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

 

The key to success in any business is providing value.  And in today’s competitive legal market, any law firm that doesn’t know that is not talking to their clients.  Much less are they in tune with their marketplace.

If you think you are providing value to your clients, but haven’t asked them, how would you know?  John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing so accurately states in a post that value is “what the buyer says it is.”  He goes on to say that businesses need to “understand that one of their primary jobs is to increase value.”

How can lawyers do that?  Well, one way is to “stuff more features into your… services in an effort to make them seem better than what others have to offer.”  But even so Jantsch says businesses need to go further and “do the things that make your brand work more in the market…through tangible and intangible acts that allow you to build deeper relationships.”`

Jantsch suggests five ways to create more value:

  • Measure.  Determine what value you are providing clients already (yeah, the client can help here of course, but that means talking to them about value). You might find that either clients aren’t getting enough value, or that you are not charging enough;
  • Lead.  Be out front and offer ways to help clients more effectively with their business or personal issues.  Writing articles, making presentations, blogging, creating groups on social media sites are ways to show that leadership capability;
  • Teach.  The best kind of selling is education-based the selling.  Demonstrate how clients can do things well or avoid problem situations via CLE seminars or otherwise;
  • Inspire.  Here Jantsch is talking about how a great design (in marketing materials, websites, even invoices) can create value.  One might think that this suggestion is a bit fuzzy, and I would not disagree.  However, design could be a promise of value, and that is worth something; and
  • Listen.  Clearly listening to clients adds value.  That may seem pretty obvious, but “we rarely do it.” Yet, if you focus, avoid distractions (like your iPhone or Blackberry), look them in the eye and really listen, you will add tremendous value.

Be honest.  Other than producing a pretty darn good legal product, are you really adding greater value than your competitors?  In the long term, you’d better be!

Because they like you.  They like you because you provide great value.  You provide great value because you care about your clients, about being efficient and reducing costs, helping them achieve their personal and business goals, and you give them freebies (i.e. free advice occasionally, CLE, and more).

The result: raving fans! Raving fans are willing to pay more because they know, like and trust you ALOT.

True story: I once had a couple of independent auto mechanics who I was willing to pay more for a brake job, because I was convinced that they were honest and would take better care than the local dealer. I became a raving fan. It helped that they charged me nearly $200 less than the price they initially quoted me.  After that I never asked again for a price before they worked on my car.  Additionally, I sent them, by their estimate, approximately 20 customers over the next 8 years.  I was a true raving fan!

What reminded me of that story was a post by Roy Ginsburg on Attorney at Work.  He compares lawyers with barbers/hairdressers who charge more, but their customers are happy to do so because they like them and trust them.

His story is worth a read.  Maybe you can get your clients to pay you more by turning them into raving fans.

Now let’s think. If I wanted to do some really stupid things to hurt my chances of getting more legal business, and/or damage my reputation, as a lawyer what would they be. Here is my take on an article in Trey Ryder’s recent newsletter where he identifies a dozen blunders (with his suggestions on countering each in parentheses):

  1. Add additional fees and expenses to your invoices, and don’t worry about telling the client in advance. (Rather: it’s never a good idea to surprise clients any time, especially when it comes to money. Have candid upfront discussions about legal fees and costs, and if changes occur, discuss them with client before sending the bill);
  2. Hold off paying your vendors for at least 3 months. Surely they will speak well of you in the marketplace anyway. (Rather: pay within 48 hours. Don’t treat your vendors like some clients may treat you);
  3. Terrorize your employees so they will be in fear of losing their job and work harder. Don’t worry about turnover, anyone can be replaced and training new employees isn’t that expensive. (Rather: treat your staff with respect and do simple things to keep them happy. Lower turnover actually helps your bottom line);
  4. Don’t worry about those promises you made to clients or referral sources, such as deadlines or what you offered to do for them, they’ll probably forget anyway. (Rather: keep all your commitments, whether large or small in nature);
  5. Always show up late, it will impress people as to how important you are. (Rather: never be late, in fact, make a point of being early for appointments and meetings. If you will be late, call ahead to apologize);
  6. Return calls when you feel like it, certainly not sooner than 2 or 3 days. (Rather: promptly return all calls – or have someone do so for you ASAP, to inform caller when you will be able to speak with them personally);
  7. Take your time in sending materials requested by a prospect. Heck, your busy, and their practically in the door anyway. (Rather: do it as soon as you hang up the phone to ensure a positive impression);
  8. Haggle to the last penny before buying anything, as you certainly want people to know what a tough negotiator you are. (Rather: ask for the best price from several vendors to save everyone’s time);
  9. Make sure your engagement letter is air tight and lengthy, even for simple, inexpensive matters. You are a lawyer after all. (Rather: use a short, one or two paragraph letter to explain what you will do for the client when asked to handle a relatively simple matter);
  10. Let clients know about your personal and business problems. It’s always good to vent. (Rather: keep your problems to yourself. Clients DON’T care. They are only interested in their problem and how you will solve it);
  11. Criticize, demand perfection and don’t accept less. Don’t worry about people who dislike you. (Rather: show appreciation and compliment people for what they do for you, especially with a letter or handwritten note); and
  12. When a mistake happens, blame someone else, especially the client if you can. (Rather: admit your mistake, correct it, and make it up to the client).

Hopefully, you don’t see yourself in any of these situations. But, if you do, it might be a good idea to consider some of Ryder’s suggested behavioral changes. It not only will help your reputation, but your business as well.

A client of mine during one of our weekly coaching sessions last week told me that she was not comfortable asking clients for work. At first, I was taken aback, since I’m thinking that it isn’t as tough as asking a prospect for work. I mean for goodness sake, it is a client that already knows and uses you. Then, I realized she was really saying that she was afraid of rejection or possibly just shy. We talked through the problem, and she became more comfortable with an approach (one idea: ask the client how they would ask their customer/client for work).

Interestingly, an article on this very topic by Allan Colman in Small Firm Business came into my inbox yesterday morning. He raises some good points in his article “Why Do Attorneys Have Trouble Asking Clients for Work?” Although he may be a touch harsh in attributing arrogance in some as the reason for not asking for work, he may be right. In any event, he cites three reasons lawyers don’t ask clients for work.  They are:

  • Don’t know how;
  • Think it is “beneath them to ask” (or their credentials should speak for themselves); and
  • Afraid of rejection.

His suggestions to overcome the above are (in order):

  1. Demystify the process, and educate the lawyers that it is an educational, relationship building process that requires time; however, not with interminable lunches/dinners without advances toward a close;
  2. Qualifications alone, such as where the lawyer went to school, how long s/he has been practicing, etc., are not enough – although I would take issue with Colman that “past successes” don’t matter. (Clearly they‘re an indication of how successful the lawyer might be with a similar matter.)  Further, there does seem to be solid evidence that less qualified lawyers have landed business because they did ask, and marketed themselves more effectively; and
  3. Treat rejection as a new beginning, not the end. It could lead to another opportunity with the same client by continuing to grow the relationship.

It is important to ask for work. Although we were taught in law school that failure isn’t an option, when it comes to marketing, failure is going to happen and that is okay. So, don’t be timid, ask for goodness sake.

After reading for months about tons of layoffs of both lawyers and staff by BigLaw firms, one may think that the legal business is in trouble in this down economy. Not so fast. An article to the contrary by Thomas Adcock appears in the recent issue of Law.com’s Small Firm Business.

Adcock points to a number of small law firms that are doing just fine, thank you very much. The reasons are varied and include:

  • Lower fee structures
  • More litigation, generally
  • White-collar defense
  • Business restructuring, as well as mergers and acquisitions
  • Professional liability
  • Insurance coverage issues

Moreover, there were a couple of things mentioned in the article that particularly ran true for me (and are applicable to any size firm). The first was a comment by David E. Danovitch of 21-lawyer Gersten Savage that clients will “stick with you through thick and thin so long as they’re happy with your work.” The other was something consultant Ari Kaplan mentioned about “becoming business partners…rather than just problem solvers” for your clients.

So, both of these latter points relate to solid client relationships, which is the key to client retention even in tough economic times; and small and medium-sized firms have a real advantage IMHO.

Since I started interviewing law firm clients in 1990 (even used a film crew to capture five of them on a VHS tape – I’ll bet you remember what those are), I have never waivered from the belief that it is one of the most important things a firm can do to retain clients. And developing and enhancing client relationships is what marketing is all about. It is one of the reasons I put client feedback as No. 3 on my Top Ten Marketing Tips list.

Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia has made a major commitment to institutionalize its client feedback process. As reported on several blogs (Mark Beese on his Leadership by Lawyers, Larry Bodine’s Law Marketing Blog and Peter Darling’s Business Development) over the past week, Ballard has hired a full time “client interviewer.” It is reported that the person has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist, so she should be conducting some serious interviews. I agree with Peter that it is a brilliant move.

Your firm may not be in a position to justify the cost of a full time in-house client interviewer (Ballard has 500 lawyers after all), but there is absolutely no reason why your managing partner, or an experienced outside third party, shouldn’t be doing client interviews for your firm. The purpose is to determine how the firm is doing in the relationship, inviting honest feedback on any problems, and to learn what the firm could do better.

It is better to find out if there are problems, that can be corrected, before your key clients decide to try another law firm for their next matter. There is no time to waste.