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Business Development

Client Service: Make It More than a Buzzword

By Bob Denney

Many firms talk about the importance of cross-selling—or cross-marketing, if you prefer—their clients. The problem is that you must serve the client before you can cross-market to the client. Too many firms fail to realize this and then wonder why their cross-marketing efforts fail. The place to start in business development with clients is with client service.

Start Here to Build a Client Service Program

Here’s a brief list of some of the more important points to keep in mind when developing and implementing a successful client service program.

  • “Satisfactory” or “good” isn’t good enough. Your goal must be outstanding client service. Most clients can’t evaluate the quality of legal work—the level of service is often the only factor that distinguishes your firm from another.
  • Client service begins with the intake. Listen to the prospective client. Make them define their expectations, then match those expectations with reality. Discuss how the fee will be structured, costs and billing procedures. Introduce the client to your staff—your assistant and any other timekeepers who may work on the matter.
  • Keep the client informed. There’s an old lawyers’ adage that translates to the digital world: “Shower the client with paper.” Send copies of correspondence, briefs, other documents. Discuss strategy with the client. Tell the client what they must do—they won’t know unless you tell them. And don’t wait until the last minute. Remember that people often need time to act or make a decision.
  • Anticipate the client’s needs and questions. Tell them what will happen. Also advise them what might happen. Clients don’t like surprises.
  • Meet court-imposed deadlines. Beat client imposed ones.
  • Be responsive. Return phone calls and answer emails and letters promptly.
  • Be courteous and patient. Clients sometimes ask questions the lawyer thinks are dumb, or ask the same question repeatedly.  Take a deep breath and answer.
  • Use a team approach. Half the time when a client calls, they don’t need to talk to you. Your assistant, a paralegal or another lawyer working on the matter can help them. To make this work, you have to train and trust your team, which is why you should introduce them to the client at the intake. Keep your assistant informed. When clients call and ask for you, encourage him or her to ask if they can help them—particularly if you can’t take the call. This makes the client happy and saves you time.
  • Bill regularly. Clients much prefer that. It helps them plan their cash flow. Regardless of how the fee is structured, most clients also prefer descriptive bills so they can see what has been done for them. Send a cover letter or an email with every bill. If you haven’t talked to the client recently, give a status report. A wise lawyer once said to me, “I bill promptly, while the glow of appreciation still shines in the client’s eyes.”
  • Startling idea. Go visit the client, particularly when you don’t have to.
  • Learn everything you can about the client’s business or profession. If the client is a company or organization, get to know other key people, too, and keep abreast of any changes.
  • Let the client know when you send the final bill. In addition to saying that in the cover letter or transmittal email, also state it on the bill. As Peggy Lee sang many years ago, “That’s all there is.” Thank the client for selecting you, too.
  • Ask for feedback during the matter and at the conclusion. Many clients won’t tell you when they have a complaint unless you ask them, but they will tell others—and sometimes even your competition. Also ask how you can serve them better.
  • Follow up or keep in touch. Put the client in your database or on your mailing list if you haven’t already done so—which you should have done at the intake. Contact the client occasionally to find out how they are doing.

This list is by no means complete. But it’s a starter. If you are going to provide outstanding client service, it must be a top priority program, not just a buzzword. Yes, all of this takes time and effort. But considering the alternatives—clients you can’t cross-market or, even worse, lost clients—it’s worth it.

Bob Denney is President of Robert Denney Associates, Inc. He says “it seems like forever” that he has been providing counsel on management and growth strategy to firms throughout the United States and parts of Canada. Read his annual “What’s Hot and What’s Not in the Legal Profession” here.

Illustration © ImageZoo.

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Categories: Client Service, Daily Dispatch
Originally published February 7, 2012
Last updated January 15, 2018
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Bob Denney Bob Denney

For 45 years, Bob Denney provided services to over 400 U.S. law firms and legal organizations as well as serving as an outside director and interim CEO for public and privately held companies. At Robert Denney and Associates, Bob provided management, leadership, strategic planning and business development services and was a respected speaker and author.  His articles appeared in many legal publications, but he is best known for producing highly regarded reports on What’s Hot and What’s Not in the Legal Profession. Bob passed away in 2021 at the age of 89.

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