By Mark Powers and Michael R. Hammond
Published February 2000 in the Fund Concept

Clients today are smarter, more sophisticated and better informed than ever before. They want service. They want a sympathetic ear and a sense of concern. They want their calls returned. They want to understand their bills. They want value for their money. More often than not, value comes down to what the client perceives. Quite a few clients have been lost by brilliant lawyers who have taken them for granted. As an attorney trained to deal with your clients’ legal situations, it is often easy to forget that your clients are in a vulnerable position. They have hired you because they lack the necessary expertise to solve a problem (and to them it is usually the most important problem they have in their life at that moment). But, in doing so, they lose a certain amount of control. Your job is not only to use your skills to help them through a difficult time, but to ease their mind and build their trust. Remember, good service is whatever your client perceives it to be. The average client can evaluate a law firm’s service much more easily and more quickly than the quality of the firm’s work. It is lawyers, not clients, who put a high premium on the quality of draftsmanship reflected in their legal documents.

Clients expect your firm to perform well, but it is often the intangibles – returning phone calls promptly, handling their matters constructively, answering their questions patiently, providing needed reassurances and getting work done on time – that cement long-term relationships. As a result, it is essential for you not only to produce good work for clients, but also to nurture their perception of value for services rendered. Here’s how.

Look through your clients’ eyes.

The key to successfully building a client-centered practice is to start from the outside and then rework the inside. Review all of your firm’s systems, processes and points of contact from the client’s perspective. Be ruthless in your assessment of how well they meet clients’ needs, solve clients’ problems, anticipate clients’ frustrations and exceed clients’ expectations. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my staff work to build rapport with clients from their first phone inquiry?
  • Are my clients greeted warmly and by name at each visit and whenever possible?
  • Are my clients spoken to in language they can understand and given clear explanations of the law as it applies to them?
  • Do my clients have access to my staff or me whenever they need to ask questions and receive answers?

If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, it is time to change the way you and your staff interact with clients.

Listen, really listen, to what your clients are telling you.

The vast majority of your client-generated calls are due to their concerns about the process and feeling uncertain about how things are going. Therefore, much of client service involves listening, a critical element of communicating. Performing this function effectively and regularly will solve 99 percent of all client service problems. Start now by asking clients what they want from you as their lawyer so that you know their expectations up-front.

Show your clients attention.

The key point to remember here is that all client attention does not have to be delivered by you. Select a “designated hitter,” a key person (an associate, paralegal or secretary) in your firm who can be available to answer non-substantive questions when you are unavailable. Make sure that person is introduced to the client early on and has access to information that can support the client.
Ultimately you want designated hitters with a strong client service orientation and an innate desire to get clients what they need. To meet clients’ high communication needs, have your designated hitter call clients (weekly if possible) to let them know the status of their matter or just to ensure that they have everything they need. If necessary, give clients a pager number for emergencies that you or your designated hitter can respond to immediately. Provide personalized voice-mail and e-mail that you or your designated hitter can check regularly. By making clients feel well taken care of, you will pre-empt many problems before they arise.

Stop over-promising and under-delivering.

Most attorneys and, in fact, most people are guilty of this, and it can give rise to a whole host of problems. This habit only works to undermine your credibility. Instead, get into the regular routine of under-promising and over-delivering. Provide clients with clear and conservative expectations of what will happen to them and their matter. Diagram the process (diagrams can be made in advance to explain each legal process), develop a timeline and explain clearly what will happen at each juncture. If there are points at which the client is likely to have low activity or low interaction with your office, point out and circle those points on the diagram. Do the same for periods of high activity. Point out risks along the way and various types of activities that will effect the outcome or the bill. Once these regular practices are in place, anticipate and seize every opportunity to exceed your clients’ expectations.

Clients are the reason you are in practice and the reason you remain in business. Therefore, as an attorney, your mission should always be to provide the highest quality client service possible. The essence of a client-centered perspective is to simply believe that it is more important to know what kind of client has a legal problem than what kind of legal problem the client has.

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