I’ve been making a lot of calls this week, not only to lawyers and law firms but also to doctors’ offices and a variety of businesses, and I’ve discovered something disturbing. On a distressingly high number of these contacts (including some in-person contacts as well as phone calls), the people who greeted me and who handled my initial inquiry did not make me happy I’d contacted their office. Instead, I felt that I’d interrupted something important and burdened the staff. And just in case anyone is thinking perhaps the less-than-favorable reception was because I’m a dreaded cold-calling service provider seeking business… Nope. I was a client or customer of each business.
The most notable example of this behavior occurred at a doctor’s office. I hadn’t been to this doctor in a while, and when I arrived for my appointment, the receptionist gave me new patient forms without explanation. I told her that I had been visiting this doctor off and on since about 1983, and she asked if it had been more than 2 years since I’d visited. Yes, I said, about 2 years and 2 months. “Well,” she said as she turned away, “we purged your file after 2 years.” Not welcome back, not we’re delighted to see you again, not even a throw-away “apology lite” for purging my file. When I paid my bill after my appointment, I discovered that my previous patient information was printed on it, revealing that they hadn’t purged my information after all. Fortunately, I still like and trust the medical staff and will return because of that, but next time I call, it’ll be with a sigh because I’ll have to deal with the front office first.
How’s your firm’s welcoming committee?
We so easily fall into the trap of thinking that we 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 really sole practitioner or a third wave lawyer who operates without staff, chances are good that the first person your client speaks with is staff. I assure you that the client will engage with you with that 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 colleage 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. 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?
Here’s a counter-example. Janette, a receptionist at a large firm in Atlanta, is a ray of sunshine. Everytime I walked into this firm’s reception area, I’m embraced by her warmth and welcome. One time, when I was waiting while the person I was to meet was stuck in traffic, I had the opportunity to watch her for a half-hour or so. She engaged every person who walked in. She knew returning clients, asked how their travel had been, and made them feel welcome. When she met someone new, she exchanged a few comments with them — not the kind of chatter that can annoy someone already on edge, just some niceties that paved the way for further conversation if the visitor so desired. Every person who walked in was greeted, made welcome, and appreciated. I’m sure the clients and other visitors engaged with the lawyers they were meeting there with the effects of that first impression still lingering. Janette is clearly an asset to that office, and (fortunately) the firm knows it.
What does the staff at your office contribute to client relations? 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?