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  • December 13, 2016

    Converting Calls to Mediation Clients

    You spend money advertising to make the phone ring – but what do you do when the phone actually rings? Lisa Derr discusses the key components to successfully converting that caller into a paying client.

    Lisa L. Derr

    middle aged business woman takes phone call at desk

    Dec. 13, 2016 – Although mediators and attorneys often spend a significant amount of money to generate phone calls, relatively little thought is given to systematically converting those calls into clients. The first call is critical in screening for appropriateness, capacity, and domestic violence issues, but the focus here is on caller conversions.


    Have you identified the type of client you would love to help? “Anyone getting divorced” is too broad. (When I started my practice, my ideal client was any live body.) But marketing only to your ideal clients results in higher conversions, which grows your practice. In addition to identifying your ideal client, what specific information do you need from each call and how you will track the call conversion rate? Excel and many online software programs are available. Last, what information about your practice/procedures is important to convey to potential clients in every call?

    Focus of the Call

    After a brief initial statement by the caller, some eager mediators launch into an almost-recorded onslaught of their practice and qualifications1 to the point that the caller wonders, “Who put a nickel in her slot?” The best calls begin with open-ended questions based upon a loose script along with significant information gathering, empathy, and active listening.

    The ‘Nudge’ Factor

    I just read a fascinating article, “Dealing with Resistance in Initial Intake and Inquiry Calls to Mediation: The Power of ‘Willing,'” by Rein Sikveland and Elizabeth Stokoe.

     Lisa L. Derr Lisa Derr, U.W. 1987, is a partner with Derr & Villarreal in Beaver Dam, Oshkosh and West Bend, where she concentrates her practice in family law and workplace mediation.

    The researchers acknowledged “Nudge” theory, where subtle interventions improved decision making while maintaining freedom of choice. See the book review by Benjamin M. Friedman on Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, The New York Times, Aug. 24, 2008.

    They described how “subtle changes in wording can influence people's subsequent behaviors without explicitly telling them what to do.” They pointed to prior research (Bryan, Adams, and Monin, 2013) which found that participants were more likely to resist cheating if they were advised against being a cheater (“Please don't be a cheat”) rather than if they were advised not to cheat (“Please don't cheat”).

    The implied difference is between behavior, “cheating”, versus the morality of the person who may be a “cheater.” Most people want to be seen as a good person.

    The Right Word Matters

    In mediation sessions, we’ve all occasionally experienced the profound impact of the right word at the right time. Rein Sikveland and Elizabeth Stokoe researched how significantly the right word at the right time matters in that first call.

    Instead of testing some specific phrase or word that might convince callers to sign up for mediation, the authors studied hundreds of conversations between live callers and mediators/call takers to identify practices that actually worked. Using a data-driven approach, they studied hundreds of transcribed conversations2 between mediators and callers and found specific wording which nudged callers to agree to mediation.

    The most striking nudge was the word “willing.” If the mediator asked if a prospective client was “willing” to mediate, the caller aligned positively. If the mediator asked if mediation sounded “helpful” the caller focused on reasons why it would not be helpful (e.g., the other party). They theorized that asking “Are you willing?” shifted the focus to the caller's moral identity. Are you the kind of person who would be willing to do mediation?

    After reading this, I did an informal study with a broad sample of two calls. Previously, we asked the closing question, “Is this something you would be interested in?” While callers eventually said yes, it did not elicit an initially overwhelmingly positive response. But when I asked, “Would you be willing to participate in mediation?” both times the caller enthusiastically answered “Oh yes.” The result was interesting, if not persuasive.


    As with most things, timing is key. Rein Sikveland and Elizabeth Stokoe found that even though mediators asked if the caller was “willing” when it was asked prematurely without an explanation of the process, mediators received a more muted, hesitant response.

    In my experience, clients want at least a general explanation of mediation. But most people do not want that immediately. In fact, they need to discuss their problem first. We try to follow the general rule not to discuss any details of the process until we are asked.

    Measure Twice, Cut Once

    Before you make your offer to the caller, gathering necessary information as well as establishing rapport are critical in this first call. To measure the effectiveness of our web, radio, etc. campaign, we must get detailed information as they describe their situation. People accept initially being asked their name and address but more detailed information must wait.

    As the caller speaks, we continue to listen, asking short, open-ended questions. “What’s happening now?” - based on their lead, we may follow up with any number of questions including domestic violence screening, all the while quietly typing notes into our system.

    Conversations ebb and flow. When the tone is lighter, we begin to ask more specific questions that enable us to measure the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and conversions including, “How did you hear about us?”

    No No’s

    Callers can’t be rushed. They shouldn’t be interrupted. This isn’t the time to argue the benefits of the most wonderful conflict resolution option of all time. No one wants to feel like they’re in a high-pressure sales car lot. Reluctance must be met with compassion and, if necessary, letting them go.

    Follow Up

    While many sales call software programs have automatic follow-up calls or emails, one size does not fit all. We specifically ask every single caller if they would or would not want a follow-up and, if so, when. That reply is entered into our software to respect the caller’s wish.

    Focus on Process

    Rein Sikveland and Elizabeth Stokoe discussed their research on intake calls where mediators talked about the broad ideology of neutrality - “We don’t take sides.” Their study confirmed prior research (and my own experience) that clients do not want neutrality. Clients want someone “on their side.” After studying hundreds of conversations, it was clear that some mediators were more successful when they explained mediation more effectively, by discussing the general process of mediation rather than its philosophy about neutrality. In our practice, we focus more on the importance of confidentiality both in sessions and in caucus.

    Number One

    We have a text box in our software with the question, “What is most important to you right now?” Since we have added this question, I have never had a client say “I don’t know.” We ask this on every call because it differs for each person and it helps them prioritize and shows them that we care. Sometimes I can hear the change as callers slow down or breathe a deep sigh knowing that we truly care about what is important to them even from the very beginning.

    The Offer

    If we paid attention and took notes, we can make an offer based exactly upon the caller’s needs such as, “It sounds like you are interested in a divorce process that is not a financial burden and lets you take the time you need to figure things out,” or, “It sounds like your business needs a process for your top two advisors to confidentially deal with scheduling and communications issues.” This second example doesn’t mention finances because cost was not a factor.

    Once you have suggested a process that meets their specific needs, it’s time to let silence do its golden work. After an interminable amount of time, they will ask a question. If they do not, take a drink of water. Repeat as necessary. They will respond given enough time. Answer that specific question and give them general mediation concepts, always focusing on how it meets their needs.

    At this point, you can finally ask, “Would you be willing to try mediation?” Rein Sikveland and Elizabeth Stokoe found that the responses were so positive, they noticed a pattern of the caller’s enthusiastic answer overlapping the question. Incorporating a system which allows you to measure information along with what is most important to them will increase your conversion rates. I wish you many successful “overlaps.”

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Dispute Resolution Section Blog. Visit the State Bar Sections or the Dispute Resolution Section’s web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.


    1 a/k/a LAMIAF (Look-at-Me-I-am-So-Fabulous)

    2 The data set comprised about one hundred intake calls from five family mediation services and two hundred calls from five community services, all based in the United Kingdom. All participants consented to recordings for research purposes.

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    Dispute Resolution Section Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Lisa Derr and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Dispute Resolution Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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