In today’s fiercely competitive legal market, firms talk about the importance of cross-selling their clients. However, attempts to cross-sell additional services often fail. The main reason is that you must provide exceptional service to a client before you can be successful in cross-selling. Too many firms fail to realize that the goal should be outstanding client service. “Satisfactory” or “good” isn’t good enough. Many clients can’t evaluate the quality of legal work; therefore, the level and quality of service is often the only factor that distinguishes one firm from another and can make a client receptive to using the firm for other types of work.
Here are some of the more important points to keep in mind when developing and implementing a successful client service program.
SERVICE BEGINS AT INTAKE
When meeting for the first time with prospective clients, ask questions and listen to answers. Make them define expectations, and then match those expectations with reality. Discuss the steps that both parties must follow. Invite them to ask questions and be sure you answer them to their satisfaction. Discuss how the fee will be structured: hourly, flat or some alternative arrangement. Explain any additional costs that will be involved and your billing procedures. If a retainer is required, explain how it will be applied. When a prospect retains you, introduce the new client to your assistant and to any other timekeepers who may work on their matter, including other lawyers, paralegals and consultants.
Keep the client informed. There’s an old adage, “Shower the client with paper.” In today’s legal practice, that includes email, extranets and phone calls. Send or transmit copies of relevant correspondence, briefs and other documentation. Discuss strategy. Tell them what they must do and what information they must provide—they won’t know unless you tell them. Don’t wait until the last minute. Remember that people often need time to act or to make a decision and then give you their response. Because clients don’t like surprises, tell them what will happen, and what might happen. Anticipate their questions, and remember the key to delighting clients: Listen and communicate.
USE THE TEAM APPROACH
You will move work along more quickly, save your own time and keep the fee reasonable if you don’t try to do everything yourself. Use your team, even if the team is only one other person. Often, when clients call, they don’t need to talk to you directly. Your assistant, a paralegal or another lawyer working on the matter can help. You must train and trust your team and keep the other team members, particularly your assistant, informed about the status of the matter. When clients call and ask for you, encourage your assistant to ask if he or she can help—particularly if you can’t take the call. If clients get the answer or information they’re looking for when they call, they’re usually satisfied.
If the client is a company or organization, get to know other key people and keep abreast of any changes. In addition to using the team approach, employ other components of good client service, including:
- Meeting court-imposed deadlines and beating client-imposed deadlines.
- Being responsive by returning phone calls and answering email and letters promptly.
- Being courteous and patient. Clients sometimes repeat questions. When that happens, just take a deep breath and answer.
- Be a problem solver, not a problem maker.
- Don’t be afraid to say “yes” but have the courage to say “no.” The magic words to a client are often “Yes, if…” or “No, but…”
A long time ago, a wise managing partner said to me, “I bill regularly and promptly while the glow of appreciation still shines in the client’s eyes.” You might be surprised to know that clients prefer that, as it helps them with cash flow.
Regardless of how the fee is structured, most clients prefer descriptive bills so they can see what has been done while their memory is fresh. Always send a cover letter, or if billing electronically, send an email memo with every bill and include a status report.
Ask for feedback during the matter and upon conclusion before sending the final bill. Many of your clients won’t tell you when they have a complaint unless you ask; they will frequently tell others, however, and sometimes even your competition. Ask how you can serve them better. All of this creates the environment for subsequent cross-selling, either at that time or later on.
Let the client know that you are sending the final bill. State it in the cover letter or transmittal email, and also state it on the bill. And, of course, thank the client for selecting you.
Finally, follow up and keep in touch. Put the client in your database or on your mailing list, which should have been done at intake. Contact the client occasionally to find out how they are doing. This maintains the relationship as well as the environment for cross-selling.
There’s nothing brilliant about this list and it is by no means complete, but it’s a starter. If you and your firm are going to provide outstanding client service, it must be a top-priority program, not just a buzzword. Yes, it takes time and effort. But considering the alternatives—clients you can’t cross-sell or worse, lost clients—it’s worth it.