Oregon State Bar Bulletin MAY 2014
Managing Your Practice
Treating Clients Well:
Happy Clients Are Your Best Marketing Tool
By Beverly Michaelis
In today’s legal economy, developing business and marketing to prospective clients is the centerpiece of nearly every lawyer’s existence. Whether you are a sole practitioner, an associate or a seasoned partner, you will most likely need or be expected to cultivate and grow your own clientele.
Some firms lean heavily on web design and search engine optimization to attract prospects. Others rely on referrals. Both approaches are effective, but incomplete. The next step is to deliver top-notch client service, starting with understanding and meeting client needs.
Treat Clients Well to Succeed
Happy clients are your best marketing tool to develop and grow your practice. In fact, ABA studies indicate that 54 percent of a lawyer’s business comes from referrals by satisfied clients. How can you keep clients happy? Use what can be thought of as the “TREAT” approach: be Timely and Responsive, show Empathy, give Assurance and deliver great Tangibles. These are important lessons for any lawyer, but particularly relevant for those just starting to develop their practices.
Be timely and responsive. Make every possible effort to respond to phone calls, emails and requests in a timely and responsive manner — within one to two business days or as outlined in your client engagement materials. If you see a delay developing and think that you won’t be able to respond as promised, inform the client — yourself or through staff — when you will get back to the client. Keep deadline dates on your radar screen. If a deadline can’t be met, call the client and negotiate a new date. Clients are far more understanding than we give them credit for, provided we keep them informed.
Show empathy. Treat all clients with empathy and practice good listening skills. Often the most important client need you can meet is the need to be heard and understood. Keeping the human touch makes a big difference.
For tips on cultivating good communication skills, see Shari R. Gregory, “Effective Communication,” In Sight (June 2003) available on the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program website, www.oaap.org.
Give assurance. Assurance is defined as certainty, confidence and freedom from self-doubt. By giving assurance, you inspire client confidence in yourself and your firm. You may think that giving assurance is outside your control, but it isn’t. If you are confident in mind and manner, clients will be too.
Deliver on the tangibles. Tangibles are the visible product of a law practice: letters, emails, pleadings, billing statements and other documents that clients can see and touch. You may be surprised to learn that of all the elements of client service, tangibles actually matter the least to clients. Client surveys consistently rate timeliness, responsiveness, empathy and assurance as more important. Even so, tangibles do matter and they reflect our professionalism or lack thereof. Always take pride in producing quality work that is accurate and error-free.
Specific Tips for Exceptional Client Service
Start before the client comes to your office. Delivering top-notch client service begins before the client crosses your threshold. Start by reminding clients of appointments. Services like Demandforce (www.demandforce.com) and PromptAppointment (www.promptappointment.com) automate this process using phone, text and email messages. Reminders reduce no-shows and are also appreciated by clients.
If you use intake forms or questionnaires, save time — yours and the client’s — by providing forms to clients before their appointment.
Maintain a professional-looking office. Your meeting space should be presentable, clean and free of unrelated confidential client material. Meeting with a client in a cluttered office sends all the wrong signals — you seem to be too busy to handle their case; or you are a sloppy lawyer; or you are careless about confidentiality. Your meeting space and reception area should be calm and serene.
Greet clients. There is no real substitute for the human touch — a live person who warmly greets your clients; offers water, coffee or tea; and sees to their needs. Such service, however, comes at a cost. In an effort to save money, many lawyers use a “faux receptionist.” A reception desk is present but unstaffed. Often a bell sits on the desk allowing visitors to summon someone to the front office. Speaking from personal experience, this setup is often a dismal failure.
If you can afford a receptionist (someone who could also provide secretarial and perhaps even paralegal support), please hire one! If not, and you are expecting a client, stay alert for the client’s arrival. If you rely on a bell, verify that you can hear it throughout the office. Don’t leave clients to wander through your suite, or to resort to sending you an email from the lobby, announcing they are here to see you. If you must use the “faux receptionist” approach, make sure that it works.
Practice common courtesies. Hold doors open for clients and walk them out. Be especially considerate of any clients who may need additional assistance.
Address new clients by their surname. If the client prefers that you use his or her first name, the client will usually let you know.
For clients who have difficulty reading fine print, prepare documents using a larger font size.
Do everything in your power to avoid keeping clients waiting. Allow ample time between appointments and keep an eye on the clock. If you are delayed, let the client know, offer to reschedule and then consider how you can make amends beyond an apology. It may be a small gesture, like validating parking. If the situation warrants a bigger gesture, consider writing off time on the client’s next bill and enclosing a personal note.
Keep client comfort in mind. When was the last time you sat in the visitor chairs in your reception area? Or the meeting chairs in your office? Are any of the chairs too low? Too high? Difficult to get out of? If so, it may be time for a change.
Think about other needs your clients might have. For example, if you are a family law practitioner and your clients often bring small children to appointments, keep coloring books, crayons or similar materials on hand. For clients who are especially distressed, it may be appropriate to make a follow-up call after your appointment. Ask how the client is doing and whether he or she has any further questions or concerns. You may be surprised by what you hear.
Honor client preferences. Instead of dictating the communication method, ask the client what he or she prefers. Some will want paper; others will prefer email or access to documents online through a client portal.
If you intend to make documents available online, conduct a tutorial. Demonstrating your portal is far better than sending an email with lengthy instructions and a link. Impress prospects by setting up a temporary password before the initial consultation. Show the prospect — as though he or she were already a retained client — how to log on, view, download and print documents. This extra effort will help make a good first impression.
Provide clients with a welcome letter, your business card and information about the operation of your practice (hours, telephone availability, how to schedule appointments, billing practices) via the client’s chosen method of communication. You can see sample operational and billing brochures on the PLF website, www.osbplf.org. If you provide these items in paper form, place them in a folder and use the opportunity to explain to the client his or her responsibility to retain documents.
Ask corporate or business clients about invoicing methods. Every company handles payables differently. By conforming to your client’s process, you will avoid aggravating accounting staff and may be paid more quickly.
Use “secret shoppers.” Many businesses hire “secret shoppers” to discreetly evaluate the quality of customer service. You can use this same technique. Ask friends or family who are unknown to your staff to call your office or drop in for a visit, and then ask for feedback. You will quickly learn how staff treats callers and guests. If your secret shopper drops by in person, ask for his or her impression of your office. If the feedback is positive: wonderful! If not, consider a staff training session on client relations or take other appropriate corrective steps. Follow up your secret shopper efforts by sending out client surveys once your work is concluded. The PLF has sample client surveys, as well as a list of client relations do’s and don’ts online at www.osbplf.org.
If nothing else, remember this: treat clients as you would prefer to be treated. Courtesy, care and consideration go a long way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author is a practice management adviser with the Professional Liability Fund. She blogs at http://oregonlawpractice management.com and can be contacted at (503) 639-6911 or (800) 452-6139 (toll-free in Oregon); http://www.osbplf.org.