To nurture” has many synonyms. It can mean “to develop,” “to cultivate,” “to promote,” “to foster,” “to encourage” or “to support.” All of these words point to an emotional tie underlying the business relationship called “client service.” These words also capture the essential difference between “client service” and “nurturing” or a “client-centric focus”: The former conjures up established patterns of interaction while the latter two indicate a relationship. Client service refers to an expected pattern of interaction with clients as part of the work lawyers do with them. Client nurturing and a client-centric focus go a step further—beyond basic courtesy to a real investment in the lives of clients, both personal and business.
Even though the nurturing, client-centric level of commitment takes more time and thought, it typically reaps greater benefits in terms of personal satisfaction and a more expansive, more profitable series of client engagements. In this article I discuss ways to turn traditional client service into extraordinary client nurturing by making small modifications in three interrelated areas: (1) lawyer understanding of each client’s world, (2) a lawyer’s service posture and (3) a firm’s client-facing procedures, such as invoicing, services packages and legal processes.
NURTURING VERSUS SERVICE
Nurturing requires lawyers to make a 180-degree change in their mindset—to shift their focus off the legal matter at hand and take a real interest in the whole client and the client’s world. It requires a commitment to build a practice around clients’ wants, needs, wishes and desires. It begins with an attitude change—the sum of small modifications—that encourages an emotional connection with the person on the other side of the desk.
Clients usually lump lawyers and dentists in the same category: You don’t go to them for fun. They want reassurance that their lawyer sees their matters as important, understands their point of view and is available when they need to talk. Even general counsel want to know that their lawyer is aware of the sensitivities, emotions and politics that create the context for the matter at hand. As a managing partner once told me, “The key requirement for building business is empathy, because the client needs to feel that your connection to them is not just about money.”
UNDERSTAND THEIR WORLD: DOING THE 180 DEGREES
Often lawyers have only a superficial knowledge of their clients’ real lives: their challenges, priorities, successes, fears and desires. The superficiality stems from the legacy of “need to know” thinking, where lawyers are told only what is essential to implement the task at hand. Lawyers have not been trained to study the whole client in depth before beginning to work on a matter. This absence of a broad perspective and context in which to place specific legal activities has certain negative consequences:
- Lawyers find it difficult to proactively address client problems.
- Lawyers lack sufficient information to create cross-selling strategies that lead to greater “depth of client.”
- Lawyers often fail to move beyond the acquaintance level of conversation, which in turn inhibits progress toward becoming a trusted advisor of the client.
Instead of thinking the way lawyers always have in the past, modern lawyers need to do a 180-degree turnaround and embark on a research plan that generates a 360-degree understanding of clients in their own environments as well as an assessment of the lawyers’ own firms as they relate to client needs. The research should encompass both the internal and external features that affect the client’s goals, successes, opportunities, conflicts and problems.
CONTAIN THE SCOPE OF RESEARCH WITH THE 5Cs
Approach the task by dividing the research into five segments, five concentric rings of information moving outward from the details of the client’s organization and structure to the context in which problems and opportunities emerge. One mnemonic to encapsulate this process is the 5Cs:
- Client characteristics—organization, structure, geographic reach, revenue, products and services and relationships within the client entity.
- Client customers/clients, markets—location, buying triggers and market share.
- Collaborators/channels—communication avenues between the client and its customers, markets and the external world.
- Competitors—for its products, services and growth plans.
- Context—the trends, laws, court decisions and other economic, social and political forces that affect the environment in which the client operates.
The 5Cs work for both human and corporate clients. For individuals, characteristics become the family structure—its form, geographic reach, revenue, etc. Customers and markets become influencers who can affect decisions, while communication channels are the ways in which the individual imparts information to others. Competitors are those adverse to the specific issue, and context includes both the demographic trends relevant to the individual’s cohort and the specific social, economic and legal factors that shape a situation.
The data become useful as they translate into specific opportunities and risks for the client. When you see an occasion where your knowledge suggests a useful plan for your client, ask yourself:
- What difference will the information I have make to the client?
- How can our resources and expertise be relevant to the situation I’ve uncovered?
- What is our action recommendation?
- How do I show our value in this situation?
- Do I know the right people to talk to or do I need to find a way to meet other, more relevant decision-makers?
As represented visually in the graphic below, answers to these questions (1) reveal opportunities that become (2) the basis for an action plan that becomes (3) the basis for assessing firm or practice resources and (4) assembling a team with the knowledge to address the problem. The selected firm and practice capabilities are the source of your (5) benefits and value pitch to the client that leads to (6) additional interesting work.
Some tips for making it easier to incorporate 360-degree knowledge of the client into an already-full work life are listed below:
- Limit this effort to one or two of your key clients—those who provide intellectually interesting work, could provide additional work, share a similar culture and work style, and pay their bills on time.
- Use Google alerts or a similar system to gather relevant information about the client as it appears on the Web.
- Introduce a research time segment into your daily calendar—even if it’s only 15 minutes—to learn more about some aspect of these clients’ current situations or future needs.
Nurturing in action means thinking about the lawyer-client relationship from the client’s point of view. One of the biggest disconnects between lawyers’ and clients’ perceptions of service stems from different ideas about promptness. Lawyers tend to think that a 24-hour call-back time frame is responsive; clients typically think two hours. To avoid this misunderstanding, ask about communication preferences and agree on communication guidelines. Preferences include:
- Preferred mode of contact—mobile, office or home phone; texting; email or snail mail.
- Preferred time of day to speak and preferred points at which clients want to be contacted.
- Coverage for both parties—contacts to talk to when the client or lawyer is unavailable.
For some clients, a lawyer may want to schedule a weekly call just to touch base even if nothing important has happened. Court delays that are routine to litigators often cause clients anxiety or frustration, so a call to explain that everything is fine often assuages client fears.
Little touches throughout the firm reinforce the individual, client-focused, nurturing approach. For example, does your waiting area have publications of interest to clients or just legal newspapers and firm marketing materials? Does your receptionist act like he or she knows the client will be coming in? Does your assistant provide his or her name when answering your phone? Are you on time for the meeting? Do you thank the client at the end of the meeting?
Nurturing is reinforced by nonbillable, in-person, shared activities. Surrounded by the impersonal interconnected world of mobile devices and computers, we tend to forget that humans are animals. We like to get the feel of someone through one-on-one contact. As Alan Weiss wrote on his blog in November 2011, “It is easiest to influence when we are together. …Email is one-dimensional; phone is two-dimensional, meetings three-dimensional. …Enthusiasm is contagious when we’re face to face.” One way to create nurturing time is to build in face time, so consider the following carefully:
- Set a rule that the first client meeting is always in person, even if you have to go to the client’s office.
- Invite clients to lunch to meet the whole legal team.
- Celebrate the end of a matter with a social activity.
- After the matter is completed, welcome the client’s perceptions of what went well and what could be done better next time, and then implement those suggestions.
CLIENT-FACING PROCEDURES AND PROCESSES
The firm’s processes and procedures should reflect your 360-degree knowledge of the client that facilitates your nurture-based relationship. “Client-facing” means working in a way that reflects the client’s preferences. For example, instead of basing invoices on calendared time increments, use the report-writing features of your billing system to group the time within activity segments. To remind clients of the value of your efforts, you might also want to add a short segment summarizing progress toward agreed-upon goals.
One of today’s new buzzwords is “legal project management,” which basically means that one should adopt business-style practices that coordinate with the client’s ways of doing business. Legal project management uses initial matter meetings to set the client’s expectations and agree on the anticipated workflow, sets parameters for the client’s participation in the case and establishes protocols for reassessment when unexpected events occur. Effective implementation of legal project management can improve efficiency, increase transparency, avoid cost overrun surprises and encourage collaboration.
The client-centric focus of initial matter meetings becomes a logical extension of the nurturing approach to the relationship. Collaboration and transparency are natural partners of nurturing. All three concepts are rooted in an understanding and acceptance of the total client, which in turn creates a comfortable, trust-based connection.
Lawyers can also create client-focused teams that share the knowledge base and work together to maximize opportunities. Typically we think of client teams as big-firm capabilities. But client teams are less about size and more about strategy. Solos and small firms can also apply the concept by establishing client-based collaborative relationships with other lawyers.
THE REWARDS OF A NURTURING CULTURE
Aligning firm resources and practice procedures with a nurturing, client-centric attitude has several key elements:
- Correlation of lawyer and law firm resources with the client’s problems, needs, circumstances and perceptions.
- Client-delimited guidelines, processes and protocols.
- Creation of mutually rewarding relationships that bring clients into the lawyering process through education and teamwork.
In several ways, a nurturing culture requires more time to really get to know the whole client and greater flexibility in tuning one’s own way of working to accommodate someone else. But most practitioners of this approach say it’s worth it because the relationship itself is more rewarding, and it leads to a growing, profitable practice.