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, wrote Terri Pepper Gavulic, director of legal support at Fisher & Phillips LLP, in a recent Law Practice magazine article. 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, according to Gavulic.
“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,” she said.
Benefits for Clients
Clients report some of the following benefits when their outside lawyers implement formal feedback programs, Gavulic said:
- 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.
- Closer alignment of the client’s expectations for the process with the law firm’s delivery of legal services.
Benefits for Law Firms
Gavulic said lawyers and their firms’ 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 loses the client.
- Gathering intelligence to inform strategic decisions, such as expansion, practice area growth, industry penetration, geographic expansion, area of focus and ancillary businesses or services to consider.
- Identifying new business opportunities, whether with the client or in the client’s industry.
Obtaining Client Input
Lawyers 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 process should include some or all of the following methods, Gavulic advised.
- Client visits by firm management. These types of visits are typically conducted by a chairperson 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 those that may affect the relationship.
- Informal client visits by relationship partners. Informal “off the meter” visits by the partner managing a client account are particularly 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. These 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 its 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.
Effects on Firm Success
There are many links between client feedback programs and a firm’s long-term success, profitability and viability, Gavulic said. Client feedback can lead to improved client satisfaction based on the benefits outlined above. When 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 has a direct effect 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 client is 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.
Client satisfaction also positively affects a law firm via 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 when they obtain it in a systematic manner. Gavulic outlines the 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.