Making the most of your firm’s client base need not be a costly undertaking. There are several steps a firm of any size can undertake to improve client experiences, while ultimately also increasing the firm’s chances of thriving. Here’s what you can do.
Identify your best clients. Whether you define “best” by revenue, by intellectual challenge, by rapport, by target market, or other criteria, flag the clients you’d most like to keep and grow. While the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) would predict that 80% of your revenues come from the top 20% of your clients, at least one analysis showed that 13% of the firm’s client base produced 87% of its revenues. If time is limited, and it always is, it makes sense to focus on the clients at the top. In most law firms, giant oaks do not from little acorns grow. Of course, you can and should identify future star clients and include them in the “best” category. Common sense should prevail.
Draft a description of your ideal targets. The ideal target may vary by practice area, by industry group, by office, and by attorney. Once the ideal targets have been described, they should be shared with other groups and individuals in the firm. It’s easier for a partner to spot opportunities for others when she knows what to look for.
Interview your best clients. If you don’t have a formal client service review program in place, you can still reap multiple benefits by asking clients early and periodically to describe their criteria for great service and stellar results. Ask with an open mind and take care not to argue, contradict, or interrupt. Here are some examples of service-related questions to ask:
- Would you give me an example of superlative service that you have experienced or if none comes to mind, describe what ideal service would “be” for you.
- Do you have any service pet peeves?
- How do you prefer to be kept abreast of projects? In a report? In an e-mail? With a quick phone call?
- How often would you like to be briefed?
- How will we know when we need to communicate right away? Will you explicitly say so in your voice or e-mail messages?
Once you have the answers to these questions, make certain that everyone on the client’s team (the firm’s team for the client) has the information at hand (or top of mind, if codifying the information seems ill advised). Share a summarization of the answers from all clients interviewed, throughout the firm.
Conduct after-action reviews. Meet with your internal team at the end of engagements or at major inflection points during the life of the client. Note what went well and what could have improved, without assigning blame. In many cases, it will make sense for the lead or responsible attorney to meet with the client to obtain its perspective and later share that intelligence with the group.
Create an overarching client service statement of philosophy. This credo forms the basis of your promise to all clients and lets everyone within the firm know that standards that have been set.
Form client teams for the firm’s key clients. Members of several departments may serve the same client. It’s important that all team members are up to date on the client’s various matters and the current status of the relationship. Service standards should be the same across departments, in most cases. If one department responds to e-mails within two hours and another within two days, the client may feel it is being served by a group of solos as opposed to a firm. Naturally, some large clients will have many points of contact on their side of the relationship, and each of those individual representatives of the client may have different preferences. Nevertheless, some consistency of experience should predominate.
Manage expectations early and often. Consider creating a list of topics to be discussed at the outset of a new relationship in order that both parties may reasonably be expected to operate under the same set of parameters. You may wish to discuss expectations regarding outcomes at the beginning of each new matter or along the way, as circumstances warrant. You don’t want to be blindsided, and neither does your client.
Craft engagement letters that are crystal clear and explicit. When are payments due? Will interest apply to unpaid invoices? What will happen in the case of a dispute?
Draft invoices that avoid unnecessary unhappiness. If a client has said they won’t pay for the services of a first- or second-year attorney, don’t bill for their time. If the client has written guidelines for outside counsel, make sure that each member of the firm’s client team has a copy and is familiar with those guidelines. Refer to the client consistently and spell all names correctly. Invoice promptly. A general counsel once said, “I can’t remember what happened and when it transpired if you bill me six months later. I have to pull records from storage to verify when calls and conferences took place.” Your invoices should be pristine and should tell the best possible story about the firm’s work during the period in question. Shorthand expressions such as, “Call with client – .5,” or “Interoffice conference – .75,” should be banned. What was discussed on the call? Why was an internal conference required?
Make it a point to discuss the first bill a client receives with the appropriate client representative. An in-person meeting is optimal, but sometimes not practicable. For example, send a digital copy of the bill with an e-mail suggesting setting up a time to discuss the attached invoice. You want to know sooner rather than later if there is any mismatch in perception.
Cull your client base, in order to improve your firm. Jack Welch, when he ran GE, famously said that leaders should fire the bottom 10% of their workforce each year. He noted that the process forced GE to regularly improve its workforce. If you have clients who are frequently rude or perpetually dissatisfied or always slow to pay, fire them. Use the time you would have spent addressing the problems they caused to find better clients to serve.
Some recommendations, such as mapping the client experience and undertaking process improvement with rigor, are beyond the scope of this article. If you adapt the precepts above to fit your firm’s circumstances, and apply them wholeheartedly, your fortunes may rise.
Linda Hazelton, CEO of Hazelton Marketing & Management, is a Dallas-based consultant with many years of in-house experience as a Director of Administration and CMO. She works with firms to help improve their organizations and develop business that is more profitable. Linda is frequently called on to assist with improving firm rankings. Connect with her via firstname.lastname@example.org and 214-684-4264.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.
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