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June 28, 2023

Managing: True Value: What Keeps Clients From Jumping Ship

Thomas C. Grella
As you might imagine, this two-week cruise was not an inexpensive venture—especially when you consider the additional cost and expense of air travel.

As you might imagine, this two-week cruise was not an inexpensive venture—especially when you consider the additional cost and expense of air travel.

Olga Anourina via Getty Images

Those who follow my column know that my wife and I travel often. In January 2023, we had the opportunity to cruise to Antarctica on a trip that had twice, in 2021 and 2022, been postponed due to COVID-19. A client recently asked me how I would rate the trip on a scale of 1 to 10. I replied that the destinations and tours got a 10, but the ship and cruise line deserved a 5 or less. As you might imagine, this two-week cruise was not an inexpensive venture—especially when you consider the additional cost and expense of air travel. 

We were very surprised that the cruise line performed so poorly. We had frequently cruised this line, and its related sister line, in the past. This was the first full-capacity cruise we had been on since the fall of 2019, though we had been on several cruises since the pandemic shutdown—each at greatly reduced occupancy. The cruise line had several years to refurbish the ship, but it remained the one ship in its fleet that was not renovated, despite traveling one of the most exclusive itineraries offered. Not only did the ship furnishings need refurbishment, much of the equipment on board was simply inoperable. Ice machines were out of order, six of 13 treadmills were inoperable, and there was extremely poor internet service where connection was difficult and at times impossible, but without any reduction in the per-day price paid in advance. Being told that the ship is next in line for refurbishment is little consolation to those who have waited almost three years to embark and wonder why these deficiencies were not addressed during the shutdown. Further, for experienced cruisers, it was very clear that the ship was understaffed. Those working on the ship certainly did their best, however, when a ship is short on staff, service suffers regardless of the good intentions and efforts of those who are employed.

This cruise experience, and the obvious degradation of the quality service I have come to expect and enjoy, led me to ask myself if the COVID experience, and resulting new practice routines, have resulted not only in procedural changes to communication and delivery systems, but similarly to negative consequences in the quality clients have come to expect from their lawyers and law firms. In that I had held this cruise line in such high regard and have an elevated status in its loyalty program, I found myself truly embarrassed for the company. Certainly, I vented by giving my usual constructive criticism to the cruise line (as they always request post-cruise), but I also believe that this was a true organizational educational experience, so I offer a few lessons learned on the high seas.


Initially, many believed that the March 2020 shutdown would be of short duration. It quickly became clear that would not be the case. Because of this, routines drastically changed, and the question became whether anyone would ever go back to the office. As physical offices reopened, the notion of hybrid work sprung up as a possible alternative to historic physical presence expectations. With these changes, communication changed—most would say in many ways for the better. The means of delivery of legal services, whether from home or office, also changed. In many cases, however, the way the firm was projected to the community in marketing and branding to target markets, and community and professional association activities, reverted to prior conduct.

I question whether firms have truly examined the effects that COVID has had on the client service experience. Law firm leaders should consider if it is time to implement, or reinstate, processes such as client interviews or surveys to discover whether client expectations regarding delivery and communication are being met. In the past, my own firm has conducted these types of inquiries with various levels of success. Pre-COVID, we found that setting aside half a day for all of our team members to physically meet in groups with specific trusted clients was most informative and helpful; mass email inquiries less so. Post-COVID, firms need to consider how communication in the business world has changed in general. In-person interviews may need to be performed using internet meeting technology and by adoption of new forms of online inquiry tools, instead of mass email blasts. Regardless, firms risk losing their client base if they fail to inquire, in some manner, whether new or reinstated systems meet client expectations.


On our cruise, there were two persons whose sole duty was to be a concierge to those who either bought the concierge service or had achieved a certain level of status in the cruise loyalty program. I primarily had contact with just one of these two persons. She seemed able to do small, routine tasks well, but when more difficult inquiries were made, the response became both confusing and nonresponsive. At one point, a friend traveling with us said that she believed the concierge’s responses indicated she was not listening to the questions being asked or the concerns being conveyed. As a firm conducts interviews or surveys or uses other client satisfaction tools, it is critical to examine all responses for underlying concerns, and not to use the process to simply justify present conduct. Since lawyers and law firms already receive sufficient colleague-reinforced “petting” through the lawyer ratings and review racket, this process should be reserved for serious examination related to value and quality service. The only way the process is going to work is if law firm leaders truly listen to client concerns and dig deep for underlying issues. The purpose of conducting interviews is not to seek out short-term, lawyer-specific complaints or assurance that the client is satisfied (though you may discover either of these as a result), but to reveal areas of concern and possible blind spots. Whether or not you implement internally created client surveys or surveys conducted by outside consultants or conduct direct client interviews, the process will only be meaningful if it seeks input regarding:

  1. If and how client expectations regarding delivery and communication have changed over the past three years;
  2. Whether the client believes that the firm has changed its delivery and communication systems over the past three years;
  3. Whether current firm delivery and communication processes meet present client expectations; and
  4. If not, the changes that should be considered by the firm to achieve client expectations.

Restore and Replace

The cruise line we used for our trip to Antarctica not only failed in ship maintenance and staffing, but also in its level of delivered value. Inexperienced cruisers have no idea when a benefit or feature has been removed from the overall cruise experience. Experienced cruisers know better and can identify specific loyalty program benefit reductions, or when a previously included benefit is now only available at additional charge. Even if a law firm does not conduct the types of interviews or surveys that might reveal areas of reduced service or value, organizational leaders need to ask themselves whether they have in fact occurred. If so, the next question is whether there should be either a restoration of the prior expected service or a replacement of it by enhanced systems or services that deliver value to the client. I have read that many law firms are once again raising rates (to either meet or exceed inflation). If true, this analysis regarding value is even more important.

COVID seems to be the gift that keeps on giving lawyers and law firms new and difficult issues with which to contend. Based on my experience with one large cruise line, which has not dealt with whether their “new normal” meets with the expectations of their loyal customers, it’s my view that law firms might consider if they are in the same boat. 

Thomas C. Grella

Past Chair, ABA Law Practice Division

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years. [email protected]

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