First: Understand that convening is your #1 priority. Without mediation participants, our programs and practices are going nowhere.
Second: Have a clear vision of what you do. You can’t encourage people to participate in mediation if you can’t explain what it is. Develop your Elevator Speech: a one or two sentence explanation of what you do. Examples:
• Peace Talks helps people get divorced without losing their shirt or their sanity; or
• We help busy lawyers like you settle cases.
How can you describe your practice in just a sentence or two?
Third: Understand what you’re about and your practice’s mission. Expand your elevator speech, draft a Mission Statement, and think about your Brand. You may never be Coca-Cola, but your practice and services need an identity.
For example, the Peace Talks mission statement is: "Our Mission: Peace Talks Mediation Services is dedicated to providing a constructive, forward-thinking and peaceful ending to relationships. Marriages may end, but families endure forever. We provide a confidential, efficient and impartial atmosphere to help people resolve conflict and to create solutions with integrity and dignity for everyone concerned."
You may or may not share your mission statement with clients, but you need it in order to have a direction in your practice. You wouldn’t leave on a trip without a map, and you shouldn’t have a practice without a map, either.
Your brand is what you stand for, the kind of services that you provide, and your signature style. The Peace Talks Brand includes:
• Commitment to client education
• Down-to-earth service
• Going the extra mile
• Commitment to client service
• Commitment to the profession of mediation
Really, the brand is about your values in your practice.
Fourth: Be prepared to discuss your mission, brand, and elevator speech in terms of value, benefits and results for clients. That’s all they care about: value, benefits, results. The good news is that mediation is full of value, benefits and results for clients. Brainstorm a list of what you perceive these to be. You’ll use this list when you talk to clients about mediation.
90% of your discussion with prospective clients should be centered around value, benefits and results. Only 10% of the discussion will be about you and your qualifications. The same 90/10 rule holds true of all of your marketing materials, your web site, brochure, and any other descriptions of your practice or program.
When prospective clients call your office, they already believe you’re qualified. They already think you’re an expert. As a result, they don’t really care about you and your qualifications. If they’re calling you, you can rest easy: they’re already sold on the fact that you’re qualified.
Laypeople and many attorneys [generally] perceive all mediators to be equal. They assume mediators are all qualified. The way mediators can differentiate themselves is by describing their services in terms of value, benefits and results. Say it again: value, benefits, results. Value, Benefits, Results.
Price is not as important as you’d think. In Western culture, people believe that they get what they pay for. If it’s free or inexpensive, it has no value. People who are 100% price sensitive are always going to be a problem. You’re never going to build a practice on price competition.
Fifth: Specialize. It’s easier to market that way. You can accept any kinds of mediations that come into your office, but you’re only going to market one or two specialties. You’re also going to pick your geographical area. Marketing every service to every geographic area and to every individual is too difficult and expensive. The more you narrow it down, the easier it is to market.
It’s counter-intuitive, but as we’ve narrowed the services that Peace Talks offers, we’ve increased our income. In 2005 our gross income is 38.5% ahead from 2004 year to date, and we’ve cut back on the services that we offer and insisted on co-mediation in every case. The less we do, the more we make. It makes sense when you think about it, because the less you do the easier it is to describe what you do, including the value, benefits and results, and the easier it is for clients to conclude, “yes, this mediator can help me.”
Sixth: Now it’s time to think about what you’re going to do when the telephone actually rings.
CONVENING MEDIATIONS: TURNING CALLS INTO CLIENTS
The key step in building a mediation practice is bringing in clients. This article is geared toward private mediation firms, but the same convening techniques and goals hold true for non-profits, HR and government agencies. Whether clients are paying you for your services or not, the key to keeping your mediation program alive is generating clients and demand for mediation. So when I reference “generating business” I mean paid or unpaid business.
When we think of generating business our minds naturally turn toward external marketing: speaking engagements, writing articles, networking, playing golf. We sometimes forget that our most valuable marketing contact—the client who actually telephones our office—is our most viable marketing prospect.
Consider how much time, effort, and money that it took to have that person actually contact your office. Every speaking engagement, networking luncheon, paid advertisement, volunteer mediation and Yellow Pages ad is designed to make the telephone ring. Yet when it does, few of us are as prepared as we need to be to turn that interested caller into a paying client. To ruin that golden opportunity by stammering on the phone, unprepared to discuss the concept of mediation and your particular type of practice, means that the rest of your marketing efforts are nearly wasted. So let’s focus on what you do when the telephone rings.
That ringing telephone signals the beginning of a process called convening, or getting both sides to the table. Do you know what your call-to-client ratio is, i.e, how many times does it take the telephone to ring until a call turns into a paying client? Knowing your call-to-client ratio from each of your sources of referrals, as well as your overall ratio, is important in order to know which of your marketing plans is working, which is cost-effective, and where you should focus your most valuable asset: your time.
Who will take your telephone calls? Is it a receptionist, unskilled at mediation and unable to answer even the most basic questions about your services? Is it a Dispute Resolution Associate, trained in mediation and in convening? Will you take the calls yourself? A general receptionist is fine if you’re taking the calls yourself to do the intake, but you may want to rethink the strategy of having your first line marketing person be someone who knows little or nothing about you or the mediation process. A Dispute Resolution Associate is a helpful addition to your staff (the general receptionist, with a 40-hour mediation training course, also enhances your ability to convene cases) because he or she can answer many of the client’s questions, assist with or independently handle the intake, and send out marketing materials. For beginning mediators and new practitioners, finances may dictate that you’re doing your own intakes, but plenty of seasoned professionals choose to do so as well, because they feel they do their best selling themselves.
After you’ve decided who is doing the intake, what model will you use? Will you spend a few minutes taking down basic information, off the clock, and then send out your brochure, marketing materials, or a follow-up letter? Will you then schedule an orientation session? Or will you combine the orientation session with the intake session, with the telephone call lasting 15 minutes or half an hour with each party? Many lawyer-mediators prefer the short intake, coupled with an orientation session (either free, or for a modest charge), and many therapist-mediators prefer the long intake. Both work, and both have pros and cons. Have a plan for your intake so you handle it consistently, and you know what works for you.
You’ll want to have an intake form handy for each call. You can combine prompts for yourself, such as concise ways to describe your background and services, as well as mediation in general, with blanks for basic information such as name and address of the parties. A critical part of the intake form is where the client heard about your services. You’ll use this information to track the efficacy of your marketing efforts.
The next piece of information you need from the caller is whether or not the other party is aware of the first party’s desire to mediate. Is the other party even aware that the call is being placed? How you handle the call from there will be based on whether or not the other party has already agreed to mediate.
For cases in which the parties have already agreed to mediate, your intake is then geared toward selling the potential client on your services. What do you offer that other mediators do not? Why should the client choose your services above someone else’s? You may wish to write a short script or series of sentences, which you keep by the telephone in case you get tongue-tied on the phone.
Mediation Orientation Sessions
We offer a free orientation session in order to supplement the intake. Free orientations take place during regular business hours only.
It allows the parties to meet us together, at the same time, and to see how all of you interact. At some mediators’ offices, these orientation sessions are conducted by Dispute Resolution Associates, trained mediators who convene cases for other mediators. Depending on the mediators’ availability, it may be a mediator or DRS who is doing the orientation. The orientation session is free of cost as long as the focus is on the mediation process, and how mediation works, and not an actual mediation of the client’s case. A distinct advantage of this model is that the clients may ask as many questions as they want, choose their mediator and pay the mediation fees without fear of biasing the mediator. The mediator meets the client for the first time at the first mediation session, eliminating any “conspiracy theories” about mediator favoritism of the party who called first, or who paid the bill.
At Peace Talks, the Dispute Resolution Associate handles all telephone calls, sending out mediation information packages, and appointment scheduling, but the actual mediation orientation is conducted by one or both mediators who would serve as the mediators in the client’s case. We practice this way because by meeting with the actual mediator, the mediator can use that time to build trust with the parties, let them know about common obstacles to reaching an agreement and to gather information for later planning prior to the session. The parties can decide if the mediator is a good fit for their case as well.
Once the orientation is complete, a mediation session is typically scheduled for another day. Although you could schedule the mediation to begin directly after the orientation session, if the clients have decided not to use your services, you then have several hours of empty time in your calendar. If you go directly into a mediation session from the orientation, it can put people under pressure to stay when they hadn’t planned to do so. We typically only schedule things this way when someone is driving in from a long distance and they’re almost 100% sure they want to mediate with our office.
Approaching the Opposition
If the other party has not agreed to mediation, or is unaware that the telephoning party is interested in mediation, you will handle the intake process differently. The first hurdle is how to contact the other party. Ask the calling party how best to approach the other party: Is it best if the telephoning party does it? Or should the initial call come from our office? Will you place the call yourself, or have someone else on the staff make the contact? Is it advisable to do it by telephone at all, or would a letter be more appropriate? These are issues which you can discuss with the caller to determine the most appropriate way to proceed. If the parties are represented by attorneys, you can contact the attorney who represents the other party easily enough, but make sure that your caller understands what you’ll be doing, and agrees with your approach.
Once a call has come into our offices, an information package is sent to the caller, and the other side as well, provided the other side is aware of the mediation request. If the other side is unaware, discuss with the caller whether to send him or her 2 information packages, so that one might be shared with the other side via the caller, or whether it would be appropriate to send a package to the other side directly from your office, either before or after the desire to mediate has been communicated. Our policy is to never send an unsolicited package of information, which may give an unsuspecting adverse party an unnecessary shock.
Our information packages are made up of pre-printed brochures for our different services, articles and other information which feel is pertinent to the particular type of case involved. For example, you may wish to include your business card, copies of articles you’ve written, your firm newsletter, articles on mediation, your mission statement, your fee agreement, Association for Conflict Resolution brochures, copies of the Professional Standards for mediators, a short biography of yourself and your experience, pointers on how clients can prepare for their mediation session, and anything else which will differentiate your services in the marketplace as well as help gain the clients’ confidence that you can help them settle their dispute. The advantage of using a simple pocket folder is that you can mix and match your materials for different types of cases. It’s hard to cover all the bases in just one brochure, and even if you do, will the client have confidence that you have enough experience in his or her area of dispute to be of assistance?
We’re convinced that only a small percentage of our prospective clients actually read the material we’ve sent, but that clients appreciate the fact that we’re organized and we have materials to send out. We believe that it gives them a sense of confidence that we know what we’re doing and that we’re committed to client service.
Thoughtful convening is the bridge between marketing and building a practice. By determining in advance the procedures you’ll use, what you’ll say to clients, and how you’ll cultivate those calls into paying clients is the key to developing a profitable practice.