We’ve all had clients we would like to fire, but may not have had the nerve or want to lose the revenue. I remember a story told at a conference I attended about the small law firm that spent hours at its weekend retreat discussing firing a client that provided 25% of their revenues. Many of the firm lawyers were frustrated in dealing with this client’s people, who could be very unpleasant, demanding or just plain obnoxious. Once the partners agreed on ridding themselves of the client, they spent, according to the story, two hours arguing over who would have the privilege of actually firing the client.
There may be a better way to deal with problematic clients.
According to an article by my colleague at LegalBizDev, Gary Richards, which appeared in the May issue of the UK Law Society’s “Managing for Success,” he suggests three options in dealing with an annoying or slow paying client:
- Change the situation. Either internally without involving the client or, if necessary to do so, then negotiate at the appropriate level to avoid offending your contacts and exasperating the problem. The five steps he mentions should help you with this option.
- Accept the situation. If your firm needs or wants the work irrespective of the feelings toward the client contacts, consider one of four reasons mentioned by Richards as “sufficient reasons to accept things as they stand.”
- Leave the situation. If neither of the efforts above prove fruitful, then let the client know that you will not be in a position to take on additional work, “if the issue occurs again.” Richards agrees this one is a tough choice, but may be the best one under the circumstances.
So, if you have difficult clients, Richards’ article is a must read.
Okay, maybe now is not possible or realistic. But, ASAP should be your mantra. Especially for clients, but really everyone. Yes, that means even those you do not want to speak with.
Monday’s meditation from 365 Marketing Meditations: Daily Lessons For Marketing & Communications Professionals, by Larry Smith and Richard Levick of Levick Strategic Communications, has a simple mandate:
“Return all calls (the) same day, period. Exceptions are as follows: None.”
There’s the story about the annoying client who called all the time, so the lawyer didn’t call her back. After a number of attempts to reach her lawyer, she gave up and called another firm about her cousin who had just been run over by a Coca Cola truck that ran a red light.
Another story was related by a lawyer I heard speak at a conference. He said he never goes to sleep at night without returning every call from that day. Even at 9:00 p.m. He said he usually doesn’t have the client’s file at home, but he extends the courtesy of telling the client what time in the next day or two in which he would get back to the client with more information. He said his clients loved it, and I believed him.
True story: my doctor returned from vacation and called me at six p.m. on a Saturday night to give me the favorable results of blood work done in his absence. NOW that was amazing!!! Of course, my blood pressure went through the roof due to his unexpected call, but you can be assured that I became a hell of a referral source for his budding practice.
If you really cannot return a call or email promptly, empower someone to do so on your behalf. They can let the person know when you will connect. If you want to grow your practice, always follow this simple, common sense tactic. Return calls ASAP!
When flat or fixed fees started to be bantered about in the last few years, partners in several of my firms said: “Won’t work for litigation, since it is too unpredictable.” Well, welcome to the new world.
A recent article by Catherine Ho that appeared on The Washington Post’s “Capital Business” raised the question about the death of the billable hour. She pointed out that five years ago only 28% of law firms “believed that non-hourly billing would be a permanent change in the legal industry.” That is according to the Altman Weil’s “2013 Law Firms in Transition” flash survey. In 2013, that percentage had grown to 80%. Amazing, even though there are those (yours truly being one of many) who believed that it was a definite trend just waiting to be fully realized.
Ho also pointed out how some large firms – Holland & Knight and McDermott Will & Emery – “have even ditched the billable hour model altogether for entire teams of people.”
What is the point? you may ask. The point is that offering fixed fees is smart marketing. Firms that do will have an advantage over law firms that don’t. Those that won’t offer fixed fees may just be sending a message to potential clients that includes: (1) we may not have enough experience in the practice area to predict how a case is likely to proceed, (2) don’t have a history of similar cases so we don’t know how much it will cost, and (3) are not willing to share in the risk.
So, law firms that are prepared to offer alternative fees, including fixed fees, have a jump on the competition IMHO.
I’m serious! The world has changed. In my 27 years as a legal marketer and in-house in several firms, I have never seen the situation more serious in terms of lawyers being de-equitized or flat-out fired for not bringing in business. Back in the nineties I was with law firms that quietly – very quietly – would advise partners to leave because they were not pulling their weight in terms of bringing in work.
That was the inspiration behind a post I did in the first month of this blog in January 2005. My post “Rainmakers Don’t Get Fired” discussed a messy firing of a partner at then named Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. As I pointed out then, I had not seen a rainmaker who developed significant business for themselves or other lawyers in a firm ever be let go.
And it is no different today. But, more and more lawyers will be let go in today’s tough, competitive legal world. The reason is simple. Clients are more demanding and less willing to pay whatever a firm wants to charge. Accordingly, there is and will continue to be much smaller pies to share, and too many partners do not want to “sell” or don’t know how. In the the “good ole days” most lawyers didn’t have to market, because their plates were usually pretty full, especially in BigLaw firms. So, not to worry. Things will be fine.
With the definite move to outsourcing specific work to smaller or foreign firms, and to the use of high quality, mid-size regional firms, it is only going to get worse for the non-producers in any size firm. It is time partners woke up to the need to develop business NOW!
Further, if your firm has a marketing department, don’t fool yourself into thinking that they will (or should) solve the problem. Developing business (selling) is primarily up to the individual lawyer. The marketing/business development staff is there to assist, guide and otherwise support the lawyers’ efforts.
Fellow legal marketing coach, Mike O’Horo had an interesting article last week about how lawyers avoid selling in favor of the latest marketing fad, which, of course, they hope means they won’t have to personally sell.
Well, folks. That ain’t going to cut it. More and more partners will get fired, if they do not get involved in serious business development efforts directly. Planning to do it won’t work alone. If you haven’t been developing business all along, you will need a coach to help you IMHO. He/she could be an internal coach (if you are lucky enough to have one in-house) or an external one that you feel comfortable working with. Because chances are you won’t pull it off by yourself.
Bottom line: time to start developing business or looking for a new job.
Over the years that I spent in-house as a marketer, I encountered a lawyer or two in most of my firms that were just plain difficult to deal with. Most people didn’t want to be around them. They just poisoned the well with their personality and actions, including bullying. Whether that be in terrorizing the staff or junior lawyers. They may even be a very good technical lawyer, but came across as a miserable human being nonetheless. And the worst part is they many of these type of individuals haven’t got a clue.
The reason for my brief rant (I’ll spare you the stories that involved last minute demands, or throwing items at people, or the one who couldn’t keep a secretary for more than a month) is thanks to Otto Sorts, the curmudgeon’s rant over on Attorney at Work yesterday. He tells the story about the Mordred (notorious traitor of King Arthur tales) in his firm. I’m not sure I’d refer to these types as traitors as much as a notorious jerks. The Curmudgeon proceeds to suggest several ways to deal with them, including: ignoring them, carefully standing up to them, calling ’em out publicly, and so on. Take a look.
So, what does this have to do with marketing?, you may ask.
More than you may think. Particularly when it comes to the people who have to work with such a lawyer. They are not as a rule happy campers. Accordingly, they may have a normal reaction and take their grief out, unintentionally I might add, on clients, referral sources and others in the world they come into contact with. They are only human after all, and a client demand could hit them the wrong way on a bad day. They may not even realize that their grouchiness could come across and be misunderstood by clients and others. It happens.
Law firm leaders should understand that not only do such people contaminate the atmosphere at their firm, but can have an adverse impact on its marketing efforts. Unfortunately, some firms put up with these individuals for far too long.
It’s been awhile since I harped on how important client satisfaction with their legal service provider is. Since starting this blog in January 2005, I have preached many, many times on how important feedback is for firms to retain existing clients or obtain referrals from them (See a few posts below on the subject). It started with my Top Ten Marketing Tips posts; and ranked No. 3 on the list in terms of prominence when it comes to developing (and holding on to) business IMHO.
With the significant changes in the legal profession that have occurred since the “second” great depression, client feedback is needed even more now. In fact, I should probably move it up to No. 2 on my list of best practices.
The topic has been mentioned in the Citi/Hildebrandt client advisory before, and it is again in the “2014 Client Advisory.” This year’s advisory addresses, under the topic of firm growth, three areas: organic growth, laterals and mergers. And under organic growth, it covers the issue of client feedback and the interrelationship with cross-selling, to wit:
“In Citi’s 2013 Law Firm Leaders Survey (LexisNexis® subscription req.)…57 managing partners of predominantly Am Law (sic) 100 firms described how critical cross-selling efforts have become….(T)he survey also found that while a substantial number of firms have a formal client feedback program, the majority (53%) do not.”
Two-thirds of those that have a formal program talk with clients about cross-selling; and those who don’t often talk about price. The advisory states that law firm clients more often ”talk about the importance of relationships with their firms.”
“Implementing a formal client feedback program is a key means by which firms can further cement their client relationships and capture greater market share.”
In today’s new world, it is important to solidify as many client relationships as possible in order to avoid reducing your firm’ market share. Nah, more than that, it’s critical.
Client Satisfaction Surveys for Law Firms
How Satisfied Are Your Clients? Ask Them
Client Interviews: Think Defensively
Client Interviews: Why They Really Are Necessary
Your success in landing new clients, or retaining existing clients for that matter, can relate directly to how they are treated when they contact your firm. I have commented in the past on this blog about the role of the receptionist and how important he or she is in terms of the impact it makes on visitors or those who call. For a couple of my posts on the topic, see links below.
In a recent post by Noble McIntyre on Attorney at Work, he addresses telephone etiquette. Why should you care you may ask? Because the telephone is probably your main source of contact with the outside world.
First, McIntyre talks about automated phone answering systems and other impersonal ways people are sometimes treated when calling law firms. I actually know of law firms (albeit small ones) that had no human answer the phone. Rather, they had automated systems requiring several prompts to get to an individual lawyer or a human. I totally agree with his comment that such systems “can raise time barriers, frustrate callers and make your practice seem impersonal.” Crazy, in a personal service business!
Here are a few of McIntyre’s common sense telephone tips:
- Answer promptly before the third ring. We live in an impatient world, and although three or more rings are not the end of it, punctuality when it comes to answering the phone is a VERY good idea;
- Whoever answers needs to do so in a most professional manner, and in a most “pleasant tone of voice”;
- Don’t have someone else (like the phone company’s computer) record your outgoing message;
- Don’t give the person the runaround or make them go through a bunch of hoops to just learn that your are not available and they can leave a voicemail; and,
- Train your receptionist as to who is who, especially when it comes to important clients. The second time I called my son’s law firm, the receptionist recognized my voice immediately. Granted some might say I have the voice of a rhinoceros, and maybe that wasn’t so tough for her. But, I was blown away. Think how your clients and contacts will feel.
I’ve often made the comment that the receptionist should be the highest-paid marketing person in a law firm, just as a cashier should be in a bank. Ridiculous I know, but think about how important they are. They are first and foremost the front line of contact with prospects and most clients. And you need to have one that has the proper etiquette and demeanor to handle those calls.
Don’t Fire Your Receptionist…
Receptionist Tells Client to Get Lost
In today’s competitive legal world, it is more important than ever to be a GREAT lawyer. That has less to do with your law school credentials than you may think. Of course clients want great results when it comes to their legal matter. Yes, your capabilities matter in that regard. And in the good old days that may have been enough. Not anymore.
In the new normal (and actually in the old normal for that matter) a great lawyer possesses certain characteristics that set her or him apart. And they actually play a bigger role in how “great” you are perceived by clients.
In a truly little (4” x 6″, 53 pages), but dynamite book published in 2006, those characteristics were spelled out by Jim Durham in what he titled “The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering.” Coming across this book again, I thought it worth a revisit and recommend it to your reading. The following is a brief summary of some of those GREAT characteristics:
- Always be available to clients;
- Know and understand each (at least key) client’s business;
- Give practical advice (in a business context), don’t just do good legal work;
- Add greater value to client’s business/situation;
- Personalize relationships;
- Deliver on promises (every time); and
- Be loyal and seek meaningful feedback.
Good lawyers may have some of these traits. Great lawyers exude them all. Oh yeah, they also do great legal work.
It’s been awhile since I wrote about flat fees as an alternative fee arrangement. I’ve covered the topic many times on this blog. I don’t see it as a current hot topic in the legal marketing press, but IMHO it is one that clients (at least non-BigLaw clients) are most interested in.
Think about it. Who likes surprises? No one, unless it’s the lottery winning kind. I don’t like bombshells when it comes to auto mechanics, plumber, electricians, or even lawyers I’ve retained in the past. I want to know what things cost, or least a damn good estimate. Fixed fees are one way to avoid unpleasant surprises for your clients.
So, I was taken with Patrick Lamb’s contribution to a free download on Attorney at Work entitled “New Math, New Money: A Lawyer’s Guide to the Changing Business of Law.” Lamb is a pioneer when it comes to opposing the billable hour. In the aforementioned download, he points out five client benefits with the use of fixed fees:
- Saves client/in-house lawyer’s time in reviewing bills;
- Increases predictability in the cost of legal services;
- Simplifies the client budgeting effort, particularly where the business and law firm have different fiscal years;
- Increases client trust that they are not being taken advantage of; and
- Clients don’t worry about the number of lawyers or that too senior attorneys are working their matter.
In today’s incredibly, competitive legal marketplace, it would be wise to improve your clients’ experiences by offering fixed fees. They’ll be a lot happier, at least most of them!