YourABA: December 2013
YourABA December 2013 Masthead

Taking the client service interview
to a new level

There is no silver bullet to guarantee your practice will grow exponentially each year, but the 80/20 rule is as close as you can get, said Beth Cuzzone, director of business development and client services at Goulston & Storrs. The 80/20 rule is the industry statistic that states 80 percent of your firm's revenue will come from 20 percent of your existing clients. "Client retention, client relations, client satisfaction and client loyalty will drive an increase in your revenues year after year," Cuzzone wrote in a recent issue of Law Practice Magazine.

To add value to the services you deliver, you must learn your clients' preferences about communication, risk tolerance, staffing models, technology and legal services attributes, she said. "Value, in the context of client service, is defined by what is delivered to your client that he or she does not pay to receive," Cuzzone said. "Sound substantive advice, accessibility, responsiveness and up-to-the-minute market knowledge have become baseline standards or table stakes — not added value in today's legal marketplace."

So law firms must dig deeper to learn more about clients' changing expectations. For example, Cuzzone said, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do your clients expect the relationship partner to be the point of contact for every detail of their matters, or do they prefer associates to run with pieces of the deal?
  • Do your clients expect weekly or monthly updates, unprompted?
  • Do your clients allow an annual increase in hourly rates or must they be preapproved?
  • Do your clients have new people at their respective companies who are affecting your clients' jobs?
  • Are your clients expanding operations into new geographic regions?

"Each and every answer to these seemingly simple questions could affect the way you change the delivery or pricing strategies of the legal advice you deliver," Cuzzone said. "The 80/20 rule begins to erode when client expectations change or simply evolve, but its law firm's service model does not follow."

To close the gap between changing expectations and legal services provided to the marketplace, lawyers and law firms of all sizes have instituted a best practice of conducting client interviews, she said. "The notion of asking clients about their business and changing needs is not a new phenomenon, but formal client service interviews take the basic principle to a new level," Cuzzone said. "No one but you will be able to decide if your clients will be best served by an internal-driven client service interview process or by an independent outside consultant."

Once you decide who will conduct the client interviews, preparing for the interviews and the execution of the process remains similar, she said.

  • Select the clients. Begin with your firm's largest clients, Cuzzone said. Your finance or billing specialist can provide a top 20 list of your largest clients by revenue for the past few years. Review the list and choose three clients to target. Select clients with whom you have the best relationships.
  • Invite the clients. The attorney who is assigned as a relationship partner is usually the most appropriate person to reach out to the client and invite him or her to participate in your firm's client service interview, Cuzzone said. "Don't presume clients will see this as 'work,'" she said. "Over the last decade, I have never witnessed a client decline an invite." Your invitation should include an explanation of benefits to the client.
  • Prepare for the interview. The time you take to prepare for the interview will have a direct effect on its success, Cuzzone said. To be well-prepared, gather the following information:

    • Company profile
    • List of client's competitors
    • Industry trends
    • Client's press releases and media coverage
    • Key decision-makers and/or organizational chart
    • Billing history (three to five years)
    • Billing realization rate (three to five years)
    • Discounts and write-off reports (three to five years)

      Once you have gathered this information, interview your firm's attorneys to understand the nuances of the firm-client relationship.

  • Conduct the interview. First, remember this is not a pitch meeting or sales call, Cuzzone warned. Interviews should last about one hour. Most of your time should be spent listening to the client and taking detailed notes. Do not ask to record the meeting. "I personally prefer for the interview framework to include both qualitative and quantitative questions," she said.

    Ask your clients about their strategic plan, company direction, change in personnel and their business concerns, Cuzzone said. A portion of the interview should include their thoughts and opinions about your firm, including these attributes:

    • Firm stability
    • Lawyer assignment
    • Legal costs
    • Quality
    • International/national/regional service capability
    • Responsiveness
    • Special requests
    • Other items customized for each client

      Be sure to include an opportunity for your clients to rate the firm, Cuzzone said. When creating a rating scale for your interview, do not use a three-point scale (i.e., "On a scale of one to three, with three being the highest …"). It will allow your client to take a neutral position. "I believe you get a more accurate answer when you 'force' the interviewee to select a negative or positive position with a four-point scale: excellent, good, fair or poor," she said.

      The interview will almost always come to a natural end, but if it does not, be sure to end the meeting on time, Cuzzone said.
  • Follow up with the client after the interview. The most critical stage of the client interview process is the follow-up, and it has several components, Cuzzone said:

    • Formally thank your client for the interview.
    • Prepare a client interview report.
    • Create a list of themes, issues, problems or trends identified.
    • Organize a meeting with the attorney team to discuss the interview.

During your debrief meeting, each item in your report should be assigned a follow-up. Create a strategy implementation plan by determining what actions need to be taken, assigning someone responsible for each task and setting deadlines for completion.

"Now you have a fresh perspective of your client's positive and negative opinions of your legal services, a client interview report and an action list of items that will serve as a road map for keeping and growing your client relationship," Cuzzone said. "Review the road map every three months and make adjustments. The action items will become a client service improvement plan."

Follow the plan and enjoy a continued relationship with your clients as well as revenue that continues to grow.

Law Practice Magazine is a publication of the Law Practice Division.

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