Are you being served? Notes from the client’s chair
Have you got a favorite café or bar? Why are you loyal to it – the convenience, the calibre of coffee, or the service? There is a high probability that the quality of customer interaction is a contributing factor to your choice. Most of us encounter and evaluate customer service every day. Poor service leaves us resentful and prone to bad-mouthing the supplier to others while a memorable customer experience generates loyalty and recommendations. Administering the law is a service, but as lawyers, do we pay more attention to the law than the service?
A report undertaken by a UK legal regulator, the Solicitors Regulation Authority painted an unflattering picture of lawyers’ services. The report took a broad-ranging look at the changing legal marketplace: how legal services are delivered, consumer perspectives and the impact of technology.
There are two stark facts within the wealth of the information: the first that 80% of lawyers consider their services are ‘above average’ but only 40% of clients agree and secondly, only one in 10 people with a legal need sought out a lawyer’s assistance.
A 50% difference between perceptions of service from suppliers and customers should not be brushed off. Even allowing for overconfidence, this statistic indicates the UK legal profession has inadequate focus on and understanding of client expectations. While the results of this report may be of limited interest to New Zealand lawyers, the underlying issue should not be. Are your clients being served? How much do you know of your clients’ expectations of your services or if they are being met?
Without knowledge of client perceptions, you are missing opportunities. An opportunity to modify your services to delight and retain clients, to create net promoters of your practice, to generate new clients via referrals and to tap into the large pool of unserved clients with a legal issue who don’t currently seek legal advice. Clients come to lawyers with a legal need but like other customers, want to receive a great service. So how do you go about it? Here are four actions for creating memorable and sustainable services.
Asking for feedback is the obvious way to establish whether the services provided are meeting clients’ expectations. It has become the norm in some restaurants for the service team to ask customers during their meal how they are finding the experience, demonstrating their interest in customers’ views and care. So why not lawyers?
There are of many ways to seek feedback. A survey of all clients provides a high-level indication of the quality of relationships and a benchmark of client perceptions. Other options include establishing client advisory board or panels which meet regularly to provide a conduit for service evaluation and improvement. If simplicity is your touchstone, seek feedback from each client during the progress of a matter. Asking for feedback from a client when a matter is in flight allows for timely, specific and meaningful feedback. This approach has two other advantages: the opportunity to adjust services, if needed, in order to align to client expectations and through meeting or exceeding expectations, an increased likelihood of invoices being paid, rather than queried.
Direct feedback can be confronting for both parties. If you’re not comfortable asking, or a client is unwilling to provide their views directly to the person providing the service, find an intermediary. This could be a colleague, a practice manager or an independent party but do it and commit to affording your clients regular opportunities to feedback. You may be pleasantly surprised. Regardless of the commentary, you will have real data on which to make more informed practice decisions and you will be actively demonstrating client care; showing you value a client’s opinions, as well as their instructions.
There’s much in legal services that is being commoditised but that should not extend to the way the service is delivered to a client. Clients have different needs and expectations so reflect that in your services. Personalising services does not need to result in costly system or process changes; start with the small things as they often deliver the most impact.
How does each client like to be communicated with: text, instant messages, email, phone calls? When can they be reached? What are their specific expectations or requirements for a new matter? Record preferences and act on them every time.
In plain English with no legalese every time. Beyond this, ask what level of detail they want. A 10-page opinion, an executive summary, a short slide deck, or five bullet points emailed to forward to other colleagues?
On matters that are likely to endure several weeks or months, how often would does the client want updates? In what form and in how much detail? It goes without saying, billing narratives are not a form of update.
Monitor work-in-progress closely against the estimate and communicate updates regularly, with explanations. Few aspects of legal services are more damaging to a client-lawyer relationship than a retrospective admission that the fee estimate has been blown. If you are embarrassed to render a bigger bill than your estimate, remember your client who has to explain or wear a budget overrun.
Make billing narratives meaningful; underline the progress made and value added to their matter. Make bills easy to pay, ideally online. For matters that run for months, bill monthly by all means but show total costs on the file against the fee estimate.
As a former in-house lawyer, I have always appreciated law firms’ willingness to share updates and thought pieces on legal developments for the benefit of clients. But those that want to excel, tailor even their knowledge-sharing. Don’t just send generic firm updates; send a relevant update with commentary highlighting the relevance to that particular client. From personal experience, that can be a powerful service differentiator.
With lawyer numbers surpassing 13,000 in 2018, the legal marketplace is increasingly crowded – so how do you stand out? To differentiate, you need to define your market positioning and your target clients – Amazon apart, no service provider can successfully be all things to all people. Then review your firm’s practices and systems with a client’s eye view. Take your shop window, ie, your website and online presence. Is it attractive to your target clients? What are the first impressions? Does it communicate clearly your approach to client care or does it focus on regulation and fees? What are the first impressions of your firm’s people and processes? If you don’t know, mystery-shop your client reception and onboarding experiences and ask your clients. Engage with your team and workshop opportunities to improve service based on client feedback.
In a popular TED talk, Knut Haanaes argues that smart businesses balance exploitation and exploration. In his view, exploitation, capitalising on what you know now in today’s market in the absence of exploring tomorrow’s opportunities leads to business failure. Legal services have grown exponentially in lawyer numbers and revenue over the last 100 years but has there been a proportionate evolution in practice and service delivery? While the legal profession has not been challenged by change in the past, the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude is no longer tenable for the future.
As with other service industries, the relentless development and democratisation of technology has started to, and will increasingly disrupt, the legal profession’s traditional business models and practices. That does not mean technology should be maligned or ignored; technology used well is an enabler of opportunity and improved services. It doesn’t (yet) replace legal expertise but already it can expedite processes, manage information and assess and automate documents. Such innovations offer opportunities to deliver enhanced efficiency, reduced costs and a richer client experience, freeing up lawyers’ time to focus on a personalised, client experience. So don’t be an ostrich, start exploring opportunities that assure your or your firm’s sustainability.
And finally, a closing remark for clients reading this. Don’t sit back and hope for the best from your lawyers. You are important influencers of change. Be clear on your expectations of lawyers. Be brave. Give honest and constructive feedback regularly, even if unprompted. And you will be served, well.
Rachel Nottingham firstname.lastname@example.org has worked in law for most of her career: in private practice, in-house and in management. She is the founder of consultancy, Voice of the Client, which improves law firm operations.
Last updated on the 8th February 2019