It should come as no surprise that clients don’t like surprises. Who does?  Well, most of us wouldn’t mind being surprised with a nice Hanukkah or Christmas present about now. But, you get the point.

I have written a number of posts (three listed below) over the past eight years regarding the dangers (and benefits of a few) surprises when it comes to clients.  And I’m sure you can find a gazillion more on the Internet.

But, particularly around this time of year when law firms raise rates (or try to), that is a bad idea. That’s putting it mildly, according to Susan Hackett’s Corporate Counsel “annual rant” on the topic earlier this month.  I remember many years ago, when I was in-house as a marketer, the CFO informed the “C” level staff that the firm was going to raise rates for the third time that year.  In DECEMBER no less, to ensure the January bills reflected the increase.  Well, it was a different era, and I’m sure no firm would be crazy enough to attempt that today in the New Normal.

It isn’t just surprise rate increases that are a problem though.  Any unwanted surprises relating to a client is BAD.  Whether regarding missing deadlines, failure to keep them informed about their matter, bad news of any kind, and so forth.  It’s a value thing, and surprises are anti-value.

So, do not surprise your clients…except for that very nice holiday gift you are certainly intending to or have already sent. BTW, I like surprises this time of year myself.

————-

Clients Abhor Surprises

Surprise Your Clients!

Work on the Good Surprises, and Avoid the Bad Ones in Your Client Relationships

A recently released survey by LexisNexis® reported on an increased level of RFP activity by law firms of various sizes. (See Summary here).  The results surprised me somewhat for a couple of reasons.

Some results:

  • Close to half the 359 survey participants (41%) couldn’t tell how many RFPs they dealt with on a monthly basis (undoubtedly due in part to the lawyer-Lone Ranger syndrome);
  • The rest of the respondents reported  they handled an average of 5 to 16 proposals per month (with larger firms a bit higher) and 68% reporting less than 10 per month;
  • 42 percent reported an increase in RFP activity over the previous year;
  • The process consumes a LOT of resources over the year in responding to RFPs; and
  • Most shocking, only 58% of firms bothered to track wins and losses.

But what was most surprising to me is that RFPs are increasing, rather than decreasing.  Presumably, some of the proposal requests come from clients (which unfortunately was my experience in-house).  Which raises the question – WHY?

In the case of clients, it tells me that the firm needs to do a lot better at client relations work in the area of relationships, providing value and communicating more effectively.  You shouldn’t have to compete in this manner, if you are doing your attorney-client overall job properly.

So, avoid client RFPs by doing a more effective job in your dealings with your clients in the first place.

 

Thanks to RFPAttorney|The Blog for drawing attention to the survey.

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.

In a similar vein to the old real estate adage, in legal marketing it’s all about contact, contact, contact.  Two important factors need to come into play in building any relationship are how often you are in contact (with clients, referral sources and prospects) and what value those communications add to the relationship.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

In Trey Ryder’s recent newsletter there is an article by his colleague Tom Trush that identified these two elements as being “critical” to successful relationship building. Whether you’d agree that they are critical or not, I would argue that they are at least near the foundation for building any relationship. As Trush points out, building client relationships is not unlike a spousal courtship.  Common mistakes include rushing the relationship before a comfort level.    We know the clients hire lawyers they know, like, and trust.  It is vital then that they believe that their lawyer cares about their problems.

Accordingly, your business development efforts cannot come across as a sales pitch, but rather that the relationship is built on your caring and understanding the client’s wants and needs.  And that you show you care about them by giving them information that they can use in their business.  Some people, like Trush and Ryder, call that educational marketing.

So, the way to build relationships, especially with clients and referral sources, is to communicate often, a lot, frequently, repeatedly (okay, okay I know), and ensure that such communications are worthwhile, meaningful, valuable (enough all ready).  But, the ideas are worth repeating, if you hope to build relationships that benefit your law firm in these economic times.

Have you ever had a bad experience that totally turned you off to ever returning to a store, restaurant, auto mechanic, or whatever.  I have to admit that that has happened to me.  But, have you ever been turned off to a WHOLE city because of an unpleasant incident at its airport?

Patrick Lamb tells a great story on his In Search of Perfect Client Service blog about a women on a cell phone loudly telling a friend about her encounter with TSA.  Lamb was trapped in the conversation since they were both boarding a flight at the time.  Her complaint was that “[t}hey were disrespectful and rude.” (Yes, Patrick, the irony gave me a good chuckle), and because of that she was never coming back to Chicago.  One incident and she was blowing off a whole city.  Like Chicago? That wonderful town!  I’m sure they will miss her terribly.

Of course, in light of the name of Lamb’s blog, his post was indeed really about client service.  And he is right in pointing out that presumably one bad incident, by anyone connected to your law firm, involving a client could seriously jeopardize your relationship, not to mention follow-on work.

Bad client service is really bad marketing.

Whether you are trying to build a relationship after landing a new client, or to enhance existing client relationships, there are effective things a lawyer can do to accomplish both.

A Q&A article by Frank D’Amore that appeared in The Legal Intelligencer a couple of days ago, and on Law.com’s Small Firm Business, provides some good advice on the topic. D’Amore suggests five things that you can do to build client relationships:

  1. Get to know the client’s business and industry (the failure to do so is one of the biggest complaints that clients express about their outside counsel. One way to overcome that is to offer to spend time off the clock at the client’s place of business in a learning mode);
  2. Constantly communicate (ask clients about their preferred method and frequency of contact with outside counsel);
  3. Focus on making the client look good (recognize your contact’s personal, internal needs, and help them gain credit from your efforts);
  4. Maintain contact during “lulls in the client relationship” (even if not currently working on a particular client’s matter, keep in touch – by sending articles, newspaper clippings, e-mails, and telephone calls – and through client visits and entertainment); and
  5. Suggest networking opportunities and potential introductions to benefit your clients.

If you think of ways to add value to your client relationships, rather than just how to get more work from clients, you will find that it will provide long-term benefits to your business as well.

I have often preached at seminars and law firm retreats, that the key to successful legal marketing is to go out and befriend people. My formula goes something like this:

 

Make contacts, contacts, contacts

(to borrow a concept from my realtor friends),

+

Communicate constantly

+

Build upon relationships

+

Turn into friendships

=

Long Term Client Relationships

 

Of course, planning and focus are an important part of whom one should be making contact with in the first place.  And, assuming that a law firm knows the kind of ideal clients it wants, then time is not wasted on building the wrong or less desirable relationships.

 

An article by Lee Ann Bellon that appeared in the Fulton County Daily Report and on Law.com’s Small Firm Business emphasizes the friendship point.  She reports that a partner, in the 86-lawyer litigation firm of Carlock, Copeland, Semler & Stair in Atlanta, says that more than 75% of his clients are also his friends.  And she tells how he does it, and suggests five steps that firms can utilize to build friendships.

 

No rocket science here; but, reminders on some of the ways to go about befriending contacts who could become long term clients.

Seeking client feedback appears to be getting more attention in firms of all sizes. Ballard Spahr (500-plus lawyers) has hired a full-time “client interviewer,” and Stanislaw Ashbaugh (19 lawyers) prominently links to their Chief Results Officer from their home page, and Ward and Smith PA (80 lawyers) has a partner who is devoted to visiting clients nearly full-time.  Other firms with similar positions include Orrick (over 1000 lawyers) with a firmwide ombudsman, and Reed Smith (over 1600 lawyers) with a director of general counsel relations.

Are these firms pacesetters for a greater focus on client feedback? Or is it just a fad?  One can only hope it is an encouraging trend.

Client feedback is clearly one of the most important things a law firm can do to enhance client relationships, which in turn results in more work. That is why it ranks No. 3 on my list of Top 10 Marketing Tips.  Moreover, a recent survey by The BTI Consulting Group reports that per attorney profits increased by 41.2% when there is “single individual accountable for firm-wide client service.”

If gaining more client work is what marketing and business development is all about – Hmm, I wonder! – and seeking feedback is that effective, then hiring someone for the business development team who would concentrate on that role would make a lot of sense.

If you don’t buy into that idea, at least hire a consultant to seek feedback for you. In many firms the managing partner fills this role, and of course, he or she is a good person for that; but, with everything else on their plate, it just doesn’t get the priority and consistent effort that it should.

That is why the actions of these firms are so impressive. And I’ll bet clients just love it, too.  Moreover, I’ll wager that each of them obtains an ROI of at least double their salary in any given year in new work for the firm.

So, who is the dedicated person seeking client feedback in your firm?

My friend Dan Hull tells us a story on his What About Clients? blog about his childhood friend, who may be just a bit weird – with a sense of humor. His friend claims to have uncovered advice from some lawyer’s writings dated in 1836. I don’t know his friend, but like Dan, I expect he is full of manure as to his "discovery".

The “sage” advice includes:

  1. “Be risk-averse at all times. Clients have come to expect this from their lawyers. It’s tradition. Honor it.
  2. "Tell the client only what it can’t do. Business clients are run by business people who take risks. They need to be managed, guided, stopped. Don’t encourage them.
  3. “Whatever you do, don’t take a stand, and don’t make a recommendation. (You don’t want to be wrong, do you?)
  4. “Treat the client as a potential adversary at all times. Keep a distance.
  5. “Cover yourself. Write a lot to the client. Craft lots of confirming letters which use clauses like "it is our understanding", "our analysis is limited to…" and "we do not express an opinion as to whether…"
  6. “Churn up extra fees with extra letters and memoranda and tasks. Milk the engagement. (If you are going to be a weenie anyway, you might as well be a sneaky weenie.)
  7. “As out-house counsel, you are American royalty. Never forget that.”

On the other hand, you may prefer to follow “The Ten Commandments of Good Client Relationships” developed by the Queensland Law Society of Australia instead: 

  1. “Clients are the most important people in our practice — in person, by mail or by phone.
  2. “Clients are not dependent on us. We are dependent on them.
  3. “Clients are not an interruption of our work. They are the purpose of it.
  4. “Clients do us a favor when they call. We are not doing them a favor by serving them.
  5. “Clients are a part of our business. Do not treat them as outsiders.
  6. “Clients are not “statistics.” They are flesh-and-blood human beings with feelings and emotions like our own.
  7. “Clients are not people to argue with or match wits. Nobody ever won an argument with a client.
  8. “Clients are people who bring us their wants. It is our job to meet those wants.
  9. “Clients are the lifeblood of this practice.
  10. “Clients are deserving of the most courteous and attentive treatment we can give them.”

Thanks to Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips Blog for bringing the commandments to my attention some time back.

Last week I had the privilege of presenting at a North Carolina 80-lawyer firm retreat. Normally, when I am hired by a firm to aid in the marketing effort, my challenge is to convince the firm of what they need to do to be successful at legal marketing and business development. That was not what happened in this case.

 I feel a little guilty charging the firm of Ward and Smith, P.A. for my services. The firm is so incredibly with it, that I’m still not sure why they felt they needed me in the first place. Let me explain.

The firm over the last couple of years had already undertaken SWOT analysis, followed by planning and implementation of their strategies (without the benefit of an outside consultant). Additionally, they have focused heavily on clients and relationship building in general. Finally, they have created a family atmosphere (reinforced by spouses and significant others who attended the retreat).

Not only does the firm hold a retreat each year at a resort with the better half attending, but spouses and others are invited to all substantive sessions, if they wish to attend. Other family functions are held during the year. Good internal marketing!

What struck me the most about what the firm is already doing includes:

Planning:

  • All lawyers meet quarterly to thrash out and build on efforts initiated at the annual retreats;
  • The firm has practice groups responsible for administrative, CLE, practice development purposes, and interdisciplinary client or industry teams for marketing and client development purposes; and
  • Client teams meet monthly and report in writing on business development progress.

Client Relationships:

  • A full-time, dedicated marketing partner who visits with clients seeking feedback and business development opportunities;
  • Teams visit with clients off the clock; and
  • Invite clients to “lunch and learn” or after hours cookouts, either at a firm location or at a clients’ (even towing their own BBQ equipment along), and responding to questions from clients free of charge.

Considering how much I hear (and write) about what clients want from their outside lawyers (and aren’t getting), I know of only a few that begin to match what Ward and Smith is doing. I haven’t had a chance to meet any of their clients, but I’ll bet you $10 to a donut that they have a ton of satisfied clients who believe that their law firm really “gets it.”