By Adrienne Olsen
As we emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown, business for many law firms will have changed markedly. Clients’ needs are likely to have changed and/or the way they run their businesses. Some of you will have new clients who have created new business as a result of the lockdown. And, sadly, many of you will have clients whose businesses may be under considerable stress and may ultimately go under.
As we recalibrate our businesses in the coming months, the change in the business climate gives you all excellent opportunities to continue to nurture your clients, and to be more proactive and strategic in your contact with them. More than ever, communicating with your clients will be the key to not only keeping your own business going but it will also lead to a more engaging relationship with your clients.
Develop a strategy
Like everything, you’ll get the best results if you have a strategy. Many firms will already have client development strategies, that will (or should) include the most important component of client service protocols; now is a good time to revisit those plans and, if need be, adapt them to the post-COVID business climate.
Draft your plan with all the appropriate people in your firm – not just legal staff. Your PAs, for example, may often be a client’s first point of contact in your firm and they should be included as part of your team – their input will be invaluable.
Defining what is client service
Your client strategy should look closely at how you and everyone in your firm defines ‘client service’. What levels of service do your clients expect from you? Do your clients expect to be satisfied with the manner in which you do business? Yes, at a minimum. Or would you prefer your clients to be ‘surprised and delighted’ by the way you work with them?
Client service is providing a legal and business solution to your client’s problem/situation by their deadline and in line with your cost estimate. Doing this you’ll have a satisfied client. But will they be surprised and delighted? Your firm’s goal should be to provide excellent client service.
Establishing a culture of excellent client service
To ensure your firm gives stellar client service – to all your clients, not just your key clients – you will need to have a culture of excellent client service. Establishing what that is for your particular clients is something that is unique to your firm. Large corporate clients may have different expectations than an SME, a farming enterprise or for personal clients. Clients from different backgrounds and cultures may have quite different assumptions on the level of service, and the manner in which it is delivered, that they would expect from the people in your firm.
It is not necessarily well understood that many clients don’t judge your firm’s service solely by its legal expertise (technical competency). It’s the delivery of service, and the way in which it is given, that makes a difference. It’s often the small things that add up to what a client thinks is excellent service. These things can range from contacting a client to confirm that the piece of work will be with them by tomorrow’s deadline, offering additional advice that is outside their instructions to you, and having a de-brief with your client after a large matter is completed.
You will already know, to some extent, your clients’ expectations of the way in which you deliver service to them. The best way, however, is to ask them. When you find out what your particular clients want from your firm, you can not only put together a set of tailored client service protocols unique to your firm, but also you can meet your individual clients’ requirements by having personalised protocols for them.
Taking the client journey
One of the most straightforward ways to start thinking more about the way in which your firm delivers its service is to turn things around and think like a client and their experiences of dealing with your firm. It’s called ‘taking the client journey’.
These days, your client contact can be a mix of online, phone calls and, of course, face-to-face.
Walk into your firm, figuratively speaking, and see how your receptionist greets you. Is it warm and welcoming, or more perfunctory?
Look at how your people meet your clients Is the meeting room well set up? Are water and tea/coffee offered? Are your staff members well briefed on the matter/s before the meeting begins? Do they have all the files/resources that are needed to answer any queries? Have they anticipated possible left-field queries from your client and are they prepared with appropriate responses?
When closing up the meeting, have all parties agreed to the next steps and the timeframe? Make sure your clients are escorted to the lift or front door with a polite farewell – and a smile! Contacting your client soon afterwards to thank them for coming in, listing the next steps and timeframe is a good way to ensure no one has misunderstood an instruction or a deadline.
For email contact and voicemails, a number of firms have guidelines around the maximum response time to each – usually a half day. Although you’re not meeting face-to-face necessarily, the points above about the manner in which you look after your clients are still highly relevant to remote contact.
This behaviour may be second nature in your business, but it is surprising how many organisations miss the boat on some of these most basic of courtesies and experiences for their clients. All these points (and many more) should be an integral part of your firm’s client service and is a major component of how clients will judge your firm.
Whilst many people in business run comprehensive reminder and deadline diaries, these two words – Diaries and Deadlines – can be the downfall of a number of professionals.
In feedback programmes we have run for law firms, these two words stand out as being the most troublsome for many lawyers. Overlooking deadlines and/or not activating something on a specific day are some of the most irritating things for a client when a matter (usually not transactional) is underway.
When you welcome new staff to your firm, all of them (not just legal staff) should be introduced to the expectations around your client service culture and to understand your service protocols. This should be an integral component of your on-boarding process.
Excellent client service is key
Having a client service strategy and making sure it’s part of everyday working life of everyone in your firm will help you considerably as you tackle post-COVID-19 life. Even though business, and the way we do it, may be quite different, the basics of looking after and nurturing your clients will remain just as important, if not more so.
Your clients are, after all, not only one of your firm’s greatest assets but also your greatest advocates.
Adrienne Olsen firstname.lastname@example.org has worked with professional service firms, corporates, NGOs and many other businesses on their strategic communications and client service strategies for the last 20-plus years. She is a principal of Adroite Communications.
Going the extra mile
A couple of years ago I was working on a project with a South Island client. It had just completed a significant matter involving complex rural property transactions and ownership structure changes.
The matter was completed on time and was within the firm’s cost estimate; their client was satisfied.
I happened to be talking with that client a week after the matter was finalised. In passing, he mentioned (rather plaintively, I thought) that he was disappointed that his lawyer had not been in contact post-transaction to check that everything had gone smoothly at his end (not just the legal stuff) and all was well.
I immediately gave this feedback to the firm’s managing partner. He was astonished to hear this, but quickly realised what the firm needed to do to turn satisfied clients into delighted clients.