In this episode, Chris Mullins, aka “The Phone Sales Doctor”, provides absolutely wonderful tips on intake specialists. Intake specialists are very important for personal injury law firms and all types of attorneys.
Chris Mullins discusses the difference between a receptionist and an intake specialist, screening question, training, empathy, salesmanship and general intake problems and solutions.
Chris is the author of Law Firm Conversions and Intake Specialists: The Unsung Heroes of Law Firms Worldwide.
Chris Mullins may be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 603-249-5878.
See all episodes or subscribe to the Personal Injury Marketing Minute here: https://optimizemyfirm.com/podcasts/.
Welcome to the Personal Injury Marketing Minute, where we quickly cover the most important topics in the legal marketing world. No matter how much money you spend on making your phone ring, if your intake specialist or receptionist isn’t converting a lead into a client, you’re losing money. There are a few important tips you can use to help convert your leads into clients. With us today as the author of Law Firm Conversions, Chris Mullins, who is “The Phone Sales Doctor” for intake specialists and attorneys. Thank you so much for joining us, Chris.
Oh my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Difference between Receptionists and Intake Specialists:
Intake specialists are important for any type of lawyer and law practice, but especially for personal injury attorneys. But there’s a fine line between an intake specialist and a receptionist. Do you mind walking us through what the differences are?
Yeah. I mean, I guess I would say in the old days, because I’ve been doing this for 25 years now, and a long, long time ago, you would find law firms of all sizes, small law firms and even large law firms, just using a receptionist to be what a receptionist is supposed to be, which is just greeting people, transferring the calls to the right person, getting them safely and in a timely way to the right person, passing the baton, but they also had them do an intake too. And I mean, just logically, it doesn’t work.
I mean, intake, you can have an average phone call be 30 minutes for a personal injury intake, and how can that receptionist focus on people coming in when we did go into the office, and we still go into the office right now with protection, but how could they do that plus be a sales person because that’s what intake is? What I do notice now is we’re focusing more on having reception and then having an intake team.
The difference is a receptionist is simply there to be the first impressions person on the phone initially before they get to intake and also to be the first impressions director when people walk in and to just guide people to get to the right place. And sometimes they do miscellaneous clerical tasks if the phone’s not ringing, but their priority is that phone and getting clients where they need to go and prospects where they need to go, not sales. Intake should be doing sales.
What Kind of Information Should Intake Specialists Generate?
That’s a great distinction. You talked about how the intake specialist call can be up to half an hour even, what types of information should an intake specialist be generating on that call?
Honestly, that question is a perfect question for the attorney or the attorneys at the law firm to decide, because they studied the law. They know what questions to be asked in order for the intake specialist to determine, does this person qualify based on these questions and answers that we can help them at our law firm. The intake specialist is not going to know the law, and they’re not going to know that. The lawyers need to get together and decide what those questions are. But in personal injury, the questions… Each law firm is different.
They run it differently. I mean, they can be questions like, how did the accident happen? It can be, did you go to the hospital? Was there a citation? Did you have your cell phone on? Did you give them your insurance information? Did you talk to the other driver? There’s all kinds of questions, but it really needs to be… They’re called screening questions, and they need to be designed by the lawyer and they should be at a minimum.
Sometimes I notice law firms have long, long list of questions for intake specialists to ask and a lot of the questions aren’t necessary. Just determine what’s the minimum amount of questions we legally need to have answered to know if we can help this person or not, and then have the intake specialist ask those screening questions.
That’s absolutely important because every call is going to be a little bit different, every case is going to be a little bit different, so things do need to be personalized. When somebody is asked a series of questions that clearly isn’t relevant to the type of case they have, they can tell that they’re being treated like just a number as opposed to a person and a prospective client. And as a prospective client, they can be really turned off by that lack of empathy to their particular case, even from the first call.
The Importance of Empathy:
I know that you have written quite a bit on empathy and that’s something that you find is a very important quality. How can you help people, intake specialists in particular, be more empathic to the people who are calling in?
Yeah, it really is… On one hand, empathy comes from the heart. So I believe that everybody, all humans, have love, care, and concern for other people, and they want the best for other people. But not all people, humans, know how to show that. They don’t know how to deliver that, even in their personal life, let alone their professional life talking to a stranger over the phone. And a lot of people are uncomfortable with empathy. I work with CEOs and managing partners, as well as intake specialists, and they’re just uncomfortable.
They feel like they’re crossing a line, a personal intimate line that they shouldn’t do. They also feel like, well, if I’m empathetic, then this person is going to want me to tell them an empathetic story of my own. So it is very difficult. It’s probably one of the most difficult things I have to coach people on, but I teach them to listen to the story. There is a story in the conversation. So as they’re asking screening questions, which is an internally focused task. Internally focused means we the law firms need these questions answered so we know what to do.
Those are internal questions. Do more of external questioning and focus, which means you’re focusing on love, care, and concern for that person and the relationship, and the best way to do that is to put your listening ears on. And when you hear Mr. Or Mrs. Smith tell you about their tragedy, their incident, whatever it is, with the accident, drop everything. Just stop. Stop talking. Stop asking questions and just give them some empathy.
And I usually will give students like a list of empathetic phrases that they can start with, but it’s good if you create your own, because I think people are more comfortable when they can say their own. But you can just say things like, “I am so sorry to hear that.” It can be that simple, or, “That’s a terrible situation, or I couldn’t imagine being in your shoes. Are you okay? You’ve been going through so much. I couldn’t even imagine it.” Teaching empathy takes time.
You have to provide examples and coaching and guidance, and you also have to give intake specialists permission to be empathetic, permission to wear their heart on their sleeves, permission to be vulnerable. And you have to coach them and guide them that yes, the people you talk to might start crying, and that’s uncomfortable for people. Even face-to-face down the street when you go for a walk and you bump into somebody, it’s very uncomfortable. You have to coach all of these things and teach them. But without empathy, you can’t convert.
Absolutely. And I think that those are all great points and great examples. And when people are going to a personal injury lawyer in particular, it’s always because something bad has happened and their lives had been turned upside down, and they need to turn to someone who is empathetic and who they can trust, not only on a legal aspect and on a professional aspect, but they can trust to help navigate through this process that clearly has their life in turmoil.
Let me just say one other thing about that real quick. What’s important with the empathy is it starts at the top. If you, the CEO, the managing partner, the COO, the attorney that owns the firm, depending on the size, you’re called something different, if you are empathetic to your team, then that will teach them empathy also. And then you also need to them permission to be empathetic, because mostly what we do as the leaders is we just give them the screening questions and we say, “Go for it.” We give them the impression that we want them to get on the phone and off. We forget because we don’t do it, empathy. That’s what we’ve got to do.
Other Important Characteristics of Intake Specialists:
That’s great. That’s absolutely true. What other characteristics should you be encouraging and coaching your intake specialists to have? What other traits should you be looking for when you’re hiring intake specialists? What other personality tidbits?
When you’re hiring, what you really want to do… They don’t have to have experience in a law firm, and actually it would be better if they didn’t, because they’re just going to bring baggage of what they knew from the previous law firm. And during the interview process, it’s a sales process for them too, and they’re going to sell you on the fact that, “Oh no, I can learn new things. I can wipe the slate clean and start over.”
But what’s going to happen is when they’re in that role, if they’ve already been in that role before, it’s going to come out, and they’re going to end up taking a stand that they know better. They know the answers. Their past and their experience is the correct way and I’m going to teach you how to do it. That’s what’s going to come out. Even if they don’t mean it to come out that way, it’s just natural because that’s their habit and behavior. It’s better to hire folks that have not been in the legal world, have not been an intake specialist.
It’s best to hire people first for integrity. Integrity is critical. Next is character. Do they have the right character? Ask them questions that relate to integrity and character. Ask them to tell you stories about their past. Not just the jobs, but in life in general. Do they have that love, care, and concern, spirit? Do they have strong work ethics? People that used to work at restaurants or in retail or on a farm, those kinds of folks are perfect because they are hardworking.
They get dirty. They’re on their feet all day. They work all kinds of crazy hours, and they work really, really hard. Those are the kinds of people that you want. You also could hire people that work in customer service or in call centers. Because, again, at a real call center or a real customer service department, they are run efficiently, and they focus on metrics, and they focus on sales. That’s the S word that most people don’t like to hear. They also focus on the other S word, scripts. Most people don’t like to hear that, but you need to use them.
They’re used to sitting at their phone all day long, taking calls, all kinds of calls, selling, cross-selling, upselling, handling disgruntled people. So they’re already used to sitting there and doing that. These are the kinds of people that you want. But I would say first and foremost is integrity and character and some history on them giving examples of where they came from, examples on work ethics, that sort of thing.
That’s fantastic to build up a great team of people that have a great diverse background, who have experienced working with people and customers in all walks of life and helping them to navigate towards the next step, whether it is a conversion into a client or conversion into a sale. Those are all incredibly important aspects. Once you get the right people in place and you get them talking to the leads, I know that from our experience listening to LSAs and helping to manage LSA accounts, we’ve heard some really great intake specialists who are very empathetic.
Note: We read Intake Specialists: The Unsung Heroes of Law Firms Worldwide ourselves and it is a must read.
How To Kill a Good Lead:
They can ask the right questions, and they can really help convert this lead into a client and bring it to the next step. There are some other calls that we have helped navigate and listened to and provided feedback on that are not so exceptional, either the intake specialist forgot to get the person’s name or phone number, or just basic information. But in your experience, what are some of the things that can kill a call?
Having no empathy will definitely kill it. Just forget about it. It’s over. The statistics show that prospective clients will call three to five of your competitors before they make their final decision. They might make a decision to work with you during the process, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to hang up and do their due diligence and call the other law firms. We’ve got to keep that in mind. You also got to keep in mind that there are… Write this down. There are no do overs. That’s it.
You already spent the time, money, energy, and effort in marketing dollars with the right folks, like you guys, to get these leads to come through, and you only have one shot, one call, from the start to the finish. You got to take that ball over the goal line. You can’t redo it. Just one shot. That’s all you have. Those things are really important for people to keep that in mind, to keep in mind of this competition, to keep in mind this is about providing help and healing and building relationships to this person.
But at the same time, we’re in business and it is sales. We do want to focus on converting. Making sure that you get the name of the person at the beginning of the call, the very beginning of the call, and use it throughout the call. And if somebody is calling on somebody else’s behalf, get the person’s name that’s calling and the person they’re calling for, and then use both names throughout the conversation and build the story. The other thing that’s really important is to ask permission to ask questions.
After you’ve welcomed them… We have like a five step relationship sales conversion script that we teach people to use. The first step is to welcome them to your firm. The next thing is to go ahead and get their name and use their name in the conversation. And then another step is ask permission to ask questions before you ask the questions. Before you dive in and ask those screening questions, ask them. Say, “I’d like to ask you some questions to see how we can help you. Would that be okay?” And wait for the answer.
Now this person knows… First off, you’ve controlled the call. You’re in control, and they see, “Oh, they’re the driver. They’re in control,” and they’re feeling a little bit better because you’re warm and you’re smiling, and you’re telling them what’s going to happen next. And they’re realizing, “Oh, this is the process,” because they don’t know the process. “Oh, they’re going to ask me some questions, and I just gave them permission.” They didn’t just dive in and sound like what we call license and registration.
Asking those intake screening questions like your license and registration or it’s like a survey. You don’t want to do that. And also, doing these little steps helps the intake specialist, because they have a very difficult job. They have chosen a very difficult career. They can easily take on the trauma of the people calling. It’s a whole nother issue to discuss someday. But after they get permission, then they go into this screening questions. But when you ask screening questions, what I want you to do is I want you to sing and I want you to check in.
Singing means as you ask the questions, annunciate and change the inflection and tone of your voice as you ask the questions, just like I just did, and soften your voice. Don’t just drill down to the questions. “And my next question is. And now the next series of questions I might ask you might be a little bit difficult, but we do need to ask them. If you need a break, let me know. That’s hugely powerful.” So soften your voice in saying, and then the check in is periodically. As you’re asking the questions, simply check in with them.
“So Mrs. Smith, is everything okay so far? Did you have any questions about what I’ve mentioned so far? Okay, great. Now, Mrs. Smith, I want to double-check something and then type it into my computer. I think you just said XXX. Did I get that right?” “Yes, you did.” “Fantastic. Great. Just a few more questions. You’re doing a great job.” Compliment them. That’s part of the check in. “You’re doing a great job answering these questions, and I want to tell you that you made the right decision calling XYZ law firm today. This is all we do.
We get questions in cases like this all the time. You’re in good hands.” And that can be part of your screening question process. Those are the things that you need to do. That’s empathetic. It’s salesmanship. It’s love, care, and concern. They have a higher likelihood of telling you the truth. Don’t think just because you’re asking intake screening questions they’re going to tell you the truth, right? You want them to tell you the truth.
And then the next thing that you want to do, and notice how I laid this out, the next thing I want you to do is get all the contact information. First, your relationship and your conversation is top heavy. Relationships first, business second. Most law firms immediately say, “Can I be first and last name? Can I have the phone number you’re calling from in case we get disconnected? Can I have your address? Can I have your email? Can I have your cell number?” They just go into all of that.
Now, if you want to say at the beginning, “Can I have your phone number just in case we get disconnected,” that’s okay, but do it in a singing kind of way and always repeat it. But me, I just laid out how to ask the screening questions, the style to do it, the way to do it with salesmanship. And then the next step is now you get their contact information. Now you say, “Okay. Now that we’ve gotten all this information that we need to see how we can help you the best, let me just get down your contact information.”
Tell them what you’re going to do, and then ask for what you need. Get everything. Spell it all back. And then say to them, and this is like the call to action, then say to them, “Okay. Well, Mrs. Smith, based on what you said.” Now really important to say that, because you’re about to tell them the decision, the call to action, which is salesmanship to whatever they said to you. “So Mrs. Smith, based on what you said, this is a case we can help you with and here’s how we can help you.” Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
It’s different for every firm. Or, “Mrs. Smith, based on what you said, this is not a case that we can help you with at this time, but here’s how we can help you.” Change your voice, change your tone, be positive, say the word help, and have some resources available for them, and give them some empathy and encourage them to not give up, to still call those resources, to still seek out help. And then the end of the call is really what I call the big red bow, and that’s where you kind of wrap everything up and you thank them for calling, and you tell them you look forward to whatever the next step was in the call to action.
Maybe it was an appointment. Maybe it’s a DocuSign retainer. Whatever it is, we look forward to you doing XXX. You remind them of the date and time if that was part of the call to action. You go ahead and you say to them what I call a verbal contract, and you say, “Now Mrs. Smith, you’re going to talk to attorney Jones today at two o’clock. If for any reason you can’t make it, would you just promise to give me a call at,” and repeat the phone number, “that way we won’t worry about you.
We can get you rescheduled, and we can give that time to someone else’s who’s waiting.” Question mark. Pause. Wait for the answer. And that’s how you do the call.
That’s great. Wow. What a great step-by-step approach to that. I know that that is so backwards and yet very profoundly helpful from what many attorneys out there are doing, where they do have the script, but it’s the wrong script, and it’s a very robotic and not very person-centric script. That’s so helpful and I think that that could be a very, very powerful tool.
Should Attorneys Answer the Phone Themselves?
One of the other things that I have noticed, and I would love to get your insight on this, is attorneys who answered the phone themselves, or the attorneys who take the call on the initial pass-through. What are your thoughts on that?
A couple of things. And again, I work with all kinds of law firms, all different size personal injury firms. They might have one intake specialist or one attorney or more, or they might have a really big firm, and everybody has the same challenges. Believe it or not. It doesn’t matter what the size is. The first thing is for the attorney to be the intake specialist and the receptionist answering the phone is really not the best way to run your business, because it’s not positioning you as a professional busy law firm that everybody wants.
It’s not the way to do it. If there’s a situation where a law firm has to do it that way, they have no choice for whatever the reason is, then you’ve got to do the skills that we’re talking about. You got to nail it. Just because you happen to be the attorney, doesn’t mean that you can just rush right through it. If for some reason you really have to, you got to nail it. Do it the right way. But I would recommend that you find a way to get at least one other person to help you.
How could you spend all this money on marketing to get leads, to get business, but yet you’re not protecting yourself to convert. So having an intake specialist that knows what they’re doing is what I call a marketing insurance policy. It will protect your leads. Now, the other question, which happens much, much more often these days, of having like say intake, then pass the call off to the attorney, that’s okay. It depends on the law firm.
If the law firm is organized and they have a process and they’re structured, it’s okay to have the attorney either double qualified if it’s the right person, then it goes back to intake again. It’s okay that it’s like intake first, attorney, back to intake. That’s not a worry. My worry is how was the call handled when it went from intake to attorney, back to intake? Was it the way we’re talking about? If so, awesome. No problem. It wasn’t like fumbling and everybody was on hold for like a really long period of time because of the transfer.
That’s not okay. Was the attorney, which I run into a lot, which is why we work with attorneys too, was the attorney terrible on the phone with no empathy and didn’t know anything about it? Then that’s not going to work. It really depends on how it’s being handled. And if it’s going to go intake specialist, attorney buttons everything up and it’s done and it doesn’t go back to intake, if it works for their numbers, it’s okay as long as everybody is doing what we just talked about.
Absolutely. Yeah. An attorney needs to be able to have these skills. Anybody needs to be able to have these skills as they’re talking to a prospective client and they are treating them as a human and trying to convert them into a long-term client to trust them with their business.
Thank you so much for joining us today. This has been highly informative, and I know that there are some great takeaways that attorneys will be able to implement right after doing these. And hopefully they will see some very impactful changes, and they’ll be able to coach their intake team. Thank you so much, Chris, and we look forward to talking to you again soon.
How To Contact Chris Mullins:
Contact Chris today and get your intake specialists and brand ambassadors the training they need.
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Phone: 603-249-5878
- Book: Law Firm Conversions
- Book: Intake Specialists: The Unsung Heroes of Law Firms Worldwide