to receive continuous information in small bites from sources they’ve found to be relevant and informative.

Pre-millennium sellers were the gatekeepers of information, and buyers had to consult with them. As a result, sellers were in position to guide buyers through the traditional sales funnel via a series of meetings and phone calls, with the seller in the center of things, and often driving the process forward as buyers progressed downward in a narrowing sales funnel from Contact, to Suspect, to Prospect, to Opportunity, to Client.

The buyer journey

Today, “the sales funnel” has been replaced by “the buyer journey,” a conversation that, increasingly, is on the buyer’s terms.

Busy buyers can learn most of what they want to know online. Various studies estimate that B2B buyers progress through 60–70% of their journey independently, online, before they’re willing to consult with a salesperson.

This conversation and journey is taking place online, and you’ve got to be part of it. Buyers may never get to know you or have a personal relationship with you. However, you can arrange for them to form an “ idea relationship” with you. Here’s an example from my own experience.

A concrete example

In 1994, I began publishing my weekly ResultsMail business development tips for lawyers. My purpose wasn’t marketing and sales, but to remind lawyers to use the unlimited telephone coaching their firms had purchased for them. They began forwarding the tips to others and, as the Internet emerged, I syndicated the published tips in various online channels. In the years since, I can’t count the number of coaching inquiries I’ve gotten from firms who, when asked how they learned about me, answered, “Oh, I’ve been reading ResultsMail for a few years now.”

So, while I was working on other things, or exercising, or playing, or sleeping, they were forming opinions about my business development ideas. Some decided that they agreed with me. Over time, as they progressed through their journey of getting ready to deal with the challenge of getting more of their lawyers to generate business, some concluded that it might make sense to discuss this with me. They didn’t know me, but they knew how I thought about business development challenges that they had concluded it was now time to get some help with.

We didn’t start with a personal relationship; we started with an idea relationship.

Publish deep, wide, and often

Borrowing liberally from Joel York’s The New Breed of B2B Buyer, to connect with today’s connected B2B buyer, you must establish and reinforce your relevance by publishing deep and wide about the problems your prospect faces. Your content must be available whenever and wherever your prospect goes online. That means create every form of content from short tweets, comments to others’ posts, to detailed white papers and videos. Then, redistribute that content across a wide array of online channels: websites, social networks, blogs, opt-in forums such as JD Supra and LinkedIn groups, websites, media sharing sites, etc.

Strive consistently to produce content that earns you idea relationships with strangers whose circumstances obligate them to care about the problems your ideas address, thus positioning yourself for direct contact at that 70% inflection point in their journey when they’re receptive to it.

Once they become your client, they and you can each choose whether or not to invest in extending your business relationship to a personal friendship.


RainmakerTVMike O'HoroMike O’Horo is a co-founder of RainmakerVT, a service through which lawyers learn by doing in a virtual world.

Mike may be contacted by email at and follow him on Twitter: @rainmakervt.

Relationships 3.0: The “Idea Relationship” Era was first published by Mike O’Horo on Medium on August 25, 2018.

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