"Whaddya want?!" The young woman who answered the phone at the law firm I was calling didn’t express herself quite that frankly, but nevertheless, I got that message from the tone of her voice. Whether she was just having a particularly bad day or always greeted callers in that fashion, I’ll never know. One thing is for certain, though: Given the option, I’ll never call that law firm again unless I absolutely have to.
To mash up two well-worn clichés and, hopefully, find a pearl of truth within: There is no second chance to make a good first impression and, just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a law firm will only be considered as professional and welcoming to a potential new client as is the first person who speaks on the firm’s behalf.
It doesn’t matter how great your reputation as a lawyer is; you won’t catch potential new clients if they can’t—or don’t deem it as worthwhile to try to—make it past the gargoyle guarding the door. That’s why it’s so important to have the right person in this crucial job, and to make sure that person knows just how important a role he or she plays within the firm.
Although your receptionist is usually the first person to have contact with potential new clients, this position is often the least paid, least trained and least respected in the firm. For this reason, I urge you to rethink the job description, how you select and prepare the person for the position, and how you continue to support him or her in the position.
Choose the Right Skills
When creating the job description for your receptionist, think about the businesses you most like to patronize and analyze why you like to go there. Whether it’s the office of another professional services provider, a retail store, a restaurant or bar, or even a grocery store, the thing that draws you there is likely the way the employees greet you when you arrive. It’s likely the way they make you feel about purchasing their products or services. Analyze what you like about your interaction with that business and then work to incorporate those traits and practices into your receptionist’s job description.
Many law firms, particularly small ones, want and need their receptionist to handle more than just telephone answering and client greeting, and they draft their job descriptions to emphasize these other duties. This often leads to selecting a receptionist candidate who has great skills for handling these tasks but lacks the soft skills needed to effectively make clients feel welcome and cared for, or to deal with difficult and demanding individuals. Unfortunately, while clerical skills such as typing speed and accuracy can be improved with practice, an employee who isn’t naturally open to, interested in and concerned about other people isn’t likely to develop this orientation through on-the-job training, particularly in a busy law office. It’s best to find someone with lots of poise and a sunny disposition, and then send them off for whatever additional clerical skills they need.
Train, Train, Train
Once you’ve found that perfect person who is a bundle of personality, kindness, empathy and sunshine, you can’t just expect him or her to slip flawlessly into the job. You need to explain why the job is so important to the firm. Emphasize to your receptionist that his or her primary duty at all times is to act as a host and ambassador for the firm. Provide your receptionist with the specifics of how you’d like callers and visitors to be treated, including any information about the services the firm provides and its client communication policies and procedures. Then role-play to make sure that you are satisfied with both the style and content of the information provided to potential callers and the way on-site visitors are greeted.
Sometimes, the receptionist will be assigned duties, such as typing or filing, which directly conflict with the role as host for the firm. If this is the case in your office, make sure that the receptionist knows that you consider the client contact duties as primary, and that the quality of the performance of those tasks will rank most highly when performing a yearly performance review and determining compensation.
What gets measured gets done, and it’s difficult to blame a receptionist who spends as little time as possible helping a client on the phone because he or she is about to be reprimanded for failing to finish typing a document or get the filing tasks done.
Monitor and Provide Feedback
It’s easy to grow complacent as we become familiar with our jobs. No matter how conscientious we are, we often let down our guard and become sloppy when we know the drill. This is why it’s a good idea to occasionally send in a “secret shopper” to test how random callers or drop-ins are handled, particularly if they are confused, upset or angry.
Enlist a friend or relative unknown to your office staff to place a call or come by your office to make inquiries about the legal services your firm provides and then report back to you on the experience. Also, periodically survey your clients and include questions about interaction with staff. Your staff can be your best marketing ally or the greatest disincentive to using your firm. You may be surprised at what you learn, and you’ll never know until you ask.
Maybe a full-time receptionist isn’t right for your firm. If you practice from your home, or have little or no foot traffic, you might consider a “virtual” receptionist. More than just an answering service, virtual receptionists answer your phone from a remote location using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) but they deal with your clients just as if they were a part of your office staff.
You can check in with your virtual receptionist throughout the day, let her know about any important calls you are expecting, and tell her where she can reach you to put them through or provide information to be relayed to the client if you’re unavailable. Virtual receptionists who specialize in law firm work generally have previous law firm experience and can be trained to also help with client intake or other client interactions that involve more than just taking a number and promising a return call.
Regardless of who answers your phone, you’ll have a better chance of attracting and keeping good clients if you give the selection and training of your receptionist the time and attention they deserve.