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.

Often clients don’t actually fire law firms, they just walk away. Sometimes lawyers don’t even know it. The client simply gives work to another firm

I ran across a post that spells out numerous reasons law firms get fired on Mike O’Horo’s RainmakerVT site by Pam Woldow, and the telltale signals you should recognize.

Some of the common reasons include:

  • too many surprises
  • exceeding budgets
  • excessive lawyering and fees
  • lack of appreciation for client’s internal deadlines
  • indifferent communication and poor responsiveness to client needs
  • not understanding the clients business or industry
  • lack of fresh ideas or approaches to matters

So, what are some of the signals indicating your firm is in trouble:

  1. Slowdown in new client matters with lame client excuses;
  2. Your firm is one of several firms asked to respond to a client RFP;
  3. Challenges to the firm’s work product and processes, and invoices or some trivial issue;
  4. Unusual delays in clients returning calls or emails, or a break down altogether in client communications; and
  5. Your client contact blames higher-ups for whatever has become an issue in the relationship.

If you recognize any of the symptoms above, you need to change the situation ASAP, especially with key clients. That means contact, contact, contact containing continual (and meaningful) communication [okay, okay, a bit much on the alliteration]. The important point is you do not want to get fired by an important client for your failure to recognize what things could bring it about.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.

Not many would argue that clients hire lawyers and law firms they know, like and trust. Or they will use lawyers that were referred to them by people they know, like and trust. That certainly has been the belief of legal consultants like David Maister, who has professed such behavior over the years in his numerous books.

John Jantsch over on Duct Tape Marketing has a post on how organizing behavior is the future of marketing.   He identifies seven behaviors that will help buyers (read: clients) decide on trying your product or services. He starts with know, like and trust; but goes on to include four more: try, buy, repeat, and refer.

But to get clients to change their behavior, law firms need to change theirs first.  As Jantsch points out, contrary to the idea that content is king,:

“Today, marketing is about guiding a journey that the buyer wants to take rather than forcing them into the journey that fits our business model.

“People don’t really need more information, the need insight, they need guidance and they need an experience that allows them to behave like they want to behave. “

So, firms need to concentrate on messages that will encourage clients to get to know, like and trust them; and to:

  • try your firm,
  • have a good “buying experience”,
  • develop ties to the firm that will to ensure they repeat the buying experience, and
  • ultimately refer others because of their awesome experience.

Clients will only change their behavior as long as the firm gives them good reason to do so.  Selling them with content on your web site alone will not be enough.  Conveying marketing messages that encourages them to change their behavior is more likely the ticket.

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

 

There are many ways lawyers communicate with clients. Whether subtly or otherwise, they do so through their actions, as well as inactions. And either way, these “communications” (or lack thereof), all have a direct impact on the firm’s marketing success.

Brian Callan, a practice management advisor with AbacusLaw, sent an email article, with a play on the letters t-r-e-a-t, in which he suggests five ways to treat clients well, so they know you care for them and are working your tuckus off on their behalf.

Callan’s “secrets” to success include:

  • Timeliness and Responsiveness. Get back to clients promptly (in today’s rapid communication world, that means ASAP or sooner) and be responsive to their call/email. Whichever way clients contact your office, I strongly suggest that you return it within an hour, no more than two. If you are not personally able to do so, then empower someone within your firm to return the call/email and inform the client as to when you will personally contact them);
  • Empathy. Clients want to be listened to and understood. Included in that, I would add, is the need to be treated with dignity and respect, rather than treated as a lesser human being because they didn’t go to law school);
  • Assurance. Obviously, lawyers cannot ethically guarantee results or the outcome of a matter. (That is not to say the you shouldn’t assure clients that you will work very hard to get the best possible result for them); and
  • Tangibles. Send clients copies of letters and other documents, and keep them advised as to the status of their matter. (Two state bars I am familiar with report that 80% of grievances filed against lawyers are the result of a lack of communication and/or inattention to client matters). So, demonstrate in tangible ways that you are working hard for them.

Accordingly, if you are not doing all these things as a minimum, you are making critical marketing mistakes.

As the saying goes you can’t win ‘em all. Some cases or transactions are not going to end well. Don’t beat yourself up over it. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be concerned over a disappointed, or worse, angry client over the outcome of a matter.

A post by Ryan Sullivan on Attorney at Law addresses those situations “When Clients Get Upset Over The Result.”  She provides five tips on how to avoid and/or deal with “a client’s anger over a not-so-happy ending.” They include:

  1. Don’t over promise or under deliver.  Lawyers know that it is unethical to create unrealistic expectations or guarantee results. Most lawyers also understand that while trying to land a client you do not want to overemphasize “doom or gloom” either. So, it is very important to minimize promises and to explain realistic options;
  2. Keep the client involved during the process.  Sullivan suggest that you want to let the client know how hard you are working for them, and how things are proceeding.  But, don’t only communicate the good things that are happening.  A client needs to know about the good, the bad and the ugly as things proceed.  Surprises is what angers clients the most;
  3. Prepare in advance an explanation, regardless of the outcome.  Planning is always a good thing.  So, plan to explain, which ever way things turn out, as part of your normal routine, especially in the case where it doesn’t turn out so well.  During that session, listen to the client, execute your prepared plan, and schedule a follow up meeting after the adrenaline has subsided, and “there’s been a time for cooler heads to prevail;”
  4. Keep your cool. As a professional, it is important to maintain the emotional high road.  Since you know that you can’t control what a judge or jury will do, or an opposing counsel’s tactics, it is your responsibility to remain calm, be sympathetic and show concern.  But, you need to focus on your professionalism, no matter how unhappy you are on a personal level; and
  5. Keep the big picture in mind.  Remember that you can never win them all (even though they told us in law school otherwise).  Don’t forget that the most important person to you is you, and to your family.  You need to move on no matter how angry the client or the outcome.  Don’t let the situation, as Sullivan puts it, “define who you are or how you practice law” going forward (except to correct your screw up of course, if applicable).

How you conduct yourself in these situation will impact your reputation, and how and what the client says about you.  It is a marketing issue.

In the good olde days, “legal services” was consider one word.  And it meant the legal product(s) produced by lawyers; that is, the complaint, contract, employment agreement, closing documents, etc. etc.  In other words it was all about the “legal” and had less to do with HOW the legal “services” were delivered or how the client was treated.

It comes as no surprise that that is no longer the case.  Moreover, we are part of a mature industry, and in a new normal in how lawyers ply their trade.  One reasons is that there are too many lawyers.  According to a ranking of the Top 50 law schools by AboveTheLaw.com blog, only 54% of 2012 graduates have full time, bar required jobs, and that only 10,000 of the 60,000 jobs lost in 2008 have returned.

In addition, in today’s mature market there is greater competition among law firms and between firms and non-legal providers (tax accountants, financial planners, and software), not to mention off-shore law firms.  Other factors such as lower realization rates, and alternative fee arrangements are all impacting the legal marketplace.

Thus, it is vital to hang on to the important clients you already have.   Your key or “crowned jewel” clients, if you will.  Believe me, what and how “services” are delivered has everything to do with keeping them.  Bottom line:  the services aspect of legal services is even more critical today.

Clients expect greater service and value. What are a few of these expectations? Meeting (or exceeding) deadlines, being responsive, excellent communications, no surprises, and, yes, some freebies – e.g., CLE, no charge for short phone calls, photocopying (major litigation/transactions excluded), and even some free advice.

So, what’s a firm to do to get on top of and ensure they are providing good client service?  Here are three suggestions:

  • Seek feedback – before (to meet expectations), during (to see how things are going), and after (to see how things went and what could be improved) an engagement;
  • Improve communications – ask clients how and how often they want to be communicated with and about what (e.g., status reports, consultations, developing issues, etc., and whether by memo, email or telephone); and
  • Visit clients (off the clock) – to learn more about their business/industry, what concerns are keeping them up at night, etc.  This shows you are truly interested in the client’s business and, it just so happens, often leads to immediate new work.

If your firm provides quality client services, you will not only continue to get their work, but obtain new clients when they tell others about the quality of your legal (product) and services.

If you don’t know you’re not paying attention. Further, you probably are not communicating with them often enough.

Since communications is the biggest problem in all phases of life, it can result in disaster in business. Corporate America is constantly talking to consumers in one form or another, and always assessing their markets.  It should be no different for lawyers.

As I have discussed on this blog before, 80% of grievances filed against lawyers, with two state bars I am personally aware of, are due to the lack of communication with clients, and/or inattention to the clients’ matters.  The headaches those complaints themselves present for a lawyer should be reason enough to improve your communications with clients.  Unfortunately, that is not the case all too often.

Today’s meditation from 365 Marketing Meditations: Daily Lessons For Marketing & Communications Professionals by Larry Smith and Richard Levick of Levick Communications is succinct and to the point:

“What’s happened in the last two weeks that’s most important to your client?”

And, the point is very clear.  You need to be so close to your key clients, that you know what is keeping them up at night – whether it is business or legally related, or personal.  Again, if you do not know, you are not working hard enough at relationship building.

Working on a client’s matter is critically important, of course, but so is communicating with clients in a way that they welcome and prefer.  Not just about the case or transaction, but what’s going on in their life.  What is the most important thing to them over the past two weeks — or more recently.

Okay all you rocket scientists out there, you know that “good” is better than “bad.” So, why do some law firms still surprise their clients in bad ways.  By that I mean, fail to meet deadlines, fail to attend to and keep clients informed about their matters (the basis of 80% of grievances filed against lawyers BTW), as well as not communicating generally by not returning phone calls and emails in a timely manner, charging way more than the client expects without forewarning them, etc. etc.

Recognizing that the aforementioned all annoy the heck out of clients, why do some attorneys still do these things?  Don’t “they” realize it is dumb marketing?  Apparently not.

Rather doesn’t it make sense to do the kinds of things that surprise clients in favorable ways? Of course it does, say all you rocket scientists!

My friend Merrilyn Astin Tarlton on Attorney at Work highlights a number of surprises that will please clients. I too have been arguing the benefits of several of them over the years, such as:

  • Visit your clients off the clock. This is No. 1 on my “Kane’s Top Ten Marketing Tips” list. Thus, I am happy to see Tarlton place “go calling” first on her list of how to favorably surprise clients.  It simply involves dropping by or scheduling a non-billable visit to your client’s office to learn more about their business and “understand what their enterprise looks, feels and sounds like.” BTW it often leads to immediate new work;
  •  Befriend your client (criminal defense lawyers can ignore this one). Genuinely compliment your client on anything that they are likely to be proud of.  Relationship building goes beyond doing a good job for a client. Believe it or not clients are human too;
  • Help your client avoid future problems.  This is like seeing “the big picture,” according to Tarlton. Provide training and advice as to how to avoid legal problems that you’ve handled for the client. Yeah, they’ll be shocked by that one, but in fact, it will lead to more business and referrals from a very surprised client;
  • Under promise and over deliver. This one I’ve mentioned on several occasions over the years, and you can find reference to several posts on the topic here. Tarlton’s idea of promising it by Friday but deliver it on Thursday is exactly the point. Clients will truly be surprised, since they are more use to barely getting the legal product when promised, much less early;
  • Thank your clients for the business. As Tarlton points out remember “who is doing who a favor.” And I particularly like handwritten notes, sent in hand-addressed envelopes. Oh, an email doesn’t come close as a surprise factor;
  • Seek feedback. Yes, at various stages of your client encounters, ask how you are doing, how you did and what you could better in the future. Too few law firms bother (or are afraid to ask), so it does surprise clients when lawyers ask about their level of satisfaction with the legal services provided.

Actually, some clients are not surprised when firms do some or all of these things, because there are firms out there that are very smart when it comes to developing business.