EPISODE 177: McDermott Law Firm Biz Dev Chief Rory Channer Shares an Award-Winning Strategy for Teaching Lawyers to Sell

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EPISODE 177: McDermott Law Firm Biz Dev Chief Rory Channer Shares an Award-Winning Strategy for Teaching Lawyers to Sell

RORY’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Think of others and put yourself in their shoes. I had a CEO that said to our salesforce many times, “Pull your chair around the side of the table and sit on their side of the table.” Push hard at really understanding others and then doing something with that understanding.”

Rory Channer is the Chief Business Development Officer at the McDermott, Will & Emery Law Firm.

MWE is a 2019 Institute for Excellence in Sales Innovation Award winner.

Previously, he was at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a marketing services firm.

He was also at CEB, now Gartner.

Find Rory on LinkedIn!

Rory Channer: I have been in about 10 different industries over my career for about 25 years. I started off life as a psychologist and ended up in sales and I’m sure we’ll get to how that happened during the podcast. I’ve worked in all different sized companies, I think my favorite is probably this size, a billion-ish in revenue.

It’s a good size because it’s like goldilocks moment, it gives you just enough resources to get stuff done and at the same time you’re not too big that you’re losing tune with where things are and who people are. I work at McDermott Will & Emery, as you mentioned and it’s a top global law firm headquartered at Chicago but we’re speaking in DC today.

Fred Diamond: We’ve had some people in the services world who have spoken about their career. Just curiously, you’re the Chief Business Development Officer, this is the Sales Game Changers podcast – even though you have BD in your career, do you think of yourself as a sales guy?

Rory Channer: I’m very much a sales guy as all my career has been, it’s a great question, Fred. Inside of law, sales has been a dirty word and part of my job here has been to change that perspective. They hired me a couple years ago to change the way we go to market, this is what this has all been about.

Fred Diamond: Your firm, McDermott was a winner of an IES Sales Excellence Award. Tell us a little bit about what you were nominated for and why it was so special, and how it relates to your overall mission here at McDermott.

Rory Channer: We were nominated for the Sales Innovation Award. Slightly connected to that comment around lawyers and sales don’t really go together, the legal environment is a challenging one. The market is an extremely challenging marketplace but inside a law firm it’s also very challenging. Lawyers are not trained in sales, they’re trained in law, they come with a very healthy level of skepticism to everything they engage upon which is part of their training but also part of their personality.

When you’re working within the world of a billable hour – and that could be $1,000+ dollars a billable hour – any support and system that you bring to the table has to be not only good, it has to be efficient. When we turned our attention to training lawyers how to sell inside of that environment, we had to get the system really good, the content had to obviously be very impactful. We challenged ourselves to not only teach it in a way that was extremely impactful to how they go to market so they could walk out of the room and use it immediately, that every hour that they were in that room had to be a very worthwhile hour.

We brought in very interesting third parties to help us like Second City which is the improv group, as well as taking best practices from our friends at CEB, Gartner and others in legal profession like Harvard Law as well as just taking my experience and the team’s experience in selling. All the while just kind of avoiding the word “sales” throughout the training, so even the title of the program is called Incline Engagement System. It operates at a certain time of week knowing when the legal professional has got more time to pay attention, it’s very specifically delivered in a pretty cunning way.

Fred Diamond: Just curiously, was the mission to shift the culture or was the mission to just provide some additional skill set for the attorneys to get them conscious of developing business and creating business?

Rory Channer: It’s a shift in the way they go to market which is predominantly culture in some ways. We’ve invented two ways of looking at this, a client centered selling approach alongside a collaborative buying approach, so we tackle this from both sides. The vision here is that if you can change that moment and the relationship that you’re building in a way that’s constructive, you can do some very good things. Threading throughout the program to a large degree is the concept of empathy and that’s a big hit for the way they rethink their engagement with their clients.

Fred Diamond: Tell us more about that. That concept has come up a couple times, we did a podcast with Connor Marsden, he’s a senior sales leader at a company called Salesforce – which of course most people are familiar with.

Rory Channer: I’ve heard of them.

Fred Diamond: He talked about the empathetic sales profession. Tell us a little more about what that means in this context.

Rory Channer: Let me ask you a question, who invented the term “survival of the fittest”?

Fred Diamond: Charles Darwin.

Rory Channer: It’s interesting, because what you read a lot in sales literature and training and when you listen to others’ podcasts – not necessarily just your podcast, others’ podcast – there’s so much written around how you have to be resilient, how you have to focus on getting past rejection, how you have to stay strong, how you have to defeat the opposition, how you have to win. Darwin never said that, which is interesting.

Most people will say it was Darwin, it was actually a philosopher and I apologize for getting your audience squeamish on philosophy and psychology here. It was the philosopher Herbert Spencer that said it, what Darwin actually said was survival would come from helping others which is a very different perspective. When you take that into the world of sales and if you think of anything you’ve ever bought, getting yourself into that buyer’s shoes which lots of people talk about, but doing something with that knowledge is even more important.

Whether you think through a compassionate approach to your engagement, that’s a very different mindset. Teaching people to think about their engagement style and what they’re trying to get out of the conversation and engineering a conversation that actually gives you not only information because you have something to do with that information, whether it leads back to your products or not is a very large part of the journey that we’re teaching these folks.

Fred Diamond: That makes a lot of sense, you need to build that relationship and they need to trust you and a lot of things like that. It’d be interesting to see how that carried over to what you sell which of course is legal services. You mentioned you were a psychologist in the beginning of your career, tell us about how you first got into sales as a career.

Rory Channer: I was designing computer systems for banks and I was working at a software company. I had spent a lot of my university research time on the interface between humans and software, so it was a human computer design and I was working at a big bank. This system that we were building completely messed up, it was a disaster – I can’t tell you the bank – and I found myself in the middle of a very difficult client situation. I managed to calm everybody down and get us all back working on the problem set and move to solution.

One of the executives at that company said, “You need to be in sales, you seem to have mastered how to navigate tricky conversations, why don’t you go try your hand at sales?” At first I’m like, “I don’t know very much about that, I’m not sure that’s my thing” and the more he talked to me, the more I was like, “I’ll give it a go.” I kind of lucked into it, really. It wasn’t planned, I never set off to be a salesperson and then like anything, once a door opens you step in, you explore what that’s like, you learn more and you like what you learn.

Fred Diamond: What are some of the key things you learned in those first few sales jobs?

Rory Channer: Earlier on notwithstanding now what we know about empathy and understanding others, I think I learned quickly that this concept of building your network and relationships, your network was pretty important. I think I had made enough connection into markets that were good connections, even if I hadn’t sold something and that ability to exit with grace was something I learned early on and I’m glad I did. I very early back in my career made some great connections with folks who have become very senior people, senior executives at organizations now and I draw on these people all the times, even not sending them anything, it’s a really good sounding board. That was a valuable thing to learn early on.

Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you specifically, what are you an expert in? Tell us about your area of brilliance.

Rory Channer: That word though, Fred, is a little tricky, that “brilliance” word. I don’t know if I can quite find a thing that’s that brilliant, but I do think I’m quite strong in leadership, I think I’m quite strong in the psychology behind sales and marketing which has been quite helpful to me over the years. What I’m quite good at, I think is solving challenges and problems and it’s what I do day in and day out. There’s always a challenge and an issue somewhere and there’s always an opportunity behind that challenge and issue. What’s been remarkable to me is over the years how if you think hard enough or you think long enough, you can probably figure it out.

Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you. Going back to what your company does – again, McDermott is a large global law firm – a lot of people listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast sell things. They sell software, they sell books, they sell technology, other types of financial services. If you think about a law firm, and we talked about how you were trying to get the attorneys to be more empathetic so they could be more salesy at the end of the day, how does that work in a law firm? The word “rainmaker” keeps coming through my brain here, is that a valid word? Do you have to bring in a couple hundred million to obviously reach partner? Explain a little bit about the sales criteria for the attorneys working in a firm in general, so people understand what that means.

Rory Channer: Great question. When I got here, I actually brought in Matt Dixon to go research these guys and he did a very similar study here for me for those rainmakers. You study the rainmakers and the average performers, if you like.

Fred Diamond: Of course Matt is the author of The Challenger Sale which has come up many times on the podcast.

Rory Channer: Yes, and what he found was a very similar pattern actually inside of these guys as inside of salespeople, so they’re not that dissimilar, actually though they don’t orient themselves to the concept of selling as I mentioned before. People are buying legal services, it’s a very competitive market. In fact, it’s almost impossible for us to sell something that isn’t displacing another provider, so there’s someone that this company is using that’s just like us, it’s very difficult to differentiate legal services often, so it’s a very challenging marketplace.

If you remember, I mentioned that these folks haven’t been trained in sales. They don’t really understand it, don’t really like it so what happens inside of a law firm is you have quite a small set of people who really understand how to go sell, and those are the folks that we studied. It turns out they do know how to go sell, though they might not be calling it sales, they are actually really selling.

What we did here is we took that knowledge and used a lot of that to build out that academy that we talked about and to teach them how to get there. It’s heavily built around inside selling, so we use that. Maybe slightly differently than others have used it and we use it very much to open up conversation, so inside selling is our way to get a very interesting conversation moving with inside our client and prospective client base.

To make partner, to your other part of the question, it’s extremely difficult. In some ways, if you’ve got children who want to become lawyers and they want to work in big law, I would put caution to that because it’s very difficult to make partner. It’s very difficult to get into law school, it’s very difficult to become associate at a law firm, not many associates make it to that middle level of income partner level as we have a middle partner tier and even fewer make it to partner, it’s very difficult. It’s a combination of expertise and actually how much business they generate. In some ways, what we’re doing here is providing them a road map of how to do that and that’s of high value to them.

Fred Diamond: Just curiously, out of the 100% of the attorneys who work in the firm, how many bought off on your process? 50%, 100%, 10%?


Rory Channer: Initially zero [Laughs] it was quite the challenging environment. Now I think most people are lined up pretty well behind what we’ve done, we’ve trained several hundred folks inside of McDermott and it’s an employee brand value proposition now for us. You come in, we’ll teach you how to build business and that’s very valuable.

Fred Diamond: You’ve worked for some good firms, again you worked for CEB and now you’re the Chief Business Development Officer at McDermott. You must have had some great mentors along the way, why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor or two and how they impacted your career?

Rory Channer: Again, that’s a great question and I don’t mean to dodge it, but I think there’s been many. I learn from everybody around me all the time and that’s a big tip I would give to others. In this role I talk a lot about how people engage me in my team and they either shoot or shape, so I come up with these ideas constantly, they either shoot them down or they shape them. I think that’s super healthy for me, to have others around you that can frame problems in different ways. As I mentioned earlier, my network was one of the things I learned early on about keeping that network and tapping into people who are peers, not peers, more senior than I am and constantly asking them, “What do you think about X, Y?” I recommend that strongly to everybody. I think my mentorship program is constant and always from those around me.

Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges you face as a sales leader today?

Rory Channer: Inside this environment certainly change management is a big issue. We are constantly trying to figure out in a world where folks have very limited attention to go do something different, it’s a little bit of old dog, new trick syndrome going on in professions generally. That’s a big one for us and I think we are constantly sharping our saw on how to do change management.

The second one, and I’ve heard this resonate on other of your podcasts, is talent. It is really hard to find the right talent and I think it was your podcast last week where he said, “It’s very hard to know that you’ve got the right talent when you’re interviewing it before it comes in” and I totally agree with that. People are world trained to interview, everybody makes hiring mistakes, it’s a given but knowing that you have made one and moving swift on it is quite important because it does have ramifications for the rest of the team. It’s really hard to score 100% on hiring, it’s not possible.

Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve sold multiple things in your career, varied things, different things at different industries. Take us back to the #1 specific sales success or win from your career you’re most proud of.

Rory Channer: I think the thing that has made me most proud of my career has been my track record of growth. I have typically found myself in companies where growth was declining or flat and I’ve had to shape it, and it’s no different here. Two years ago it was 0%, first year I was here it was 3%, actually that was pretty good and then last year it was 14% and they’d never seen that before.

Fred Diamond: How long has the firm been around for?

Rory Channer: Since the 1930’s, a good amount of time. We never grew as much as we grew last year in one year, but we never grew that in 5 years so it was a big shift, it was a big takeout. That’s pretty Hallmark for me, I’ve always been very proud of being in those slightly tricky situations and turning it around. I’m waiting for the job one day where it’s this rocketing organization that’s growing at 40%, I just have to sit there and just watch it coming. It’s never happened to me, it’s always been a turnaround. Always with that comes, “How are we going to make the biggest impact? Where’s the leverage?” Then once you find that, that’s awesome.

Fred Diamond: That’s good stuff. Again, on the Sales Game Changers podcast today we’re talking about some things we typically don’t talk about. We’re talking about some strategies about getting people who don’t traditionally like to sell to get them comfortable with the notion of developing your network and growing your business and being conscious of the fact that it’s definitely part of your business. Did you ever question being in sales? Did you ever think to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?

Rory Channer: I think I’ve always questioned if I’m not adding enough value, if it’s not delivering the return then I question it, and I think that would be the same whether I was in sales or not in sales. I’ve always found sales to be an exceptionally exciting platform because you’re always at the very front of the business, you’re always engaging in the market and that market learning is just tremendous. You can never go wrong with that. I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, but I would recommend everybody spending a little time in sales in their careers.

If you’re in marketing and you think it’s sales, it’s not and you should get some time in sales. If you’re in product and you haven’t really spent time in sales, you’d have to go do that, the same with finance or HR. It’s just such a wonderful experience to get that close to the market. Dan Pink wrote a book on Sales is Human and I agree wholeheartedly. Everything we do is ultimately influence, it’s trying to persuade and orient and so long as you don’t see persuasion as an aggressive thing, I think honing your skills and articulating a position and why, and again back to that empathy piece so putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, there is nothing better.

Fred Diamond: What was the trigger for the firm to make an investment into you to bring you into this type of an environment? Obviously they’ve put resources behind you for you to be successful.

Rory Channer: That’s another great question, Fred. We had a new chairman, Ira Coleman, very agile thinker, very capable of looking at different ways of looking things and he has been very passionate about taking best practice from outside of law. He was a driving force, my boss is the COO, John Yoshimura who came from A.T. Kearney so he’s a professional services guy. He ran A.T. Kearney so he had also a different viewpoint and I think once you put enough people in the cauldron that have come from different perspectives you start to generate momentum.

I think that’s how this really started in the sense of those folks coming together and then bringing folks like me in. Any industry that’s undergoing such change like law is, it’s a huge change platform right now. You have two choices, you can either really try and do something different or you can hunk it down and put your head in the sand and hope. This is clearly a firm that believes there’s a better way to go to market and there’s a better way to operate, there’s a better way to find legal service so that’s why they put their money where their mouth is.

Fred Diamond: Rory, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their career to the next level?

Rory Channer:  I did mention earlier empathy and it’s such a big topic for us here right now, and I think it’s a big topic for everybody, actually. There was a recent piece in the Atlantic that said that they did the same survey in the 1970’s and they just did it a year or so ago. They asked parents, “If your child were to marry someone from the other party, would you care?” So if your child is a democrat or you’re a democrat, you’d marry the republican and vice-versa and in the 70’s it was 5%. Then a year or so ago it was 40%, so right there we’re in a world where we just have less tolerance for other’s views and that’s a problem but it’s also an opportunity.

I think if we think about differentiation, for example if you’re engaging clients in a way that you really show you’re trying to understand their point of view and you really show you’re trying to do something to help their point of view – back to the Darwin comment earlier – I think that’s a game changer generally in how we orient. Let’s go be more helpful and collaborative generally. Beyond that comment, I do think folks earlier in their careers and throughout their careers should push themselves to get as much diversified experience as they can. I’ve been fortunate enough as I mentioned to work in 9 or 10 different industries, that’s been so helpful. I may not have mastered any of them [Laughs] but for sure I’ve pulled a lot from seeing how different things work in different places.

You’ve got a different set of challenges, you’ve got a different set of solutions and that diversity of thinking can really help. Then surrounding yourself by people who have had different experiences is just vital, I think.

Fred Diamond: What are some of your sales habits that have led to your continued sales success?

Rory Channer: I am always pushing myself to slow down, I try and take on too much and I try and slow down as much as I can, especially now in conversations I try and listen more, make sure I’m really paying attention. It’s an ongoing battle, that’s not my natural default setting. I’m always working on that and making sure I’m really listening to the other. Also, as I take on new problem sets or look at things and find issues and challenges, I mentioned the network that’s very important to me but I really push myself to go broad on research now in order to come down on a problem.

I think that’s a good tactic so rather than generically going out to conference or generically reading, whatever problem I’m working on I go very broad on that problem so I’m channeled in that way. I find that’s quite rewarding because you get to figure something out quite broadly before you’re deep on it without generally experiencing stuff and trying to figure out later, “Can I use that?” That’s been a good tactic for me recently.

Fred Diamond: Help us understand what that means more. Again, we have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, you’ve brought up of course empathy but you’ve brought up networking and you’ve built a big network over your career which has led you obviously here and other places. Tell us what exactly you mean and how someone listening to today’s podcast can apply that, the broad question you just brought up.

Rory Channer: Even down to the level of planning a territory, if you’re looking at your territory and you find that, “This industry is something that I want to get into”, the challenge there is, “How do I understand that industry?” If that was my problem, I would go very broad on that topic. I’d try and find all the sources I could to figure that out and those sources would start with my network. I would go out and say, “Who knows anything about this place or this type of thing?” and that would lead me on a journey. I would look at conferences but I would go for those conferences for a very specific reason to unearth the answers to the question I had about that industry. I think that to me channels thinking a little bit faster.

Fred Diamond: If you do it with that approach, you can obviously build deeper relationships because you’re talking to people specifically about something that you need. One of the challenges that people face with networking is, “I’m not really quite sure what to say.” Every networking opportunity is two, especially in the beginning of course and you’re young, you don’t have a whole lot of examples in history and things to refer back to, if you will. I like that approach to focus on a particular challenge or a question or something specific, then you can go to people.

Whenever people reach out to me and ask for help, for example I’m very generous with that but I always say, “Be as specific as you can be so that I can provide some value.” The same thing happens if you’re going to people in your network with a specific question or something you’re trying to uncover. Then people can be much more valuable to you and much more helpful. People want to help, in general.

Rory Channer: They do. See? You’re very good at this, Fred you’re very good articulating what I’m saying in a better way than I did [Laughs]

Fred Diamond: We’re talking to VP’s of sales who’ve been in that position for 20, 30 years in a lot of cases and you just didn’t wake up and say, “You know what? I’m going to be a VP of sales today, I’m done delivering burgers or pizza. Tomorrow I’m going to be a VP of sales at Microsoft.” You had to have had that 15, 20, 30 years career and you had to have been thoughtful. That’s been one of the things that I’ve learned through this podcast, everybody I’ve interviewed has given thought to this. Not everybody has a whole shelf of books, if you will but they’ve given thought. Along those lines, tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.

Rory Channer: There’s been about 12 major things that we’ve been working on here and one of them was the academy that we talked about. One of the things that we’ve got very sharp on is knowing that all these things interrelate together. I think one of the things that can be a real problem in organizations, they often put in a CRM on the left hand side and the often put in a client feedback program on the right hand side and these things don’t integrate together. We’ve been very disciplined with that, we set off 12 programs 2 years ago, those 12 programs still move on but every time we turn a corner and find something new we go back through the others.

Our CRM system which is SalesForce=base system has been a very powerful tool for us and connecting back to the change management comment, just imagine, lawyers aren’t properly going to use that. Working out how to get them to use it, we do a lot of events here so using our CRM to be very helpful inside of our event infrastructure was a great turning point for connecting those two things together. I think our challenges have typically come in waves, “This thing is connected to this thing, let’s go fix that together or go put that out there.” Every week there’s a new set of things that we learn that drives us to an even better level of execution.

Fred Diamond: I’m going to ask the last question before I ask you for your final tip a little bit differently. Typically I ask this next question, “Sales is hard, people don’t return your calls or your emails. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?” but I’m going to ask the question slightly differently. Again, your audience, your attorneys in the firm we mentioned before in the beginning that they don’t use the word sales, it’s a dirty word in some cases. We’ve known that, we’ve talked about that before but why have you continued in this particular role to shift a culture of a profession that typically isn’t interested in sales per se? I’m just curious, it’s been three years now you’ve been here, you’ve been recognized by probably other places besides the Institute for Excellence in Sales. Why have you continued on this journey to shift this mindset, this culture, if you will?

Rory Channer: I’m pretty thick-skinned. I know it can help them and if we’re being super serious for a second, I would say law is the profession that has the largest amount of drug abuse and substance abuse in it than any other profession. It is very tough to be a lawyer, it’s not an easy journey and one of the things that makes it so tough for these folks is they don’t know how to sell which is the irony of ironies. The word they don’t want to use is the thing they really struggle with. In some ways, it’s a bit of a mission now to make sure that they can do it and we’re teaching them how to do it in a way that they’re accepting it.

When you get the feedback from all the programs we’re putting in and you can see that they’re winning and they’re winning in a way that just helps them do better law, society can’t exist without law. It’s not going to be a very good place if it were, so it’s almost a small contribution in my mind to that, to helping them both feel better about the work that they do and evolving us to a better place.

Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners around the globe?

Rory Channer: I would say think of others, put yourself in their shoes. I had a CEO once at CEB that said to our salesforce many times, “Pull your chair around the side of the table and sit on their side of the table.” That’s great advice, I would recommend pushing hard at really understanding others and then doing something with that understanding.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo
Produced by Rosario Suarez

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