Seven tips on ensuring client satisfaction
“If clients do not believe that a lawyer is serving their best interests, they will take their business elsewhere,” says law practice management expert Ed Poll in his Law Practice Today article, “Manage Expectation Through Collaboration.” To help ensure that lawyers keep clients, rather than watch them walk out the door, he shares seven tips that focus on effective communications at every stage of the client relationship.
Start on the right foot. Poll explains that a signed engagement letter that states each party’s responsibilities for making the engagement a success is a fundamental necessity. Obtain as much information as possible about the goals and desires of the client. Such information should include anticipated strategies, desired outcomes and how much the client wants to pay. “Going through the process of detailing and negotiating to prepare the engagement letter should prevent situations where clients have unrealistic expectations or demands.”
Avoid unreasonable clients. “Beware of clients who cannot or will not agree to what they want their lawyer to accomplish,” says Poll, explaining that a discussion on the engagement terms will frequently uncover clients whom lawyers should avoid. Telltale warning signs of problem clients include those who cannot articulate what they want to achieve, suggest that they know better than the lawyer what needs to be done, nitpick over budgets and insist that their matter is “life and death.”
Be reasonable, not cheap. Lawyers should help clients understand their fees, in addition to obtaining agreement on them. “Do not get on the slippery slope of letting the client dictate what the fee should be,” advises Poll, advocating that lawyers educate clients on Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 on reasonable fees. Deciding on a fair fee involves answering several questions: Is the amount of the fee proportional to the value of the services rendered? Do the lawyer’s skill and experience justify the fee? Does the client understand the amount and nature of the fee and consent to it?
Lawyers should ask their clients, “How am I doing?” Only when lawyers understand client expectations can they satisfy their clients, says Poll.
Consider a performance guarantee. Lawyers cannot ethically guarantee a result (MRPC 7.1), but they can guarantee a certain degree of effort, writes Poll. “Establishing a budget at the start of an engagement can do this by showing clients that their lawyers are sensitive to their needs and giving the client a sense of what to expect. It’s only a short step from this level to guaranteeing satisfaction with the level of service and offering to make adjustments in the fee if necessary if the client were dissatisfied.
Visit and listen. Sending regular status reports can help clients understand what is being done for them. However, such communication only conveys information from the lawyer to the client. “Far more important for managing client expectations is to find out what clients themselves think,” advises Poll. Lawyers should ask their clients, “How am I doing?” Only when lawyers understand client expectations can they satisfy their clients.
Provide solutions. Lawyers should strive to create what marketers call unique selling propositions—offering something that competitors don’t or can’t, and creating something new that clients need or want. “Clients may send out an RFP that signals they are looking for their current firms to do something to justify continuing the relationship,” explains Poll. “A firm can establish its [unique selling proposition] by going outside the RFP and suggesting ways of managing an IP portfolio more effectively, offering to submit electronic invoices that itemize and detail services provided, or demonstrating how to pare back litigation discovery costs by reducing depositions.” Providing solutions moves clients away from “what does it cost me” to “what does it do for me.”
Build trust and loyalty. “Being a qualified lawyer is not the key to managing client expectations,” says Poll, advising lawyers to set a higher standard. “Based on skill level, clients can’t tell the difference among lawyers.” Lawyers should commit to creating a collaborative relationship with their clients that includes regular two-way communications—focusing on understanding what their clients value and expect, and providing the reasons behind the advice they provide.
“Manage Expectation Through Collaboration” appears in the Oct. 2010 edition of Law Practice Today, a publication of the Law Practice Management Section.
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