The Romance (or Not) of Practicing Law and Getting Business

Over 10 years ago, David Maister (a now-retired advisor to professional services firms) wrote a brilliant article distinguishing the relational and transactional views of client relations.  Here’s the crux of Maister’s argument:

In The Trusted Advisor (Free Press, 2000), my coauthors and I pointed out that building trusting relationships with clients leads to many benefits: less fee resistance, more future work, more referrals to new clients, and more effective and harmonious work relationships with the clients.

However, many people have built their past success on having a transactional view of their clients, not a relationship one, and it is not clear that they really want to change. Stated bluntly, professionals say that they want the benefits of romance, yet they still act in ways that suggest that what they are really interested in is a one-night stand.

. . .

Most professional-to-client interactions involve little if any commitment to each other beyond the current deal. The prevailing principle is “buyer beware.” Mutual guardedness and suspicion exist, and the interaction is full of negotiation, bargaining, and adversarial activity. Both sides focus on the terms, conditions, and costs of temporary contact. Each side treats THEM as “different,” as “other.”

. . .

Moving from a one-night-stand (transactional) mentality to a romance (relationship) mindset is not about incremental actions, but requires a complete reversal of attitudes and behaviors. One approach is not necessarily “better” than another, but there is a real choice to be made.

 

In today’s post-recession legal economy, clients have more options than ever before. They can choose from a wide range of law firms (the size of firm and perceived expertise becomes only one factor to consider rather than the deciding factor in every instance), from numerous individuals, and even from outsourcing options that may rely on non-lawyers or technology. While transactions can be valuable, client relationships are the only certain route to building a strong foundation for a practice.

Consider this quote from the article: 

The real challenge, however, is for all of us as individuals, not as firms. Transactions are common because they involve less hard work and demand fewer skills. Ultimately, however, they are not in the best long-term interests of either professional or client. (emphasis added)

Mutual trust will allow both sides to get more of what they seek than continued mutual suspicion. Relationships are not more “noble” than transactions, but where they can be created they are much more profitable.

If you’ve never asked yourself whether you want relationships or one-night stands with clients, go read Maister’s article and ask yourself now. The topic was ripe in 2005, but it’s absolutely critical today.

Build client value

When you recognize a problem that a client is facing and you offer help, you create real value for your client. I’ve written previously about how an offhand conversation with my contractor Oldrich resulted in my purchasing property in Wyoming with his help. Making that purchase realized a long-term dream for me, and it created additional work for Oldrich and his team. Talk about a win/win, right?

In that instance, I identified the need, though I didn’t expect Oldrich to meet it. I was just asking a simple question that I hoped might take me to the next step. I was delighted when asking that question gave me not just information but real help. Oldrich created real professional value for me.

And that professional value is easy to translate to law. Whether you spot an issue as a result of a client’s offhand comment or because you happen across a new development that may impact your client, of course you know to bring that up with your client. Raising the issue is designed to bring value to the client, which may in turn bring additional fees to you. Because it’s the desire to serve your client that motivates you, this is a “no ick” opportunity. You can raise the issue without fear of appearing sales-oriented. Image to indicate offering help

(As an aside, legal or business issue spotting and offering to help with that issue is cross-selling at its best. Even though you hope that your firm might be selected to address the issue, when you start from the client’s need rather than your firm’s capability, you’re creating value rather than a sales opportunity.)

But what if you spot a personal issue? Is it ever appropriate to raise a personal issue to a client and offer to help? 

Here’s what happened in Wyoming to raise this question. Oldrich, who’s still working in Cheyenne, knew that my father was traveling with me and that he might have some challenges with the Wyoming altitude, which is more an a mile above the altitude in Atlanta. So Oldrich (who by this time is not just my contractor but my friend as well) reached out to Paul, the electrician who’d worked out the house, who also happens to be the assistant fire chief for a rural fire district. And on our second day in Cheyenne, Paul brought two canisters of oxygen to the house, showed me how to work them, and told me how to recognize signs of hypoxia.

A week after we arrived, I noticed that my father was displaying some of the symptoms Paul had mentioned, and I was able to give him oxygen while I checked his pulse rate. Although I did have to call 911 and my father did end up hospitalized, because Oldrich thought I should have oxygen handy and Paul provided the oxygen and the education, the hospital stay was short and his physical condition was much better than it would have been otherwise. I already knew that both Oldrich and Paul are highly skilled in their crafts, but this experience also showed me that they’re both thoughtful and kind, and I’m deeply grateful for the result.

How does this story apply to a law practice? It’s just the same. If you notice a way to offer personal help—sponsoring a client’s 50th anniversary celebration at your local club, introducing a client to a needed resource, even offering a recommendation for a new restaurant that you think your client would enjoy—by all means, offer it.

Be cognizant of the bounds of your relationship, but don’t overthink it. You might choose not to offer marital advice unless a client has become a good friend and has raised the issue, but you’ll rarely get in trouble for offering less charged assistance.

We’re suffering from a crisis of trust these days. We see too many politicians exploiting the public trust, too many respected athletes drugging to win their accolades, and too many businesses taking shortcuts to maximize profits despite the risk of harm to others.

Building a personal connection with your clients and offering needed help builds trust. If you aren’t skilled in your craft, personal trust won’t get or keep you hired, but when you do good work and build a relationship of trust, why would a client look elsewhere?

Here’s your action item: consider whether you want client relationships as opposed to client transactions. If you do, consider how you can build trust into your client relationships and whether, how, and when you might bring a personal dimension into those relationships.

How to deliver exceptional client service

During previous research, I ran across a nice article titled, “How to Deliver Exceptional Client Service.” Written from the perspective of a web agency, the article starts with the bold-but-obvious thesis that just doing what the client hired you to do isn’t exceptional, nor will it set you apart from your competitors.  Consider this:

“You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3 and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.”

Substitute words that are applicable to the kind of legal work you do—you’re hired to negotiate an employment agreement or to handle a divorce or to guide a company through a merger—and you do that, do it well, and do it within the budget the client expects. That’s good client service, sure. But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, exceptional.

(As a sidenote, just doing your job in any respect isn’t enough to set you apart from others. That means strategic thinking, responsive communication, and being accessible to your clients won’t distinguish you from other good practitioners. I often urge lawyers to find their points of distinction, and too many count these attributes as extraordinary when they aren’t.)

The article sets out seven ways to up-level your client service:

  1. Create real relationships. “If we do not engage with our clients in a real, personal way, then we are just another vendor….”
  2. Ask real questions. Connect with your clients.
  3. Participate in more than just projects. Go outside a pure business setting with your clients.
  4. Help them with services that you do not provide. This is where your network supports your business development work: make introductions to help your clients.
  5. Pick up the phone. In today’s environment in which a telephone call may be viewed as an interruption, you’ll want to be careful to equate good communication with a spontaneous telephone call, but the point remains: know how you clients want to receive communications, act accordingly, and do so in a way that builds your relationship.
  6. Face the bad times head on. How you handle sharing bad news says volumes about you as a practitioner and about how you view your clients and your responsibility to them.
  7. Be thankful and show appreciation. The personal touch is always appreciated, even if it’s not discussed.

Be sure to read the whole article. It’s a quick read, and well worth your time.

Client service lessons from a hospital stay

Client service is one of the foundations of business development. Why? First, client service is the heart of your practice and should be well-executed for that reason alone. And second, excellent client service makes it more likely that you’ll get repeated and expanded client engagements as well as referrals from happy clients.

As lawyers, though, we tend to focus on the substantive aspects of client service and diminish (in our own minds, and possibly in execution) the experiential aspects. Some clients can and will judge a representation primarily on the basis of the substantive work you do. Many, however, will not… And all clients will take note of how you treat them in the course of the representation.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “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.”

When I had to call an ambulance to our cabin in the Grand Teton National Park, client service was the last thing that was on my mind. However, the lessons started immediately and will linger for some time. Here’s what I learned.

  1. Be aware of your client’s emotional state, even though you may not reference it directly.  The emergency dispatch officer sending an ambulance to help used short, direct sentences as we spoke. Her tone was initially more clipped than ordinary conversation, and if I’d felt panicked, her tone and cadence would have grounded me by prompting me to focus on responding to her, not on the larger situation.  As we talked, and as she concluded that I was fairly calm, her tone and language pattern relaxed.Legal clients are much like medical clients in that the issue motivating the contact may be routine, with low relatively emotion, or an urgency or emergency that may carry more pronounced emotion. When you’re aware of your client’s emotional state, you can adapt your own communication to speak most effectively with your client.For example, an angry would-be litigant may not have the emotional capacity to hear you urge restraint until you acknowledge the emotion in some way. A fearful client may need you to provide written information that his fear may prevent him from hearing when you share it orally. You need to know your client’s emotional state so that you can adapt how you communicate.
  2. Make it easy for your client. We were in Jackson, Wyoming, nine and a half hours from the Denver airport. The doctor suggested that we fly out of Jackson to avoid driving through sparsely populated areas. Flights from Jackson would require a 14-hour travel day with three flight legs, which provoked much consternation, until a nurse suggested the 5-hour drive to Salt Lake City. Easy.What do you know (that your client may not know) that will simplify things for your client? Be sure to share that information. It’s easy to dismiss what you know as common knowledge that doesn’t bear repeating, but it may be just the piece of information your client needs to understand a process or to make good decisions.Be sure to consider how to make the process of working with you easy as well. At the beginning of an engagement, ask how your client would prefer you to communicate with her. You probably have your own preferred style of communication, but your client’s preference should govern the way you operate. (For additional suggestions about making it easy for your clients to work with you, see Chapter 2 of The Reluctant Rainmaker.)
  3. Make your client comfortable. After spending much of the day in the Emergency Room, I slept in my family member’s hospital room on the first night. The Jackson hospital provided a comfortable cot that the nursing assistant set up for me while I was talking with the doctor, and she directed me to a small kitchen provisioned with sodas, coffee (complete with real mugs, not cardboard cups), and light snacks for patients’ families. The hospital even offered room service meals for patients and the family, and the good was both good and inexpensive. These touches offered much-needed comfort and allowed me to focus on what was most important.

    How can you make your clients comfortable? Drinks, snacks, and comfortable chairs are easy and fairly inexpensive. Consider what else your clients might appreciate. A quiet spot to make telephone calls? Toys and books to keep children occupied? A list of resources? Few clients will enjoy spending time in your office, but a little effort can minimize discomfort.

Take a few minutes today to audit your client care habits. Consider asking a few of your clients what they like about working with you and what would be make the experience better. Don’t promise changes you’re unable or unwilling to make: if you get a suggestion that doesn’t work for you, let your client know that you’ll look for other ways to offer a similar result.

Educate them!

I’m serving as an officer in the ABA Section of Science and Technology Law, and I’ve been on the planning committee for an upcoming conference that will be useful for many readers. So….. 

Please Join Us at the Third Annual Internet of Things National Institute in Washington, DC on May 9-10!

We live in a connected world, where billions of vehicles, buildings, process control devices, wearables, medical devices, and other “smart” objects are wirelessly connecting to and communicating with each other. The “Internet of Things” is raising unprecendented legal and liability issues and becoming one of the hottest new law practice areas.

Visit here to view the program agenda, and register here before the early-bird rate expires.

 


One of my favorite self-care activities is getting a massage. I tend to tighten my shoulders when I’m working intently, and despite stretching, the end of a major project almost always finds me feeling as if there’s a hot spear piercing my left shoulder.  

A friend recently told me about a chain of stores that offer inexpensive massages, and I’ve noticed a proliferation of clinic signs promising slashed prices. I’ve been sticking with my favorite massage therapist because she’s fantastic and I like her tremendously… But those signs kept showing up, and I found myself wondering if perhaps I should check out cheaper massage options and save some money. But I wondered if the massage would be as effective and relaxing. Would I save money, or would I waste it? 

I tell you this story not to discuss my massage habits, but because this is the thought process that your clients may go through when they become aware of another service provider who charges less. It’s human nature, especially when times are tight, to notice and to consider investigating a deal. But we all know that a “deal” isn’t always a deal.  

How can you help your clients distinguish a deal from a sub-optimal service?   

Educate your clients. 
While I was mulling massage options, I received a newsletter from my favorite spa that offered a series of questions to ask a reduced-price competitor, inquiring about important massage aspects such as the training/experience of the therapists and the atmosphere in which the services are performed. The questions qualify the preferred provider – in this instance, the spa – as the ideal, but they’d also allow me to vet competitors to see whether another option might be a good deal.

WHAT? Tell potential clients that someone else is offering a good deal? Why would you do that? When you give candid information that may cut against your economic interest, clients recognize it, and it tends to raise your credibility.  When your credibility goes up, it becomes more likely that they’ll trust you when you tell them that in situation A, it’s fine to use a cut-rate provider, but in situation B, they’ll come out ahead by paying more and working with you. And when you gain client trust, all manner of good things begin to happen.

To educate your clients and potential client market in this way, take these steps:

  1. Who are your competitors? Who offers the same services to meet the same needs (your direct competitors) and who offers different service to meet the same needs (your indirect competitors)? To continue the massage example, other massage therapists are the spa’s direct competitors. Yoga studios, gyms, aromatherapy solutions, and many other modalities can credibly claim to help with physical tension that results from stress, and those other service providers are indirect competitors.  

  2. How are you different from your direct competitors? Why is massage better than yoga for addressing stress-induced tightness and pain? Why should a business planning to incorporate hire you rather than using LegalZoom?  

  3. Once you’ve identified what sets you apart, decide how you can communicate that to your potential clients.  Maybe it’s a newsletter, like my favorite spa sent. Or you might write an article that compares and contrasts your services with others.  Perhaps you’ll weave it into conversation.

However you communicate your distinguishing factors, make sure you provide both emotional and rational distinctions. You have more experience (rational), which means that you can give clear guidance about a convoluted situation (emotional). Because you’ve been through an experience like your client’s (emotional), you’re able to identify the steps that will have the biggest impact for your client (rational).

Instead of worrying about competition, educate your clients and turn obstacles into opportunity.
  

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 their lawyer 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’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.

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.  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.

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.

“Welcome!”


I’m serving as an officer in the ABA Section of Science and Technology Law, and I’ve been on the planning committee for an upcoming conference that will be useful for many readers. So…..

Please Join Us at the Third Annual Internet of Things National Institute in Washington, DC on May 9-10!
We live in a connected world, where billions of vehicles, buildings, process control devices, wearables, medical devices, and other “smart” objects are wirelessly connecting to and communicating with each other. The “Internet of Things” is raising unprecendented legal and liability issues and becoming one of the hottest new law practice areas.
 
Register for the Internet of Things National Institute to:

  • Gain insights and practical guidance on the latest legal, legislative, regulatory and liability issues of the IoT transformation.
  • Explore IoT hot topics: privacy, cybersecurity, litigation, artificial intelligence, healthcare, ethics and more.

Receive 2 days of CLE Credit while attending the program that previous attendees have called “magical,” “eye-opening,” with “rock star” speakers, and overall “a grand slam.”

Who Should Attend:
 Lawyers (litigation, corporate, IT, IP, health law, etc.), regulators, legislators, policymakers, developers, manufacturers, service providers, marketers, business executives, privacy and security professionals, academics and students.

Visit here to view the program agenda, and register here before the early-bird rate expires.


What greeting do your clients receive when they contact your office?  Do clients feel that they’re welcome?  Or are they ever left with the impression that they’re interrupting something more important?

How your staff handles client contact (or how you handle it, if your practice doesn’t include staff members) will have a significant, though probably unspoken, impact on your client engagements.  What’s more, whoever answers the telephone and greets visitors constitutes the first line of your marketing team, since satisfying current clients may lead to repeat business and referrals.

We so easily fall into the trap of thinking that lawyers provide client service and that receptionists, legal assistants, secretaries, and other staff members provide administrative support that really doesn’t constitute client service.  While that may be true on one level, it’s wise to consider how much contact the average client has with your staff as opposed to with you.  Unless you’re a sole practitioner without an assistant, chances are reasonably good that the first person your client speaks with is a staff member.  The client will then engage with you with that first impression in mind.

It’s easy to identify and weed out those who deliver obviously unacceptable client contact.  The example that comes to mind is one I overheard a few years ago while waiting for a colleague to get off a call so we could talk: “Well, [Mr. Smith], I know you think you’re [lawyer’s] only client, but you aren’t!”  Fortunately, someone who would make a comment like that is generally either retrained or fired with haste.

But what about the subtle effects of less-offensive but thoughtless behavior?  Have you ever stepped back to observe how non-attorney staff in your office interacts with your clients?

Take a lesson from an Atlanta law firm receptionist who turns visitors into welcome guests simply by greeting each visitor as if he matters.  Janette engages every person who walked in.  She knows returning clients, asks how their travel have been, and makes them feel welcome.  When she meet someone new, she exchanges a few comments with them — not the kind of chatter that can annoy someone already on edge, just some niceties that pave the way for further conversation if the visitor so desires.  Every person who walks in is greeted, made welcome, and appreciated.

Here are a few areas to consider as you question what your staff contributes to client relations:

  • Does the receptionist greet visitors with a smile and a friendly word? Especially in the last few years, many staff members have been asked to do more work with fewer resources, and stress has increased.  It’s important not to allow that stress to reach the client.
  • How are telephones answered? Answering by barking out a business name may be efficient, but it’s hardly welcoming.
  • Are clients treated as valued guests and recognized as individuals rather than being lumped together as interchangeable units whose primary characteristic is willingness to pay your invoice?
  • Are basic courtesies observed in communications? For example, if emailing an invoice, is a cover note included thanking the client for his or her business?
  • Do you introduce clients to your staff members, or are staff members simply nameless, faceless people who interact with clients when you’re unavailable? A simple introduction can transform a staff member from being regarded as only a gatekeeper to being viewed as a valuable resource.

Notice what’s happening when your clients and potential clients interact with your staff.    If it’s a negative contribution, how can you help to create a shift?  And if it’s a positive contribution, do you acknowledge and reward it?

Listen up!

Business is the greatest personal development tool that exists. The moment you take responsibility for your work and for generating and serving clients, you become your own best asset.  That’s why you must invest in yourself.  If you don’t grow, your business won’t grow.  Give that some thought the next time you’re faced with an opportunity that will move you forward and you decide to let it pass because you “can’t afford” it.

To thrive in business you must master many different skills and attitudes, one of which is the ability to relate well with others.  Communication skills are especially important in business development as well, because without knowing what a client is thinking about and what the client’s objectives are, it’s impossible to know whether and how your professional skills can help that client.  Rather than focusing on what you seek to communicate to the client, though, begin by letting the client speak.

Expansive questions allow the client to guide the conversation as she prefers, and asking follow-up questions will draw out the necessary information.  Depending on the context, the following questions serve as good conversation-starting questions:

  • What are your ultimate objectives here?
  • How does this matter fit into the broader business context?
  • What are you most concerned about here?
  • How long has this problem been going on?
  • What do you need from this situation, and what would you like?
  • What are the biggest obstacles you see?
  • How will it impact your life and your business to solve this problem?

Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in asking a “brilliant” question or a question that reveals how much you know.  Aim instead for open-ended questions that focus on the matter at hand and provide space for a client to move into broader business concerns.

Follow-up questions can be as simple as:

  • Tell me more?
  • What else should I know?
  • What’s an example of ___?

Your goal is to get the facts and concerns that the client holds and to draw out as much information as possible.  Simple questions are usually best.

But asking simple, open-ended questions isn’t enough.

It’s human nature, especially when we want to appear knowledgeable, to listen with half-attention while planning the next thing we might say.  Half-listening is almost more dangerous than not asking questions, because if information is conveyed and you ignore it, the client will feel disregarded — poor grounding for any relationship.

Instead, listen deeply to your client.  What is he really saying?  Do his words, tone of voice, and body language match?  If not, what question can you ask to clear up the conflict without putting the client on the defensive?  It’s important too to listen beyond what’s said, to gain an appreciation for what’s unsaid and what context is being shared.

Two exercises to strengthen client communications

 Start by noticing how much you talk in a conversation.  The goal when you talk with a potential client or are deepening your relationship with a current client is to talk for only 20-40% of a conversation.  To draw out your client, ask questions only for the first part of the conversation, until you understand the client’s concerns and goals.

To strengthen your listening skills, insert a few seconds’ pause before you speak.  The pause shows that you are absorbing what’s been said, and it allows you just to listen without needing to plan a response until you’ve heard everything the other person intends to say.

Incidentally, although these skills are critical for client service, you can also use them to strengthen relationships with your colleagues and in your personal life.  Once you start to notice the pattern of conversational give and take, you’ll probably notice how eager many people are to talk rather than to listen.  Notice the effect when you listen deeply and probe gently to find out what really matters to your conversational partner.

Your assignment this week: listen to your clients and potential clients.  Deeply.  If you know listening without interrupting is a challenge for you, you might even train yourself by holding a pen between your lips while you’re on the telephone.  (I wouldn’t recommend this in a face-to-face meeting!)  When you go to remove the pen, be sure it’s time for you to speak.  If not, pat yourself on the back, and keep on listenin’.

Silence May Not Mean Satisfaction

You’ve probably heard it before: it’s much easier to source new business from an existing client than from a non-client. 

You may also know that many clients judge their experience based largely on the day-to-day interactions between you – how well you serve the client, in other words.  Studies show that clients unhappy with the service they receive will not necessarily share that displeasure with you unless it becomes so pronounced that they’re ready to discontinue the relationship and hire someone else instead.  That’s the wrong time to learn that your client is dissatisfied: it’s usually too late to correct the problem and save the relationship.

Last week’s travel reinforced each of those points and, by analogy, provided some insight into what goes right and what can go wrong with client relationships.

Thanks to all the travel I do, I’m a platinum member with Delta.  Some months ago, I had to fly another airline between LA and San Francisco, and it was an eye-opening experience.  It was all about customer service:

  • When I checked in, the agent asked how I was and looked at me while I answered.  The agent chatted with me as he quickly and accurately checked me in and printed my ticket.  He answered my several questions with humor and good information.  This is, unfortunately, not a common experience for me while traveling.
  • Boarding was fast and easy, the seats were comfortable, and the flight was on time despite a late take-off.
  • The flight attendant was pleasant and helpful.
  • My luggage arrived, and it did so quickly.  (Unfortunately, I now mentally bid farewell to my belongings when I have to check a bag, having had two bags delayed for days and one permanently lost.)

Both airlines have always met the key objective of getting me to my ticketed destination safely.   I like Delta (at least, I’m not terribly dissatisfied with Delta) and yet my short trip with Virgin America made me ready to consider choosing to fly with them when I have that option.  And I noticed the differences highlighted above when I next flew on Delta.  It would be a stretch to say I’m now a customer by convenience rather than loyalty, but it would be completely accurate to say that if the circumstances were right, I could be wooed away by another airline.

Could your clients be wooed away?  Have you recently reviewed your client service standards (with help from your staff, if appropriate) to be sure that your clients receive what they need from you?  A few common areas to consider:

  • How quickly do you return telephone calls and answer emails?
  • Do your clients know the people in your business with whom they may need to talk?  An introduction can help clients feel comfortable talking with others; without one, they may feel foisted off or that they aren’t important enough to talk with you directly.
  • Do you make clients welcome and comfortable when they visit your office?
  • Do you communicate with the frequency and in the mode your clients prefer?

These are just a few examples of areas to consider when you’re evaluating your client service.  This week, take a fresh look at opportunities to serve your clients more effectively.  You might even consider asking a few clients how satisfied they are.  (Use an open-ended question like, “Janice, I’d like to make it as easy as possible for you to work with us.  Is there anything I or my staff could do to provide you with better service?”)  Don’t assume that your clients would let you know if they were dissatisfied.

Acknowledge all of the feedback you receive from clients.  While you may be unable to incorporate every suggestion, failing to acknowledge your clients’ responses may deal a fatal blow to your relationship.  And if you can’t incorporate a suggestion, consider explaining why and making an alternative proposal to meet the client’s concern.

Client care: the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly

Studies show that happy clients tell very few of their friends about great client care experiences, while unhappy clients tell (on average) seven other people about problems they experienced.  I’d like to share three client stories that I’ve labeled the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly, each with lessons you can learn about how to treat your clients.

The good:  Good Measure Meals

I’ve previously shared how much I love Good Measure Meals, a service that provides fresh packaged meals that are healthy and taste great.  What I haven’t shared until today is that their customer service makes me even happier than their meals.  When I was unexpectedly out of town for a few days and missed a meal pick-up, Phil sent an email to see if I was ok and to inquire whether I was having any problems with the meals.  When I switched from meal pick-up to delivery one week and mentioned that I’d switch back the next week, Harmony told me that she’d change it back for me, and she called me to let me know that she’d done so.  And when my monthly plan was up for renewal, Harmony again reached out to ask if I wanted to make any changes before the plan renewed.

What can you learn from Good Measure Meals?  Be proactive with your clients.  Look for ways to make it even easier to work with you.  And when you tell a client you’ll do something, do it.

The bad: Unnamed doctor’s office

I had a bad experience in a doctor’s office a few weeks ago. I arrived around 8:25 for an 8:30 appointment and happened to take a seat in the waiting room with a view through the receptionist’s seating area straight through to a back hallway.  While I waited (and watched the minutes tick by), I observed an animated conversation between two members of the doctors’ staff.  The conversation seemed to center on a lampshade that one woman was holding, and it went on for about 15 minutes.  (I remember because I was puzzled how a conversation about a lampshade could last that long, but I digress.)

Imagine my surprise when I was finally called for my appointment around 8:50 – by “Kate,” the woman who’d been talking lampshades.  What did I learn?  That Kate had no regard for my schedule and put interior decorating ahead of patients.  In fact, because the lampshade was on a table in the office I was directed to, I casually mentioned it, only to learn that Kate had purchased the lampshade for her apartment that morning.    And the apology for the delay?  Nonexistent.  I’ve been a patient in this practice for more than thirty years (seeing first the father, then the son), but I won’t be back.

What can you learn from this doctor’s office?  Value your clients’ time.  That means not only being on time for appointments (or apologizing when you’re unavoidably delayed), but also leaving clients sufficient time to review work product, to ask questions, and so on.

The ugly: Unnamed law firm

I recently heard a story that blew my mind.  Short version: a firm represented a client in a divorce.  About two months after the matter was concluded, the client received an invoice for fees incorrectly posted to her file, and as a part of clearing that up, the client requested the return of remaining escrow and trust funds.  A month went by; no funds received.  The client inquired again.  About a week later, she received checks from the firm, addressed in her married name, even though the firm had drafted the final order that (among other things) restored her maiden name.  The client shared that although she had used her maiden name exclusively since contacting the firm, the firm used her married name instead and she didn’t address it because it seemed so petty.  Asked how the rest of the representation went, she snorted and responded, “Well, aside from the fact that my own lawyer didn’t know my name, I suppose it wasn’t bad.”

What can you learn from this law firm?  The obvious answer: use your client’s name and get it right.  Don’t ever put your client in the position of needing to correct or to overlook something so basic.  The deeper lesson is that it’s important to let your client know that you’re paying attention to details.  Although the use of the wrong name didn’t affect the client’s representation, it did make her wonder what other details the firm might be ignoring.  You must not only represent your client well, you must also create the perception that you’re doing so, especially in matters in which your client is unable to judge the merits of the work you’re doing.

The bottom line

We can all ignore the “niceties” of working with clients, focusing instead on the heart of the representation, which is the legal work.  However, your clients will notice everything, and they may evaluate the client service you offer more thoroughly than the legal service.  Switch your way of thinking: if your legal service is the meat of the representation, client service is the bread that holds together the engagement sandwich.

And why does this matter?  Clients are at the heart of your practice.  If you’re seeking to become your clients’ trusted advisor, or to receive referrals from your clients, you must focus on client service. 

Two quotes to hammer this point home:

“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.”

  • Maya Angelou

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

  • Theodore Roosevelt