Not only is client feedback important, but in past posts I have sung the praises for in-house client feedback programs that demonstrate to clients the firm’s management is sincere in determining whether the client is satisfied with the law firm’s services.

An article in last month’s Strategies, the journal of the Legal Marketing Association by Joyce Smiley wrote about providing real value to clients with satisfaction surveys. Her article covered two points that I agree with. First, the firm should conduct client feedback surveys, and secondly, that law firms need to develop a “complete program” after a few initial successes.

Smiley mentions three surveys, two by The American Lawyer. One late last year where only "2% of the responding firms made the effort in 2008 to meet with their top 20 billing clients. The other survey was of in-house counsel members of the networking site Legal OnRamp who "reported that their outside firms don’t even bother with client satisfaction surveys." The third survey was of LMA’s members that showed that in 2008 client feedback was “respondents’ lowest (budget) priority.”

Okay, so the message is clear. Client satisfaction checking wasn’t a big deal in 2008. And based on this year’s marketing budgets, you can be certain that they ain’t lookin a whole lot better for 2009.

The bright side is that a few firms are taking a longer term view by actually establishing in-house feedback programs, as I reported in an Of Counsel article last October. One firm I mentioned, Duane Morris (who unfortunately let their “client interviewer” go with a round of staff layoffs just before the article went to press), was also highlighted by Smiley. It’s good to hear that DM’s program is still ongoing.

Whether the firm has an in-house program or uses outside consultants for their client satisfaction surveys, they need to be careful that the feedback programs are not perceived by clients as just another marketing fad. Smiley reports in her article on how one in-house counsel, who was asked to be part of a client panel at a law firm, felt that the discussion was really about marketing, rather than client satisfaction. Moreover, this in-house counsel stated “we’re going to do (performance reviews) internally,” since the law firms weren’t serious about doing them themselves.

  • Lesson One: Conduct client satisfaction surveys (whether using an in-house program or an outside 3rd party) or you can be certain that the client will be riding that horse; and
  • Lesson Two: Be sincere (make sure your efforts come across as truly seeking feedback and relationship building), and the marketing will take care of itself.

It has been a couple of years since I looked at 365 Marketing Meditations: Daily Lessons for Marketing & Communications Professionals. This handbook of snippets produced by Richard Levick and Larry Smith of Levick Strategic Communications, is a goldmine of useful, pithy sayings useful to the legal marketing community.

 

I picked it up today for an idea for a post (okay, okay, I’m having writer’s block). Today’s meditation is:

 

“Observe a small need and fill it. If a client complains mildly about how his phone wire is always getting tangled up, send him a phone line detangler! He’ll think of you every time he makes a call.”

 

Irrespective of the fact that the world is mostly wireless these days, and the fact that I don’t have a clue what a “detangler” is, the advice is still valuable. 

 

So, what does/do your top client(s) need? You don’t know? Hmmm.

 

Do your competitors’ know? Could they find out? Hmmm.

 

Visit and talk with (i.e., listen to) your clients. Today, April 23rd is a great day to start.

Doing a good job for your clients, keeping them informed, not overlawyering or overbilling, treating them with respect, and visiting your clients off the clock are just a few of the ways you can bring value to your client relationships.

Jim Durham, formerly CMO at Ropes & Gray in Boston, spoke to the Delaware Valley Law Firm Marketing Group recently and equated the phrase “Listen to Your Clients, Stupid” with the KISS truism.

Not only is listening to clients simple, it is vital IMHO.

Jim’s speech, as recounted by Julie Meyer on Law.com’s Small Firm Business, addressed successful marketing principles AKA listening to clients by providing value and seeking feedback.

Some of Jim’s suggestions included:

  • Asking clients for input to your business plans,
  • Communicating effectively,
  • Seeking and responding to client feedback,
  • Listening to clients (at least 50% of the time, I might add),
  • Showing clients you care, and
  • Offering alternative fee options.

Retaining clients basically boils down to whether they value your services, and that may equate to whether they had a good experience in dealing with your firm.

Jim also highlighted two signs where clients may not have had a good value experience:

  1. When a firm is asked to respond to a client’s RFP, and
  2. A client mentions the name of an attorney with another firm in response to the “Who is the best lawyer” you have ever worked with?

So again, how would your clients value your services?

If you really want to make a difference so that clients remember you and send you referrals, then a story Trey Ryder tells about a doctor may help. As the story goes, Trey was talking with a small business owner who told him that 15 years earlier his wife’s doctor called on a Saturday to check on how she was doing.

There are two impressive aspects to the story. One, that a doctor called on a Saturday to check on how a patient was doing after surgery; and second that the patient’s husband was still telling the story 15 years later.

Now that’s some awesome word-of-mouth marketing. Funny thing is that same thing happened to me. I still talk about the call I got a few years back from my doctor at 6:00 p.m. on a Saturday. He was calling because he had just gotten back from vacation, and wanted me to know right away that my blood tests came out fine. (Of course, I didn’t mention to him that my blood pressure nearly went through the roof by the very fact that he called on Saturday evening – but why ruin a good story.) I’m not sure how many patients I have sent him since, but heaven knows I have sure recommended him enough times.

So, why not do the same. Pick up the phone and call your client after a matter is completed and ask how they are doing, how you did, and is there anything else you could assist them with. In fact, why not call a client when it’s least expected and bring them up to date on a current matter?

As Trey concludes:

“… when YOU pick up the phone, and YOU take time from your schedule to call your client, that’s significant! That’s what your client remembers. And that’s another reason your client will return in the future — and send referrals.”

A panel of general counsel at the September meeting of Legal Marketing Association’s Metro Philadelphia Chapter told the audience that they REALLY crave better communications and efficiency from outside counsel.

As reported on Law.com’s Small Firm Business by reporter Zack Needles, the GCs:

 

Don’t Like:

  • “centralized attorney structure” (where client must go through a senior lawyer not working on the matter, rather than just dealing directly with lawyers who are);
  • Relationship partner being too involved (thus, creating less efficiency in handling their matter);
  • Glossy advertisements, “trumpeting “firm accomplishments, which have “little bearing on (the) opinion of a firm”;
  • Formal RFPs (although apparently one or more have used them), and especially where firm sends big guns (who won’t be working on matter) to the presentation; and
  • The firm adding new attorneys to a matter, and finding out about it on the bill.

Do Like:

  • High-level partners staffing a matter properly, but being available to answer “a particular question”;
  • “(W)illingness and ability to build trusting relationships”;
  • Web sites with greater emphasis on qualifications and accomplishments of individual lawyers, rather than the law firm;
  • E-mail alerts (vs. chatty newsletters) with “substantive law updates” relevant to their company (“No. 1 marketing tool” according to one GC);
  • Keeping GC informed of what’s going on by providing regular status updates; and
  • “Detailed progress updates” on bills (vs. just work effort).

It is no surprise that in-house counsel what better communications and efficiencies from their outside counsel; and it behooves law firms to do a better job of both, particularly in a down economy.

I’ve been doing client interviews since 1990, and I know they do two things well. One, they can save clients before they leave the law firm for another (I really have a dynamite story on that point, but it will take too long to relate it here, so call me if you want to hear it). Second, it leads to new work (first, because they didn’t leave you for that other firm; and because clients have problems sitting on their desk or nearby that they’ve been procrastinating on just like everyone else).

Bruce Allen’s recent article over on Marketing Catalyst hits the nail right on the head as to why client feedback works:

 

"Do not ever forget — in any relationship, professional or personal, the best thing you can accomplish as often as possible is to remind someone that they matter."

 

Clients want to know that they matter. Furthermore, I have found they want to be asked what their opinions are on the legal services provided, and the relationship in general.

 

In my experience, the reason most often cited for not conducting client satisfaction surveys is that partners will argue that if the client has a problem, they would let the lawyer know about it. As Bruce states, that is just plain "silly." I might go a step further and say hogwash. Rather, since most humans tend to avoid conflict whenever possible, they’ll just take their work to another law firm.

 

Bruce goes on to cite a blog post that my friend and colleague Jim Hassett did a couple of years ago over at Legal Business Development. I would concur that it is a good place to start, if a firm is interested in "getting (its) act together” about seeking client feedback.

There has been an interesting discussion going on over on both the LMA (Legal Marketing Association)’s listserv and The LawMarketing Listserv (membership required for both) the past few days about what a small law firm should do when BigLaw moves into their marketplace.

My take: First of all sit down, relax and have a good laugh. Because, unless the mega firm is moving into town for reasons relating to an existing client or a local merger, they really aren’t a threat in my opinion. I say that because:

  • They’re too expensive for most of your clients,
  • They are an unknown quantity, unless they merge with a local firm (and that will only make your old/now larger competitor more expensive),
  • Smart businesses will know that unless they are a large corporation themselves, they will just become a smaller fish in a bigger pond,
  • Most of your clients don’t know anything about the firm nor would have any reason to go to a larger firm, and
  • Most importantly, BigLaw does not or is unlikely to have a relationship with your clients, and you do.

Secondly, over the years I’ve seen law firms move into different cities where my law firm was located, and where the new firm had no prior presence.  I’ve seen these firms struggle and I’ve seen some leave town after a few years. Moreover, I’ve been in a couple of large firms, where many of the lawyers were not particularly good marketers (not for lack of effort on the part of the marketing department, I might point out), but because they had no interest in marketing or were convinced that the work would always be there.

 

Finally, there really isn’t anything to worry about, as long as you have excellent relationships with your important clients.

 

You do have terrific relationships with your clients don’t you?  If not, stop laughing, because you may indeed have a problem.

 

But there is a solution.

 

Identify those clients that you would not like to lose. Let’s call them your key clients. Immediately plan to visit these clients (off the clock), and seek feedback on how your firm is doing, and what you could do to be a better legal services provider. It’s pretty late to be doing this, but not too late.

 

So, I don’t see a serious threat just because a large firm moves into your marketplace. Although they may be a gorilla, that doesn’t mean they will be successful in luring your clients away. The only danger in my view is where your law firm has given your clients reasons to look to the new law firm for services. And that means you have failed in the client relationship department.

There is no wrong time to seek client feedback about your firm’s performance. Not only should law firms ask how they are doing on current matters, but how they have done in the past, and how they can provide better service in the future. Although nobody likes to get bad news, it is better to learn if a client has an issue or problem prior to their walking away and never using the firm again.

Ed Poll in a recent post on his LawBiz Blog recommends that a law firm send a short survey with the first bill to a client rather than at the end of the matter. He has a point. I would agree that if a matter was handled poorly, requesting feedback after the damage is done and matter concluded, may be too late.

 

So, I would say that asking for feedback during matter is a good idea. But it is also a good idea at the end of the matter as well. The damage, if there is any at all, may not be serious enough that the client won’t use the firm again. Further, it would show the firm’s interest in how it did, and increase its credibility with the client for the next matter it might send to the law firm.

 

Moreover, in a recent roundtable discussion Ed tells us that the attending firms "concluded that it is very beneficial for the managing partner to periodically visit the top 10 clients of the firm."I agree. However, I would suggest that it is not enough. I would go further and interview all important clients. Further, I would suggest that it be done by someone other than the managing partner, who by definition has way too much on his or her plate.

 

In furtherance of that point, I would suggest setting up of an ongoing in-house client interview program, specifically for feedback. A few firms have started hiring full time in-house staff for that purpose, as I have mentioned. In this way, the program becomes institutionalized, and is not looked upon by clients as merely another law firm project.The important thing in all of this is that a law firm should be doing all it can to determine client satisfaction with its services, and how they can do things better in the future.

 

As Ed points out: "bottom line, we don’t exist in a vacuum. We must understand and know the needs and wants of our clients… And what better way to find (out) than to ask, directly." He summed up his post by saying "this concept caused the managing partners (at the Roundtable) to vow to make changes in their firms."

 

For the sake of their firms. I hope that is true. Law firms should seek client feedback at all times.

An article (available to Association of Corporate Counsel members) by Susan Jacobsen that appears in the April 2008 issue of ACC’s “Hands On” addresses some “Lessons for Law Firms” as a result of a GC panel discussion at the 15th Annual Marketing Partner Forum this past January.

Fred Krebs, the president of ACC, was moderator of the panel and cited results from the 2007 ACC/Serengeti Managing Outside Counsel Survey, specifically

“…noting that half of the survey respondents terminated relationship with some of their outside counsel during the prior year, citing failure to perform according to client expectations, high costs, and poor work product or results.”

Krebs then asked the three panelists (GCs from General Electric Company, Royal Bank of Canada, and Hasbro, Inc.) to address a number of topics relating to outside law firms, including communications, cross-selling (two examples cited turned out to be disasters), conflicts, marketing activities, knowing the client’s business, satisfaction interviews, use of websites, views of $180,000 starting salaries, and loaning associates to clients.

The lessons learned (or should be) that particularly stood out for me relating to marketing and business development include:

  • Constantly communicate with your clients (about their matters, problems, etc.),
  • Learn all about their business (“More than anything,…the firms that stand out are the ones that know our business,” according to one GC),
  • Seek client interviews to obtain feedback (all three GCs were in favor of doing this), and
  • Higher associate salaries are not favored (“…the rise in associate salaries in the larger firms provided a good opportunity for smaller, regional firms to be positioned for the business”, according to Jacobsen).

Main Lesson: Don’t be one of the law firms that clients show the door. 

For Survey’s table of contents and benchmarks…

Continue Reading Why Aren’t Law Firms Talking To Their Clients More

Two recent surveys really point out how important it is for law firms to stay very close to their existing clients. Not only by communicating constantly, but seeking feedback on how the firm is doing.

Why?

Because clients, especially in-house counsel, continue to be concerned about the costs of outside legal services. As a result, both surveys tell us that corporate counsel are going to bring more legal work in-house and fire outside law firms:

Accordingly, it behooves (gosh can’t remember last time I used that word) firms to stay very close to clients, so they are not one of the firms impacted by such moves.

Maybe that is why more firms are hiring or have dedicated in-house persons focusing on seeking client feedback.  Best to know if there are issues that need to be addressed before your firm is one of those shown the door.