Obtaining and Acting on Client Feedback

Any good marketing and business development plan includes not only strategies for attracting new clients, but also strategies for ensuring that your current clients have an exceptional experience with your firm so that they will return to you for their future legal needs and refer other potential clients to you. But the mere fact that an existing client hasn’t gone elsewhere doesn’t mean that you’ve delivered that kind of client experience.

Take a look at a few lawyer websites, brochures or other marketing materials and you’ll see claims that lawyers are “client-focused,” and that they provide “excellent client service.” And yet surveys of clients show their biggest complaints about lawyers are not about the lawyer’s technical legal skills, but about the level of service provided, the lack of knowledge about the client’s business, and other client focus-related complaints. One way to head off these problems is by obtaining regular client feedback.

Systematize Client Feedback

If you’re serious about client service, don’t make the mistake of assuming that clients who don’t complain (or don’t leave) are satisfied clients, and don’t wait until the end of the engagement before asking clients for feedback about how you’re doing. Make obtaining regular feedback from clients an integral part of the service that you provide throughout the engagement.

Ongoing systems should be put in place for obtaining information and tracking client preferences, needs and wants. Systematize your client feedback efforts so that feedback is requested automatically at strategic times during the relationship. Doing so will not only improve the attorney-client relationship, but it will help identify new business opportunities, better align your services with your clients’ expectations, and ensure that potential problems are identified early so that they can be solved.

Explore the client’s expectations, both for the outcome of the engagement and for the way legal services will be provided beginning with the initial consultation. Identifying what is important to the client from the outset can help you to shape the engagement and the way you provide service to the client to increase their satisfaction. As you request feedback throughout the engagement, you can reiterate the client’s challenges and goals and show how your services are helping the client meet them.

Continue to check back with the client throughout the engagement to ensure that the client’s expectations or needs have not changed over time. Measure your progress by asking where the client thinks you have met or exceeded those expectations and how you have fallen short. This allows the firm an opportunity to learn whether the client is happy with their experience of the firm and to correct any misunderstandings while the matter is ongoing.

Ways to obtain client feedback

Client visits/in-person
Most initial consultations will occur in person, in your office, so that you can lay the groundwork for the engagement and determine what is most and least important to the client. As the engagement progresses, you may wish to obtain feedback from clients by visiting them (depending upon the client, practice area and type of matter) at the client’s home or place of business. These visits not only save the client the time and expense of visiting you at your office, but also provide additional insight into the client’s situation and demonstrate your commitment to them.

These visits might not be as appropriate for some business to consumer matters, such as divorce, but might be appreciated by clients in elder law, personal injury or estate planning matters. Many business clients appreciate on site visits from their attorneys because it shows the attorney’s interest in the client and their business and provides a deeper understanding of the client’s operations.

Post-engagement interviews can provide additional insight, particularly when conducted by a senior lawyer other than the relationship partner.

Keep in mind that feedback received from in person interviews may be slightly skewed in a positive direction since clients sometimes are reluctant to tell their attorneys directly if they have a concern or complaint. But these interviews are still valuable for the other reasons noted above.

Telephone interviews
Clients can be interviewed by telephone throughout the engagement by members of the firm or by third parties. The purpose of these interviews is to obtain information about the client’s perception of the matter, from both a substantive and a service perspective. Often these interviews are more effective when conducted by a third party since, as mentioned above, clients can be reluctant to deliver bad news directly to the attorneys with whom they work. While in person visits from third parties might be seen as invasive, third party telephone calls can be welcomed by clients, particularly if the clients are advised by the firm in advance that they may be receiving a call.

Written client surveys or questionnaires online or by mail
A formal client feedback form can be developed and sent to clients on a routine basis, either in addition to calls or in-person meetings or as a substitute for it where appropriate. Written surveys are the easiest form of client feedback to implement, but many clients will not complete them due to time constraints or lack of interest. Even so, just sending these surveys can signal to clients that you are serious about client service. Written surveys or questionnaires are especially useful for end of matter assessments.

On occasion, written responses may be more candid than responses obtained during a meeting if a client is too embarrassed to tell a lawyer directly that they were unhappy with some aspects of the lawyer’s service, but overall results can be skewed the other way since those who are happy with the firm are more likely to respond than those who have concerns.

David Maister, in his book Managing the Professional Services Firm, recommends that to improve response rates, clients should be told in advance that the questionnaire is coming, and responses should be returned to the firm, rather than to the specific partner with whom the client deals on a regular basis.

Written feedback forms should not be too long or too cumbersome to complete, lest they discourage the client from responding. Ratings-type questions (for example, rating the firm’s performance on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being highly unsatisfied and 5 being highly satisfied), may be easier and faster for a client to complete. However, although ratings questions are easy to answer, they may not provide as much information as narrative questions. Ratings questions don’t encourage examples, and the responses may be of little use to the firm, so include a mix of ratings and narrative questions in your written surveys.

Client Feedback Questions

Some general areas to cover when requesting comments from clients on their experience with your firm may include:

  • The client’s overall experience with the firm
  • Experience with lawyers
  • Experience with non-lawyer staff
  • Responsiveness
  • Communications with the client
  • Technical ability

BTI Consulting conducts several studies yearly to determine which factors are most important to corporate counsel clients in their relationship with the law firms with whom they work. According to BTI, in developing client feedback systems, law firms need to collect feedback in several areas, including what the client thinks is most important; whether the client is using other law firms and if so, whether the firm is the client’s primary firm or one of their secondary firms; how the firm performs as compared to those other firms; how much of the client’s “wallet share” the firm currently has; the firm’s weaknesses, points of value and differentiation; and how the firm measures up on what BTI calls the 17 activities that drive client relationships. Asking clients for their advice about how the firm can improve is also advised.

The 17 client satisfaction factors BTI has identified are:

  1. *Understands client’s business
  2. *Client Focus
  3. *Provides Value for the Dollar
  4. *Commitment to Help
  5. Breadth of Services
  6. Brings together national resources
  7. Regional reputation
  8. Helps advise on business issues
  9. Unprompted communication
  10. Anticipates client’s needs
  11. Deals with unexpected changes
  12. Innovative approach
  13. Keeps clients informed
  14. Quality products
  15. Legal skills
  16. Handles problems
  17. Meets core scope

According to BTI, the top 4 are the attributes that are both highly important to clients and that clients believe are scarce in the legal marketplace. These 17 factors might be good fodder for ratings-type survey questions.

Other ratings questions might include:

  • How satisfied are you with the result the firm obtained in this matter?
  • How easy is it to do business with our firm?
  • How responsive were our lawyers to your schedule and needs for this matter?
  • How well did we keep you informed of the status of this matter?
  • How would you rate the value of the legal services you received?
  • How would you rate your overall satisfaction with our billing procedures?

But before you even get started with a new client (or a new matter for an existing client), you’ll want to ask questions during the initial consultation such as:

  • What are the biggest challenges you are facing right now in your business?
  • How can we help you face those challenges?
  • What is the single most important thing I can do for you in this case?
  • What are your expectations for this engagement?

During and after the engagement, you might ask questions additional narrative questions that can encourage specific, actionable feedback, such as:

  1. What do you like about how we are handling/handled this matter?
  2. Is there anything we should do differently in the future?
  3. What aspect of working with our firm is/was the easiest (or most difficult)?
  4. If a colleague of yours called asking for a reference, what would you say to him or her about us?
  5. Who from the team would you like to see more of or less of?
  6. How well are we doing at keeping up with your business and industry?
  7. What suggestions do you have to make your experience with our firm more enjoyable?
  8. What would encourage you to hire us (or recommend us to others) in the future?
  9. In what ways can we improve our knowledge of your business or industry?
  10. Where can we improve?
  11. How do we find more clients like you?
  12. During the past year, what’s one of the most impressive things you’ve seen an outside professional do for you or your company?

What To Do With Client Feedback

Use client feedback to identify areas for improvement. Obtaining feedback from clients and never looking at it or taking action on it can be worse than failing to ask for the feedback in the first place. Once the information is received, it should be communicated to everyone in the firm (attorneys and staff alike) who has or had contact with that particular client. Or consider sharing this information with everyone in the firm, regardless of their involvement with the particular client or matter, as the same issues may arise with other clients as well.

Anything less than stellar feedback should result in the creation of an action plan to not only rectify the current situation with the client, but also to ensure that similar problems do not arise in the future. This may require an additional call or in-person meeting with clients to discuss their concerns, or to learn more about them or their issue.

But don’t make the mistake of taking action only on negative client feedback. A lukewarm response may signal danger for the firm for the simple reason that those results are easy to overlook. Failing to follow up with a client that provides an mediocre report robs the firm of the ability to learn of these issues, which other clients may not raise on their own unless and until the problem is beyond the point of repair.

In addition, there is a good chance that an indifferent client can turn into a satisfied and enthusiastic future client if the client’s concerns are acknowledged, particularly if there are areas in which the firm can improve its performance during the engagement. Although negative responses do warrant attention, there are some clients who just won’t ever be satisfied, and these may be the clients that the firm does not want to encourage to return. By contrast, the indifferent client can often be won over and can provide valuable insight into the firm’s shortcomings or into potential opportunities that the firm is missing.

If you receive a glowing review from a client, always, at the very least, say thank you. Let the client know you appreciate their taking the time to complete your survey or answer your questions and thank them for their positive comments. You may also want to ask the client’s permission to use them as a reference, or to use their comments as a testimonial for your firm (where permitted by the ethics rules of your jurisdiction). Some clients may be uncomfortable with this idea, so this conversation needs to be extremely respectful of the client’s wishes, but there are many clients who are more than happy to be a ‘raving fan’ for an attorney that has provided outstanding service.

When you obtain feedback from clients on a regular basis throughout the engagement and then follow through on that feedback, you will forge better relationships with clients and make it more likely that they will return to you for additional work or do your marketing for you by singing your praises and referring others to you.

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