Don’t kid yourself: Even your most experienced clients do not understand the law on a technical level. Even if you’re a litigator, where you’d think the scorecard would be clear, it can be hard for outsiders to determine what represents a good result. But whether your office seems well run in a business sense? Whether you bill clients for internal lunches you’d have eaten anyway? These points are easy for clients to judge you on.
Therefore, unfair though it may seem, it is in your interest to focus on building client loyalty through angles other than pure legal results. Most specifically, you do it by dramatically improving the client experience.
Believe me, it’s worth it. Creating true client loyalty is the fastest, most reliable way to build a strategic, sustainable advantage for your practice. Truly loyal clients are less price sensitive, more willing to forgive your small foibles, and—most importantly—almost completely immune to competitive entreaties from other firms. Here’s how to get there.
1. Speed it up. Modern clients expect speedier service than did any generation before them. If a contract draft is going to take you four days to deliver, first get back to the client immediately, explaining the length of time you’re going to need; then dig in to the actual work needed. Since clients don’t know what is involved in completing legal work, they figure complex requests can be delivered as automatically and speedily as fulfilling an order at Amazon.com.
2. Raise the bar. When you benchmark your service solely against prevailing standards at other law firms, you set the bar too low. It’s time to raise your game: Benchmark yourself against the best in service-intensive industries, because that’s what your clients will do. Clients have expectations set by the best players in hospitality, the financial services industry, and other areas where experts have made a science of customer service.
3. Shelve your legal mind-set when it comes to resolving client service problems. A courtroom approach only gets in the way when working with your clients. Resolving client issues means knowing how to apologize for service lapses pointed out to you by a client (billing errors and untimely or incomplete day-to-day client care, for example). It means getting rid of a “let’s sort out the facts here and allocate responsibility” attitude when you are confronted by a client upset by what she perceives to be a service gaffe. Instead, take your client’s side in these situations, immediately and with empathy, regardless of what you think the “rational” allocation of “blame” should be. And spread this approach throughout your staff through role-playing and other training devices, so it will serve you fully every time a client hits the fan.
4. Price it right. Your pricing must always be appropriate and appropriately presented. Clients do notice if your minimum rate for proofreading documents is some astonishing figure like $350 an hour—so find a way to get it down—for example, by using paralegals or trained secretaries. (You’ll make up the difference easily in retained clients and referrals.) Don’t bill for large amounts of unexplained “copying” or other generic-sounding charges; explain such charges and how they assist your client. And for Pete’s sake, don’t charge for those Starbucks grande lattes your traveling team of lawyers would have bought anyway.
5. Get personal. Dedicate yourself—and your systems—to remembering and acknowledging every client in a way that is personal to them. Loyalty is not built by besieging clients with mailings sent out in a pro forma fashion on additional services your firm can provide. It’s built by realizing that every client is unique and needs to be treated that way. Law firms—yes, law firms—thrive once they dedicate themselves to achieving the computer-assisted effectiveness of a beloved bartender, doorman or hairstylist—the kind who would know a client’s preferences, the name of that client’s pet, when that client was in last. Going deeper, loyalty is built by knowing that your client, a business executive, has a sibling with severe medical problems; then reading about a new case that could help, forwarding the link and offering to find an expert in the area to help—whether or not the expert is in your own firm.
To truly glue clients to your firm, you must anticipate client needs, even before they are expressed. Being in tune with clients at this ultimate, anticipatory level involves hiring support staff and attorneys based on key client-friendly traits (specifically warmth, empathy, a bias in favor of teamwork, conscientiousness and optimism); aligning your systems to center on what clients really want from your processes; and never, ever, thinking you can save effort by trying to treat everyone the same. Great service requires custom fitting.
Portions of this article have appeared elsewhere.