A recent experience in air travel led me to write another column on client service. This past April, when traveling from Asheville, North Carolina, to a New York–area airport (the first leg of a three-leg trip to Venice, Italy), we were told while over Virginia that the plane had insufficient fuel to proceed into a holding pattern and therefore had to divert to the small, Richmond, Virginia, airport. This diversion set in motion a series of airline mishaps increasing our overall travel time from 22 to 49 hours. Our many experiences during what increased from three takeoffs and landings to five, brought to mind several customer service lessons that are universally applicable to all types of organizations, including law firms.
Be Communicative, Not Inarticulate
Upon landing in Richmond, our pilot stated the stop was solely to refuel, and we should remain on the plane. Minutes after arriving at the gate, however, we were asked to leave the plane, and take carry-on bags with us. I had previously been through this experience with another airline and knew all too well that this was a bad omen. Over the next five hours (time that could have been used to make alternate arrangements) passengers were strung along with false announcements that we would leave “soon.” Finally, the word came––the flight was canceled. What ensued next was a frustrating attempt to find alternate routes to Italy. Richmond airline personnel were powerless, and calls to the airline resulted in 30-minute waits, and accidental disconnections.
This frustrating experience reminded me that, similarly, our law firm clients can be in distress, and yearn for immediate assistance. They also need easy and expedient communication systems. I understand that all law firms, and their clients, are much smaller than the third largest airline in the world, and therefore communication systems naturally are much different. Airlines tend to hold off bad news as long as possible, and when annoying delays finally end, or transition to cancelation, customer options have already faded away during the long periods of silence. For lawyers in law firms, failures are very often due to a desire to avoid giving bad news to a client, and the confrontation that might result. Many lawyers simply stay silent, in the hope that the problem will just go away. These are usually false hopes. In the case of lawyers and law firms, communication failures can lead to malpractice claims. Believing my experience to be a universal learning lesson in communication, I thought of a few client communication principles to apply to the practice of law:
- Return communications within 24 hours, whether personally, or through an assistant. The airlines will not call back, but lawyers should.
- Have an accountability “partner” (and vice versa) when it comes to effective and timely client communication and meet regularly to hold each other accountable.
- Have an online means that enables seamless client access to records. There are options available, and lawyers of all ages and firms of all sizes must fulfill the ethical expectation to understand and adopt technology in the best interest of those served. Every client inquiry does not require a conversation; sometimes it’s just about access to information.
Be Sincere, Not Meaninglessly Apologetic
Forty-nine hours after departing, we finally arrived in Venice; but our six checked bags didn’t. Twenty-four hours later, five of our six bags arrived. As of this writing, one checked bag is still missing. Throughout our vacation numerous inquiries were made about the missing bag. In each instance, we heard expressions of sorrow by airline personnel for the inconvenience. If all these expressions (from so many different airline employees) were true, I am not sure how any airline employee with customer contact could bear the overwhelming emotion of sorrow on such a regular and constant basis. For the six of us, the rote use of “I’m Sorry” without a solution at hand to offer, was tiring and aggravating.
Over the years, I’ve read many different thoughts on whether, and how, to apologize to customers and clients when experience does not match expectation. Some writers are adamant about the fact that the term “I’m sorry” is necessary. Thinking about our experience, and the lessons that might be learned, I have a few suggestions for lawyers:
- Always do your best to solve a client’s problem, or strategize a path forward, while also offering an apology.
- Don’t add “but” or say “I’m sorry you feel that way. . . .” If you are going to excuse yourself, or shift blame to the client, you aren’t really sorry; saying the words “I’m sorry” makes it worse.
- Avoid the overused term “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” Instead, be specific and do the first suggestion above.
Live By Truth, Not Obfuscation
Finally arriving in the New York area (after a first night in Richmond), our three couples were given different itineraries to Venice. One couple had a single connection, but two had a double connection. The four of us with a double connection arrived at the gate for our Paris flight an hour early, the plane already at the gate. We sat and waited. The crew entered the jetway leading to the plane early. We sat and waited, but the flight was delayed. On several occasions we were told it would be “a few more minutes”––each communication clearly a lie. Just after I heard an airline employee tell a customer we would be leaving “in about five minutes,” he told everyone that the plane was ready except the ground crew needed additional cleaning time. An hour later (and two hours late), we finally boarded the plane, aware that connecting flights would now need rebooking. Once boarded, due to the long wait time, I made a beeline for what I expected would be a spotless lavatory (given the stated reason for the delay). I found the soap dispenser bone dry. Back to my seat, I found existing trash in the seat back pocket. The evidence found did not meet the claim for delay that had been given.
In almost every instance, lawyers making false statements of material facts to a third-party––a client, tribunal, opposing counsel, partner, court, official or coworkers––is inexcusable, and in many instances, unethical. There is no doubt that difficult dilemmas can be conjured to challenge this notion (especially by those who teach ethics and professionalism). It may be a hard pill to swallow (especially given the fact that politicians and others we look up to as examples, such as news reporters and pundits––and I suppose airline personnel––seem to have no problem lying to our face, through our screens or in social media), but it is the duty of lawyers to speak the truth in both our written and spoken form. Thinking about the apparent misstatements of fact throughout our travels, but setting aside the obvious ethical dilemmas related to the tug between zealous advocacy and ethics, a few practice management thoughts about lawyer veracity came to mind:
- Just like the airline’s problem of overbooking flights, we lie to clients when we take on more work than we can handle and give clients expectations we know we cannot meet.
- For those still using hourly billing as the basis for fees, having a minimum time allotment for services provided (such as, every phone call at 0.25 hours), absent perfect recall and recording, seems unethical on its face, and is not only overbilling, but also a lie.
Finally, if readers glean nothing else from this column about my recent experience, I hope that one principle to incorporate into everyday life is to always look for lessons from both good and bad life experiences and find ways to do the right thing for our clients as a result.