October 23, 2012

Polishing Up Client Relationships

Generally lawyers long to ask their clients “How am I doing?” But often we dread hearing the answer. If your client base isn’t improving, or at least holding steady, I’d say you’ve already got your answer. So what can you do to change things?

The previous installment of this column discussed the art of giving feedback to your employees. Well, as the old saying goes, what’s good for the goose is sauce for the gander. It’s time you sought feedback on your work from those whose opinions should be essential to you—your clients.

If clients like the way they are able to interact with you and your staff, it makes the day-to-day practice of law more rewarding. So finding a way to work well with those you serve is its own reward. But, even more important, understanding what clients want in a relationship with their lawyer—and providing it—also ensures that they’ll be happy. And happy clients will come back—and recommend you to others who may need legal services, too.

Studies of consumer products reveal that when customer satisfaction is complete, brand loyalty is also extremely high—but when satisfaction falls, even slightly, loyalty plummets, especially if there are other options available. The same is true for personal services. Anyone who has ever gotten a haircut at a new salon can understand how this concept plays out. Even if you get the best cut you’ve ever had, if you are made to wait too long, the receptionist is rude, and then the stylist doesn’t even try to understand what you really want, you’re not ever going back. Especially when there are many other options.

Likewise, unless your legal work is so specialized that you are the only lawyer in your area who can handle a particular type of problem, clients will be very willing to try someone else if they don’t like the way they are treated at your firm.

Your Mission: First Listen, Then Ask. So how do you go about ensuring that your clients are completely satisfied with the services you provide? Use these tips.

  • Give the gift of your full attention. Don’t read documents, take notes or interrupt to ask too many questions at first. While gentle guidance may sometimes be needed to get to the pertinent information, waiting and listening carefully allows clients to reveal, in their own way, what about the case really matters.

  • Listen for the emotional undertone. Often emotional healing or vindication is more important to a client than winning a financial reward. Seek to understand what the client is really trying to accomplish.

  • Allocate inviolable time to client meetings. Unless the building is on fire, or there’s an extremely irate judge on the phone, maintain a strict policy that you are not to be interrupted while conferring with clients.

  • Create opportunities for feedback throughout the representation. Follow up after the first bill is sent to make sure that it’s in line with the client’s expectations. After each significant stage of the matter discuss what has happened so far, what’s expected around the bend, and how the client feels about your representation to date.

  • Survey clients at the close of each matter. Asking a few quick questions concerning how the client felt about the relationship—and what changes you could make to enhance communication and the delivery of services—lets them know you care about them, their opinions and their business.

These things can help you shore up sagging relationships and polish the already good ones to a blinding shine. After all, improving individual client relationships is the easiest and best path to more, and better, legal work.