PICTURE THIS: A patient visits a doctor. The doctor enters the exam room and says, “You have strep throat.” The befuddled patient replies, “But doctor, how can you say that? You haven’t even examined me or asked me any questions. Besides, I came here because my toe hurts.”
Just as a doctor should never diagnose or treat a patient without the patient’s input, a lawyer should never help a client without the client’s input. To do so creates the risks of mismatched expectations, overly high costs and missed opportunities. Despite these risks, many lawyers don’t seek or use client feedback in a systematic way. Lawyers and their firms often operate without sufficient client feedback. Lack of feedback not only causes the law firm to miss many benefits, but it also deprives clients of the benefits they can reap when encouraged to give honest, candid input.
BENEFITS FOR CLIENTS AND FIRMS
Listed below are some of the benefits clients report when their outside lawyers implement formal feedback programs:
- Enhanced value and service levels once the firm has a deeper understanding of the client’s business and industry issues.
- Greater investment by the firm in the relationship and an increased willingness to share risk or partner on key initiatives. These partnerships often foster innovation in legal service delivery.
- Increased protection against business disruption if essential personnel leave the law department or the law firm.
- More opportunities for the client to shape and take advantage of training, prevention and compliance programs.
- Access to key decision-makers in the law firm so the client’s voice is considered in developing firm strategy.
- Better communication between all stakeholders in a matter.
- Closer alignment of the client’s expectations for process with the law firm’s delivery of legal services.
- Improved efficiency because clients can tap into prior work product and/or lessons learned through the law firm’s experiences with other clients.
Lawyers and their firm’s management also report many benefits, including:
- Ascertaining the level of client satisfaction and/or areas where the firm can improve in service delivery before it’s too late and the firm loses the client. Clients may not let their lawyer or firm know when they’re dissatisfied unless specifically asked. Often client feedback uncovers dissatisfaction that has led to a firm receiving fewer cases or matters. Knowing this before the firm loses all the work gives the firm a chance to recover.
- Gathering intelligence to inform strategic decisions, such as expansion, practice area growth, industry penetration, geographic expansion, areas of focus, and ancillary businesses or services to consider.
- Greater understanding of the firm’s competitive position and competitors. When asked, clients will often share what they think other firms are doing that the law firm asking for feedback should consider. It’s also eye-opening to hear a client’s perception of the firm’s scope and reach. Frequently, the client only knows a little bit about what the firm offers, not the full extent.
- Identifying new business opportunities, whether with the client or in the client’s industry.
- Allowing input into marketing plans, such as identifying publications to read, associations or groups to join and conferences to attend.
- Using data to inform all aspects of service and project management, such as communication preferences, budgeting and forecasting needs, and client guidelines.
- Providing deep insight into understanding clients’ needs, preferences, perceptions, company and industry so legal services can be tailored.
OBTAINING CLIENT INPUT
Roger Quillen, the chairman and managing director of Fisher & Phillips LLP, a national labor and employment law firm, regularly visits key clients in person. According to Quillen, he’s received input from his firm’s clients that his visits clearly demonstrate the firm’s commitment to the relationship and also offer a chance to solidify or improve the relationship. “We know that client feedback is valuable to us and our clients. We have a unique opportunity to inform our firm’s strategic decisions based on our clients’ current and future needs, as identified through formal client feedback sessions,” Quillen says.
You can obtain usable client feedback in many ways. Firms should consider the combination of methodologies that will work best given their available time, budget and personnel, but the combination should include some or all of the following methods:
- Client visits by firm management. These types of client visits are typically conducted by a chairman or managing partner. They allow the client a chance to give feedback and to learn about the firm’s short- and long-term plans or priorities, especially as these may impact the relationship.
- Informal client visits by relationship partners. Informal “off-the-meter” visits by the partner managing a client account are especially useful for checking in on the client’s satisfaction with the service received, making sure matters are staffed appropriately, discussing the client’s changing requirements and planning for the work ahead.
- Third-party client interviews. Third-party formal interviews are conducted by an outside consultant on behalf of a law firm. Usually these client interviews are done in large batches (e.g., 50 to 100 clients), giving the law firm a chance to analyze trends as well as overall service, competitive position and how to prepare for the future needs of their client base generally.
- Written client surveys. These are usually conducted electronically and are typically more quantitative than qualitative. They are useful in many ways, including to establish a baseline “score” of client satisfaction that can be compared year to year. Written surveys also give clients a chance to express their preferences, for example, if they want to receive certain publications or be invited to attend events. Because written surveys require more effort and initiative on the part of the client, they need to be short and easy to complete. The participation level is generally lower than with in-person or telephone methods.
- Telephone surveys. Telephone surveys are generally shorter than an in-person visit and more focused. The questions asked are geared toward a preliminary assessment of client satisfaction. When dissatisfaction is indicated, an in-person visit is often the next step.
- End-of-matter questionnaires. Some firms conduct a brief survey (usually in writing or electronically) at the conclusion of each matter. These kinds of surveys are time-intensive to administer but offer clients the chance to give feedback, while the issues are fresh in their minds.
- Contractual end-of-matter meetings. With the growing popularity of formal legal project management initiatives, some law firms specify how client feedback will be collected at the outset of an engagement as part of the project charter. Often this is in the form of an end-of-matter debriefing session, bringing together the lawyers and their clients. In these sessions, the whole team discusses what went well, capturing best practices, and what could have been better, capturing important data to inform improvement efforts.
CORPORATE REVIEWS OF LAW FIRMS
Many corporations, especially those with in-house law departments, conduct an annual assessment of their outside law firms. This method also provides client feedback to law firms. One company that annually evaluates its outside law firms is Exel, the leading contract logistics provider in the Americas. According to Mark Smolik, vice president, general counsel and compliance officer at Exel, “We view each of the law firms we use as strategic partners and extended members of our legal department. In much the same way as we evaluate the performance of members of our internal team, we think it’s critical to evaluate the performance of our law firms. We hold our partner law firms accountable for their performance, and we seek to assure they are aligned with our objectives of delivering superior service to the businesses we serve.”
Smolik says the internal evaluation of outside law firms helps his team provide clear guidance and feedback on multiple key performance indicators, such as how well outside lawyers understand his team’s objectives and expectations, responsiveness and communications, efficiency and process management, predictability, costs and budgets.
“Maintaining a consistent and open line of communication with our law firms on their performance results in Exel receiving services that are aligned with expectations and continually improve year in and year out,” Smolik says.
THE EFFECTS ON FIRM SUCCESS
There are many links between client feedback programs and a firm’s long-term success, profitability and viability. Client feedback can lead to improved client satisfaction based on all of the benefits outlined above. Then, once a client is completely satisfied, it’s natural that he or she will become more loyal and willing to use the lawyer or firm on more assignments. This is a direct impact on the firm’s bottom line—not only because of revenue created by this new business, but also because the firm has to expend fewer marketing dollars to find new clients. A loyal clientis more tightly connected to the firm and is less likely to be willing to change law firms, even when faced with pressure to do so.
Examples abound in which a new CEO or chief operating officer of a company puts pressure on the company’s in-house law department to use the lawyers or firm he or she used previously. A loyal in-house lawyer is more likely to fight to maintain his or her existing law firm relationship if highly satisfied. If there is any dissatisfaction at all, the in-house lawyer will undoubtedly be less willing to cross his or her new boss. Another example of how client satisfaction positively impacts a law firm is by the word-of-mouth referrals and references given by satisfied clients to others. This happens client to client, and most law firms are unaware of the extent to which their clients are speaking well of them—until they learn that information by specifically asking in a client feedback session.
OTHER USES FOR FEEDBACK
Finally, law firms can use client feedback in many ways once they obtain it in a systematic manner. Consider these possibilities:
- To explore attitudes about the firm’s brand, image and reputation. Client feedback is important market research in the brand development process.
- To test demand for a firm’s proposed practice, industry or geographic expansion before spending time and money.
- To ascertain new business opportunities.
- To assess a specific client or industry team’s performance and client relationship and/or to kick off a client team initiative.
- To assess progress against previous market research or interview feedback.
- To test the efficacy of law firm-sponsored projects, such as client portals, blogs or technology initiatives.
In an industry as competitive as the legal industry, even small instances of poor or inconsistent service can cause a law firm to lose all or part of the work from a key client. With margins for error this close, client feedback programs should be standard operating procedure.