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.

As 2011 winds down (this year seems to have particularly flown by), it is time to start setting goals for next year. Since approximately 80% of law firm work comes from existing clients (in the form of new work or referrals) or other referral sources, client satisfaction and retention (except for criminal defense, PI and certain other practice areas, of course) should be every firm’s No. 1 goal.

Allan Colman has an excellent article advising law firms on the kinds of things they should be looking at in getting ready for 2012. It apparently appeared on Law360 (subscription required), but you can read it on his web site here. It is definitely worth a read. I was particularly interested in his first area of focus – “increasing client retention.”

That does seem to be a no brainer in light of that 80% thing-gy I mentioned. Here are several pointers on how to go about doing that:

  • With the fast-paced nature of our world today and the ease of connecting with people remotely, it is important to “slow down and make real connections with people” (in my mind that means face-to-face contacts);
  • Expand client interaction to include asking how the firm “is doing and how (it) could improve.” And if you do, make sure you avoid the complaint of one Fortune 1000 in-house counsel; to wit: “I’ve rarely seen any follow-up from these interviews.” In which case it would be better to have not wasted the client’s time;
  • Focus “building a good rapport with current clients” (but you need to especially concentrate on your top clients that generate 75-80% of your revenue); and
  • Remember that long term clients still require relationship building, so that they don’t become dissatisfied and leave for another firm, especially to one that is being working like hell to build a relationship with them.

Simple reminders really. Never take clients you want to retain for granted. If they leave it takes a long time to get them back, and even longer to land prospects. 

No. 76 in Ric Willmot’s weekly wisdom series “Customer Experiences Drive Your Business” hit a core nerve with me. He starts by stating “(c)ustomer service shouldn’t be a poor man’s cousin to growing your business.” He is right, of course. It should be the center of any business’ thinking in terms of creating raving fans that keep coming back and referring others to your law firm.

In his brief post on LinkedIn, he highlights six strategies that should drive your service quality to insure favorable (in our case) client experiences, which I paraphrase as follows:

  • Don’t let technology reduce the “personal touch”. Face-to-face contact is still vital to building client relationships;
  • Make client service personal. Willmot warns against commoditizing your service, or you will in turn “be treated as a commodity;”
  • “Build relationships.” You’re not selling to a company or an inanimate object, but to a person or persons. The emotional connection is essential, so find out what is “personally important” to the client;
  • Give client options in how to do business with you and your firm;
  • Think beyond the current matter. Don’t misunderstand me. Focus fully on the client’s current needs, but treat the client’s matter as just one of many engagements. In other words, give the client the kind of service so that s/he will have “exciting reasons to refer” your firm to others, and come back themselves. Remember that raving fan thing; and
  • Don’t take clients you really don’t want. Poor business will “sap your energy and destroy staff enthusiasm.” Not to mention that you will probably give the matter less than your stellar effort.

I really like Willmot’s stuff, and it’s worth a second read. Keep in mind that your firm’s success will be driven by client experiences!

Now there is a brilliant title, right? Obviously, any client who sues for malpractice (or even files a grievance with the state bar), is probably not going to hire you again. Not to mention how many people they will bad mouth you to. Okay, so that is pretty darn obvious. But stay with me a minute.

Last year around this time, I did a post about poor client communications being the most common reason grievances are filed against lawyers with state bars. And I pointed out that such lack of communication with clients is just baffling from a marketing perspective.

Well, it seems that the lack of communication is also the "number one cause of malpractice claims” according to Dan Pinnington, practice management advisor with Lawyer’s Professional Indemnity Company in Toronto, in an article that appears on Attorney at Work. He goes on to give his top 10 tips “for avoiding a malpractice claim.” They include: getting the assignment in writing and money up front; managing client expectations; documenting everything of importance; sending periodic and final reporting letters; never suing for fees (only gets you a counterclaim for malpractice); and going with your gut when it says to not take on a matter.

Additionally, he recommends several tips to avoid claims that are near and dear to my heart, and are really, really just plain smart from a business development standpoint. They are:

  • Meeting or beating deadlines. For obvious reasons, but also because it is a good way to turn clients into raving fans;
  • Avoiding surprises. Amen! Don’t surprise clients about anything, especially the bill, but really anything that might annoy them to the point of causing dissatisfaction with your services; and
  • Seeking feedback. Asking clients how you/firm is doing at any stage of the matter is a good idea. It shows you care about whether they are receiving value and happy with your representation. Good for follow-on business and referrals.

Not only should you avoid the things that can lead to claims, especially when they are not even close to being malpractice, but rather, just poor marketing practices.

Seeking client feedback is not only important for every law firm, but it needs to be done right. Following a recent post of mine on the topic, my friend Stacy West Clark raised some issues that got me to thinking about the Who, What, When, Why’s and How’s of getting client feedback:

  • Who should conduct the interviews? Best if feedback is sought by a third party; i.e., the managing partner, other senior attorney or staff person, or an outside consultant. It should not be done by the attorney who has day-to-day contact with the client;
  • What the interviewer should do? Ask probing, meaningful questions to get the client to open up and do most of the talking. Most importantly, the firm’s representative should LISTEN at least 50% of the time. This can be accomplished by asking open-ended questions that avoid one or two-word answers. And WAIT three to five seconds (admittedly a long time) for the client to respond. Don’t rush it. Finally, ask about specifics, including responsiveness, meeting deadlines, billing, knowledge of their business and industry, how they were treated, value added to their business, quality of legal product, effectiveness of communications, and what the firm could do better the next time;
  • When should be feedback be sought? All the time! During and at the conclusion of a matter, as well as annually or bi-annually at least;
  • How should feedback be sought? Whether done internally or externally, set up the process by sending a letter announcing the program, and who and how it will be conducted. Preferably, by in-person interviews (the best method), or by telephone, or by questionnaire (the least effective in my view). I even send sample questions to the client so they can ponder them in advance. After obtaining feedback, thank the client and tell them what, if anything, the firm will do about any issues raised. Oh, did I mention listening more than 50% of the time? it’s worth repeating; and
  • Why seek client feedback? The why’s should be obvious (a DUH moment if you will), and why I put it last. In today’s competitive marketplace, it should be done for defensive marketing purposes, if nothing else. Of course, the main reasons are to stave off the competition, uncover any possible concerns the client may have, and build on existing relationships.

By not seeking client feedback, you may never really know how solid your client base is, or isn’t, until key clients leave for another law firm.

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.

Most law firms would say, if asked, that they provide excellent client service, or at least very good service. Unfortunately, this self-assessment is not based on fact in most cases. As my friend Stacy West Clark reports, when clients were asked how their law firms were doing "most gave their firms a ‘C’ grade."

Her article "10 Ways To Improve Law Firm Client Service" that appeared in The Legal Intelligencer and on Law.com’s Small Firm Business, is a very good read for two reasons. First, she identifies five factors that I would totally agree make for outstanding service, to wit:

“incredible responsiveness; accessibility; excellent communication in the manner the client has pre-selected; a thorough understanding of the clients’ world, goals and business; and the personalization of the service (which she refers to as ‘value added services’).”

Secondly, having identified what comprises truly excellent service, she goes on to identify how a firm can assess what its grade should be and how to improve it. (Here are my favorites from her 10 ways):

  • Ask your clients before as to their service preferences, and after a matter as to how your services could be improved (critically important in my mind);
  • Ask everyone (from the mailroom to corner office) how the firm could take its services up a notch;
  • Experience your firm as a client would (from the appearance of your reception area, conference rooms to how the phone is answered and clients are treated (even using a "secret shopper" approach to test responsiveness);
  • hire great people and praise them in public, both attorneys and staff, for their attention to clients (I love Stacy’s story about the online shoe company, Zappos,  that gives $1000 to applicants if they turn down a job with the company because they cannot abide by “the company’s expectations and service creed” – pretty unbelievable); and
  • Create a culture and environment of client service using something like the Ritz Carlton WOW stories method, and look for other stories outside the legal industry to use in teaching lawyers and staff more about client service.

As I said, I commend Stacy’s article to your reading, if you want to pick up ideas on improving your firm’s client service.

Due to my office and family moving back to my beloved North Carolina, my posts over the next couple of weeks will feature five of my Top Ten Marketing Tips, especially for those who may not have been reading this blog back in 2005:

 

Top 10 Marketing Tips: No. 3 – Seek Client Feedback Often

It continues to amaze many clients that more lawyers 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 (1) welcome opportunities to provide feedback, (2) ask why the firm hadn’t asked sooner, and (3) are surprised that more of the law firms they use have never asked.

A good time to ask clients for feedback on how your firm did, or is doing, includes at the conclusion of a matter, and on an annual or biannual basis. Clients are flattered to be asked, and most of the comments are very favorable (or they would be using another firm). Further, it is much better to ask before the client leaves for another firm, particularly if there is a problem that could be easily rectified.

 

In this economy, client satisfaction surveys are more important than ever. In covering this topic many times, I have emphasized the value of improving relationships with current clients and referrals sources. The value is obvious, more business in the form of new matters and additional referrals.

There are two main reasons why you should currently be asking your clients for feedback:

  • Your competitors are asking your clients, and
  • Your clients may be wondering why you aren’t.

An article by Martha Candiello in the March issue of the ABA’s Law Practice Today webzine tells us that those reasons are why client feedback interviews are so necessary. Not just for the reasons mentioned above, but also because it can lead to more work as a result.

Candiello also shares her insight on how to make a client interview program successful. Previously, she was both an in-house corporate counsel, and later director of general counsel relations at Reed Smith.

Her keys to effective client interviews include:

  1. Develop internal support for the program by starting with a pilot program involving some willing partners;
  2. Publicize successes and favorable comments by clients;
  3. Overcome false perceptions by partners that they already “know what clients think about firm,” or clients “are too busy” to participate, etc.;
  4. Ask in-depth questions about clients’ experience beyond “how are we doing?”;
  5. Send someone other than the responsible partner to do the interviewing (e.g., managing partner, senior marketing staff person or outside consultant) to ensure candid and accurate information; and
  6. Prompting respond to any client concerns expressed, even if solutions are not exactly what the client is looking for.

Your firm really needs to do this. As Candiello points out:

“As more firms institute such programs and evolve existing programs to capture even more of their clients’ attention, a firm without a first-rate program is disadvantaged because it is not effectively capitalizing on its client relationships and investment. Once you’ve seen the results of a client interview program, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start one sooner.”

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.