Without your clients you don’t have a firm and yet, according to the findings of the recent Canadian Lawyer Corporate Counsel Survey, most clients (80.4% of those who responded) aren’t being asked for feedback from their main law firm in a structured and meaningful way.
So let’s agree that every firm needs to implement some form of a client feedback program. Depending on your firm goals, size, resources and budget your program will look different. It should have elements of the type of formal program to which Canadian Lawyer alludes, but a robust client feedback program has to be more than just a survey or interview administered once a year. A firm needs to instill a culture of “client listening” amongst every member of the firm and be serious about making changes based upon what they hear, even if they are politically or culturally difficult. A firm should find multiple opportunities throughout the year, at various touch points in a relationship, to learn about the client and their perception of their firm and its lawyers.
Over the years I’ve worked with firms on a number of alternative avenues for client listening that have helped to achieve their goals. Examples include the following:
Formal Client Feedback Program – These structured programs send a clear signal to clients surveyed that their firm cares enough to ask their opinion but can be laborious to administer and need buy-in from the relationship partners involved. You can reduce costs by using an on-line survey for the bulk of those from which you wish to receive feedback and by using your in-house director of business development, in addition to your Managing Partner and Executive Committee, to perform face-to-face interviews with key clients. Whenever possible, relationship lawyers should not perform the feedback interviews with their own clients. Remember, it’s imperative that you act on the feedback that you receive due to the formal nature of these interactions.
For example, when I performed an annual feedback interview with a firm’s top client, he shared his concern for the future of the relationship since the lead partner was due to retire. He explained that with their aggressive plans for the future they needed a lead lawyer who would be aggressive for them too. The lawyer who had been “tagged” internally to succeed this relationship did not fit this description but when I brought back these concerns to the team they were discarded as an issue they would deal with “in the future” and they would “make it work”. A huge opportunity to protect the relationship, and open a discussion about future projects, was wasted, and only time would tell if this risky approach to client feedback would pay off.
Mid-File and Post-File Meetings – A good time to speak with your client is at the half way point in the matter as this gives you time to address existing issues, which may be as complicated as staffing or as simple as the timing of meetings. Once the file is complete, a more formal post-matter debrief session should be held with both the law firm and client team in attendance. I’ve heard from a number of clients that they find these to be invaluable not just as an avenue for them to share their thoughts on the law firm’s performance but also as a forum for them to discuss internal issues such as project management.
Informal Feedback – If yours is like most firms, you have numerous opportunities throughout the year to meet your clients in less formal settings, be they for educational or entertainment purposes. These are wonderful opportunities to ask your clients for feedback in a relaxed and open manner. I’ve found that often the most simple, but valuable, information can be gleaned from such interactions.
While working with one law firm, I was responsible for the relationship management of one of their top clients. While attending a cocktail party to celebrate the closing of a major transaction, I learned how satisfied a senior client contact was with our work. But as the conversation progressed he shared with me that although we were his first choice for day to day legal work, he wouldn’t use us for his ‘bet the bank’ litigation work. No one has so frankly explained our position in their legal roster before and with this information we were in a position to realistically assess our future share of wallet.
Such an example reinforces the need for a team debrief with all who attend major events available to discuss, and record, such feedback, note follow-ups and assign accountability for such.
Social Media Listening – One outlet that many firms are not taking advantage of is social media. It’s easy to keep track of interactions on Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, etc. and setting up a Google Alert for your firm and lawyers couldn’t be easier. The key to making the most of these avenues is interaction – if someone tweets kudos about your firm, publicly thank them on twitter. If they express dissatisfaction, reach out to them via the same medium and ask to take the conversation offline so you can better understand their frustrations.
Staff Interactions – The person who often speaks to the client may not actually be the lawyer but the legal assistant or paralegal. They can receive informal feedback from the client that they wish to share with the lawyers but aren’t comfortable doing so. One example I remember was an LAA who had received a lot of calls from a senior member of the client team and each time the partner either wasn’t there or wasn’t available. The client was obviously frustrated about the situation. Ensuring that you have a culture of listening in place will help to ensure that such information reaches the right ears and can be acted upon.
So let me stress, it doesn’t matter if you have the best client feedback program in the industry. If you fail to listen to what your clients tell you, directly or indirectly, and don’t take action on what you hear, you’re asking for trouble. I’ve heard grumblings from clients over the years that it’s almost worse to be asked for feedback that’s not acted upon than not to be asked at all – almost, but not quite.
We all know that it’s easier, and cheaper, to get new work from a current client than a new client and that referrals are the second most important source of business. So the issues I’ll leave you with are these.
- No matter what type of program you implement, how, and who, will aggregate and analyze the information coming from clients?
- How will you record the specific feedback from each client and follow-up on it so that they know they were heard?
- Do you have a CRM system in place with the ability to segregate sensitive data, if necessary?
- What take-away will be registered for those clients who decline to participate in a formal program?
If you can find ways to address these issues, you’re well on your way to great ‘client listening’ and satisfied clients.