I HAVE BEEN on a mission lately—a quest of sorts—to find the very best client relationship management software for a midsized law firm. In this undertaking I have reviewed quite a few options out there. Some are stand-alone programs, some are add-on programs to existing software packages, and one is a module that works within an Outlook email system. Throughout this quest, I have come to appreciate the many advantages that this type of software has—so many bells and whistles from which to choose. At the same time, the whole concept of client relationship management has been something I have really started to think about. I have come to the realization that it’s going to take more than a computer program to successfully manage client relationships. The software I’ve been reviewing is only a tool; it’s only effective to the extent that certain relationship intangibles already exist.
Throughout the years, I have observed many highly intelligent lawyers complete legal representations with more than satisfactory, highly technical results, in what should have truly been successful lawyer-client relationships. Unfortunately, however, I have also noticed that some of the clients fail to promote their lawyer to others in the community, and for some reason never return for representation of future legal needs. Based on my observation, these lawyer-client relationships seemed to lack a key component to successful representation. I’ve come to believe that this one component to client satisfaction can only exist when a lawyer both meets, and exceeds, the client’s expectations.
But how do we define our clients’ expectations? In today’s high-tech, I-want-it-now world, is “expectation” defined as just a positive result—a perfect document, a good result in a litigation matter, a closing completed? I believe it is more, and that the missing, but key, component is usually client trust.
Trust really is a timeless concept. It is a key element in just about every relationship, attorney-client relationships included. I recommend that you consider three disciplines to build or rebuild client trust.
PROJECT A CONSISTENT IMAGE
Clients must be able to depend on you to do what you say you will do, and if for some reason you are not going to be able to meet an expectation, you need to let the client know before the promise becomes broken. Included in keeping promises is arriving to meetings on time. Being late, or failing to show up, erodes trust. If you are late or fail to show, apologize as soon as possible.
It is really easy to embellish, exaggerate or leave out pertinent facts when discussing matters with a client, and the progress, or lack of it, of their matter. If you want to build the kind of trust that leads to a client determination that expectations have been met and exceeded, then you need to be fully open with your client, even when the news is not as positive as you might like. Clients need to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. Having a client hear the truth, or the rest of the facts, from some other source will be a killer of the trust needed to achieve and exceed expectations in the client relationship. If you’re interested in knowing how you’re doing in projecting consistency, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you break simple promises to clients: overpromising and underdelivering, not meeting self-imposed deadlines or failing to be on time to meetings? Have you ever apologized to a client for failing to live up to your word to them?
- Are you completely candid with clients about their representation, even when the news you have to give them is not favorable?
- Do you recognize your own limitations and involve other professionals when you know that the best interest of the client strongly suggests it?
FOSTER A HEALTHY, TRANSPARENT RELATIONSHIP
You do not create client trust simply by getting billable work done in a competent manner. It involves sharing yourself with a client—being authentic and vulnerable. This kind of openness strengthens a relationship and usually results in trust between lawyer and client. When a client trusts his or her lawyer, the likelihood that the client will have a comfort level to be authentic, open and honest is much greater. If you want to know how you’re doing in creating a relationship, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you willing to take the risk in showing your true self to clients? Are you willing to go first?
- Do you listen, understand and diagnose the words of others before you speak? Do you listen only with your ears, or do you use your eyes and heart as well?
- Do you extend trust to others, even if there is risk involved? Have you learned how to extend trust to others?
LIVE A GENEROUS LIFE
Give without any strings attached. The more you take the initiative to give, the more it builds trust. At the same time, your motives must be pure. If you are giving just to get something in return, a client or referral source will see right through it. This is not something you can fake.
Think about the typical lawyer-client relationship, such as in a business transaction or simple incorporation. The client desires a long-term relationship in most instances. They might even assume that they will have a “trusted advisor” relationship with their lawyer. They may not be paying for it, perhaps, but if you want trust, you not only get the deal or the documentation done, but you offer some of yourself to them at no additional charge; perhaps specific contacts or influence in the community. Obviously clients are paying for and expect certain levels of competency in legal work performed. But the performance that creates trust goes beyond technical accuracy. In many cases, a client is looking for advice on a “partner” type of level, something beyond just lawyering. We also exceed clients’ expectations when we show compassion. How do we do that in a professional setting or relationship? Well, when we strive to learn about their business; when we go that extra mile and not bill for it; when we show them, in our actions and not just our words, that they are more than just another billable matter.
You might consider some of the following questions if you want to know how generous you are to clients:
- Do you have influence or significant contacts in your community? Are you generous in offering these to your clients?
- Do you truly have compassion for your clients and their needs? If so, test yourself by asking how you have expressed that recently.
- Do you consistently spend nonbillable time on the interests of your clients? Do you have an expectation that they will (or should) reciprocate?