Published: 26 August 2011
One of the things that separate a solo from large, mid, or even small firms is the ability to control every aspect of the client experience – from the first contact to the final bill payment. This is the key to creating relationships that thrive, producing business that keeps flowing, and winning client loyalty that makes them want to – feel an obligation to – tell everyone they know what a great lawyer and friend you are to them.
I will admit up front that these lessons are second nature to me – I am the kind of person (you know from previous columns) who speaks to people I meet in elevators. Therefore, as a result, I do not have to think about these things…I merely do “what is right” and things seem to work out. For those who struggle – not because of intent but because of lack of experience – with client service, the following advice is a very short list of the things you must do to thrive in a client-service-driven world. If you follow this list, you cannot go wrong.
- WELCOME CLIENTS TO YOUR OFFICE OR MEETING WITH A WARM, FRIENDLY AND GENUINE GREETING. You have to put yourself in the place of your client when it comes to good manners. If you cannot welcome them to your office (brick-n-mortar, virtual, or Starbucks) with a genuine greeting – showing them you are happy to see them and to have their company – then you have sent the OPPOSITE message. Then, when it comes time to decide whether to sign a fee agreement, keep you for future matters, or refer friends/family to you, do not be surprised when your referrals dry up and die. Of course, this is not the only reason to be genuine – it is merely a bonus. After all, if you are genuinely glad to see your client, you need not fake anything. Keep in mind, though, even when you have a bad day, you need to set your other concerns aside so your client understands they are the high point of your day. Think back on your best experiences with professionals (doctor, dentist, accountant, etc.) and try to remember what made those experiences excellent. My accountant has always rooted for me – always took the time to ask how things were going – always took the time to come from behind his desk and speak with me like a friend. Of course, he works for me and sends me bills…but that relationship survives and thrives because he is glad to see me and makes sure I know it.
- USE THE CLIENT’S NAME WHENEVER POSSIBLE. I will admit here and now that I am not good with names. I know I should be – and I remember there are plenty of things I am great at so I do not worry too much about it. Nevertheless, I do need to know names so whenever I get somebody’s card I make a note on the back that will help me remember whom they were and make the connection. For example, one of my recent introductions was to a businessman from Belgium so I noted that on the back of his card – he also spells his first name (Marc) a bit differently from the norm so I noted on the back of his card “Belgium – Marc with a C.” I also make notes on post-its and put them on my desk so I get several reminders in case I need them. My Dad used to say if you use somebody’s name once a minute while you are speaking with him or her, it helps them understand that you care about them. Learn the names and use them – it will help you establish a long and friendly relationship.
- GIVE CLIENTS YOUR UNDIVIDED ATTENTION. My wife and I recently went to see Chicago (the musical) at the Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. The show was marvelous but I had a young man sitting next to me that had to check his cell phone every minute or so…and the screen light would shine right in my face…during the show. Therefore, at the intermission I asked him politely to turn off the phone during the show or excuse himself so he did not bother the other members of the audience. He gave me a look as if I had scratched his car door. I was surprised because I thought a polite request should be enough but it was not…eventually a very nice usher reminded him of common courtesy and solved the problem. I tell this story not show what an impolite jerk this fellow was BUT to remind us all that manners start first with how the OTHER person perceives you are treating them. If you interrupt a conversation with a client to look at a text, or take a phone call while they are sitting in front of you, you are telling them they are not important. I handle this situation this way – when I sit down with a client, I pick up my phone and silence the ringer and set it aside (or in my brief case) and say “This is your time and you are my single focus – what can we do for you?” This may not be necessary but do not ever underestimate the value of making sure your client knows that when you are serving them you are NOT multitasking.Eventually, you may have to tell that client that you have to get back to them because you have another appointment scheduled…it is easier to say that if, when they are with you, they are your sole focus. Make every moment with a client THEIR moment. You will not regret it.
- MAINTAIN A POSITIVE ATTITUDE WITH EVERY CLIENT. As I mentioned above, nobody wants his or her Doctor to say “I hate dealing with a patient that has XXX (‘your’) condition…” If your client ever hears you say that about their matter, they will feel marginalized and rightly so. It is perfectly appropriate to make sure a client understands that certain matters are more difficult than others, that results are never guaranteed, and that things may not go our way in court (or wherever). Nevertheless, your client needs you to be strong and positive and a tireless cheerleader for their cause. Do not put your head in your hand and say anything like “Oh no, not another custody battle…” If you practice family law, that is your line of work and you have to expect that. To your client, it is their ONLY custody battle – remember that.Complain to yourself, complain to your better half, or to your therapist (within the bounds of the rules of professional conduct). However, always always try to keep your client on top of the world. They will be better to work with, they will pay the bills, and they will follow your sound legal advice. Best of all, they are more likely to be happy when you are happy. Life is better that way.
- WALK CLIENTS OUT AT THE END OF A MEETING; THANK THEM AND GIVE A WARM, FRIENDLY GOODBYE. Just as you must welcome a client with a sincere greeting, you must also bid farewell in a sincere and complete manner. Never ever just wave your hand at a client and say “See ya’ next time…” They will leave with a bad taste in their mouth and that taste lasts a LONG time. If your client has family members waiting for them, try to say hello and introduce yourself – this is a good way to let your client know that they matter beyond the matter at hand. You will recall from a previous column (see it here: http://solopracticeuniversity.com/2011/04/29/budgeting-what-you-really-need/) that I have a habit of handwriting informal notes to everyone I meet to thank them for their time, etc. The value of a handwritten note cannot be underestimated – it is a time-tested way of being sincere after the fact and passing on another business card. This is not patronizing if you really mean what you say – take the time to be polite and exhibit good manners, it is good for your client and, by extension, it is good for business.
In short, treat your clients the way you want to be treated – the way your grandmother would have told you to treat them. Remember a genuine welcome and good bye – using the client’s name – ensure they know you are glad to see them and sorry to see them go. Pay attention to what they say and give good positive feedback.
If you follow these simple rules, the client experience will always be positive and they will have good reason to consider you not only a good lawyer but also a friend who treats them well from beginning to end and to whom they feel comfortable referring other friends. A positive client experience is not only good for business…it IS good business.
Do you know how your clients view you? How do you make you enhance your client’s experience?