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ALPS In Brief – Episode 63: Relationships and First Impressions

13 min read

ALPS In Brief – Episode 63: Relationships and First Impressions


Hello, I’m Mark Bassingthwaighte, the risk manager here at ALPS, and welcome to the latest episode of ALPS in Brief, of the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. Over the years, the more I do these podcasts, the more I’ve come to just enjoy telling stories. I’ve been telling stories for years and years in my writing, and in a lot of the [inaudible 00:00:39] presentations I have done over the years. I just enjoy a good story, and I think it’s a great way to learn some things. So, today is another little, what I guess I come to call a mini-sode, where it’s just me sharing some stories and an insight or two from them. What I want to talk about today, for those of you that have listened to some of these podcasts over the years, you know my wife and I are, are Disney Vacation Club Members, Disney people, if you will, and have been so blessed to be able to travel literally a number of places all over the world with Disney.

It’s been a special thing for us. Well, we also are cruisers, and we recently returned from a long, extended cruise, had the privilege of being able to spend some time in Hawaiian Islands, and then sailing around the islands for a bit, and then crossing the Pacific, sailing from Hawaii up to Vancouver, which will be important here in a moment. But it was a really interesting trip, and I want to tell you two or three things that happened on this trip that sort of prompted this podcast topic. The first, I don’t know if, for those of you that know nothing about Disney cruises, it is, at least when it first started, Disney came out with what they call rotational dining. So, they have several, if you will, featured signature restaurants on each ship, and you have an assigned table and a staff that will move with you throughout the cruise to the different restaurants. It’s a lot of fun.

This particular trip, the first night you sit down, and you meet your staff that’s going to take care of you, and it was an interesting experience. We enjoy getting to know the staff and oftentimes staff on these ships are from multiple countries. I think they were saying this time, there are 50 countries represented among the staff. So, you get to know them. My response to that first evening was not a disappointment, I mean, in terms of what happened, but it was a little bit different than what is sort of more typical on these cruises. In short, the gentleman that would be our sort of the lead waiter was an interesting fellow, and I would just say, I didn’t hit it off immediately. We just didn’t click. The first impression was not a good one, and in part, and what happened over the next two nights, it was more about him wanting everybody that was in his section, I guess, is the best way to put it, to know that he was struggling financially, and had had some problems.

Now, I don’t want to minimize that. He certainly did have some challenging situations, but one does not start a relationship out by sharing just how rough life is, and how hard he’s having to work, and how difficult, and the sacrifices being made and all that. Of course, over the course of a cruise, you get to know some of these people in the other tables, and these cruises aren’t completely packed, because we’re still coming out of the pandemic. So, in other words, just less people, and more opportunity to get to know all the people on the ship. All of us were really feeling like we were being played a little bit, sort of working the sympathy card, trying to just get large tips at the end of this cruise. It just struck me the wrong way, not how to enter a good relationship. That was sort of even further confirmed near the end of the cruise. I’m used to having people share the importance of feedback, and Disney, I assume they do this on other cruises and things.

But, you fill out these comment cards, and I understand the Disney model. You need to, I mean, if you really have a bad, bad experience, you should certainly share that, and I have, and would do so in a responsible way, but I don’t want to just try to make it hard for somebody to earn a living. But at the very end, we were told, this is in terms of our, this gentleman, this waiter, this is my expectation of what you will do, so that I can continue on kind of stuff. I got to say that left a bad taste in my mouth. Now, that’s one story, and it’s kind of shortening some things here. The second thing that was sort of interesting, got me thinking about this all again, podcast topic. We got to Vancouver, and in the middle, and I’ll readily admit, sort of my fault in terms of not thinking everything completely through, just running with an assumption.

Dis was very good about telling us, we have to hear are all the things we need to do to get on the ship, and here’s what we need to do get into Canada terms of vaccine status, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and there were a ton of us on the ship that were all set to go, and just didn’t think through the fact that we’re in an international airport and flying into the United States internationally. I mean, you’ve been in Hawaii, and you got, and you can’t get back into the United States via and international flight without a COVID test within 24 hours of boarding the plane. None of us had this. I should say, very few of us on the ship had this first off awareness, let alone any kind of arrangements being made. The odd thing, you can drive across the border. You can walk across the border. You can swim across the border. You can take a bus, a train everything. You don’t need to prove any, but if you’re in Vancouver or any other international airport, you need to have this COVID test.

So, a few days before we get there, we’re talking to guest services, bringing all this out and short story is the Vancouver airport has more than ample facilities out there to handle even a large number of walk-ups. This is what we’re being told. So, that’s fine. We’ll get off the ship, and go out to the airport, get tested and assuming all’s good, fly home, and did turn out all was good. So, that’s sort of a side note, but going through the process of COVID testing and trying to get that set up at the airport was just crazy. Talk about an exercise in futility and just, oh my gosh, very poorly, and this is not dissing, this is sort of the airport authority, I guess. I’m not sure who all setting this up, but very little explanations to how this works, and lines of people everywhere.

They had one gentleman who was really charged with trying to help everybody, and explain what to do. He would talk, he’s masked up, because he still have masks here in Canada in public areas, transportation, buses, trains and all that. But, so it was a little hard to understand, a little bit of an accent, which you know, it is what it is, but it just made understanding him a little bit more difficult, but he would say, “You take a picture of this QR thing, and get started. Pick an appointment. Don’t worry about the time. It might even be tomorrow, but you’re in the system. You pay your bill, and you can get in line, and we’ll get this taken care of. Well, and he would say, he’d stand there and say, “I’m going to help. I’m here,” but he’d keep moving around and disappear. People just getting incredibly frustrated, and your whole response to this entire setup and system, and what’s going to happen was being colored by this experience with the first contact.

One fellow traveler, I just had, kind of just watched him. God bless him, but it’s just, oh my gosh, he was doing everything he could not to lose it, and as respectfully as he could, he gets in this guy’s face, the guy’s trying to help us all, and he just starts yelling. He says, “I can’t understand you. Your words are muffled. You aren’t speaking clearly, and when you say things to do this, you don’t give us the instructions. You’re not staying here. You’re not following through. You say you’ll help us from start to finish, and you point at the QR code and disappear, and the app isn’t working.” It wasn’t working for a lot of us and he was correct. He just ends by saying, “You need to go back to school and get some good communication training. Your communication skills are horrible,” and he was right.

What could have been a process of getting people through this whole system easily in an hour, turned out to be a good two and a half hours, if not more, for some folks. It was so messed up. A number of people actually missed flights out and just, it just didn’t need to be that way. So, it’s just two sort of stories, and what I got to thinking about was first impressions. I’ve written and talked over the years in some various presentations on the importance of first impressions in terms of establishing relationship. I have typically come at it from the perspective of, is your reception desk clean? Is the, do you have a professional presentation in terms of the space? Is the office tidied up? Does the website look all nice and pretty, et etcetera cetera? It’s physical first impressions, and I don’t want to minimize that. I think that is incredibly important, because it’s, if you will, sort of some passive communication.

But I want to talk about personal first impressions. I can share my first impression with this waiter was not good, and I really was put off by being told what the expectations are, being played for as much money as he thought he could get out of me, those kinds of things, and it’s very, very difficult to recover from that. We really, my wife and I were very intentional after the first night, saying, “Oh, this is ridiculous,” but trying to really get to know him, trying to invest, because it’s a long cruise. You want to have fun, and, and there were times where it worked, and we really did have a good time. I’m not trying to take anything away from, I mean, this guy is who he is, but did his job well, but there were these times where it just, it wasn’t perhaps even authentic. Then you get to the airport situation, and the experience, the first impression that you have trying to get into the system, into the process.

So, [inaudible 00:12:28] translate this into your law office and working with you and your staff. If the first impression is really bad, that colored the entire rest of the experience with everybody else you work with, and I’m glad we got through it. It didn’t really ruin or spoil anything for us, but it didn’t have to be that way. So, I would encourage you to think about some first impression issues in terms of relationship. So, let me share some thoughts and kind of perhaps tips, if you will, things that I think are worth keeping in mind. When I think about it initially, trying to consider a lawyer, I’m obviously going to, in most instances, it’s either referral or perhaps a website, and I’m looking, and I would hope we have that initial contact, at least on the web or mobile. It’s very professional looking, et cetera, et cetera.

But that’s go beyond that and say, now I’m reaching out to the firm to try to set up appointments, that initial consult or whatever it might be. That should be very, very easy on mobile or on a website. But if I call in, I really do expect to talk to someone in-person. I may have some questions or two. I just want to get a sense of are they welcoming? Are they professional, that kind of thing. Voicemail, doesn’t cut it in my mind. These dial one if, and here’s all the music and on and on and on. Make it easy for me to communicate with you. If you’re true solo, and not always available, sometimes that can even be accomplished, oh, just with an answering service, some type of professional answering service.

I just think that’s very, very worthwhile, but now let’s really get to the heart of where I’m trying to go with all this, and talk about you. So, I’ll be the perspective coming in. What kinds of things can you do or perhaps not do if [inaudible 00:14:55] are going to help establish the beginning relationship, in terms of setting the right impression, getting started on the right foot, because it’s going to be a lot harder to correct something if this gets off on the wrong foot. Okay? So, some things that I think about, try to just be authentic. Don’t put on airs. Don’t, I encourage you, if authentic isn’t, a lot of time, I work from home, et cetera, T-shirt and cutoffs and flip flops. Hey, that’s fine, but at the office or meeting me downtown or wherever it might be, look a little bit professional, but be authentic in the communication.

“Hey, it’s a pleasure to meet you Mark,” and be authentic and sincere when you say that. Have a little chit-chat up front. We don’t need to immediately get to why are you here outside of the cold calls. Hey, do you do divorce or something? I’m assuming we’re past that, but have a little chit-chat, and it can be as simple as, How’s the weather or what’s [inaudible 00:16:10] a day. Did you see that ball game last night? But something to get some casual conversation going to allow the opportunity for a relationship to build, to just get established. I want to know that I’m working with a person that’s again, genuine, real, authentic. Okay? So, some things to think about, but also understand at the same time, and I can appreciate this might be a little bit difficult, but you never know.

I think most people are going to have some questions or concerns about, I wonder what this is going to cost, and there’s this, and we have to have that conversation. I mean, I really believe good lawyers have conversations about money up front, and thorough, and good conversations about money. But you might allow that conversation to be dictated or driven by the client. So something you could say early on is, “You’re probably wondering what this will cost. Would you like to talk about that now? Would you like to talk about that at the end? I’m going to need a little information here,” but try to get a sense, so you don’t have somebody sitting visiting with you for half an hour, 45 minutes, wondering, “But can I even afford, is this worth my time?”

You can find ways to help them feel at ease about that money conversation by letting know you’re thinking about it, letting know we’ll have it, and they can dictate a little bit about when they’d like to have that conversation. But again, I would not jump there until you chat them up for a little bit. Make a connection. We need to begin to build a relationship. So, okay. One of the other things I wanted to talk about as we continue with this, in the context of a, this initial consultation, this initial meeting is, what other types of communication things can you do to help get this started on the right foot? So, in the context of the conversation, please don’t multitask. I mean, how many times I, it drives me crazy, and I’ll just never understand it.

I’ve watched time and again, and one situation, that’s so struck me, I watched four couples come into a restaurant, a very nice restaurant that I happened to be dining with a friend at, [inaudible 00:18:53] at business actually. These four couples sat down and it was every other, guy, girl, guy, girl, guy, girl, all the way around the table. All four guys are on their phone the entire evening, not talking, just sitting, drinking their beer, occasional something. The women are all chatty, but clearly not really happy about all these guys just sitting here on their phone. I mean, how can you have a relationship or conversation? The messages you’re giving, give the attention to this perspective client. They are considering retaining you. They are considering turning over their legal concern to your trusted hands. So, allow them to build that trust. Okay? So, don’t multitask, no tax thing, no thinking about other matters, no working through your email.

Okay? Don’t pontificate on things. The initial time is really to sit and try to learn as much as you can about whatever the situation is, so you … I mean, the goal here is, can I help you in terms of what this is, what you’re thinking? How do I best help you? How do I best serve you? What all can I do? This isn’t a time to just pontificate on all sorts of things. It’s time to get to learn who they are. Use open-ended questions. Can you tell me more about this? Don’t assume you know what they want. They may be thinking about a divorce or something, but maybe divorce isn’t really what should happen in this situation, and there’s some other things you could assist them with or direct them toward.

I don’t know. But I, running with assumptions is dangerous. Find out what the problem is. Ask questions> sort of go with the flow and see where it takes you. If you don’t know something, honestly, say, no. I’d rather know that somebody doesn’t have an answer. I don’t know, but I could look it up. I don’t know, but I’ve, I could make a referral here, whatever the situation calls for. But, if you don’t know something, say so, and again, in my mind, honesty instills trust, and faking it fosters doubt. I mean, that seems clear to me. That’s just a normal response. So, try to stay out of the weeds in these early meetings, in particular. If somebody is sharing some things, don’t get into all the nitty-gritty of the legal stuff. Now’s not the time. We’re still relationship-building.

Okay? Learn to listen, truly listen. I remember, Steven Covey is known for saying most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. Most of us listen with the intent to reply. I’ll be the first to admit, a little honesty here, folks. I am really good at listening with the intent to reply. I struggle with that problem day in and day out. You can just ask my wife. She’ll say, “Amen, Hallelujah.” But there are times when I really do try and focus and listen to her, and really listen, but I have to remind myself. I have to be very intentional about it. She is not asking for my advice here. She’s just wanting to talk, and wanting to share, and perhaps work through something. I will listen, and when you really start to listen, then you can ask the questions to draw out, and you get a much, much better understanding, not only of the issues, but of the person you’re interacting with.

You really get to know someone. My wife is so skilled at this. It’s amazing. No matter where we are, in what community, she knows everybody. For many years in her practice, people would walk in, and she hasn’t seen one of these patients for a year, and she’ll say, “Well, how is your nephew? Wasn’t your nephew going off to college?” Or, “How’s your granddaughter, and Doctor, how do you remember all this? She just does. She is very, very good at that, because she listens more than, better than most people I’ve ever had in my life. So, it’s a skill, and she practices it, and been practicing it for years. But I encourage you to do that. Just approach it from, I am trying to create an attorney-client relationship here that can be as effective and as positive as I can, moving forward.

I mean, that’s the mindset I would try to enter these situations in. The better we are at doing that from the get-go, from the very first contact, setting that right impression, I think the better, more effective you’ll be honestly as a lawyer, because we have a very, very good relationship established at the outset. Again, this, if I enter into a good relationship with you, my impression with you is positive from the get-go, we really get to a point where it’s much easier for me to trust you. It’s much easier for me to share things. I see this as honestly long-term, even risk reduction, because you’re going to have a client, I think in most situations, you’re going to establish a relationship with a client that will be a positive one, even if negative things happen.

If the outcome isn’t necessarily what I expect, but if the relationship is positive, I don’t walk away from that going “Well, man, I didn’t see that coming. This guy’s a complete idiot.” No. Things happen, and I can hear and understand, well, sometimes a jury sees it a little bit differently. I don’t know how these things play, but you get the point. So, okay. I’ve rambled on here long enough. I hope you found something of value with these little stories and a few thoughts on first impressions, and I look forward to visiting with you next time here on ALPS in Brief. Hey, that’s it. Have a good one, folks. Bye, bye.


ALPS In Brief Podcast Intro/Outro Music: Walk In The Park by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.



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Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 600 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.

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