Vol. 84, No. 4, April 2011
Creating true client loyalty is the fastest, most reliable way to build a strategic, sustainable advantage in modern legal practice. Truly loyal clients are less price sensitive, more willing to forgive your small foibles, and – most important – almost completely immune to competitive entreaties from the firm across the street or across the continent. This article will set you well on your way to building the kind of client loyalty you can put in the bank.
But first, you need to accept an uncomfortable truth: Even your most experienced legal clients do not likely understand the law on a technical level. Even if you’re in a litigation practice, where the scorecard should be the most cut and dried, in reality it’s hard for “outsiders” to determine what represents a good result for any particular client. By contrast, it is easy for clients to judge you on such things as whether your office seems well run in a business sense and whether you bill for meals eaten while you work on a client’s legal matter. Therefore, it’s in your interest to build client loyalty by focusing on factors in addition to pure, easy-to-misconstrue “results.” The tips below will help.
You can’t build client loyalty by benchmarking your service performance against the other law firms’ prevailing standards – doing so is setting the bar too low. It’s time to raise your game: Benchmark yourself against the best performers in service-intensive industries, because that’s what your clients will do. All clients judge every interaction with you based on expectations set by the best players in the hospitality, financial services, and other industry sectors in which experts have made a science of customer service.
Micah Solomon is a speaker and adviser to corporations and professional firms on client service and the customer experience. Visit his website, www.micahsolomon.com.
Shelve your legal skills when it comes to resolving client problems – a courtroom approach only gets in the way when working with your clients. Resolving client problems means knowing how to apologize. It means getting rid of a “let’s sort out the facts here and allocate responsibility” attitude when an upset customer confronts you with a perceived service gaffe. Instead, take your client’s side, immediately and with empathy, regardless of what you think the “rational” allocation of “blame” should be. Train your staff to adopt this approach, so the approach will serve you fully if a client hits the fan.
Faster service wins the day. Today’s customers expect speedier service than did clients of any preceding generation. If drafting a legal opinion will take you four days, first immediately contact the client to explain how much time you’re going to need; then dig in to do the actual work. (Don’t expect to be treated as a hero if you deliver anything later than promised, unless you have already managed the client’s expectations.) Clients don’t know what is involved in you completing their matter; they figure you can fulfill their requests automatically and quickly.
Fees must be appropriate and appropriately presented. Clients will notice if your fee for proofreading documents is some astonishing figure like $350 an hour, and so find a way to reduce it. You’ll make up the difference easily in retained clients and referrals. Don’t bill for large amounts of unexplained copying or other generic-sounding charges; document such charges and explain why the service is necessary. And don’t charge for incidentals, such as a Starbucks latte that you would have bought anyway while traveling.
Every hello and goodbye must be perfect. Psychology studies demonstrate that people remember the first and last minutes of a service encounter much more vividly – and for much longer – than what comes between. So make sure that the initial and final elements of your client interactions are particularly well engineered, because they are going to stick in your client’s memory. Do you or your employees sound as though you’ve been interrupted – even for that telltale split second – when a client calls or genuinely pleased to hear from her? Do you screen calls unnecessarily? Do you “cold-transfer” people? If so, it’s time to stop. At the end of a project, is the last communication to your client an impersonal, mailed statement? Or do you offer a proper farewell, including thanks, and an invitation to return if anything else is needed?
Dedicate yourself – and your systems – to remembering and acknowledging each client in a way that is personal to the client. Loyalty is not built by the tradition of standing ready to besiege clients with pro forma mailings describing other services your firm can provide. Loyalty is built by realizing that every client is unique and must be treated that way. Law firms thrive once they dedicate themselves to engendering the deep loyalty bestowed on a beloved bartender, doorkeeper, or hairstylist – the kind of service providers who would know a client’s preferences, the name of that client’s pet, when that client was in last, and so on. Loyalty is built, for example, by knowing that your business executive client has a sibling with severe medical problems and then reading about a new case that could help, forwarding the link, and offering to find an expert in the area to assist – whether or not the expert has ties to your own firm. Enter this type of personal information in your clients’ electronic files and thereby use your computer system to effectively build client loyalty.
If you truly want to glue clients to your firm, learn to anticipate client needs – even before they are expressed. Meeting a client’s wish before the wish has been expressed sends the message that you care about the customer as an individual. Doing this may seem to require telepathic ability, but in essence it is founded on paying attention and knowing your customers. And it’s well worth the effort: The cared-for feeling a client gets when her – not a “generic client’s” – wishes are anticipated will generate the fiercest loyalty.
Achieving exceptional client loyalty requires aligning your employees and your systems to anticipate what your clients want before they ask for it. It involves hiring support staff and attorneys who have key customer-friendly traits (warmth, empathy, a bias toward teamwork, conscientiousness, and optimism), aligning your systems to center on what customers really want from your processes, and never thinking you can save effort by trying to treat everyone the same. Great service requires custom fitting. Every day, hour, and minute, you interact with clients at your firm.