The power of charm only gets you so far, as Kevin Poulter discovers
On a recent trip up to Yorkshire, I listened in to a conversation in a café. Tuning in to my native accent, I watched and listened as an elderly lady, with blatant disregard for the reserved signs all over the table, sat down squarely, unpacked her belongings and started sipping her tea.
Despite having clearly established herself for the night, one of the staff came over, pointed out that the table had been reserved and asked her to move to another space. Harrumphing with evident displeasure, she collected together her things, balanced a pot of tea on top and wandered off in search of a new home.
A few minutes later, she returned from her circuit of the café and sat back down, in the same seat. Aware that she had raised a few eyebrows, she declared to the lady sat next to me that she had a trick up her sleeve. She had pointed out that no one was waiting for the table, appreciated the difficult situation the staff were in and that she would move once those reserving the table arrived. She called this tactic “charm and disarm”.
Without any obvious engagement with anyone, she went on to tell us how this tactic had worked on her way into the city, when she had no change for the bus (they don’t have Oyster cards up there yet). She started her conversation with the driver by apologising, flattering him with comments about his youthful appearance and offering, it seemed, herself in payment of the fare. She enjoyed a free ride.
The ability to charm is not something that is reserved for octogenarians. As lawyers, we must charm our clients and potential clients daily to enjoy regular, new and repeat work. Hopefully we rarely need to go to the extent of disarming them, but I am sure anyone who has successfully worked in a customer services role will know how to diffuse a potential conflict. Clients won’t always be happy. By anticipating their troubled calls and making the first move, you will generally be able to disarm, if charm remains a little way off.
To look after the clients we have, nowadays we have to do more than just provide a good service and sound advice. We have to charm. Client entertainment and hospitality has become as important a part of being a solicitor as collecting CPD points. But rather than us facing the possibility of losing our practising certificate if we fail to satisfy our commercial clients we run the risk of losing them and their business.
‘Value added’ is the term we use and we can be sure that other firms will be wooing our wealthy clients with similar tactics. For clients, it is more than just better the devil you know. It’s about relationships: personal and professional.
With this in mind, I was with clients at The Ivy recently. (The name drop is a necessary element to the story so please forgive me.) As with most client lunches, the conversation quickly moves past recent work and beyond superficial business chatter towards holidays, families and so on. Just after the main course I nipped to the loo. Having not been to the famous restaurant before, I was surprised to go down the stairs and just find myself in the middle of the bathroom. I was even more surprised to find a recognisable chap at the urinal next to me. He finished his own, err, business and headed towards the sinks. He studied himself in the mirror and then wandered back up the stairs.
Having completed my own washroom based activities, I wandered back upstairs and announced to the clients (and my attendant boss) that sat, just behind me, was Robert Powell and that he had just been next to me in the toilets. What’s more, he hadn’t washed his hands before leaving.
Our guests’ eyes darted over my shoulder to locate the unclean celebrity. I was almost at the point of taking to Twitter to announce Jesus of Nazareth’s toilet habits to the world when fortunately, before I had a chance, one of the ladies corrected me. “That’s not Robert Powell… it’s Robert Lindsay.” My lack of 1970s TV knowledge could easily have landed me in trouble had I announced that Jesus and one of the Detectives had not come to the law with clean hands, when in fact it was one of the country’s most famous comedy fathers. On this occasion I, along with my clients, was left more alarmed than charmed.
This article first appeared in the Solicitors Journal on 7 March 2013 and is reproduced with kind permission