Do you need a CRM?

Relationship development is a key part of any business development initiative. That’s why we put so much effort into meeting new people, getting to know them, and following up with them over time. But how do you gather and track the relevant must-know information about your contacts?

Enter the CRM: the Client (or Customer) Relationship Management system.

(One prefatory note for the rest of this conversation: if you’re working in a larger firm, you may have access to the firm’s CRM and consider that sufficient for your purposes. Before you reach that conclusion, find out how easily you will be able to extract your contacts’ information should you leave the firm. If it’s at all difficult, given the reality of today’s professional world, don’t rely exclusively on the firm’s system.)

A CRM is most often software (local or in the cloud) that organizes contacts and information about them, but it need not be highly technology-driven. Some people successfully use spreadsheets, Outlook, Evernote, or even a Word file. CRM software offers functional advantages.

Here’s a list of features and attributes your CRM system should include:

  • The system must be accessible from wherever you are.
  • The system must be secure.
  • The system must be a centralized and easy-to-update repository for contact data, including address, email, and telephone as well as business and personal interests.
  • The data within the system must be sortable (so you can identify people who are located in a city before you visit, for example).
  • The system should include a tickler function to prompt you to follow up with clients and contacts on the schedule you define.
  • The system should track your communications so you can see when you last spoke with a contact and what you discussed.
  • The system should allow for easy import and export of your data.
  • Optionally, the system may save a library of resources you can use for follow-up contacts.
  • Optionally, the system may include some automation to streamline your efforts.

Two of my favorite CRMs for small firms or for individual use are Contactually and Less Annoying CRM.

Why might you not want to use a CRM? If you won’t keep it updated, a CRM may do you more harm than good. Otherwise, a CRM is a good investment to facilitate building your network.

Join your clients’ team

Don’t you love it when someone else is genuinely interested in your success? We all do. And we all know when interest is genuine, as opposed to when it’s self-motivated and faked. Genuine interest is tremendously appealing, while self-serving is off-putting and even alienating.

Are you interested in your clients’ success? You don’t have to tell anyone, but answer honestly. Depending on your practice, that interest could mean anything from a years-long involvement at the most intimate business levels to a deep interest in a limited aspect of your clients’ experience that’s followed with well wishes, a farewell, and rare-to-occasional follow-up contact. If your answer is lukewarm, that’s a sign that something is out of alignment, and it deserves attention.

Assuming your answer is yes, you are interested in your clients’ success, the question becomes, how do you show your clients that you’re interested in them? When interest is genuine, it tends to flow naturally, but because life is busy, you’ll likely find it helpful to come up with some ways that you can demonstrate that interest. A few examples:

  • Use your clients’ services and products whenever possible. Even if your representation is not business-related, patronize your clients. One lawyer I know makes a special effort to host lunches at a client’s restaurant. Another of his former clients is also his insurance agent, and he purchases gifts from another client’s yoga studio. You might question how much this matters, but imagine how you would feel if you discovered your lawyer hosted a staff luncheon at other restaurants in town but not yours.
  • Where appropriate, promote your clients’ business to others. The lawyer I mentioned in the previous example does this each time he brings someone to his client’s restaurant or send out a gift from his client’s yoga studio. That’s a win/win—even more so if it’s appropriate to mention the client connection.
  • Look for opportunities to provide extra value to your clients. This might be business-related, but it doesn’t have to be. Anything from identifying a trend that might benefit your client to recommending an accountant or contractor counts. You know all those recommendations to circulate useful articles you read? That’s another example, when done well. The measure is what your client will find valuable.
  • Watch for news about your clients, and respond appropriately. If you have a low-volume practice, place Google Alerts on all of your clients; if not, place Alerts on a selected number of high-priority clients. (Either way, be sure that the results are filtered or sent to a non-primary email address.) Celebrate good news, offer condolences, or extend a helping hand.
  • Communicate. The number one complaint about lawyers is the lack of timely communication, and knowing what matters to your clients and when and how to convey that is both a professional responsibility and a way to demonstrate your interest in your clients.

These are just a few examples of how you can let your actions show your interest in your clients. The best methods, of course, are the ones that are most genuine for you and the ones that have the most positive impact on your clients. When you act from genuine and appropriate interest in your clients’ business and personal success, you join your clients’ team. That tends to create client satisfaction (maybe even client delight), recurring business, and referrals, and it also tends to become an enjoyable extension of your practice.

Client service ideas that really work

Three key words in building a strong practice: satisfaction, service, and value. Get these right, and chances are pretty decent that you’ll see repeat business (where feasible) and referrals. Get them wrong, and you may not like what you see.

The blog post 7 Good Customer Service Ideas That Work offers insight into how to get things right when it comes to the service you provide clients and ensuring that they’re satisfied with that service. My favorite points are:

  1. Provide an effortless experience: consider at every step how you can simplify every aspect of working with you so that it’s effortless (or as close to so as possible) for your clients. Examples might include providing checklists and clear directions to help your client gather necessary information or documents relevant to the matter you’re handle or including directions to your office and a link to Google Maps on your website. The less your client has to work to work with you, the better.
  2. Be kind! Inject small, meaningful gestures as you interact with your clients. Imagine the impression you’d make if the CEO of a snack company came to visit your office and found a refreshment station with water, coffee, fruit, and the snacks manufactured by the company. The same station would be nice for other clients as well, especially if you offered a cold bottle of water as they were leaving on a hot day. Grand gestures are not required; thoughtful ones are.
  3. Remember, “you don’t close a sale, you open a relationship.” In other words, “[o]nce your [client] has come on board, make sure you really look after them.” This is, perhaps, nowhere more important than when you have introduced your client to a colleague who will be handling a new matter outside your area of practice.

The post has four other points that are worth checking out. Even more importantly, ask yourself: what can you do to improve your client service in a way that increases your clients’ satisfaction and the value they receive?

Build a connection to build business

I recently spent nearly two hours sitting at an airport gate, sitting about 5 feet behind a stand with Delta American Express card representatives.  You’ve probably seen these stands:  a table to the side of a concourse, with various promotional freebies, application forms neatly stacked, and one or two hawkers, trying desperately to get people to pause and fill out an application.

Annoying, right?  I drowned out the hawker’s calls.  But as I sat reading, I noticed that more people than usual were coming up to this table, and they were staying longer than usual to talk with the card rep.  So I started listening.  And I re-learned something useful.

The average hawker bombards passersby with the “great offer” they simply “can’t pass up”.  But this rep focused on individuals and engaged them:  “You, miss, in the red shirt!  Where are you headed today?”

Some people ignored him, but over and over, people paused, walked to the stand, and talked with the rep. Some told him about their travel delays. Others told him about the jobs they were traveling for or the family they were leaving behind. Several soldiers told him what it’s like to be on leave from duty in the Middle East. And the marketer listened. He asked questions and empathized. He was genuinely present with the people who were talking with him.

After he’d heard some part of their travel story, he’d weave in his offer: “Man, wouldn’t you like to get an extra 10,000 miles so you can get back to see her more often?” Sure, the rep was trying to get people to apply for a credit card, but he was doing it by connecting with people, by building a relationship, albeit a brief one. And almost without exception, the people who stopped in front of the display filled out something, whether a credit card application or a Delta mileage program application.

Observing this guy reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” What I saw was the power of listening and genuine, though brief and superficial, connection.

The contrast was clear when he went on break and another pusher took his place. This hawker didn’t engage people, He threw out half-hearted, “Sir, don’t you want some extra SkyMiles today? It’s a great offer! You can’t pass it up! Sir, you flyin’ Delta today? We’re giving away 10,000 SkyMiles free — for nuthin’!” But the busy passengers did pass by the table over and over without stopping. Those who did stop received only the sales pitch, and I’d guess this vendor’s application completion rate was much less than half of the other man’s.

Small sale or large, connection really does pay. And it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of effort. It simply requires genuine presence. Not a bad reminder while waiting in an airport.

How can you apply this insight? Write your website copy or the introduction to an article from your target read’s point of view. When talking with a potential client or referral source, ask questions before you talk about your experience and qualifications. Make it your practice to seek to understand before you seek to be understood.

How can you maintain your clients’ trust?

I was recently talking with a friend who is an extremely savvy business owner. She set up an LLC a number of years ago and, now that she’s expanding that business in a new direction with a partner, she consulted with an accountant to determine what sort of entity, if any, she and her new partner should establish. The accountant made the almost-offhand comment that she always recommends that a business with $X in net profit should be an S-corporation to take advantage of certain tax savings. My friend was horrified that her previous accountant had clearly dropped the ball, because her business had exceeded the $X net profit for many years now.

Look beyond the specifics and even the realities here: my friend had confidence in her first accountant until the new accountant offered a different approach that was purported to be much more favorable. Though she’s business-savvy, she doesn’t know which accountant is correct. Both positions  seem plausible… How should she judge?

How often are your clients put into a similar position, in which they’re unable to evaluate your advice with independent knowledge and understanding? 

Some clients are legally savvy in your area of practice, which has its own pluses and minuses, but here’s the real question for today: how can you avoid losing your client’s confidence if she can’t make her own judgment about your advice? 

  1. Explain your advice, and make sure that at a minimum your client understands the basis for your advice. If additional information comes from another source, your client will have something to hold onto with the explanation you provided rather than being left to question your advice simply by virtue of receiving shiny, new advice.
  2. Where appropriate, follow up with your client and offer an updated review of his situation. Depending on your area of practice, you might even have a simple self-test to help your clients determine whether changed circumstances might require a fresh legal look. Note that changes might be based on changes to a client’s circumstances (as in my friend’s example) or they might be based on changes in the law that may affect a larger number of clients. Should you charge for the review? That depends on the amount of time your review will require and the volume of clients, among other issues.
  3. Consider whether you might send periodic mailings with some guidelines to scan for legally relevant change, such as, “If your net profit grows to more than $X, we should re-evaluate whether a different structure might be appropriate.” This is the least effective of these three approaches since it leaves the ball entirely in your client’s court, so consider a scheduled personal outreach to check the guidelines you provided.

Each of these approaches may garner more business for you as your clients’ circumstances change, and that’s valuable for you. More importantly, however, they offer protection for your clients going forward and decrease the chance that advice from another source will unintentionally trigger your clients’ distrust. Once a seed of doubt is planted, you’ll find it difficult to recapture your clients’ confidence even if your advice is still applicable and on the mark. 

What do you need to put into place to protect your clients and yourself?

Client satisfaction isn’t enough.

Things certainly have changed since the pre-recessionary days of the early 2000s. We can name some of the changes easily:  more competition, more attention to and negotiation of fees, less day-to-day work distributed to outside counsel, more effort to use technology to make legal work more efficient in both time and money.

When I speak with a lawyer who’s interested in becoming a private client, one of the things I probe around is what distinguishes him or her from other lawyers in the same kind of practice. The answers usually revolve around past experiences of some kind, enhanced skill, or lower fees due to increased efficiency or a better fee structure. No doubt those factors are important. But because just about every lawyer highlights some version of the same distinguishing factors, they may not be particularly unique or appealing.

You know what makes Amazon different from other retailers? Lower prices, sure. But more importantly, the customer experience. Let’s look at three phases of the experience:

  1. Finding the product I can place an order in multiple ways. I can type a product name or description, I can scan a product’s UPC, I can take a photo of the desired product using my smartphone and search for it, I can dictate the name of the product I want to buy, or (at least in some cases) I can hit a pre-programmed button to reorder common goods. Ordering is easy.
  2. Receiving the product Because I’m a member of Amazon Prime, I can have almost anything I want delivered in two business days. Sometimes my order is available for delivery on the same day at no extra charge. I can track the delivery, and in those rare instances in which a package doesn’t arrive as promised, Amazon will send a replacement at no additional charge. It’s easy to get what I want from Amazon.
  3. Returning the product If I don’t like the product I receive or if I’ve simply changed my mind, returning it is typically as simple as making a few clicks and printing a return shipping label. I don’t even have to take the package to a shipper: UPS will pick up the package from my home or office. So easy!

It’s easy to do business with Amazon, so I do a lot of business with Amazon.

Would your clients say it’s easy to do business with you? Do you let them know what to expect in your work together, both substantively and procedurally? Is it easy for them to reach you? If you’re unavailable, is it easy for them to reach someone else on your team? Is it easy for them to receive and pay your invoices? And beyond easy: is it pleasant to work with you? The simpler your make your client’s experience, the better your client is likely to feel about working with you.

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How can you improve your clients’ experience?

Make ’em look good!

If there’s one single activity that should be at the center of your business development focus, it’s building relationships. How? Through personal meetings, telephone calls, emails, social media contacts, sending useful articles, sharing new resources, and more. There’s no single right way to establish, build, or maintain relationships, and the best growth strategies (which feel a lot like organic relationship growth) include multiple approaches.

But…

There is a right way to think about developing relationships: look for opportunities to help your contact. That can mean anything from providing information and resources to help with her or her career, giving a lead on a new restaurant, making an introduction to someone useful, or offering a plum speaking or committee position.

You might also look for opportunities to offer help that makes your contact look good to people who matter. For clients, can you provide a report that your client contact can use to look good while presenting to the Board of Directors? Can you identify a new trend that your contact can exploit or share with others? Can you offer support to help your contact settle into a new position?

Especially as it concerns clients, Vidal Sassoon said it best: “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.” Flip that around to the positive, and let it guide your relationship-building: when we help you look good, we look good to you.

Don’t be a stranger

Last fall, I hired Summit Pools to close my pool for the season. My contact Pete (I didn’t know it at the time, but he’s also the owner) was terrific: he set the appointment, let me know exactly what to expect, told me what the cost would be and what could change that cost, and explained the benefit of the service. He called me the day before our appointment to confirm the time, and he showed up right on time—after sending a text to let me know he was on the way. It was a great experience, and I just plain liked Pete.

Fast forward to March, when I was eager to make arrangements to get the pool open. I couldn’t remember the name of the company I’d liked so much in the fall, and I hadn’t put it in my Home Maintenance Evernote file. I went through emails and my calendar without success. Because I remembered something about a P, I looked at companies with names like Pinnacle, Premier, Popular, and the like, and I hired one of those companies since I couldn’t find the original.

And the service was ok. No reminder call, but a quick response when I called to confirm. The work wasn’t done perfectly, but it was adequate. I didn’t think much of it and probably would have continued with the new company, except that I had a few issues with the pool and wasn’t getting the kind of response I wanted. I eventually went through my checkbook register to find Summit again, and I got the same fast, capable, friendly service. This time, I put Summit (and Pete) in my phone and in my Evernote database.

Do I hear a great big SO WHAT?

What does this have to do with law?

If you do large, complex matters, chances are reasonably good that your clients know exactly who you are and how to find you if they want to hire you again or send a potential client your way. However,  if your matters tend to be of relatively short duration, with limited direct contact, or somewhat routine, you could be missing out on repeat business and referrals if you don’t proactively stay in touch. Even if you’re confident that your clients will know how to find you to rehire you or refer work to you, staying in touch will keep you top-of-mind and continue the relationship so they’ll think of you first.

Consider these steps:

  1. Send reminders if the work you do should be reviewed and updated periodically (estate work and some contracts, for example). An email or postcard will suffice. Schedule these reminders as soon as you complete the matter.
  2. Send follow-up resources. Perhaps there’s a logical next step for your client. Establishing a new company could lead to later needs like contract review, intellectual property protection, or a buy/sale agreement, among many others. Provide appropriate resources at an appropriate interval. This too should be scheduled as soon as you complete your work for the client.
  3. Keep in touch. Sometimes you don’t need a specific reason for a contact. Depending on the representation and your relationship, it may be quite appropriate to send an email or call to touch base. You might inquire how things have been going since the matter ended. But here’s the key point: you must be genuinely interested, not just trolling for new work. Where appropriate, an electronic or hardcopy newsletter offers an opportunity to stay in touch without taking the time to make every contact individually.

Here’s the bottom line: don’t put the onus of finding you or updating the work you’ve done solely on your client. Friendly and useful ongoing contact is a benefit for your client and potentially a path to new work for you.

Meeting Client Expectations… Or Not.

One of the top client complaints received by bar associations across the country has to do with lawyers’ failure to return telephone calls. I haven’t seen statistics, but I suspect that clients also complain about lawyers who fail to answer email. Clients expect that lawyers will communicate with them in a timely manner, and on the surface, just about all lawyers agree. And the same is true for other service providers, including those who don’t have a professional oversight board of some sort.

But we’ve all had that annoying client. You know, the one who is constantly on the phone or sending yet another email with an unnecessary question or comment. The one who is so insistent on knowing when a task will be completed that it may feel like you won’t have time to do the work unless you “ignore” the client for a while. And even if you don’t have one of those clients, you’re probably still swimming in telephone calls and emails – we all are these days.

So, how do you deal with client expectations about communications? If you meet every expectation, you may fear that you’ll add dramatically to your workload and you may worry that your clients will dictate how you operate your business; if you don’t meet expectations, you may find yourself on the wrong end of a complaint, or you may discover that dissatisfied clients are telling their friends and colleagues about your [perceived] poor service. What’s the answer to this catch-22?

Have a conversation with your clients about communications at the time of engagement. The most dangerous expectations are those that go unexpressed. If, for example, a client is expecting a weekly check-in and you don’t realize that, it’s probably a safe bet that the client will quickly feel dissatisfied and either start clamoring for attention or silently smoldering. If you ask what the client expects, you’ll have an opportunity to meet that expectation.

And, you may choose not to meet the client’s expectations, instead finding an arrangement that works for you as well as for your client.  When there’s nothing pressing, for instance, you may not communicate with the client for some period of time.  If you bill based on time, unnecessary communications will run up your client’s bill (perhaps creating greater dissatisfaction), and if you use a flat fee arrangement, unnecessary communications can eviscerate your profit. Planning in advance to advise that a quiet period is coming instead of taking the time to give weekly reports of “nothing new” will serve your client and yourself.

When you discuss expectations, you can respond to what your client expects by sharing your own expectations. Some clients will be satisfied when they understand when and why you communicate (especially if you agree to communicate in the manner your client prefers), some may negotiate with you in some way, and some may choose not to hire you. Regardless of the outcome, both of you will come out ahead for having had the conversation.

What’s more, when you build this into your pre-engagement conversation, you may find that this conversation can either convey or serve as a value-add for your client. Your client may not expect weekly updates, but if you share that aspect of your practice in advance and the value that other clients find in those updates, your ordinary habit may be a selling point that gets you hired. And anytime you can both increase the likelihood of securing new work and increasing client satisfaction with one simple conversation, shouldn’t you do it?