Attorney Eric Tresh: Three Steps to Effective Business Development

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It’s one thing for a fulltime salesperson to master the art of the deal. But it’s something else when a professional from another discipline excels in sales. This rare “double threat” possesses technical competence, as well as the Emotional Intelligence (EQ) to develop new business and sustain relationships with large, sophisticated clients. Most colleges and graduate schools don’t teach selling. No law school does. So, how did tax attorney Eric Tresh learn to land new clients and keep current ones coming back to the global law firm of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP? By applying a thoughtful mix of IQ and EQ to back up his legal expertise.

Eric is a partner in Sutherland’s tax practice and represents national and international companies in their state and local tax matters. He has represented many of the country’s largest businesses in state and local tax controversies before Federal and state courts throughout the United States, provided tax advice on mergers and acquisitions, and testified on state and local tax policy matters.

“Everyone thinks they are going to be a litigator like Clarence Darrow, representing good versus evil in front a jury of their peers,” says Eric. But after completing an internship in tax law while in law school, Eric found his niche. “I found tax law to be intellectually challenging and interesting,” he says. Part of its appeal is that tax impacts almost every aspect of a business. As a tax lawyer, you have the opportunity to see how different businesses work.

Spend a little time with Eric and you’ll see that he’s an expert tax attorney who knows how to listen and who can help clients arrive at a better understanding of their own issues. “Clients don’t always come right out and tell you what the problem is,” he says. “Or in the middle of a project, they might not tell you that you aren’t doing well.” It’s that combination of know-how and emotional smarts that differentiates Eric and his team at Sutherland from a pack of otherwise well qualified lawyers.

Three qualities for successful business development

How does a high-level attorney switch gears from providing complex legal services to developing new business? According to Eric, it takes three qualities, each of which can be developed with some practice and a little patience.

1. Go beyond technical proficiency with solid teamwork. “You are not going to get hired as tax counsel to a Fortune 500 without a high level of technical proficiency,” says Eric. “These are sophisticated buyers. They can afford whatever tax advice they need. They can hire any law firm in the country.” Sure, there’s a threshold level of technical competence. You have to be really good at what you do. Professional excellence is required, but it’s not sufficient. Once the competency hurdle is cleared, says Eric, for buyers it becomes a question of whom they can trust. Who will dive in at a moment’s notice? Who will be available at 6 am on a Friday or 2 pm on a Sunday? Some years ago, early in Eric’s career, he was working for KPMG. “A national wireless carrier put out an RFP,” he recalls. “They were looking for a firm to assist them in conducting a company-wide review of all the state and local taxes they paid.” This was a huge project. KPMG bid against six other firms. After several meetings with their steering committee, including the Vice President of Tax, the CFO and the General Council, they called Eric on Friday afternoon and asked him if he would fly in on a Saturday. “I did that. I called in our team, worked through the night on Friday to put together a presentation and got on a plane Saturday 7 am,” he says. This happened early in his career. Eric ran with the project, met with company leadership and – thanks to the support of his team – closed the deal. “Team,” he says, “is everything.” In addition to expertise and a willingness to dive in, Eric has learned to gain trust by building relationships. “We make sure to spend time with our clients – grabbing lunch or dinner, or coffee for 20 minutes to understand what’s important to them,” he says. “And we do a lot of follow up. When a subject is important to our clients, we’ll write about it, publish articles about it. There are developments in state and local tax that occur every week. If we know a client has a California apportionment issue, we make sure we track it so we can follow up with personal emails about how the particular development impacts our clients’   business.

2. Be a specialist. As Fortune 500 companies spend more on internal resources, their budgets for outside vendors decrease, Eric notes. But there’s a silver lining for some vendors. “They spend more money to hire more sophisticated people – accomplished specialists and thought leaders in their industries – and that is good for us.” Therefore, become an expert, and be able to communicate about your specialty. Be able to write well, speak well and present well. Write articles, says Eric. Speak at conferences. People who can write and speak well, who can make an effective presentation, are the ones who generate more business, says Eric. Seek opportunities to make presentations at professional conferences and anywhere else that will get you out there and give you some exposure. “When I was three or four years out of law school, working at [the accounting firm] Arthur Andersen, probably around 1998, the firm participated in a conference called ‘The Taxation of Cyberspace,” Eric recalls. The theme was how sales over the Internet would eventually be taxed – something everyone was (and still is) concerned with. An Andersen partner allowed Eric to give a speech. “This partner gave me a shot.” A lot of people came up to Eric afterward, asking questions. “It felt good,” he says. “It was well received. And it allowed me to grow and have confidence.” Bottom line: If your managers don’t offer to let you make a presentation, ask for the opportunity – and show them that you’re prepared with a high level of expertise in a subject that matters to your clients.

3. Follow up with something relevant. “‘Nice meeting you’ is ok,” says Eric. “But ‘nice meeting you, we talked about California apportionment, and here’s an article that might interest you’” goes a lot further. “We require our team to read tax publications every day. The goal is for each team member to read a new ruling or an article and provide comments to our team members and clients. We send around comments on the most interesting pieces. There are all sorts of technical comments around each day’s developments. And that makes me, our team and our clients smarter.” There’s no hierarchy involved. Everyone – from first-year associates to senior partners –weighs in. It’s a daily conversation around current, complex issues that keeps everyone on their toes and makes a great impression on clients.

‘None of it works unless you obtain clients’

“My job is to be a good lawyer and get the answers right,” says Eric. “But over time you realize none of it works unless you have sophisticated clients with interesting issues.” According to Eric, “It’s a people business. You have to understand their problems and have a way to solve them.”

For professionals in any industry who need to – or want to – develop new business, keep in mind Eric Tresh’s three-point methodology: be an expert in your field and know your client’s issues; be able to communicate and follow-up effectively; build relationships and gain your client’s trust. It’s a simple equation: IQ plus EQ = Successful Business Development for anyone, and especially those in professional services.

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