Cultivating the Art of Effective Client Communications

Volume 37 Number 5

By

Marcia Pennington Shannon (www.shannonandmanch.com) is a principal in the lawyer development consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is Managing Editor of The Lawyer’s Career Management Handbook (West, 2010).

The ability to communicate effectively with clients can have an immense impact on a lawyer’s practice, and on the success of the law firm as a whole. So do you and the lawyers you supervise know how you rate on the communication factors that lead to satisfied clients?

When questioned, most lawyers believe that the end results they achieve are the best predictors of client satisfaction. But most clients, in comparison, say the way in which services are delivered is essential to their overall satisfaction with their lawyers.

Moreover, consider these recent findings by the BTI Consulting Group, based on 2,800 interviews with corporate counsel: 70 percent of those surveyed do not recommend their primary firm to others; 87 percent would replace a current firm if given good reason; and most cited poor communication as a key determinant.

It seems clear, then, that putting a strong focus on good communications is at the heart of successful, loyal and long-lasting client relationships. Yet many lawyers do not focus at all on how they communicate with clients. Fortunately, it’s possible for any law practice to improve the situation with a little effort.

The following provides some good starting points to help you and the lawyers you supervise gauge where you as individuals can make improvements.

A CCQ Self-Assessment Exercise
There are numerous factors involved in effective client communications, which taken together you can think of as your “client communication quotient” (CCQ). To see how you stack up, take a moment to complete the CCQ assessment exercise on the next page. Think carefully to be sure you rate yourself honestly in determining which box to check next to each factor.

Now, look back through your responses to the exercise. Do you find that most of them are in the “often” and “always” columns? Then congratulations! It seems you make a laudable effort to communicate effectively with your clients, and you should have strong and lasting relationships with them. You especially know that you are demonstrating excellent CCQ if you frequently get new business through referrals from current and past clients.

If, however, some of your responses fall in the “sometimes” or “never” column, then obviously those are factors that could use your attention. So, as your next step, you’ll want to take some time to focus in on those factors and assess how you can improve your performance in those areas.

Strategies to Help Improve CCQ
While the specific strategies for improving CCQ factors may vary among individual lawyers, here are some top tactics that will get you going.

Identify things that are getting in your way. There are two aspects to this. First, as with most things, self-awareness is essential—which in this case means understanding your own personality, strengths, weaknesses and limitations, when it comes to your communication style. An assessment tool like the Myer-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) can help with this.

Second, are there workload constraints or doings in the office that make it impossible to be responsive on a regular basis? As examples, constant interruptions, poor task management, outdated technology or lack of knowledge within the team can all be barriers to effective communication with clients. Once you identify what’s getting in your way, you can determine appropriate steps to address those issues.

Become more “client aware.” This means taking a proactive approach to understanding your clients, including their characteristics, their backgrounds and the environments in which they work and live. Getting to know your clients beyond their current legal issues gives you deeper insights into their perspectives and objectives. Most importantly, this information can be very useful in relating to them, structuring the feedback that you give to them, and addressing issues from their points of view.

Also (though it should go without saying), it’s important to regularly update clients on the progress of their matters—especially if a project is going to be delivered later than you intended. In addition, include your clients in the decision-making process and discussions of various solutions. Remember, this isn’t just about your expertise and “telling” them what to do. This is about a partnership between you and the client as you help them address their legal issues.

Develop your listening skills. Active listening improves every relationship. I know this is a big statement, but it is absolutely true. So make it a point to hear and understand your clients when you are talking with them. Really pay attention to what is being said. Ask questions to stimulate thought and build clarity. And be sure you don’t make assumptions or jump right into problem-solving mode. Yes, you want to help solve the problem, but are you clear about the issues? Have you truly heard what the client’s needs and concerns are, and what his or her perspectives are about the issues involved?

Simply put, we humans want to be heard! Listening carefully, asking clarifying questions and reflecting back to your client what you have heard —all while avoiding legalese—are the foundations of effective communication.

In the end, putting an energetic focus on your client communications will absolutely be worth the effort. Developing strategies that bring about positive changes in client communications will raise their satisfaction with your services and have a lasting positive impact on the relationships—leading to a stronger and more profitable practice, and greater overall satisfaction with your work, too.

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