The Essential Value of Client Feedback

Volume 38 Number 6

By

About the Author

Thames Schoenvogel is a senior writer and editor with the Wicker Park Group, a consulting organization exclusively focused on assisting law firms and other professional service firms expand their business through effective client feedback programs. She most recently served as associate editor at Time Inc. Content Solutions, Time’s custom publishing division, overseeing the publication of multiple magazines across a range of topics. 

Law Practice Magazine | November/December 2012 | The Client Service IssueYou may—or may not—know what your clients value most in their relationships with you as outside counsel. All too often, attorneys assume they understand their clients’ priorities without asking their clients directly. Whether you are working with new or established clients, client feedback is critical to identifying what each client actually values. With that knowledge, you can provide the kind of service that will set you apart from the crowd of willing and capable attorneys also eager to prove their worth. Following are the approaches of three professionals—an in-house counsel, a law firm client services director and a client feedback consultant—who each offer a unique perspective on why a client feedback program is essential to providing your clients with the superior value they demand and deserve.

The In-House Perspective

John Parker is the Senior Vice President, GC and Strategic Initiatives at Coca-Cola Enterprises. He joined the Coca-Cola system in 1987, assuming positions of increasing responsibility with Coca-Cola Company and with Coca-Cola bottlers. He has a wide range of experience managing the legal function for domestic and U.S. operations and serving in key business leadership roles.

The Importance of Feedback

To me, feedback is important to clients for two reasons. First, it gives you a structured way to let the service provider understand what’s working and what isn’t, and the best way to improve the service. Structured feedback, in my opinion, is the best way to make sure they understand what I need and what I’m getting and not getting. Second, it’s the best way for me to hear from them what we do that helps or interferes with them delivering good customer service as well. It’s a great way to say, “This is a safe harbor for you to tell me what we’re doing that makes it harder for you to provide the service I need.” The net is obviously that I want the best possible service at the best possible price. Feedback is how you get there. You can’t improve service without feedback. It just doesn’t happen.

How Most Firms Score

The vast majority of law firms do a horrific job of eliciting open and honest feedback. Most of them do nothing. Some do it on an ad hoc basis, occasionally asking clients informally, “Hey, how are we doing?” The lack of a customer service mentality in soliciting constructive feedback is horrible. If I failed to pay attention to what my clients are thinking, I’d be fired. 

The other thing is that attorneys are fungible. If I need hard-working people who are smart, do a great job, understand the law and give great legal advice, there are many firms like that, and they are interchangeable. What separates one firm from another? The service is good. They understand me well. They provide what we need and know what we don’t need. How do you figure it out? You talk to people. Law firms think if they are smart and work hard, they’ve solved it. But they haven’t.

What to Do and What to Avoid

The best approach I’ve seen is when a firm schedules a regular session with us involving a preset agenda of areas to cover and questions to answer. I tell firms to think about it as a performance review. Let’s look at the quality, cost and responsiveness of what we’ve been doing in an organized way. It’s shockingly effective. It’s also ideal to have key questions that both parties know ahead of time.

Don’t waste my time with the generic surveys. I don’t think that’s an effective tool. You might suggest starting with that and then sit down afterward, but those don’t work alone. I also don’t think it accomplishes much from a feedback perspective if you go hunting or golfing or take clients out. It’s good, but couple it with something that has rigor. Have a business meeting that attacks the issues.

The Law Firm Perspective

Dave Bruns is the director of client services for Farella Braun + Martel, a law firm headquartered in San Francisco and focused on sophisticated business transactions, and high-stakes commercial, civil and criminal litigation. He leads the firm’s business development efforts. With a foundation based on a client interview program, he integrates the client’s voice into strategic business development and marketing programs.

Using Feedback to Know the Client

My experiences have taught me that the only way to really know what your clients are thinking is to have effective feedback measures. Clients want relationships, and part of that is the give and take of communication about the services you provide. You must be actively engaged in the process of getting that information.

When I get feedback from a client, I gain more credibility with the attorneys in our firm because of what their clients have told me and what we’ve learned. Regardless of the longevity of the attorney-client relationship, my lawyers glean unique and insightful information from the feedback process.

Customized Service

Once you do get the feedback, the service that you provide is more customized to the needs of that particular client, whether he or she wants bills every two weeks or requests a monthly check-in meeting. You end up working more closely with that person on his or her needs. It’s not just, “This is how I do my job;” you customize it based on the information. Your approach to that client is more comfortable and more bespoke.

Partner Involvement

To make feedback a success, you need buy-in from the partners in your firm. Getting the actual feedback is essential, but then the people you are working with need to buy into the fact that they will act on the information you bring back. The partners have to understand what’s happening is there to help them. The information will help them better serve their clients, and they have to act on that information to achieve that superior client service.

The Consultant Perspective

Laura Meherg is a partner at the Wicker Park Group, a boutique consulting firm based in Chicago helping law firms design and implement client feedback, client service and client growth programs. Every day, she talks to clients about what matters in their relationships with outside counsel. She regularly works with GC and facilitates GC roundtables for Martindale-Hubbell’s Counsel-to-Counsel Forum series and other in-house counsel programs.

Adding Value Through Feedback

In just about every interview we conduct, we ask clients to identify how outside counsel adds value to their relationship. What each client values is dramatically different. Some clients say that what they value most is being able to call the firm and have a real person, preferably the attorney, pick up the phone. Some clients value hand-holding, but others just want to pass off matters. A budget-strapped legal department may greatly value “free CLE” programs, but others may not. Some in-house counsel read and value the newsletters law firms produce, but many find their inbox overwhelming and delete them.

The greatest challenge is overcoming the fact that many attorneys assume they know what their clients value most and treat every client the same. The client feedback process, which should include face-to-face interviews conducted by someone trained and well prepared (and not the client’s primary relationship attorney), allows a firm greater understanding of what the individual truly values. That, in turn, will help the firm to focus resources on the improvement efforts that will be most effective.

How Clients Respond

Law firms often assume clients are too busy to provide this type of feedback; however, when the invitation to provide feedback is presented properly to the client, it is almost never declined. The best companies solicit regular feedback from customers and wouldn’t dream of making strategic decisions without that input. Recently, in an interview at a large bank, key executives mentioned that the bank uses Gallup to get feedback from valued customers and were delighted that their law firm was asking for feedback as well.

Despite the recognition by law firm leaders that client feedback is critical, most clients we interview say it was their first such experience with attorneys, and this anecdotal evidence is backed up by data. When LexisNexis/Martindale-Hubbell conducted a global survey on client feedback initiatives in 2011, 52 percent of respondents did not seek any client feedback—despite the fact that 83 percent agreed clients value a willingness to seek their opinions.

A Long-Term Perspective

The long-term benefits of client feedback are profound—as long as the firm takes action on the feedback obtained. Firms that incorporate client feedback into day-to-day operations, strategic planning and professional development curriculums build a client-centric law firm and will reap positive results. When it was time for one of our firms to create a formal strategic plan, it used the data and feedback from its clients to set desirable future market positions, with specific goals for key clients, core industries and practice areas. Over the next few years, the firm grew revenue by an average of 10 percent and increased partner profits by 14 percent annually.

Firms that capitalize on the benefits of feedback are the ones that will protect, strengthen and expand their client relationships by better understanding their clients’ businesses, needs and expectations. Even beyond the client relationships, these market leaders tend to be better at retaining the best talent, identifying growth trends and improving profitability. Thus, in a way, client feedback not only helps you learn what your clients value, but also allows your firm to sustain long-term value.

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12 Tips for Better Client Feedback

  1. Smile and enjoy your visit.
  2. Be prepared.  Research and be alert to news about the specific company and industry.
  3. Ask open-ended questions using “how,” “what,” and “why.”
  4. Respond to answers with follow-up questions.
  5. Listen more than talk. Listen 85 percent of the time and spend 15 percent of the time asking questions, follow-up questions or rephrasing responses to clarify understanding.
  6. Don’t be defensive or make excuses. Offer a quick apology to criticisms and move on.
  7. Don’t criticize their business, their superiors, their opinions or other firms.
  8. Don’t sell. Ask questions to gain a better understanding of potential needs.
  9. Don’t offer solutions. Ask more questions to create a tailored response and solution later.
  10. Take notes.
  11. Schedule a follow-up conversation or meeting as appropriate.
  12. Send a handwritten thank-you note.