Well, 2015 is almost here. Time to plan your business development strategies for the coming year. One simple one (albeit a feared one by some lawyers), involves seeking feedback from clients to ensure (or improve) the quality of legal services provided. No one needs to be reminded of how tough and competitive the legal marketplace has become.

Mary Taylor Lokensgard, a former practicing attorney, has an interesting post on Attorney at Work today. She delves into the realm of asking for feedback, her take on what it is and isn’t, how to get it, the reason you ask for it, who to ask, what to ask, and finally, how to ask. It is worth a read.

I have my own take on some of her thoughts on feedback, and as usual include them often in parentheses.

  • What it is, what it is. It isn’t a blaming or defensive effort, nor intended to merely gain praise. Lokensgard prefers to call it “corrective feedback.” (In my personal experience feedback has been more positive than negative, and particularly helpful if done by someone other than the responsible/billing attorney. It is better done by the managing partner, the firm’s marketing director, or an outside consultant). She also talks about neutral feedback, which I had not thought about previously and I like it because, as she puts it, it might spark “a new idea that never would have occurred to you if left to your own devices”; and
  • How to get feedback. Start by asking yourself what you want to improve, and who, when and how you should be asking. (I’m not sure that many lawyers would know what needs improvement until they ask the feedback questions, quite frankly. So let’s go directly to the who, when and how);
    • Who should be asked? Obviously that would be clients and former clients. I’ve gained valuable information from asking past law firm clients, more good than you would think. Lokensgard also suggests asking the clients’ non-lawyer staff (not without clearing it of course), and other outside people you may come into contact with in your practice. That may include courthouse personnel, and judges and jurors (not without their permission);
    • When to ask? During and after an engagement. Also, one could seek feedback (more accurately input) at the beginning of the matter which could elicit good information about how matter should be handled. (Here’s Telephone Interview Questions) I often ask); and
    • How should you ask? I have argued for some time the best feedback is obtained in-person, next by telephone interviews, and last, IMHO, in written form. If in written form, I’d like Lokensgard’s suggestion of making the questions VERY specific and detailed enough to obtain a yes or no answer. Clients are busy people too, and often the reason they don’t respond well to written surveys.

The important thing to remember regarding any feedback or client satisfaction program, is that if you don’t do it and there are problems (minor or otherwise), your clients may leave for another law firm in this most competitive market. And you may not even know it until it’s too late.

Apparently not too many firms according to an online “Leadership Matters” survey (a collaboration of TheRemsenGroup and Sterling Strategies) reported on the Managing Partner Forum this week. The survey sought data on individual lawyer contributions to their firms in the areas of financials, client satisfaction, people development, and firm processes/procedures.

What particularly caught my attention was what 56 law firm leaders reported regarding client satisfaction; to wit:

91% have ‘limited’ or ‘no’ measurements of client satisfaction.”

 Ouch! The danger relating to that statistic should be self-evident.

Further, as it so happens, a post this week on Law Practice Matters blog by Erik Mazzone talked about why law firms should track client satisfaction.  It cited an article by the Australian Beaton Research + Consulting firm, which reports (based on 10 years of data, according to Mazzone) that like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, client satisfaction is “a leading indicator for the rising or declining fortunes of the law firm.”

It really doesn’t take a flash of brilliance to figure out that dissatisfied clients are the death knell for any law firm.  Clients may not even complain, they’ll just take a hike. Is there really any need for a firm to be convinced that it should undertake immediately an effort to determine if there key clients (especially) are satisfied?

Mazzone suggests two survey tools (Net Promoter Score and SurveyMonkey) that can help obtain client feedback. Personally, I prefer in-person or telephone satisfaction surveys over written or online ones. The feedback is better, more detailed and more reliable. (See an earlier post of mine on suggestions on how to do that.)

Every law firm better give a darn whether their clients are satisfied – by asking them and not relying on the billing partner’s say so – or they might just regret it.

If your firm has ever lost a client (yeah, I know), I hope you know why. Not think you know, BUT really know the reason(s).  My guess is that it was due to poor client relations and/or failure to produce value, or a combination of both.

An article by Aric Press, editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer in an article entitled “Why Clients Fire Firms”  on The AmLaw Daily this week talks about some reasons blue-chip, billion dollar companies fire law firms. (IMHO the size of the company doesn’t matter.)  The list consists of poor service, quality issues, and price (read value).  Also mentioned was failure to transition to a new lawyer when one retires or leaves the firm.  Transition in a solid, meaningful way.

The overall relationship – involving caring about the client’s goals, effective communications, working hard to produce true value for the client, etc. – all are extremely important. As Press points out, a main reason for firings: “severe lack of relationship between what the bills were and what the value was.” Let’s not forget that results also matter, but it is not always THE reason.

So, are you providing value? How do you know? Have you asked lately?  Ever? As Press puts it “[a]wareness, of course, requires a working feedback loop that connects to a firm’s client relations operation.”

If your firm does not have such a client “operating system,” and you haven’t sought feedback as to the overall relationship, you too could get a pink slip.  And, without regular feedback, you may never know the real reason why.

It continues to amaze many clients that more law firms do not seek their feedback on the legal services provided. Over the years I have met with dozens of law firm clients, and heard often that they welcome opportunities to provide feedback.

In this economy, client satisfaction surveys are more important than ever. The value of satisfied clients should be obvious. They will continue to send and refer work to the firm. The best way to ensure they are satisfied is to ask them. The two main reasons  you should be asking:

  1. Your competitors are asking them, and
  2. Your clients may be wondering why you aren’t.

A good time to ask clients for feedback on how the firm is doing , or did, includes during a matter and at its conclusion, and on an annual or biannual basis. Written or telephone surveys are okay, and better than doing nothing; but, the most effective surveys are in-person interviews of at least your top clients. The latter two should be carried out by the managing partner, other senior lawyer, or an outside third party; not by the attorney who directly works with the client. Some questions that might be asked include:

  • What is the firm doing well?
  • If there is one thing the firm could do better or differently to improve our services, what would that be?
  • Would you recommend the firm to others? Why (yes or no)?
  • Anything I haven’t asked that I should have?

Of course, you should ask specific questions about the firm’s responsiveness, quality of legal product, knowledge of industry, reasonableness of fees, and overall benefit to their business, as well. It is much better to ask before the client leaves for another firm, particularly if there is a problem that could be easily rectified. Remember, satisfied clients send more work and referrals.

So, how satisfied are your key clients? Are you sure?

The budget process for 2011 marketing efforts should be well underway in your firm; and clearly finding out how loyal your clients are is vital to your firm’s economic future, not only for the coming year but beyond.

Joyce Smiley in a recent item on her web site refers to a classic Harvard Business Review article “Why Satisfied Customers Defect” by Thomas O. Jones and W. Earl Sasser, Jr., that stresses that loyal clients must be more than just satisfied. Additionally, she quotes what several in-house lawyers had to say at the 17th Annual Marketing Partner Forum about tailoring services to each client.

To do that, quite frankly, you need to ask clients what they want, expect and think about the firm’s services. So, here’s five things law firms should seek from their clients and what can be revealed in the process, according to Smiley:

  • what clients want from your firm
  • “what problems you must address to strengthen and expand your client relationships
  • how to enhance your relationships to keep clients loyal to your firm
  • “the opportunities that could increase your firm’s business with its clients
  • “clients’ perceptions of your firm in the legal marketplace” (emphasis mine)

If learning what your clients’ satisfaction is with the services your firm provides is not part of your 2011 budget, it’s not too late to revise it.

The good news is that some firms are doing client feedback programs; the bad news is that they aren’t really getting the feedback they need. That is, the feedback questions are superficial, and don’t really offer the kinds of return that will actually benefit the firm in retaining the client over the long haul.

An article posted on the BrandThinking blog by Sue Allison contends that a firm’s feedback program may not actually “lead to satisfied clients.”

The Problem. Although 64% of the marketers in AmLaw 200 firms would like to conduct meaningful feedback programs in 2010, according to Allison “they’re having trouble selling the concept to attorneys and firm leaders who already believe they are doing client feedback.” (emphasis mine) But are they?

What a Feedback Program Is Not:

  • Conducting just 12 client interviews (one per month) over a year;
  • Fluid in terms of what questions are asked vs. structured questions to get at any in-depth problems with the relationship; and
  • Thinking that by merely keeping in touch with a client, that will assure that the lawyer will “know if there were a problem.”

What is Needed:

  • A “Continuous Client Value Program” that assures that “your clients feel your firm is really listening and acting to solidify the relationship,” and
  • Conducted by an in-house staff person or lawyer not involved with a client’s matters, or an outside third party in order to increase the likelihood of getting candid feedback.

Law firm’s need to ensure that their client feedback program is one that really works, and not come across to clients as lame or insincere.

As reported in today’s The AmLaw Daily some "Law Firms Cautious About ACC Ranking System." You may recall that the Association of Corporate Counsel announced their Value Index at last month’s annual meeting in Boston; and that it involves ranking outside law firms "based on evaluations from in-house lawyers." Apparently a number of firms aren’t too happy about that, and the anonymous nature of the evaluations.

Is it because they won’t see the evaluations, or because they’re being evaluated in the first place, that their unhappy?

Two thoughts come to mind. The chance that these evaluations will not be seen by outside law firms is nil. Even in-house counsel think that the outside law firms will get their hands on their evaluations. Why else would two thirds of them ask that their evals remain anonymous? So, it’s a foregone conclusion that law firms we’ll get to see their evaluations. Guaranteed. All they will need is one friendly in-house counsel.

Thus, it seems clear to me what firms may not like is the fact that they are being evaluated in the first place; and they may not like the evaluations, and the fact they don’t know who made them. Some consultants have even suggested that law firms “get even” by starting their own value index of in-house counsel. What bloody nonsense. I hope they were kidding. Just what a law firm needs, getting into a pissing match with the sources of its business.

The solution to all of this is quite simple. Talk to your clients. Ask them how you’re doing. Correct any problems. Then the evaluations will take care of themselves.

O-K-A-Y, I know it isn’t quite that simple. But, too few law firms even seek client feedback, and they should be very concerned about the evaluations they’ll receive. They could make a huge step toward favorable evals, if they institutionalized a client satisfaction program. End of fuss.

We were taught in law school, especially as it relates to witnesses at trial or depositions, to not ask a question that we didn’t know the answer to. It’s a preparation thing – as in 90% preparation and 10% inspiration to take some liberty with an old adage. Unfortunately, some lawyers carry the concept over to their client relationships and marketing.

Not a good idea, as it is counterproductive in developing business and building client relationships. In addition, there is the “assumption-factor.” And that involves the thinking by too many of us that we can assume to know all there is to know about the clients’ businesses, concerns, values, and the clients’ knowledge about the firm. This is not only bad thinking, it is dangerous as well.

Both of these concepts are addressed by Janet Stanton in the current issue of Adam Smith, Esq.’s newsletter where she talks about “The Power of Asking.” She tells an interesting story of what Sloan-Kettering discovered when it sought a better “understanding of the real concerns of patients.” Like so many things in life, they learned among other things that communicating is key.

So should law firms. And the benefits of doing so are significant. Law firms could learn, whether by asking clients themselves or using an outside firm like Sloan-Kettering did, that clients are not reluctant – in my experience welcome – the opportunity to tell their lawyers what they need and value. As Stanton puts it, “you are likely to hear ways to increase your work, and high-value work at that… The important thing is to ask.”

Amen. 

Do you know the real answer or are you just guessing? Those of us who provide client feedback services, and have reported how favorable clients react to satisfaction surveys, have an obvious bias. But that makes it no less important to ask your clients how you are doing.  I have written a number of times on the topic (see Continue Reading below for some of them), and Aronson/Heintz Associates has a thoughtful piece on their web site. And, last week Joyce Smiley reported on an article in the August issue of The American Lawyer by Editor-in-Chief Aric Press quoting him as saying that “It’s time to talk to your clients…You can either be part of their (clients’) deliberations and process, or you can be surprised by their conclusions.”

Therein lays the rub. If you don’t ask your clients how you are doing, and they have issues, you won’t be part of the process. And you may never learn about possible problems, even after clients have “migrated” to another law firm. It just doesn’t make sense to not protect your most valuable assets – current clients – at least the key ones.

This is so important that I even wrote (to my own potential detriment) in “Of Counsel” last October that it made sense to hire someone in-house full time to do them, as four firms had done. (Unfortunately, two of the four firms no longer have someone in-house dedicated to that role.) Whether you pay a consultant to do the satisfaction surveys or do them in-house isn’t the important point. Doing them is.

Client satisfaction surveys are so simple and relatively inexpensive, when compared to overall marketing budgets in most firms, that it is a wonder that many firms still don’t do them. When one considers that 70%-80% of new business comes from current clients or referral sources (often clients themselves), it is baffling.

So again, why don’t more law firms ask their clients if they are satisfied with their services? I want to say I don’t have a clue, but unfortunately I do. Too many firms are afraid to ask, or think they already know what their clients think, thus negating the need to ask.

Unfortunately, both are wrong answers.

 

Continue Reading Are Your Clients Satisfied With Your Services?

More and more it seems that in-house counsel are expecting their law firms to ask for their feedback. Even though “most general counsel and consultants say those law firms (seeking client feedback) are still in the minority and there isn’t nearly enough of this type of dialogue going on” according to an article on Law.com’s In-House Counsel.  I realize this is an old saw of mine, but it does appear that, with the growing popularity of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Value Challenge, it will become the norm.

Dan DiLucco of Altman Weil relates that when the attorneys at one of its clients were asked whether their “largest client was forced to cut” its legal budget this year, no one had a clue. As DiLucco put it:

“So what does that tell you… And that…is reflective of where a lot of firms are. They don’t have these discussions. I don’t know what they are thinking.”

The managing partner of one firm mentioned in the article, that has sought feedback through a client panel, said that “reaching out to clients in a proactive way shows a firm cares about their opinions, isn’t afraid to hear them and isn’t going to wait for the clients to take the first step.”

A wise model to follow, I would say, for those firms that want to be out there ahead of the curve. Not only do clients want to provide feedback, they don’t want to have to initiate the discussion.