Your Call Is Important to Us

“When it comes to customer service,” James Surowiecki noted in an insightful New Yorker column last month, “it seems people are unhappy no matter what side of the counter they’re on.” Surowiecki’s article describes how the only ones more miserable than those who provide front-line customer service these days are those who receive it: neither the buyer nor the seller values or enjoys the post-transaction relationship. 

The reason is pretty simple: during the recession (and, Surowiecki points out, even more so during the boom that preceded it), companies slashed customer service because it was little more than a cost center — and customers, always demanding the lowest price, acquiesced. The result is that the purchasers of a product or service now dread the prospect of trying to get information or assistance from the seller’s underpaid, undertrained, outsourced and unmotivated “service” representatives. Ultimately, we consumers have only ourselves to blame: save now, pay later.

Ask most law firms about their “customer service” policies and you’ll get a blank stare. Change the phrase to “client service” and you’ll hear about how valuable clients are and the lengths the firms go to solve clients’ problems and satisfy their needs; but ask firms to outline specific steps they take to ensure their clients are happy with the service they receive, and you might hear about “surveys” and “calls from relationship partners” and other one-off measures. I’ve yet to come across a law firm that could produce a client satisfaction strategy and the tactics employed to implement it.

There are several reasons for this. One is that many clients are one-offs — most people don’t need to immigrate twice or get multiple divorces — so the lawyer has little motivation to encourage repeat business. Another is that unlike in retail or other business environments, most customer service in the law takes place during the transaction, not afterwards. Related to that is a third reason: lawyers, to speak very generally, are more interested in the problem than in the person or organization that provides it, and they focus their energies on attacking and solving the problem, not attending to the emotional state (usually unhappy) of the client. And a fourth is the monopolistic nature of our marketplace: customers seeking a law firm that does things differently, or a non-lawyer solution altogether, traditionally have been unable to pursue those options — veterans of using the telecommunications or airline sectors can relate.

But maybe the biggest reason why “client service” is an empty slogan or an afterthought for most law firms is the same reason Surowiecki identifies as the root cause of poor client service in the larger business world: 

The real problem may be that companies have a roving eye: they’re always more interested in the customers they don’t have. So they pour money into sales and marketing to lure new customers while giving their existing ones short shrift, in an effort to minimize costs and maximize revenue. The consultant Lior Arussy calls this the “efficient relationship paradox”: it’s only once you’ve actually become a customer that companies put efficiency ahead of attention, with the result that a company’s current customers are often the ones who experience its worst service. 

Perhaps the advice most often given to, and neglected by, lawyers is that it’s statistically far easier to get new business from an existing client than a new one. Yet the money and effort firms devote to satisfying clients during the transaction and improving that relationship afterwards is a tiny fraction of the thousands or millions they pour into marketing and advertising. We’re more interested in the clients we don’t have than in the clients we do, and our near-complete neglect of client service in any real and effective sense demonstrates that.

How could firms make “client service” real? Secure online access to a “Client Status” website, updated daily with the latest developments on a file, would be a good start. But great client service, beyond empowering a client to access information at her convenience, requires proactive effort and actual sacrifice by the lawyer. Here are four quick possibilities:

  • Make monthly or weekly calls to the client (at no charge) during the transaction to discuss the file, answer questions, and above all, just listen to the client express her worries and hopes. The single biggest difference-maker and differentiator lawyers can adopt is to learn to listen actively, quietly and attentively. Very few of us possess or polish this skill.
  • For valued clients, install a 24/7 “hot line” (phone or email) at which a responsible and competent firm professional can be reached for and will respond to urgent issues — the law firm equivalent of “roadside assistance.” After-hours inquiries could be fielded by part-time lawyers or those employed with an offshore legal services provider affiliated with the firm.
  • Create a referral incentive program: a client who refers another client to you receives an automatic 15% discount the next time he uses your service (which also encourages repeat business). Better yet, award the 15% discount to the referred client — studies have demonstrated this is a more effective referral system for some people, especially women.
  • As my Edge colleague Ed Wesemann recommends in an upcoming article in the Edge International Review, turn the traditional lawyer pricing paradigm upside-down: give your biggest and most valued clients your best rates, and give new clients your standard, non-discounted ones, not the other way around — which, amazingly, is how many firms automatically proceed.

Customer service likely will continue to worsen as the economy struggles and costs continue to be cut in so-called “non-essential” areas. As a result, a law firm that genuinely prioritizes client service — commits the resources, builds a strategy, implements tactics, monitors progress and sets goals to be met — will stand out so far above the crowd, in the legal marketplace and elsewhere, as to be considered an astonishing anomaly. Too simple? There’s no such thing.


  1. This article is right on time! As a bankruptcy attorney, my firm has seen an uptick in the number of anxious calls from clients about repos, foreclosures and garnishments. I expect this trend to deepen as the economy makes it’s slow recovery. I’ve pondered how to address the issue, knowing that I’m not getting back to my clients fast enough or with the most empathetic ear. These suggested approaches offer a real opportunity to make client relations as important as getting the next client.