Volume 19, Number 3
April/May 2002

Exceeding Expectations
Creating More Value for Your Clients

By Edward Poll

In today's professional service world, it's a buyer's market. There is always someone else who can do the job for less. But, in reality, the fee is almost never the issue. If a client goes to another lawyer because of the money, the reason is that you have not shown that client the value of what you do. Legal clients are looking for value, not price. They want communication and dedication more than they want cheap fees.
So how do you provide more value? Here are seven common-sense ideas for exceeding your clients' expectations so you can gain or hold onto their business.

Ask the Customers
In every CLE you've ever gone to, there was an evaluation form. Why not use an evaluation form for your clients? One of my clients includes an evaluation form with his first bill that asks the following questions: "How were you treated by the receptionist?" "Did you understand what we talked about?" "Is there anything you would like us to change in the future?" If he receives a negative comment, he takes care of it immediately. If he gets positive feedback, it goes into the client's file to deflect any future malpractice claims or disciplinary actions.
You might want to solicit additional information about specific clients' growth plans. This enables you to anticipate the client's future needs-and solidifies an impression of genuine interest in the client's work. Sample questions include: Where do you see your business in the next 15 years? Five years? One year? Who are your team's key decision makers? Why? What are your key objectives? What's your next step?

Communicate to Reduce Complaints
Communicate regularly with your clients. Respond to letters. Send copies of all documents to clients. Send status reports to clients every month. (This is a great technique I learned from the former chair of the General Practice Section, Wes Hackett.) This puts your name in front of clients on a regular basis and builds positive associations. The next piece of mail they get from you may be your bill, and you want them to open that envelope as well!
To reduce complaints about billing, send bills on a regular monthly basis. Be sure the billing is easily understandable-do not use legalese. Double check the arithmetic-if you can't even add up the numbers correctly, clients may assume that you don't do other things right as well. Take the time to review your bills before they go out.
You also can use billings to describe what you do for your client. Put a positive spin on your activities because it's value that counts, not time. When you detail what you accomplished for your clients when you went to court or worked on a transaction, they will better understand the value to them of the varied services you provide.

Build Trust
Clients want to feel that they're respected, and they want to invest their trust in you. You can destroy that trust or build on it. Keeping promises builds trust-even little things like being on time for appointments show you value your client's time. We all are busy, but keeping people waiting shows a lack of respect and implies inefficiency and disorganization: If you can't even be on time for a simple appointment, how will you handle more complex and important tasks?
One of the most successful consultants I know never answers his phone. Instead, an answering machine says, "Leave your name and phone number; I'll return your call within 90 minutes." When I asked him why he does this, he explained that it builds trust. When he does call back within 90 minutes, clients see he keeps his word and begin to believe in him. Later, when it's a really important issue, they will trust what he says again.
Building trust is a matter of small steps-baby steps-one at a time.

Show Them You Care
You also must show clients you care about them, because people like to do business with people they like. And they will like you if they see that you care about them.
One way to build rapport is to make clients an active part of the working team. There are many ways you can do this. If you have staff, associates, or contract lawyers working for you, introduce them to the client-personally. It's a lot easier to sell "we" than it is to sell "I." Associates will appreciate being included as part of the team, and the clients will know you are an organization of skilled professionals, not just a one-person shop.
Another reason to have the client be part of the team is that it's very difficult to criticize your own decisions. If you want malpractice protection, this is one way to get it. Make sure the client is part of the decision-making process.

Plan Ahead
I'm a big believer in planning, and my book, The Profitable Law Office Handbook, is about building a business plan for your practice. I suggest you do the same thing in each of your clients' cases or matters. Build a guideline, budget, road map, or plan for your client before you rush to file pleadings in court.
The plan shows your client what the matter really looks like. Make sure the client understands it, approves of it, and signs off on it. When she does, you know you have a client who truly supports your evaluation.

Guarantee Satisfaction
Here's a recommendation that will strike many as a little bizarre: Guarantee your clients that they will be satisfied with your service. This does not necessarily mean they will like the result, but they feel good about your service.
I suggest this because such a guarantee will force you to check in with your client on a regular basis. You will learn whether clients appreciate what you're doing, whether it's in accord with what they want, and, importantly, whether they believe what you do is valuable. This may be the best way to differentiate yourself from competitors.

Be the Counselor
Finally, strive to become what I call the "outside general counsel" for the client. You want to be the first person the client turns to no matter what the situation. You then will be in the position of deciding whether you want to handle the matter or refer it out to somebody else. You become the broker and gatekeeper. You are the client's counselor.
Making clients feel connected to you, and helping them understand and appreciate the value that you provide, will bring you more business, revenue, and profits. All potential and current buyers of your services periodically utilize a mental exercise that ends with the question, "Am I getting enough value for the time and money I'm investing in this attorney, or should I look elsewhere?" Exceed their expectations, provide the value, and they will stick with you.

Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a certified management consultant in Los Angeles who advises attorneys and law firms on how to deliver their services more effectively and increase profits. He is also the author of Attorney & Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law: Planning & Operating for Survival & Growth, 2d ed. (ABA 2001). He can be reached via e-mail at edpoll@lawbiz.com.

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