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  • InsideTrack
  • January 06, 2016

    Client-Centered Practices: Make it All About the Client this Year

    Competition for clients is fierce. Are you addressing the changing client expectations for customer service through technology or other accommodations?

    Joe Forward

    lawyer with clientsJan. 6, 2016 – When your clients or potential clients call your law firm with questions, are they satisfied with the experience? According to one study, the legal profession struggles with phone etiquette. But what about other aspects of your practice? Does your customer service meet or exceed the expectations of today’s client?

    “Client expectations have changed a lot, especially in the last decade,” said Jim Calloway, legal services consultant and director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s management assistance program. “People are now accustomed to the immediate results and services that technology provides. Clients have different attitudes today.”

    Calloway, who has written about the client-centered practice on his Law Practice Tips Blog, says that decades ago, clients were much more likely to turn their matters over to a legal professional and trust them to handle it and make decisions for them.

    “Today, we all want more control over our lives,” he said. “It’s no different for legal services. People are less patient. They may be taking legal matters into their own hands, or they want to believe they are in control of important steps along the way.”

    The 'client-centered' law firm recognizes that clients have a choice, and they won’t choose lawyers or law firms that don’t provide top-notch customer service in every aspect of the representation.

    In short, today’s “client” is different. For some perspective, think about your own expectations of customer service, Calloway says. Waiting in line, or in the doctor’s office, seems less acceptable today. Talking with customer service representatives can be maddening. And people today have more control over the services they choose.

    "Why would it be any different for lawyers?" Calloway asks. The “client-centered” law firm recognizes that clients have a choice, and they won’t choose lawyers or law firms that don’t provide top-notch customer service in every aspect of the representation.

    The New-Age Client Has Power

    Through a survey of more than 2,200 American consumers, London-based PH Media Group found that only 25 percent were satisfied with the way law firms handle their phone calls. All industry sectors combined received a 32 percent satisfaction rate.

    “Poor call handling is a frustrating experience for the American consumer and can be the difference between attracting new business and putting potential clients off permanently,” said Mark Williamson, sales and marketing director for PH Media Group.

    The data provides an important reminder that age-old phone etiquette still matters, and brushing up on your telephone best practices and standards can go a long way with consumer perceptions (see Sidebar, “Best Practices for Telephone Etiquette”).

    But phone calls are just one small aspect of a law practice. Clients may have different expectations when it comes to all forms of communication. If they send you an email, do they expect an immediate response? Will they be upset if you don’t at least acknowledge the email immediately? Is your law firm website up to par?

    There’s also in-person client contact – the initial consultations and the follow-up meetings. What information do today’s clients expect to receive, and what is the bedside manner, in doctor speak, that they expect lawyers to maintain? Calloway says today’s client has different expectations that must be managed early in the relationship.

    “Some time ago, attorneys would take clients with unreasonable expectations, hoping they would come to their senses,” Calloway said. “In this day of social media, one disgruntled client can become a big problem for a lawyer. If you can’t agree on the expectations up front, there’s a good chance you shouldn’t be representing that client.”

    Calloway says the initial consultation and the engagement letter become crucial in managing the client’s expectations of the representation, in all aspects.

    In former days, disgruntled clients did not have social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, or customer review sites like Yelp or AVVO, to make their complaints known. Now they do, and even unfair characterizations can do damage.

    “A satisfied and pleased client can be a great source of referrals for the lawyer’s future, particularly in smaller communities,” Calloway said. “But if you have a disgruntled client who badmouths you, that can be a real negative for your future practice.”

    In a world of increasing competition between law firms and other market participants – such as online legal document providers – the firm’s reputation for customer service becomes increasingly important, Calloway says. The client’s perception is reality. In other words, you are only a good lawyer if the client thinks so.

    Creating the Client-Centered Approach

    If the client is different today, and their attitudes have changed, then how do lawyers ensure they are providing the level of legal service that their clients will value?

    Start by asking, Calloway says. “Make sure the firm has a good process for obtaining honest client feedback. This is where firms can identify areas of improvement. The individuals sitting in the client’s chair are the best judges of what they like or didn’t like.”

    Also remember who you are serving, he says. The firm should accommodate its clients, not the other way around. For instance, many firms now use practice management software with client portals to securely access, send, and receive sensitive documents. This is a good solution to keep client files readily accessible to them at all times.

    Other clients may have a preference for paper copies. “You may have clients who really aren’t comfortable with electronic communications,” Calloway said. “They want the old fashioned correspondence that they can hold in their hand and file in their file cabinet.”

    “In certain firms, it might make sense to expand business hours one or two evenings per week,” Calloway said. “Clients who have trouble getting off work during business hours would certainly appreciate that accommodation for their schedule.”

    When it comes to sitting down and speaking with clients about their cases or providing updates, Calloway says lawyers must remember to consider the client’s perspective.

    “People want information that is valuable to them, and so a lawyer should work hard to improve their communication skills and explain things in terms that everyone can understand,” he said. “We learn a lot of jargon in law school, but when you are talking to clients, it’s important that you explain what those words mean and their significance.”

    Although lawyers seek to maximize efficiencies, Calloway says attorneys must be sensitive to their client’s needs, and sometimes they just need to be heard.

    Age-old phone etiquette still matters, and brushing up on your telephone best practices and standards can go a long way with consumer perceptions.

    “Lawyers must allow clients to speak openly,” Calloway said. “Because of our training, we are inclined to strip away the irrelevant facts and to focus on the significant ones. Clients may feel upset if we interrupt them or dismiss things as irrelevant.”

    “Certainly, there will come a time when you have to say that something the client views as important may not determine the outcome, to manage expectations. But lawyers must work hard to build a relationship and create the sense of trust that clients need.”

    In Practice

    Milwaukee attorney Nate Cade spent 17 years at large law firms before starting his own firm, Cade Law LLC. Over that time period, he has seen the shift in client expectations.

    “I think clients of all sizes are becoming more sophisticated,” Cade said. “They aren’t necessarily discerning between what is good and bad in terms of work product or lawyering. They are more sophisticated in their expectations for technology.”

    For instance, email communication is a minimum threshold. With technology, Cade says, clients definitively expect the technological bells and whistles that allow for better communication and reduced costs.

    One advancement that Cade uses to address this client expectation is voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and related technology that can reduce telecommunications costs. Cade uses it to unify and streamline his telecommunications systems.

    “For example, I have a fax number, but I don’t have a physical fax machine,” Cade said. “When I get a ‘fax,’ I get a message on my phone and it comes in as a PDF. If I choose to ‘fax’ someone, it will come across as a fax, but it’s not a fax in the traditional sense.”

    “There are ways to let clients communicate with you when it’s convenient for them,” he said. “If they want to send you something at midnight, they don’t have to wait.”

    Cade also uses his mobile device to access files on the go. “If a client has a question about a document or a receipt, I don’t have to be in my office to show it to them.”

    Of course, Cade says lawyers must manage expectations and allow for processing time. A client with avenues to make immediate contact should not expect an immediate response.

    “As a lawyer, you need time to process. We are getting away from that a little – the ability to make time for thinking. They want a reaction immediately,” Cade said.

    Lisa Derr, a family law attorney at Derr & Villarreal based in Beaver Dam, has also noticed a change in client expectations during the course of a 30-year career.

    “I believe that technology has had a significant impact on changing expectations. Communication is expected to be almost instantaneous,” she said.

    In addition, Derr noted that lawyers are more specialized. “When I started, clients went to the same firm to purchase a home, make a will, or obtain a divorce,” she said. “With a greater degree of specialization, clients expect a higher degree of expertise.

    “From my perspective, it seems there are significantly more attorneys vying for a smaller pool of clients, particularly as so many have chosen to proceed pro se.”

    Derr uses her website to market the firm’s services, but also as a source of practical information for potential clients who are doing their homework on certain topics. Attuned to changing attitudes, her firm documents a client’s preferred method of communication, and those methods are primarily used throughout the representation.

    Joe ForwardJoe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.

    The firm leverages technology to minimize inconvenience, through applications like Skype, GoToMeeting, and Soon the firm’s website will incorporate a secure client portal, allowing clients to review documents and post comments at any time.

    But it’s not just about technology. The law firm holds weekly meetings to explore ideas for better service. At the suggestion of one staff member, Derr tries hard to keep prompt appointment times, rather than keep clients waiting while she finishes other tasks.

    “I have done a much better job in the last several years greeting them at the appointment time or just several minutes later,” she said. “This responded to a staff member’s critical question: Is this the excellent service you are striving to give?”

    Embracing technology is crucial today. But sometimes, old-fashioned courtesy goes a long way, Derr said. “Our staff listens respectfully, patiently, and with empathy from the very first call. We offer them something to drink. The attorney always walks the client to the front door. We still incorporate tried and true elements of good service.”

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