Attorney at Law Regional Edition — Inaugural
Client Relations “So What Do You Want?”
Client satisfaction and loyalty are directly related to the extent to which the attorney makes the client feel important. One of the most effective ways to make clients feel important is to understand and manage their expectations regarding the cost, the process, the outcome, and how you communicate with them.
Have you ever lost a client and not known why? How do you explain clients who, without so much as a peep about poor service, high fees, bad results or body odor, suddenly disappear?
The reasons could be many, but always consider that unless they retired, died, went belly-up or were deported, it is very likely that some unreported thing that you did or didn’t do may have prompted their vanishing act.
It’s also very likely that you won’t want to acknowledge that the way you provide your legal service or interact with clients is hurting your practice. Thus, the thought of asking former clients why they took their legal business down the street is about as appealing as a root canal sans anesthesia.
Instead of tempting the hands of fate by asking questions that may invite unwanted criticism, you pacify yourself with lame but comforting theories:
“Their son-in-law just passed the bar.”
“They don’t use lawyers any more.”
“They couldn’t afford me.” (Note: Rarely is cost the true cause of client unrest. Your fees may become “too high” after some screw-up or lack of attention on your part makes clients doubt the value of your service. To test this axiom, stop returning calls from clients who normally pay like clockwork.)
It might be nice if clients would let you know when you’ve done something that displeases them, but, by and large, they don’t. So, in the absence of any complaints, you wrongly assume that everything is hunky-dory, and you just keep on doing things the way you always have.
But until you muster the courage to ask, you may never know what makes a client quietly fire you, and you will deny yourself the opportunity to correct whatever flaws have crept into your practice.
People Tend Not to Complain
If you think that a client’s silence implies satisfaction, think about the last time you had an unpleasant experience at a restaurant. It probably seems like yesterday. (It probably was yesterday.)
Maybe the food was bad. The waiter was slow, hyperactive, or a mime. Or there were two different shades of lipstick on your glass. You may have thought about saying something, but unless the problem was so grievous that you have little choice but to complain, you probably endured your meal in silence and then left, never to return, without telling the owner why.
Clients are like restaurant customers (although it’s a rare bird who tacks on 15% when he pays his legal bill) and it’s usually up to you to pry their complaints out of them, especially if they’re from the Midwest. Otherwise, dissatisfied clients will tolerate you for now, never letting you know they’re unhappy. But as soon as they’re out of their pending jam they’ll disappear faster than witnesses to a mob hit.
Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of delusional attorneys who cling to the belief that if they just provide good legal work and good results their clients will be happy.
There are at least two major flaws in that reasoning: First, there is no shortage of attorneys who can do good legal work. Second, relatively few clients have much appreciation for your technical skill.
But while they may be oblivious to the artistic aspects of a shrewdly crafted pleading, they are keenly aware of how you treat them. Even the most unsophisticated clients recognize responsiveness, accessibility and a caring attitude when they see them (they also know when those qualities are missing). More often than not, it is on that basis that they formulate their attitude toward you and decide whether or not to use you again.
Make Clients Feel Important
After conducting more client interviews and focus groups than I care to recall, I am convinced that, in most cases, client satisfaction and loyalty are directly related to the extent to which the attorney makes the client feel important. Yet, many attorneys seem to go out of their way to make the opposite impression.
Whenever you make a client wait for you beyond the appointed hour ... or you miss a deadline ... or you fail to return a phone call ... or you talk when you should listen ... you risk making him or her feel unimportant.
At the same time, there are lots of ways to make clients feel important, such as calling them “Your Excellency,” peeling them a grape, washing their feet, and having their car Simonized while they’re in your office.
A tad excessive? Okay, then consider this alternative: Make them feel important by meeting their expectations for good service. The trick here is that no two clients have exactly the same definition for “good service,” leaving you to ponder
Hulcher’s Second Rule of Client Relations:
You will not satisfy a client unless you meet his or her expectations.
You cannot meet client expectations until you know what they are.
And you cannot know what they are unless you ask.
Understanding Client Expectations
At the outset, after you and your client have discussed his or her matter and possible solutions, turn off the meter and talk about what each of you expects from your relationship and what each of you wants the other to know. You may want to gauge their expectations for every variable:
How long it’s going to take.
How much it’s going to cost.
How often and under what circumstances they want to hear from you, and via what medium.
How much the other side is going to bleed.
How much of a table-pounding, chair-throwing, slobbering bad-ass you’re going to be.
By working these issues into an early conversation, you accomplish some very important things:
By discussing your clients’ expectations and your ability to live up to them, both parties can leave the consultation with more or less realistic views of how the relationship should progress.
If you know you can’t satisfy their expectations, it’s better to tell them up front – even if it means losing them – than to have disappointed clients telling their friends what a jerk you are because you didn’t do what you didn’t say you couldn’t do. (Note: There are good and bad ways to tell a client that their expectations are a little out of line. Saying “Get real,” “Ain’t gonna happen” or “What, are you on drugs?” will not win you a guest chapter in the next update of How to Win Friends and Influence People. Instead, finesse them a little bit. Honor their viewpoint – twisted as it may be – and help them save face by giving them some new information, to wit: “I can understand why you might want to see that gentleman’s head hanging from a pike at 44th & Camelback, but what you may not know is that several years ago the state legislature passed an obscure statute – and I grant you, it may have occurred in the closing hours of a long session when our lawmakers weren’t thinking clearly – that makes that outcome pretty unlikely.”
You dispel any notion that you’re “just another lawyer.” Instead, you’re a sensitive, caring, thorough professional who values the client relationship as much as the billable time.
You learn enough about your clients to tailor your services to them, rather than make them conform to your standard procedures.
You can avoid wasting time and effort on niceties that mean nothing to the client; instead, you can concentrate on the things that mean a lot.
Learning about your clients’ business and other affairs helps you anticipate problems they hadn’t considered, and it helps you cross-sell other services.
Finally, initial feedback sets the table for more feedback conversations down the road – conversations that might help you salvage a rocky relationship.
If you had a good discussion of your client’s expectations at the outset, it will be fairly easy to revisit those expectations later on and keep yourself on track.
There is no magic point in the relationship at which you should solicit feedback, but after you’ve done enough work to make an impression on your client, it’s time to find out if you’re living up to the promise. It can happen over lunch or at the end of a meeting or phone call:
“Loretta, when you hired me we talked about the kind of personal service and attention you expect, and you told me that (fill in the blank) is very important to you. What I’d like to know is, how am I doing? Is there anything I’m not doing that you wish I would? Is there anything I am doing that you wish I wouldn’t? If there’s anything you could change about me or our firm, what would it be? Do you think I’m paying enough attention to your case? Are we always courteous when you call or come in? Is everything okay? Can I get you a glass of water? Would you like a slice of lemon in that? Do I ask too many questions?”
She will probably respond in one of three ways:
Response 1: “You’re doing a good job and I’m satisfied with what you’ve done so far.”
Congratulations. Unless you’re such a perfectionist that you go into a pout because she didn’t say you were doing an awesome job, consider this a positive response.
Response 2: “Well, I’m a little concerned about (fill in the blank). Also, I wish you’d return my phone calls more quickly. Oh, and one other thing: My name isn’t Loretta.”
Congratulations again. Your relationship with the client is strong enough that she felt free to answer your question directly and honestly. She also gave you the chance to correct a potentially bad situation before it became critical.
Response 3: “Everything’s fine.”
Look out, especially if clients say this while yawning, staring out the window, or picking at their fingernails and contemptuously throwing whatever they dug out of there against your office wall. “Fine” is its own antonym – it’s the word you use when the waiter asks you about your mediocre meal, and it’s client code for “Just get me out of this mess so I’ll never have to talk to you again.”
Never take “fine” for an answer. A clever response: “Well, I’m glad you think we’re ‘fine,’ but we want to do an excellent job for you. What could we do to get you to upgrade us from ‘fine’ to ‘excellent’?”
Your clients may have much more frequent contact with your secretary than they do with you. They may also be more candid with her. Take advantage of that; train your secretary to ask your clients some of the same questions that were mentioned earlier. If she gets any feedback – especially the negative kind – she should encourage clients to share their concerns with you directly. At the same time, she should feel free to share client comments with you without fearing that you’ll kill the messenger.
After the deal is closed, the trust agreement is executed, the trial is over, or the decree is issued, initiate one more round of client feedback.
Besides asking, “How did we do?”, take this chance to talk about the future. Ask about changes in their company or industry. Point out other legal needs that you can anticipate. Learn more about their other professional advisors. Finally, let them know you’d be pleased to help anyone they might refer, and thank them one more time for entrusting their affairs to you.
Cardinal rules. If clients offer criticism, don’t get defensive. They’re probably not interested in your excuses and, besides, you asked. Instead of going on an explanation binge, simply say, “Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll try to do better, and I hope you’ll remind me if I have a relapse.”
Finally, no matter how lavish the praise or harsh the criticism, thank them for their comments. Either way, they’ve done you a big favor.