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Using Client Service Excellence to Build Loyalty in the Modern Law Firm

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What do you think my first challenge is, when I work with a law firm or give a speech to a legal industry event? It’s the challenge of getting across how hard it is to win customer loyalty on results alone. Don’t kid yourself: Even your most experienced legal clients do not by and large understand the law on a technical level. Even if you’re in a litigation practice, where the scorecard should be the most cut and dried, in reality it’s hard for outsiders to determine what represents a good result for any particular client.

By contrast: Whether or not your office seems well run in a business sense? And whether or not you bill clients for internal lunches you’d have to eat anyway? These points are easy for clients to judge you on. Therefore, unfair though it seems, it’s in your interest to focus on building client loyalty through angles other than pure, easy-to-misconstrue results. Most specifically, by dramatically improving the client experience.

Believe me: It’s worth it. Creating true client loyalty is the fastest, most reliable way to build a strategic, sustainable advantage for your practice. Truly loyal clients are less price sensitive, more willing to forgive your small foibles, and—most importantly—almost completely immune to competitive entreaties from the firm across the street or across the continent. Here’s how to pull it off.

1. You can’t build client loyalty by benchmarking your service against the prevailing standards at other law firms—doing so is setting the bar too low.

It’s time to raise your game: Benchmark yourself against the best in service-intensive industries, because that’s what your clients will do. Every client interaction with you is judged based on expectations set by the best players in hospitality, the financial services industry, and other areas where experts have made a science of customer service.

2. Shelve your legal skills when it comes to resolving client problems—a courtroom approach only gets in the way when working with your clients.

Resolving client service issues means knowing how to apologize for service lapses pointed out to you by a client (billing errors and untimely or incomplete day-to-day client care, for example). It means getting rid of a “let’s sort out the facts here and allocate responsibility” attitude when you are confronted by a customer upset with she perceives to be a client service gaffe. Instead, take your client’s side in these situations, immediately and with empathy, regardless of what you think the “rational” allocation of “blame” should be. And spread this approach throughout your staff through role-playing and other training devices, so it will serve you fully every time a client hits the fan.

3. Faster service wins the day.

Modern customers expect speedier service than did any generation before them. If a legal opinion is going to take you four days to deliver, first get back to the client immediately, explaining the length of time you’re going to need; then dig in to the actual work needed. (Don’t expect to be treated as a hero delivering anything four days later, unless you have already managed client expectations of timeliness.) Clients don’t know what is involved in completing your work; they figure their requests can be taken care of as automatically and speedily as fulfilling an order of cufflinks at Amazon.com.

4. Pricing must be appropriate and appropriately presented.

Clients notice if your minimum rate for page-turning to QC documents is some astonishing figure like $350 an hour—so find a way to get it down. (You’ll make up the difference easily in retained clients and referrals.) Don’t bill for large amounts of unexplained “copying” or other generic-sounding charges; explain such charges and how they assist your client. And for Pete’s sake, don’t charge for that Starbucks latte your traveling attorney would’ve bought anyway.

5. Every hello and goodbye must be perfect.

Psychological studies demonstrate that clients remember the first and last minutes of a service encounter much more vividly—and for much longer—than all the rest of it. So make sure that the first and final elements of your client interactions are particularly well engineered, because they are going to stick in your client’s memory. Do your attorneys or support staff sound interrupted—even for that telltale split second—when a client calls, or genuinely pleased to hear from her? Do you screen calls unnecessarily? “Cold-transfer” people? It’s time to stop. And at the end of a project, is the last thing your client hears from you a chilly statement by mail, or do you make an attempt to offer a proper farewell, including thanks, an invitation to return if anything else is needed?

6. Dedicate yourself—and your systems—to remembering and acknowledging each client in a way that is personal to him.

Loyalty is not built by the tradition of standing ready to besiege clients with mailings sent out in a pro forma fashion on other services your firm can provide. It is built by realizing that every client is unique and needs to be treated that way. Law firms – yes, law firms – thrive once they dedicate themselves to achieving the computer-assisted effectiveness of a beloved bartender, doorman, or hairstylist — the kind who would know a client’s preferences, the name of that client’s pet, when that client was in last… Going deeper, loyalty is built by knowing that your client, a business executive, has a sibling with severe medical problems; then reading about a new case that could help, forwarding the link and offering to find an expert in the area to help – whether or not the expert is in your own firm.

7. If you truly want to glue clients to your firm, learn to anticipate client needs – even before they are expressed.

When a client’s wish is met before the wish has been expressed, it sends the message that you care about the customer as an individual This may seem like it requires telepathic ability, but in essence it is simply founded on paying attention and knowing your customers. And it’s well worth the effort: The cared-for feeling a client gets when her–not a “generic client’s” –wishes are anticipated is where you will generate the fiercest loyalty.

To achieve this requires aligning your people and your systems to anticipate what your clients want before they ask for it. This involves hiring support staff and attorneys based on key customer-friendly traits (specifically: warmth, empathy, a bias toward teamwork, conscientiousness, and optimism), aligning your systems to center on what customers really want from your processes, and never, ever, thinking you can save effort by trying to treat everyone the same. Great service requires custom fitting. Every day, hour, and minute you interact with the clients who come to your firm.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Micah Solomon is a professional business keynote speaker, bestselling author, and a consultant to law firms and the legal community, corporations, and not for profits on customer service, marketing, and company culture. He has been termed by the Financial Post a “new guru of customer service excellence.” An entrepreneur and business leader, he authored the new business bestseller, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, as well as the earlier book Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit. His expertise has been featured in Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, CNBC, Forbes.com, and elsewhere, and he created and helms the “College of the Customer” website.