When asked, most firms would say that their #1 business goal is to get more work. The only way to get more work for the firm is to get it from existing clients, or to develop new client relationships. It’s well-documented that it’s far easier to get more work out of an existing client than to try to land a new client. But how? Doing good work for your client is a great start, but if it hasn’t expanded the work by now, it probably won’t in future.
Over the years I’ve seen a range of studies by research organizations (such as BTI and Brewer Research) that calculated the benefits of various marketing and BD programs based on conversion (translation into billable work) and value (return v. expense). Initiatives such as cross selling, client seminars, taking clients to lunch and dinner, developing a client extranet, providing clients with newsletter…all were examined. What out-performed all other marketing in terms of conversion and value? Client service programs, client feedback mechanisms, and client teams. Yet I’m willing to bet that most of the firms reading this article do not have programs in any of these areas.
Why Not? Client Service Programs:
Most lawyers and law firms feel they do this pretty well already, so why would they need a program for improvement? This mindset makes sense. I mean we wouldn’t knowingly operate a business where we felt we were under-serving our clients. We want to believe we’re doing our best for them, at all times. So even suggesting a client service program can seem disloyal and accusatory in some way.
Client Feedback Mechanisms:
These are repeatedly referenced in research as being the marketing initiative with the highest possible return, yet few law firms use them at all, let alone regularly. Why? “We know what our clients want, need, and think about us. We don’t need to ask them”. Another common response is the fear that the client might suggest an improvement that the firm can’t deliver. It’s also been my belief that in some instances, the responsible lawyer doesn’t want the client to have an opportunity to voice opinions to the firm. What if they said something negative? It might make either the lead lawyer or a member of the team feel bad.
Few firms understand this concept or how to apply it. But even the willing ones can be taken down by internal politics. A single lawyer could feel “ownership” of the client and be unwilling to create a team around it. There could be a battle over who is the rightful client relationship manager, resulting in paralysis of any team-based planning. Or the obvious client relationship manager may be a weak group leader, so things fall apart when team members realize they are in a dictatorship instead of on a team. Also, the team leader could be afraid of setting any meaningful business goals for the team for fear of falling short and being seen as ineffectual.
What are the Benefits of These Programs?
The benefits to rolling out these programs are plentiful. BTI has identified that client relationship investment can translate into:
- 30% higher profits
- 7% rate premiums across all staffing levels
- 2x the fees from a single client
- 35% higher client retention
Additional benefits cited include:
- Helping to benchmark client satisfaction, for year by year comparisons;
- Identifying business development opportunities, such as cross-selling a client into another practice area;
- Encouraging the client to think about sending you referrals;
- Gauging the effectiveness of various marketing programs;
- Developing an understanding of the client’s image of the firm;
- Obtaining information on how the client feels about specific lawyers or staff;
- Identifying the firm’s strengths and weaknesses, from the client’s perspective;
- Potentially identifying any problem that might be brewing; and
- Helping to focus future marketing efforts.
Go ahead and write that blog post, speak at that conference, attend that golf tournament. But ensure that the thrust of your institutional marketing program is focussed on areas where it will really count – client focussed programs.
You Had Me at “Client Program
Client-based programs send a strong message to the client that they are important, that you care enough about the relationship to want to ensure it’s strong, and even to work on further improving it. I sometimes hear from firms that as their competition is not running these programs, there’s less need for the firm to run them. Be warned: your clients are no longer comparing your client service and responsiveness with that of other law firms. They are comparing your service to that of their bank, the airlines, their favourite retail stores, and Amazon. Does their barista make them feel more welcomed and appreciated than their lawyer does?
Can These Programs Help with Retention?
Client-focussed programs are great at building more work from existing clients, but they are also outstanding at helping to protect the existing work from clients. Why do law firms lose clients? According to research by Lex Mundi, it’s because of:
- Lack of responsiveness;
- A change in the quality of services;
- A (perceived or real) increase in cost; and/or
- Successfully marketing by the competition.
I’ve seen research that indicated up to 65% of happy clients are willing to try another law firm just to test them out. Your clients are not as loyal as you think they are. And clients unhappy with any of the above are certainly playing the field. Client-focussed programs help to identify and address any potential issues in these areas, ensuring they don’t cost you the client relationship and paving the way for an opportunity to build even more work from that client.
How Do I Get Started? Client Service:
Establish a client service task force comprised of representatives from the partnership, the associates, the paralegals, and the rest of the support staff (particularly including accounting and reception). You want a good cross section of individuals who interact with client at all levels and areas of the firm. Conduct information collection sessions where you identify all of the possible points of contact between clients and your firm, then analyse each one to determine if there could be any improvement. Report back to the firm regularly on findings and developments, and welcome suggestions from any area of the firm. Seriously consider initiating one or more client feedback mechanisms (questionnaires, interviews) as a way to collect vital and honest information on client service perceptions from your clients. Based on this research and discussion, develop client services principles, policies and procedures and roll them out firm-wide. Client
Having reviewed over 20 years of client feedback forms, I can honestly tell you that lawyers don’t always know what their clients are thinking. If you believe you do, then feedback will help to justify your client service choices. If you don’t, then feedback will help to identify gaps or weakness which can then be addressed to help create an even happier client. Then there’s the worst-case scenario. Twice in my time with big firms, I learned through a client feedback process that major clients were unhappy with the firm and about to fire them. By learning this through the feedback process, we were able to meet with the clients, directly address the issues raised, and save those client relationships. In one instance, this rescue was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in that year alone. Why didn’t the client tell the relationship lawyer that things were going badly? They were afraid of hurting feelings. (Although the firm would have been far more hurt to have been “dumped”). Why were they honest in the survey? Because the firm had (finally) asked the question. And the survey made it less personal, and more like a business decision to be honest. There are three primary types of feedback mechanisms that can be easily used by a law firm:
- End of matter surveys: these are usually a page in length, easy to complete (often on-line but could be in hard-copy), and distributed to clients at the end of a matter – either by email or mail with a postage paid return envelope.
- Annual surveys: These are distributed to a portion of a firm’s clients that year – sometimes their top clients, sometimes a cross-section of all clients. These can be in hard-copy or electronic. They are more detailed than an end-of-matter survey and thus, take a bit longer to complete. For this reason, some firms offer a reward for doing so (for example, on completion the client might receive a gift card).
- Audits/interviews: only a handful of these are completed each year: usually top or fast growing clients, with potential for sending the firm more work. Audits are generally done in person (or if necessary, by phone) with the legal purchase decision- maker. Questions cover the client/law firm relationship but also seek to gain insights about the client: what are their business goals and concerns, where do they see the company going in the next few years. Questions are structured to test existing client service, but also to pave the way for a potentially increased relationship in future. Audits are conducted by an executive position within the firm (i.e. the Managing Partner) and one additional party not related to the file (another partner, the marketing director or administrator, etc.) In other words, no one directly connected to the client participates in the interview.
Cut past the politics and determine a client team leader. Outline their role and purpose, and work with them to form a team comprised of existing service providers and also lawyers in areas where you are not currently doing work for the client, but would like to. The client team should then develop a plan. Start by documenting the existing relationship, then determine areas for improvement and advancement. Set goals, then develop action items to work toward achievement of those goals. The client team should meet regularly (monthly?) to review action items done to date, results, and plan for next action items.
Is It That Easy?
Of course, launching a client service program, client feedback mechanisms or client teams can be a lot more comprehensive than that, and not every firm is able to implement these without outside help. If you are able to start something internally, there are plenty of articles on the internet to describe how. If you like the idea of initiating these programs but worry that your firm won’t be able to deliver, it’s worth hiring an expert to help you develop and implement them. Remember, research shows that these programs will give you higher and faster returns than any writing, advertising or sponsorships you’ll undertake this year. So when you’re building your marketing plan, give serious consideration to adding in any or all of these client service-focussed programs.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in SLAW.