February 01, 2017

Listening to Clients

Edward Poll

This article is excerpted from Ch. 12: Listening to Clients of Attorney and Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law: Planning and Operating for Survival and Growth (3d ed. 2014), by Edward Poll. © 2014 American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission.

The world is not run by thought, nor by imagination, but by opinion.
—Elizabeth Drew, The Modern Novel

 You can observe a lot by just watching.
—Yogi Berra

Companies like Nordstrom, FedEx, Ritz-Carlton, and British Airways are well known for delivering services precisely the way their customers want them. British Airways, in fact, spends more on customer satisfaction than on advertising. “Companies like these,” said Steve Barrett, formerly the national marketing director of Perkins Coie LLP, “have led business people to expect extraordinary services.”

Law firms are catching on. They are acknowledging that if they want to sustain client loyalty at a level comparable to the intense loyalty of Nordstrom or FedEx customers, they must focus on client services and satisfaction just as sharply as successful businesses do. To be successful in this market-driven reality, law firms must take the initiative and ask their clients, “What can we do to create complete satisfaction in our relationship?” And then law firms must be prepared to follow up and make sure that all clients get what they have asked for.

Failure to deliver what a client requests can lead to disaster in a relationship. Clients may look to other service providers to meet their expressed needs. In fact, according to some research, the majority of clients who switch to other service providers are not dissatisfied; they are simply not delighted with the service provided.

The Client Satisfaction Survey

Client satisfaction is determined only by the client. Keeping clients completely satisfied is how a law firm maintains current business and obtains new business.

The client survey, or audit, is a critical step in benchmarking the quality of the service that your clients, prospective clients, and referral sources feel that they are getting (see Figure 12.1 for a sample survey). The key component in conducting the survey is to focus on the needs of the client: What does the client value in the delivery of legal services? How well is the firm delivering what the client values? Are referral sources receiving positive feedback from clients they refer to the law firm?

(Note: The client survey process works equally well with potential clients. Imagine how impressed a potential client will feel when a lawyer asks at the outset of a potential relationship for help in structuring that relationship based on the client’s needs and requirements. Success will follow the firm that trains a team to present a proposal response meeting with a big chunk of time reserved for asking the clients questions about their needs instead of telling them how good the firm is and what they’ll get.)

Survey Types

Client satisfaction surveys can be conducted in writing, over the telephone, or in person. The response rate is directly related to how the survey is conducted: mail-in surveys yield the lowest response rate, and in-person surveys yield the highest. A mix of the three survey types—written, phone, and in-person—works best in providing information to clearly assess clients’ needs. Survey questions can be shaped to elicit predefined responses, from a simple yes or no to a continuum response. A continuum response is made by selecting from a scale of 1 to 6, for example, where 1 means “rarely satisfied” and 6 means “completely satisfied.” (Using a scale from 1 to 6—or any even number of choices—forces the respondent to be on one side or the other of the middle.)

Questions drafted to elicit set responses like yes or no lend themselves to computer analysis. Open-ended questions that require the client to make more detailed responses can provide a deeper level of information as well as topics for follow-up questions.

The more often a firm elicits client feedback, the more up-to-date such feedback is. Although surveying is a time-consuming activity that does not always generate immediate revenues, surveying clients is important, even essential, in order to survive in today’s economy. Firms need to plan carefully for the commitment that this marketing tool requires.

Written Survey

Written surveys are most useful when a firm wants to get more general feedback from a large number of clients at one time. A practice that deals with one-time users—that is, clients who seek legal assistance for personal injury, workers’ compensation, debtor’s bankruptcy, or family issues—can include a brief survey at the end of the matter to gauge client satisfaction. Firms whose practices are based on ongoing relationships may want to conduct written surveys from time to time to see how things are going.

To improve the response rate, the questionnaire should be kept as short and as focused as possible. A rule of thumb would be two pages and ten minutes to complete.

Because a written survey has the lowest response rate, at least two mailings are necessary for maximum response. The more follow-up that is executed, the greater the response rate. If confidentiality is not an issue, a staff member can establish a log of respondents and do at least one follow-up request for a response two weeks after the initial mailing.

Another technique for improving response rate is to reward respondents. A discount or credit against future legal services ($50 off the next bill, for example) not only gets the survey back but also sets the stage for future representation.

If the survey consists primarily of continuum questions, support staff can compile the responses. The firm’s lawyers, however, should review the survey forms, looking for written comments, which can be very revealing.

Open-ended questions, which provide very specific feedback, are also suitable for written surveys. It is necessary to plan for personal, one-on-one follow-up to these “essay questions,” especially for those who provided lengthy responses.

Telephone Survey

Telephone surveys yield a more significant response than do written surveys because clients can easily expand their answers and respond to follow-up questions. This is a good way to enhance client–law firm relationships. Nonverbal communication, however, is lost in telephone interviews; and if the phone interview is conducted for the convenience of the law firm and not the client, the firm sends a signal that the client is not important enough to merit the presence of the lawyer.

Telephone surveys are a good way to get feedback while a matter is pending. A client can be asked, “Are you satisfied with the amount of information that you’re getting on your case?” or “Are your calls and letters being promptly answered in language that you can understand?” The client’s answers communicate his needs before problems develop and the relationship is damaged. If the firm is already providing satisfactory service, brief telephone surveys boost the relationship by sending the message that the law firm cares about its clients.

In-Person Survey

A face-to-face interview between the lawyer and the client yields the most significant response rate. There is, in fact, no better tool for building a good client relationship because the in-person interview demonstrates sincere commitment. Interviewing an ongoing client offers an opportunity to cement the relationship and often opens the door to new business.

Always conduct thorough research before going on interviews. Learn about the company through a variety of mediums, including, among others, Google searches; databases such as Hoovers, if applicable; LinkedIn Profiles; and aggregator software such as Manzama. Be sure to conduct some due diligence on competitors, the industry, and related areas. This is called competitive intelligence. Depending on the size and importance of the client, focus your research accordingly.

Because in-person interviews are time-consuming for both law firms and clients, an appropriate amount of time should be scheduled to meet this commitment, as for any other major legal work. Ten questions with their follow-up components can be covered in about forty-five minutes to an hour. Follow-up questions are a must, and the interviewer should engage in active listening and ask clarifying questions that draw out more specific answers.

The rules of thumb for conducting an in-person survey include the following:

  • Acknowledge to the client that he is doing a service by participating in the interview. Firms should make sure that clients understand that the law firm is not billing for this process.
  • Set a clear time limit, usually no more than one hour, so that both the lawyer and the client can schedule appropriately.
  • If possible, meet at the client’s office. This is a courtesy that will emphasize the value that the firm places on the client’s business.

It is also useful to survey clients who do not have an active matter at the law firm. This will give the firm the opportunity to resolve past issues or concerns perhaps not expressed by inactive clients. Surveying inactive clients can become a stepping-stone to new business.

To create a list of survey questions that will be pertinent to various client segments, be sure to address issues that are relevant to the following:

  • Major clients or referral sources that make up 10 percent or more of the firm’s gross revenues
  • Key clients or referral sources that offer potential for real growth
  • A cross-section of clients (taking into account services used, fees generated, size of business operation, geographic location, and length of relationship with the firm)
  • Third parties from the community who can become referral sources, including bankers, accountants, real estate brokers, and other professionals

Presentation Skills

Presentation skills are the effective techniques used by successful speakers. They are designed to increase audience participation, increase audience retention of your content, and motivate the audience to want to remember and learn your content. In addition to learning the skills and tricks to increase audience participation, retention, and desire, the trained presenter learns to involve the audience by using appropriate questioning techniques, humor, and activities. The trained presenter also uses audiovisual aids, including PowerPoint presentations, overhead slides, and charts on a stand.

These techniques can help lawyers increase their effectiveness with many different types of audiences. A lawyer or other interviewer who has mastered presentation skills will be more successful on a one-to-one basis, such as in a client interview; when presenting to a small group; when responding to a proposal; and when giving a speech to a large peer group.

Listening Techniques

When asked, clients will offer a frank assessment of the services that they receive, but the interviewers must be ready and able to really listen. When lawyers listen attentively to clients, those clients perceive that the lawyer and the firm that he represents can provide a level of service that distinguishes the firm from others. Savvy firms, therefore, are now training their partners and marketing directors in optimum listening techniques, including active listening, gender listening, and paying attention to nonverbal communication.

Active Listening

Active listening is the process of listening carefully and paraphrasing what the speaker says. It is similar to what psychologist Carl Rogers called “reflective listening.” For example, in a client interview, if the client states that he is feeling ill at ease with the bill, the lawyer should reflect the client’s feelings by repeating key phrases or words that he hears the client say and elicit clarification by asking, “What parts of the bill make you uncomfortable?”

Other active listening skills include the following:

  • Sitting forward in the chair, which signals attentiveness and care
  • Taking notes
  • Not interrupting the interviewee or showing other signs of impatience
  • Nodding, making consistent eye contact (without, of course, staring at the interviewee)
  • Making comments like, “It sounds as though you have a few reservations about . . .”
  • Asking open-ended questions to get more information

Gender Listening

Gender listening, which means listening differently depending on the sex of the speaker, is based on the work of experts like Deborah Tannen (Talking from 9 to 5 (Avon Books 1994)), who researched the different communication styles of men and women.

During a conversation, women, for example, tend to nod their heads to show that they understand what is being said. Men interpret this nodding, however, as agreement with what is being said and are often surprised to learn that all is not well. Women will say, “I’m sorry,” meaning “It’s too bad that such and such happened.” Men tend to view the “I’m sorry,” however, as the woman’s apology—as if she feels responsible. It is also true that women often tilt their heads and smile, two gestures meant as courtesy; men tend to consider them submissive. Finally, women tend to be more intuitive and better listeners, whereas men tend to lecture to others and interrupt more. The law firm interviewer who understands gender listening will pick up on these clues and cues and gather more and better information than an interviewer who is unaware of such gender distinctions.

Paying Attention to Nonverbal Communication

Going beyond early research in body language, gestures, and other forms of nonverbal communication, the work of Professor Albert Mehrabian of the University of Southern California defined three essential components of personal presentation: verbal (what we say), vocal (how we sound), and visual (how we look when we speak). The effectiveness of a speaker is, Mehrabian found, 55 percent visual, 38 percent vocal, and only 7 percent verbal. Nonverbal communication may therefore be as vital during a survey as the words spoken, and the interviewer should both hone his own nonverbal skills and remain alert to the interviewee’s nonverbal communication. It is necessary to pay close attention to eye contact, gestures, posture, facial expressions, and other signals.

It Pays to Ask Questions

Although many lawyers are concerned that prior mistakes or misunderstandings between themselves and their clients may surface during the survey process, client satisfaction surveys are, from a marketing perspective, opportunities for lawyers to reinforce relationships with their clients, in particular because the comments made by clients and prospective clients are, almost without exception, constructive, specific, and productive.

Mistakes are a part of life. They are a part of business deals as well as legal matters. It is the recovery process of righting a wrong that is a lawyer’s chance to demonstrate that he is willing to deal with an error, correct it, and stand behind the relationship. The recovery of an error is one of the strongest marketing opportunities that exist.

A few examples follow:

  • Through gentle but strong probing during a face-to-face interview, a client finally revealed that the in-house department had been very disappointed with a weak coverage memo written two years earlier by the law firm. The client had been so disappointed with the memo, in fact, that it had retained another firm to write a second opinion, but the client had never complained to the first firm about either the problem or the fee. Chagrined to learn about this blunder and its consequences, the law firm decided to compensate by providing four free hours of coverage work to the client, to be used anytime that the in-house lawyer deemed necessary. This solution pleased the client and resulted in a significant amount of new litigation being sent to the law firm over the following months. The relationship continues to this day.
  • When the managing partner of a law firm visited a privately held, father-and-son-owned company, he was greeted with accolades and great war stories. When the son was asked whether there was anything that the law firm could do to make the service even better, however, he peered over his glasses, paused, and said, “Well, I wasn’t going to say anything about this because it’s embarrassing. But you know that litigator you’ve been bringing around? The one who will replace your retiring partner?” The managing partner nodded. “Well,” the son continued, “Pop hates him.” He added that they had been interviewing other litigation boutiques to take over that part of the work. The very next day, the law firm’s managing partner brought a new litigator to meet the father and son, thus salvaging the relationship.
  • A managing partner met with the in-house counsel of a Fortune 500 electronic company to discuss the company’s views on the services that the law firm had been providing for over twelve years. As the interview progressed, the managing partner was shocked to learn that this client, who had been using the firm exclusively for corporate and intellectual property matters, had no idea that the firm had a litigation department. A meeting was set up to cross-market the litigation practice group, and within six weeks litigation matters followed.
  • A large paper products manufacturer had been working with a law firm for eight years. During an interview, the interviewer was surprised to learn of the company’s annoyance about billing. The company’s billing format had changed, and on three separate occasions instructions had been sent to the law firm regarding future billings. The company’s representatives expressed their anger over the law firm’s continued disregard of the new formatting instructions and said they were contemplating ending the relationship. It turned out that the billing department had been filing the requests, but no one was acting on them. The situation was rectified immediately, and the relationship was saved.
  • A market penetration research interview was conducted with a potential client, an emerging biotechnology firm in Silicon Valley. The company provided all of the specifics about how outside counsel were selected; what the working relationship should be; and how the company preferred to engage one of their ten in-house lawyers to work directly with the outside lawyers, thus forming a cohesive team. The company even provided a bridge for the law firm by detailing the experience that a firm must have and how that information should be relayed to the general counsel in order to be considered for future matters.

Following Up

Merely surveying clients is clearly not enough to maintain and develop client relationships. After the firm finds out what the client requires, expects, or demands, partners and lawyers must be prepared to meet those requirements, expectations, and demands to implement genuine changes. If such action is not taken—and taken promptly—the client may go elsewhere for legal services.

At the conclusion of the survey, if conducted via telephone or in person, thank the client for his time and participation. Follow up with a thank-you letter to the client that reflects the specific issues raised during the interaction and what changes you, the attorney(s) and the firm, will be making in order to completely satisfy the client.

When responding to global changes, such as the aggregated information from a written survey or group of phone surveys, send a letter to all respondents that summarizes changes taking place in the firm as a result of the survey process. Changes may include offering a direct electronic hookup with clients who want it, systematizing procedures for sharing litigation documents, adding another dedicated fax line, sending out practice group brochures, setting up alternative fee arrangements, and exploring precisely what “partnering” means.

Even where changes cannot or will not be made as the clients request, be sure to respond and tell them. There is nothing worse, or more damaging to client–law firm relationships, than either not telling the clients what action will or will not occur from their requests and recommendations or telling them what changes you will make and then not implementing them.

The past several years have demonstrated to the legal community at large that law firm survival depends on responsiveness. Longevity of a relationship is no longer any guarantee of the continuity of a relationship. Clients want more than satisfaction; now, just like the customers of Nordstrom, FedEx, and Ritz-Carlton, they demand delight. Spend most of your marketing dollars on plans for satisfying and delighting existing clients, and then watch your firm’s business base expand.

Action Plan

  • Determine which clients you want to keep.
  • Create interview questions.
  • Interview the clients you want to keep.
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Edward Poll

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Edward Poll is a Los Angeles law practice management consultant who advises attorneys and law firms on ways to improve the operations of their offices. He is the author of Attorney & Law Firm Guide to The Business of Law: Planning & Operating for Survival & Growth (3d edition 2014) and the creator of the monthly audiotape series, Law Practice Management Review: The Audio Magazine for Busy Attorneys. If you have suggestions for, or comments about, this column, call 800/837-5880, fax 310/578-1769, or send e-mail to LawBizPoll@aol.com.