Listening to the Client

In over 30 years of working with law firms on improving productivity and profitability, I’ve seen countless marketplace surveys on the incredible value of client feedback mechanisms. In many instances it’s been labelled as one of the fastest and most effective ways to boost firm revenue. So, you’d think that law firms would be all over this business practice as a standard operating procedure. But…not so much. Two decades ago, law firm management expert Jim Durham conducted a survey of 100 MPs to see how many of their firms had client feedback programs. Around 20% of them did (or were at least planning to put them into place). More recently, Jim asked the same question of a room full of marketing directors. The response? About 20%. We haven’t come far at all, baby.

Why Haven’t We/Why Should We?

Why haven’t more law firms used this important tool?

  1. Lawyers believe they already know what their clients will say. In my experience, lawyers might have a sense of how the client is feeling but there’s far less depth to that understanding than the lawyers realize. Firstly, clients might not like conflict, so they might not put issues on the table. Instead, most clients leave a lawyer or law firm by ghosting them. There’s seldom a reason given. I initiated one survey program where two of the firm’s top ten clients identified issues that they hadn’t shared with their lawyer, but that if left untreated would have ended their relationship with the firm. Thanks to the survey process we were able to learn of and address the issues before the firm lost those relationships and the significant revenues that went with them. Secondly, client dissatisfaction might be growing around an issue without them realizing it. Clients put up with issues until they won’t anymore, and then they just leave. (See ghosting comment, above). While it’s tough to learn and admit that a relationship might have a problem, finding these issues as they are brewing is infinitely easier than trying to bring back a departed client. Asking clients to articulate these holes doesn’t create them…but it sure helps to fix any leaks before the boat sinks. Even if you think you believe the clients loves you and there are no issues, allow them the courtesy of expressing that themselves. Take the positive reinforcement as a win, and a chance for the client to remind themself why they like the firm so much.
  2. Lawyers are afraid of what they will learn.
    • As I’ve attempted to get law firms to speak with clients as part of a strategic planning process or a client feedback process, a frequent response has been “but what if they ask for something we can’t deliver?” For example, lawyers tend to believe that the primary “ask” of every client will be for lower pricing. In my experience, clients care less about pricing and more about value. If they feel they are getting excellent legal service, they accept the cost that goes with that. If they feel they are not getting excellent service (a lack of knowledge about that area of law or about the client, inaccessible lawyers when the client needs an answer to a question, overly complex or long responses that seem to make a mountain out of a molehill) then they will complain about price. But a good client feedback process digs deeper into any cost issues and into the real underlying issue. It’s almost never about price.
    • Some lawyers are afraid that the client will reveal a dissatisfaction with that lawyer. They’d rather the issue was never raised and revealed to the firm, even if it meant that the client left. And if you stir a hornet’s nest…. But research shows that 68% of even “satisfied” clients would still be willing to try another law firm. So, if you aren’t giving your clients what they need, then eventually someone else will try to. Wouldn’t it be better to find out for yourself where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and then have an opportunity to address any weaknesses?
  3. Lawyers are not good at addressing issues raised. I haven’t seen data on how many firms that underwent a client feedback mechanism also took action on what they learned, but my own experience would suggest it’s low. That shouldn’t surprise you. We all know how difficult it can be to launch a new initiative in a law firm. But asking for client feedback without addressing their concerns is worse than not asking at all. The secret to most successful law firm initiatives is that the project has a full implementation and accountability process in place in advance of the project start. You might not know what will arise from the client feedback mechanisms, but law firms can assign oversight teams responsible for ensuring that issues ARE addressed and client follow-up IS done. Your marketing professional(s) should be part of this team. They’ll be like a dog with a bone to ensure the firm follows through on anything that will protect and grow client business.

Another great reason to engage in client feedback mechanisms is that so few other law firms are doing them. You’ll very positively stand out from the crowd as a firm that cares enough, and is organized enough, to ask for their feedback. That’s huge, because most clients (even small ones) probably use several different lawyers/law firms. Feedback loops can protect the work you have, and potentially encourage those clients to use you for even more service areas.

Which brings me to the next plus about feedback mechanisms: they can actually serve as a business development tool. They do this by learning more about your client’s legal needs, and use of legal services. You can find out what their annual legal spend is, how many different law firms they have working for them, what areas of law they need, why they pick the lawyers they have in different areas, etc. Firms tend to be nervous about asking these questions, but the worst that can happen is that the client declines to answer. In my experience, most clients don’t mind answering these questions for a valued service provider and can see how providing it might result in their obtaining even better services going forward.

How to Do It

I divide client feedback mechanisms into two categories: surveys and audits.

Surveys: These should occur regularly: perhaps annually and for all clients. These can be done online (using any of the available survey tools out there), should be easy to complete, and should take less than 10 minutes. They should be sent with a cover message from the MP explaining what it is, why it’s being sent, how it will be used, and how long it will take to fill it out. Clients should be thanked in advance for filling out the form.

Survey results should be tabulated for trend analysis, but also be viewed on an individual basis in order to help lawyers working for that client to better understand and serve that client, and to identify and be able to address any issues that surface from the survey.

Audits: these occur less frequently than surveys and are only done for the top 10% of clients in the firm. They are best done in person. The firm’s top 10 or so clients should probably go through a formal audit every two years or so. The remaining clients in the top 10% could be audited about once every five years or so. Audits require more coordination. You want to have participation by members of the client that represent all of the areas of law you provide for that client. The client may want those individual around the table or may want time in advance to collect their comments which will be shared during the audit by a single representative of the client. The law firm will want several representatives in the meeting, NOT including the primary lawyer on the client account. That won’t elicit as honest a feedback process as you need. Instead, the audit can be done by an outside party, or can be done by a combination of a person of high authority within the firm (i.e., the MP) and another party who can help ask questions and take notes (like the marketing professional). In fact, it’s best if the audit is conducted by at least one non-lawyer. They will hear with a different ear, and probe on questions that the lawyer might find more aggressive and so be afraid to ask.

The list of questions for each feedback mechanism might be similar in terms of identifying the firm’s strengths and weaknesses through the eyes of the client. But the audit will get into more information about the client – that’s best asked for and learned about in person. For a small client, these meetings can take about an hour…although you’ll probably find that the meeting goes beyond this time as the client wants to keep talking. For larger clients, the meeting can take longer, depending in part on how many client representatives are at the table.

I want to highlight that when law firms first do these surveys and audits on their own, they end up being of limited value because the lawyers tend to focus only on the questions around what the firm does well. Don’t stop there. Have the courage to ask where the firm could improve. Those are the money questions…the ones that can really make a difference if you address them well.

Follow Through

As noted earlier, it is a serious mistake law firms make after undertaking a client feedback mechanism without taking resulting action and reporting back to participants. It is far more damaging to ask a client to bare their soul and then do nothing with it than to not bother asking for their comments in the first place. This isn’t justification for putting off client feedback mechanism indefinitely. Remember that 68%. Just ensure that whomever is leading this process knows that the finish line isn’t the send button, or the trend reporting process. The final stage of a strong process is to report back to the client. This can be done in two ways. The firm can send out a summary of lessons learned from the process to all clients (or at least those that participated). Obviously, you’ll want to write this summary carefully. You hardly want to report a laundry list of firm weaknesses. Think of the happy sandwich. Say some good stuff, some challenges and how they will be addressed, and some other good stuff. Ensure you reference what you’ve learned, but also what the firm will be doing to address these learnings.

You may also wish to respond directly and personally to any clients that identified specific issues. Thank them for their honesty, describe how you will address the issue, and ask them if you can loop back with them in six months to ensure the issue has been handled to their satisfaction. Then BF for loop back with them when and as promised.

If the issue the client identified is a significant one you may wish to work with them to resolve it. Law firms can come across as a bit egotistical…believing they always know best. There’s tremendous power in saying to the client “Thank you for identifying this issue. We think we know ways in which it might be resolved but we’d love to work with you on this to ensure a solution is crafted that truly meets your needs”. Talk about a differentiator! That doesn’t simply make for a happy client; it can create a strong referral source.

Thanks to technology, client surveys can be very easy to send out and tabulating results can be done at the push of a few buttons. Client audits are also very easy to do. Figure out who you want to speak to, create your list of questions, arrange for the interview, do the interview and create a summary report at the end. The biggest challenges are putting resulting changes in place, and reporting back. If your firm has a marketing professional, they can lead this entire process. Or you can hire someone from outside of the firm to coordinate the process and even assist with interviews. Level of difficulty is no longer an excuse to hold off on these tools. They are easy to do. The biggest hurdle you’ll face is likely your own lawyer bias against them. But as someone who has conducted these types of client feedback programs for years, I can assure you that clients value them, and most are extremely open to process. Are you?

Editor’s Note: This article is republished with the author’s permission with first publication on Slaw – Canada’s online legal magazine.

Posted in: Communications, Data Mining, KM, Legal Marketing, Legal Profession, Management