Keeping ’Em Happy: The Secrets of Client Satisfaction

By Jim Calloway

Many aspects of this subject are somewhat obvious. In our dealings with others, we all know when we are satisfied and when we are dissatisfied. In most endeavors, we are generally satisfied when we get what we expect. (Well, that may not be true for the hard-core pessimists, but you may not be able to please them anyway and, for some of them, not being satisfied is actually what they do want.)

It is important to the attorney-client relationship to do your best to make sure that the client has realistic expectations. It may be tempting when the new client is retaining your services to err on the side of “closing the deal,” but it is a poor long-term plan. When the client predicts an unrealistic result, it is tempting to say, “Well, retain us and let’s see” or “Possibly.” But be careful. It is appropriate to explain that there are many undetermined facts and/or questions of law. But starting the attorney-client relationship with clients who believe that they are likely to get certain relief when that isn’t the case is going down the wrong path. You can leave the predictions to the psychics. But you can’t leave a new client with a false belief.

Equally important are client expec-tations about how the attorney-client
relationship will be managed. Modern technology allows us to be available to clients around the clock. That might even be acceptable if you have only one really well paying client (who would have to sleep and have a life of his or her own). All of us need down time, and all of us have shifting priorities. Our clients need us to be there for them when it is required, but not on every whim.

Schedule a meeting with your staff and discuss how you help your new clients have realistic expectations.

Careful Screening of Clients

Veteran lawyers have learned which clients to avoid. Here are some warning signs of potential problem clients. When potential clients exhibit several of these warning signs, it is appropriate to ask yourself whether you should represent them at all.

1. The client says, “Money is no object. It is the principle at stake.”

2. The client has had two or more previous lawyers involved in this matter.

3. You are being consulted on the eve of a critical deadline that the client has known about for some time.

4. The client owes money to his or her previous lawyers and/or expresses dissatisfaction with them.

5. The client is reluctant to sign a retainer agreement and has an excuse as to why the full retainer cannot be paid immediately. (Never allow yourself to be placed in a position where you are more committed to a client’s matter than the client is.)

6. The client has unrealistic expectations about the relief he or she is seeking.

7. You have a “bad feeling” about this client that you just can’t quantify. (Do you really want to spend months working with this client? Will a judge or a jury have the same reaction when the client’s credibility is at issue?)

8. The client didn’t bring important, critical papers to the scheduled meeting with you.

When Perception Is Reality

Implementation of a client-centered law practice rests on the understanding that clients are the sole judges of how good your law firm service was for their matters. You know you cannot please everyone. Many clients will be unhappy about having to be involved with the legal process. Many clients were forced to hire a lawyer owing to events outside of their control. They may believe that they did everything right or “should” have the right to behave as they did. They may have a bad attitude. However, all of that does not matter. They are the sole judges of your practice for their matters as surely as the trial judge is the sole decision-maker when ruling on your case in litigation. The only difference is that with disgruntled clients, there is no appeal, so their perception is truly your reality.

It is the clients’ perceptions that will result in either future referrals or, perhaps, a future bar complaint.

Clients tend to base their perceptions of their lawyers on many things that were not covered in law school. Your brief may have been letter perfect, and opposing counsel may have had an inaccurate statement of the law, but this may blow right by the client. On the other hand, if the receptionist is snooty or you always sound like you are trying to get rid of your clients when you are talking with them on the phone, that they will remember.

Just as in the example of poor service in the restaurant, things that may be accorded great weight are the tone of a receptionist’s voice, the amount of time a client is left on hold on the phone, the promptness of returned phone calls, the physical appearance of an attorney’s office, or how quickly copies of pleadings and correspondence are routinely mailed to the client. Such factors may contribute more to your client’s perception of the quality of services rendered than matters lawyers are trained to consider important. (See my article, “The Client-Centered Law Practice”.)

Client Communications

The fact that clients judge us on our communications and client service is important to understand. We want our clients to be satisfied and appreciative. We want them to refer us business. We want them to return to us with their new business. In today’s terminology, we want our offices to be user-friendly. Therefore, it is important that we set appropriate client expectations and fulfill our clients’ needs in communicating the good job that we are doing for them.

What constitutes effective client communications in the twenty-first century? We have more tools to communicate with clients. Does that mean that we have better communication now?

The twenty-first-century law office should be able to communicate with the clients in whatever method they choose. Some clients will want to receive paper, and the traditional methods will be best for them. (If you represent many unsophisticated consumer clients, I recommend investing in an inkpad and a stamp that says something like “For your information only, no response required” so that you can routinely send them copies of correspondence without getting calls from confused clients thinking that they got the wrong letter.) Some clients will like e-mail. Others may like primarily to talk on the telephone with you, which is fine as long as they are willing to pay for it and you still document important issues in writing.

The twenty-first-century lawyer should help set client expectations as to communications and deal with unrealistic expectations at the initial client interview. Just because it is possible to respond to an e-mail within a few seconds does not mean that this is always a good idea, particularly (as many of us have learned) if the e-mail triggers an emotional reaction. You need to bring this issue up with clients before they send the first e-mail. Inform them that they will likely need to wait a day or two for a response to e-mail, and although there may be times when they get an immediate response from you, that will be the exception rather than the rule. You may be in court most of the day, and generally, except for an emergency, you try to deal with things on a “first in, first out” basis.

The twenty-first-century lawyer will seek the client’s input on reporting frequency. Frequency of communications expectations should be established as well. Some clients want regular updates. Others do not want to be bothered unless there is news. (But even those clients will likely appreciate, and deserve, at least quarterly status reports.)

The twenty-first-century lawyer will discuss appropriate delegation. Clients who have little prior experience with legal services should be told about the law firm’s staff and associates and how they are to be involved in the matter. It is particularly important to stress to clients that their receiving messages from a paralegal, for example, is not an indication that the lawyer is not involved but an appropriate client cost-containment tool.

The twenty-first-century lawyer will guard client confidentiality in communications. This means being aware of the security limitations of e-mail and guiding clients as to whether all, or any, e-mail communications are appropriate in their matters. In my opinion, the lawyer sometimes has to step outside of the rigid boundaries of legal advice and let a client know that deleted doesn’t always mean deleted and that an e-mail from person A to person B may be stored for some time on several other computers along its way over the Internet.

The twenty-first-century lawyer will be able to receive and read digital files in any format that the client wishes. For most lawyers, this means that purchasing a universal file viewer such as Quick View Plus ($35 to $39) is essential, particularly when dealing with international clients. It generally means that outbound documents e-mailed to clients should always be saved in PDF format so that the client can use any computer (even a home computer with sparse software) to open and view the file. WordPerfect users can make use of its “publish to PDF” function. Word users need to buy Adobe Acrobat or an inexpensive third-party PDF printer such as PDF 995 or CutePDF.

The twenty-first-century lawyer will instruct his or her staff in the policies concerning client communication and response time. Once the client expectations for communication have been set, the lawyer needs to make sure that the staff understands them, particularly if they deviate from the normal procedures.

The twenty-first-century lawyer will seek client feedback on how well the client believes communications were handled with an eye to improving the office processes in the future. The twenty-first-century lawyer might not have had to concern himself or herself with client surveys, exit interviews, or other feedback processes. But the twenty-first-century lawyer appreciates that the supply of good clients who pay their bills is not inexhaustible. Marketing for new clients is an expensive and time-consuming process, so it is far better to hold on to the clients you have and to obtain their referrals and return business.

Prepare a brief client satisfaction survey and provide it to some, if not all, of your clients when their matters are concluded. The anticipation of the results may be a bit painful, but nothing but good can come from it. Either you will get a good report or you will have the opportunity to correct things or at least apologize before clients tell everyone in town they were unhappy with you or decide to send a letter to the general counsel’s office.

Client communication is now a critical function of the modern law office. You must prepare to execute this function in the same professional way you prepare the substantive side of cases you handle.

The best way to have satisfied clients is to do what you said you would do for them, within the time frame you said that you would do it, at a cost that is in line with your predictions.

It sounds easy when stated like that. But we all understand that many conflicting demands on a lawyer’s time make it easy to not get that project completed until Friday, even though you said you would have it done on Tuesday. It is always better to under-promise and over-perform. If you have trouble making deadlines for clients, perhaps you need to give yourself more time; consider adding a day or two to the time frame in which you think you will be able to deliver the completed work.

Jim Calloway is director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program. He can be reached at . This article originally appeared as a presentation at the 2006 National Solo and Small Firm Conference, © 2006 Jim Calloway. Reprinted by permission.

Copyright 2007

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