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Why Survey Clients? Why Not!

Law firms have a tendency to measure effectiveness of a marketing activity by whether “we got a file from it”. This is an inaccurate measure for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that few firms record how a file came to them.

If you’re going to invest time and resources in marketing initiatives, they should enhance at least one of the four Rs—reputation, revenue, referrals, and retention. Clients choose lawyers by their reputation, so reputation enhances revenue. Clients also choose lawyers on the recommendation of another advisor, so referrals enhance revenue and reputation enhances referrals. Clients leave lawyers if the relationship doesn’t work for some reason, so fostering the relationship helps to retain them as clients.

Can you do one thing that enhances all of the four Rs at once? You can, but few law firms do.

Even the latest market research shows that few law firms are surveying their clients. At a recent LMA seminar, Elizabeth Duffy of Acritas presented the findings of their 2013 Brand Survey, noting the importance of client surveys in long-term planning. However, she added: “Some firms are yet to put any formal client feedback program in place. As a result, they continue to miss out on valuable information about clients’ future requirements and are putting themselves at an unnecessary disadvantage during difficult market conditions.”

Law firm marketing directors know that ‘client survey’ is the line item most frequently cut from budgets and meeting agendas. Lawyers tend to run for the hills if asked for the names of clients who could be surveyed. Do they think they’ll hear something bad about their handling of a client’s matter? Maybe, but that’s better than hearing nothing from the client—ever again.

A colleague told me of her firm’s first venture into client surveys. As the survey reports came in, she thought she would take a look at one or two, to get a sense of how things were going. The first report she looked at contained such detailed complaints that she took them to the responsible lawyer, who was completely floored. The marketing director insisted that they both go and see the client. They not only solved the problem, but also ended up getting additional work from the client for another of the firm’s practice areas. Had the survey not asked for her opinion, the client would simply have walked away. Had the lawyer and marketing director not informed her of the firm’s other areas of expertise, she would have taken the other work to another firm. Most importantly, had they not acted on her complaints, they would have lost all credibility with the client.

In fact, the only reason not to do surveys is if you know you won’t do anything with the findings!

So what is a client survey?

It’s an intentional seeking out of clients’ feedback for marketing purposes. It differs from the annual ‘How are we doing?’ review with a specific client base, or the routine end-of-matter survey largely by intent rather than content. A lawyer seeking feedback from a client is usually looking for ways to deepen that specific client relationship. A marketing survey looks for trends and generalizable opinions to help guide marketing decisions.

What client surveys aren’t is all about you, the law firm. They’re about the client. They help you discover client preferences, changes, and industry challenges. Properly constructed, they give you early warning of changing trends. Ask the right questions and windows of opportunity open up.

I just completed a survey for a law firm prior to revamping their website. Our specific purpose was to gauge awareness of the firm in the marketplace and characterize what attracted clients to the firm. This would guide the design and content of the website. However, we found out way more than that.

We discovered that certain of their referral sources were underutilized—a business development opportunity. We found that no one refers to the firm by its initials, which is how the firm refers to itself—time for a logo redesign. We found that clients know little to nothing about other services the firm provides—a cross-selling opportunity. And of course, all of these findings will sharpen the focus of the website and its search engine optimization.

Who, when, and why do you survey?

If conventional wisdom holds true and 80% of your business comes from 20% of your clients, survey that 20% first. When do you survey? Before making a major change or investment. Why do you survey? So that you have something more than your own assumptions to guide your decision, to take the pulse of the marketplace, and to learn more about your clients.

How do you survey?

Unquestionably, face-to-face interviews reveal the most. They aren’t easy to get with busy people, so a telephone interview ends up being the next choice. Emailed surveys are effective if the group being sampled uses email in that way (CEOs don’t) and the questions are multiple-choice. Snail-mailed surveys usually require follow-up, so you will likely end up doing a telephone survey anyhow.

Who should do the survey?

Most research professionals advocate using a neutral third party so that you get complete candour. If you have a marketing director—and you let that person have contact with clients (don’t get me started, that’s for another column)—the marketing director can do a very creditable job. However, he/she may have difficulty conveying any negative opinions back to the lawyers. A combination of marketing director and managing partner would solve that, but let’s get real: the amount of time required would mean they’d survey very few clients.

Just about the only person who shouldn’t do the survey is the lawyer who does the work. It’s too difficult for both parties to overcome reluctance to deal with sensitive areas and remain objective.

What questions do you ask?

Ah, now that’s the question! It’s tempting to pull a survey template off the internet and go from there. While this is an OK starting point, that’s all it is. If you don’t customize the questions, you will A. reduce participation in your survey and B. get very generic answers that won’t help you much. Time spent crafting the right questions will lead to much more informative answers.

I’ll end on a happy note: I’ve heard more good than bad about lawyers from surveying their clients. Some of your clients will be unhappy, but others may be happier than you think—for reasons that you’d never guess! Once you know what’s important to your client, you can act on it. One client told me that he only has time for phone calls before 8:00 am or after 7:00 pm. He’s ecstatically happy with his lawyer because they have their strategy sessions by phone at 7:00 am (or before) and then he’s good to go. He commented: “I’ll never take my business anywhere else.”

Oh, and when you hear stuff like that—get permission to use it in a testimonial.

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