GPSolo Magazine - March 2005
Clients, Technology, And You: Rev Up The Relationship
Here are some of the ways you should be using technology to run a client-friendly law practice—and to increase your referrals and reduce your stress in the process.
Research the client in advance of the first meeting. Learning about your clients before the initial meeting shows them that you are thorough and you care enough to take the time to do your homework. It is easy to find information about companies and individuals on the Internet. Check their websites. Use your search engine. Scan online newspaper articles, professional journals, and other relevant resources that can help you get up to speed.
Clients will be impressed with (and flattered by) your background knowledge of them and their industries. More importantly, they’ll believe that you can actually help them. The initial impression you make is something they’ll remember when it comes time to send more business to you later.
Document expectation from the get-go. At the first meeting, have clients complete an intake form—providing complete contact information and other relevant data. Also, share expectations with them so you can set the groundwork for a good working relationship. Explain how you think the matter will proceed and ask them about their expectations: what result they are looking for, what they realistically expect will happen, and what they can live with in the event they don’t get everything they want. Also ask about potential “skeletons” in their closet. A sample question might be, “Even if you think they are untrue, what statements might the other side make that would harm your case?” And don’t forget to ask what method of communication they prefer, be it phone, fax, or e-mail.
Take everything you learn during the intake and put it into your practice management program. Not just the contact information and standard case data, but also the client’s expectations about the matter. Create a special field titled “Client Expectations” so you can make sure that those expectations are in line with yours and avoid potential problems down the road. Likewise, create a field for “Skeletons” so you can avoid surprises and be better prepared to handle bumps in the case.
Create a map of the road ahead. Most clients are generally uninformed about the legal process and, as a result, feel trepidation, even fear. You can go a long way toward reducing their fear by providing a road map of the process. Particular areas of law typically follow a predictable timeline.
Practice management applications commonly have a feature that allows you to “chain” the steps involved in a matter. Take each of the steps in the client’s case and assign a deadline to it. Then take each of those deadlines and build a “chain” of events by linking one step to another step through a timeline. The result is a road map of events that you can share with the client.
In this way, the client knows what to expect, and you can make sure that all steps are covered and completed by their deadline dates. Nothing falls through the cracks—and because they’ve received a “heads- up” about what steps need to occur when, your clients can be prepared to assist you when appropriate.
Keep it on the QT. Nothing is more important to clients than the certainty that you and your staff will maintain their confidential information. In addition to explaining your professional obligations in this regard, explain the ways you safeguard the information in your computer system—user passwords, restricted access to particular files and databases, a system firewall, encryption tools, and the like.
Talk about these safeguards up front so clients never have to wonder whether you’re really protecting their confidences. And if you don’t actually have the necessary security tools and policies, get them in place now.
Calendar your promises. The only way to keep your commitments to clients is to keep track of what you’ve promised to do and by when you’ve promised to do it. Sticky notes all over the place is a disaster waiting to happen. Use an electronic calendar system with a single point of entry. Such a system makes it easy to enter and track to-dos, drag and drop tasks from one day to another, update deadlines, create entries for recurring activities, and more.
If you maintain your calendar in Outlook or a similar program, make sure to keep it synchronized with your practice management software. Learn to use the software’s tasks, to-dos, and reminders features.
Every time you have a new task, put it on your tasks list. Assign each task a priority of “one,” “two,” or “three.” Assign a “one” to tasks that should be done within the next week, a “two” to tasks that are short-term but not immediate, and a “three” to tasks that don’t necessarily have a deadline and aren’t a high priority. Tasks can be placed in categories according to client name or type of project, too. Plus, when you delegate a project task to someone else, you should enter it on your own tasks list as well, to ensure that all the bases related to a client project get covered, regardless of who has been assigned a given task.
If you don’t yet own one, buy and use a handheld device (e.g., Palm, Pocket PC, etc.) and synchronize your calendar with it so you always have your to-do list with you.
Also, be sure to set aside one night each week to plan your calendar for the upcoming week and review everything you have to do. If you record all your tasks and review your lists regularly, you won’t have to apologize to clients nearly as often.
Make the most of document assembly programs. Document assembly programs are more full featured and user friendly than ever. More to the point, they allow you to save time, increase accuracy, and generate a better work product for clients. Using applications such as HotDocs and GhostFill, it is easy to create interactive templates and then add dis-cretionary paragraphs, “if-then” statements, math computations, custom dialogs, and the like. Not only will it save you tons of time, but your clients will be impressed by the ease and efficiency with which you produce first-class documents.
Ask your clients how you’re doing. Even if you believe you’re meeting client expectations, don’t assume that the absence of negative comments is good news. To find out what your clients really think of you and your work, survey clients on a regular basis. It is easy to do online.
You can send a questionnaire by e-mail or direct clients to a site such as www.zoomerang.com, which is simple and inexpensive. You prepare your survey and put it on the site. Your clients are sent a unique URL that takes them to the web page where they can fill out your survey. All results are conveniently compiled for you in electronic form.
Conducting client surveys is one of the best ways to put technology to use in your law practice. After all, what good is all your hardware and your software if you don’t know whether your clients are satisfied with you and your services?
Reba J. Nance is Director of Law Practice Management and Risk Management for the Colorado Bar Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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