Using Technology to Achieve Superlative Client Communications
Communication breakdown causes a lot of trouble for lawyers—it’s one of the biggest factors leading to malpractice claims. Easy-to-use technology tools combined with commonsense business practices can help keep you in touch and improve client service and communications.
Managing the matter. Showing clients that you are truly serving them well means demonstrating that you are staying on top of their matters. You should know—or at least be able to quickly look up—the status of a matter at any given point in time. And, of course, you also need to meet deadlines and follow up on things as required or promised. There is no better tool for doing this than practice management software.
There are a number of options on the market, such as Amicus Attorney ( www.amicusattorney.com), PracticeMaster ( www.tabs3.com), Time Matters ( www.timematters.com), ProLaw ( www.elite.com), and others. These products let you manage client and case information, including contacts, calendaring, documents, and other specifics, by facilitating automation of the wealth of information in your law practice.
Remember to use your program’s report function to create an instant summary of activity on client files, either on a monthly basis or for inclusion in reporting letters.
Using invoices as communication tools. From your clients’ point of view, the most memorable communication from you will be your bill for services rendered. Make your most memorable form of communication more informative with these tips:
• ‑Use software to create effective, professional-looking invoices that clients can easily decipher. Practice management and time-and-billing programs are great for this.
• ‑Provide reasonably descriptive time entries that will help remind clients of all the work done for them.
• ‑Prepare for the client a complete reporting letter for interim accounts and especially for final accounts.
Managing client relationships. Client relationship management (CRM) applications take matter management and client communication to the next level. Some practice management software programs have built-in CRM functionality. Others integrate with stand-alone CRM programs such as Act! ( www.act.com) or InterAction ( www.interaction.com). Still others, such as ContactEase ( www.colevalley.com), are designed to integrate with Microsoft Outlook.
CRM programs allow lawyers to leverage what everyone throughout the firm knows about a client—contact information, current or past matters handled, personal information (such as birthdays and anniversaries), and other related information. Armed with this information, you can then act on it.
Although CRM software often is considered a client development tool, remember that existing clients are usually your best source of new clients. So use your technology to keep tabs on them and keep them happy at the same time.
Being responsive on the go. It’s nice to be able to check voice mail and return calls via cell phone while you are out of the office. But the real boons for today’s busy lawyers are the truly “smart” phones such as the BlackBerry, Treo, iPhone, Palm Centro, and others. These devices allow real-time e-mail, calendar and contacts, web browsing, document access, and more.
Even if you’re tied down elsewhere, you can send a quick acknowledgement to your clients that their e-mails or document attachments have been received and a fuller response is being crafted—this will go far to helping the client realize that while you are currently away from your office, you are still on top of the case.
But a caution here: Mobile technology can create work-life balance issues. You have many matters to work on, and you need some downtime, too. Set and control clients’ expectations about your availability—and how and when they can communicate with you.
Conferencing on the web. Web conferencing tools let you hold real-time online meetings with clients and others when time and distance prohibit an in-person discussion. And with all the bells and whistles that are built into online conferencing services today, you can do just about everything you can do at an in-person meeting.
The most popular products in this category are WebEx ( www.webex.com), GoToMeeting ( www.gotomeeting.com), and Acrobat Connect ( www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnect). They offer many different options, including voice and video communications, document review and collaboration, desktop sharing, whiteboards, presentation capabilities, and more. Many of these services also provide “always on” capability, meaning that a web conference can be held at a moment’s notice, as opposed to having to preschedule the meeting. These services seldom require more than an Internet connection, a telephone, and a subscription.
Extranets are another way to give clients access to documents and work product for their review, approval, and collaboration. An extranet is essentially an online document repository that allows access to files and folders based on password authentication. To keep costs down, however, most small firms will want to opt for one of the extranet hosting services, rather than taking this on in-house.
Keeping clients top of mind. You may use a clipping service to keep up with legal news or cases, but what about being able to “auto-magically” receive and forward client-related news or information? There are several free tools that can help you proactively communicate with clients on this level.
For one, you can create free Google Alerts ( www.google.com/alerts) to receive e-mail notices every time any instance of a client’s name or industry appears in the news or on the web. You can set up alerts for any search terms or phrases related to your key clients. You then send the links you receive to your clients, letting them know you saw the items and thought the news might be of interest to them. This will show your dedication to keeping them abreast of breaking information that is relevant to them. For a nominal monthly fee, the more powerful Google Alert lets you do more.
Similarly, free services such as Google Notebook ( www.google.com/notebook) and Ask.com’s MyStuff ( http://mystuff.ask.com) allow you to share informational links with clients, rather than e-mailing the links. Simply set up a topical folder of interest to the client, share the folder with the client, then add article links and annotations to the folder, and voilà, the client can view the shared folder, which points to the headline, the link, and the annotation you provide. This type of activity is easy and proactive and helps clients feel as if their lawyer is truly their advocate.
Did I serve you well? When it comes to communication, listening is just as important as talking. In other words, you must remember to stop, look, and actively listen to your clients at all stages of a matter. An end-of-the-matter client satisfaction survey can be especially helpful. This is very easy and inexpensive using online survey tools such as SurveyMonkey ( www.surveymonkey.com) and Zoomerang ( www.zoomerang.com).
Gathering data about the success of communication and representation, regardless of the outcome of the matter, helps establish whether the client’s needs were met. By carefully reviewing any negative feedback you get, you can learn how and where to make improvements in your client communication and services. Establishing and meeting expectations regarding communication methods and frequency are giant steps in ensuring clients are satisfied with your representation of them. Plus, an informed and happy client will be far less likely to sue you for malpractice. So dive in and use technology to enhance your client service and communication today.
For More Information About the Law Practice Management Section
- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 40 of Law Practice, March 2008 (34:2).
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Catherine Sanders Reach is director of the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. She may be contacted at Catherine.Reach@americanbar.org.