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Client Development

Conducting Client Interviews, Step by Step

By Linda Hazelton

The only way to find out what your clients think of you is to ask them. Follow these steps for conducting effective client interviews.

A critical aspect of any law firm’s marketing strategy is understanding how you are currently perceived by clients. Why did they choose you and why do they remain with you? What other firms are they using and why? Is the client service and value you deliver exemplary or just good enough? Where are the opportunities to develop further profitable business?

Personal interviews with your most important clients’ key decision-makers will give you this information and provide insights into your unique strengths — and more.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

When asked in interviews, clients will typically reveal their service expectations, satisfaction level and preferences — but also the direction they expect their business to take, including current and future needs. Clients can also provide information on other firms and vendors they use and their level of satisfaction with those relationships. The upshot:

  • Client interviews are essential to nurturing relationships.
  • Without client interviews, you may not know when a relationship is faltering.
  • Conventional wisdom suggests that where a problem existed but is addressed and recovered from, the relationship is stronger than if no problem had occurred.
  • Client interviews will alert you when the relationship is fine, but work is being left on the table.

In sum, what you don’t know can hurt you.

Who, What, Where and When of Client Interviews

Ideally, the interviews are conducted by a neutral third party with a specific plan tailored for each client. Clients are more likely to speak candidly to someone without a horse in the race. But when that isn’t feasible, interviews can be conducted by one of these (in order from most preferred to least):

  1. The firm’s managing partner
  2. The firm’s COO or CMO
  3. A partner other than the relationship partner
  4. The relationship partner

It can help to have two firm representatives participate — one to ask the bulk of the questions and another to make notes and ask follow-up questions. Both should avoid interrupting, arguing, contradicting, explaining, and offering excuses. The goal is to listen carefully, soliciting as much information as the client has to offer.

Client interviews are best conducted face to face, at the client’s location, or on comfortable neutral ground. If an in-person interview isn’t practical, a phone interview can work.

If there is more than one key individual to interview, try to interview them separately, one at a time, rather than in a group. You’ll learn more this way.

Conduct a client interview whenever there’s a hint of friction or displeasure, as well as at the end of the matter. When a firm handles a number of similar matters for a client, such as routine real estate closings, an annual review can suffice. In the case of protracted litigation, “after-action” reviews may be helpful at various points along the way.

Selecting the Clients to Interview

Typically, 20% of your clients provide 80% of your revenues, so pay special attention to that 20%. If you are aware of an issue with specific clients, be sure to interview them.

Also, interview any clients with significant opportunities for expansion.

Preparing for a Client Interview

Do your homework

You want to avoid being blindsided, but research need not be exhaustive or exhausting:

  • Discuss the client relationship with others at your firm, asking especially about any problems or perceived opportunities for expansion; determine which client representatives should be interviewed.
  • Review prior invoices for potential issues.
  • Ask the relationship partner to brief you on the client and then follow up with research.

Set up the client interview

Have the relationship partner send a letter to the client (or call the client) to ask them to participate and to let the client know someone will contact him or her to schedule a time to meet (if the relationship partner is not conducting the interview).

When scheduling the interview, ask the client who else should be interviewed (in case the relationship partner overlooked someone).

About 45 minutes is an optimal length for the meeting but defer to the client. If they say they can only spare 15 minutes, accommodate their schedule. Occasionally, a client will talk for quite a bit longer, so be careful not to schedule back-to-back interviews with insufficient time to make notes or to get to the next meeting.

Customize a list of questions

You may be working from a standard list of client review questions, but not all of them will be appropriate in every case. The relationship partner can design alternate questions based on the client’s actual situation or the client’s experience with the firm. Choose carefully from among the questions, and take care not to read from a script during the actual interview. Be flexible and follow conversational leads the client provides. If a topic is raised, make sure the client has said everything they wish to before moving on.

During the interview

Do your best to avoid contradicting the client or excusing any behavior that has created an issue. Listen carefully, ask probing questions, and thank the client for the feedback. Let the client know that any issues raised will be addressed.

Take notes unless the client objects. (Don’t record the conversation — that makes many people uncomfortable.) Take care to make good eye contact — don’t let note-taking distract you. Immediately after leaving the client, supplement your notes.

Relationship partners (if not conducting the interview) should be debriefed as soon as possible. They may be nervous about how the interview went.

Follow up

If a client raises an issue and you fail to follow up on it, you risk worsening the situation.

Sample Client Survey Questions

For some clients, the only question you may need to ask is: “How could our service to you improve?” Then you follow any leads they provide. For others, simply providing an opportunity to expound on that one question may not be enough. You may have to ask a series of questions to draw these clients out. The following questions should be custom‑tailored to the individual client and situation. You are not likely to ask any client all of these questions.

Setting the stage: 

“My goal for today’s meeting is to make certain we understand your criteria for great service and make certain we’re on track to meet those criteria.”

Opener: 

“Do you recall how you happened to choose (firm or partner name) as your law firm (lawyer)?”

Potential questions:

  • “When you choose a lawyer, what are you looking for?”
  • “How can a lawyer add particular value to you and your company? How would you define the ‘value’ you want to get from outside counsel?”
  • “Are there certain things that do or do not work well for you in terms of practices and behaviors of your lawyers?”
  • “How could our service improve? What would you like us to do differently? From your experience, what do we do best (how do we serve you best)?”

Client interviews wrap-up:

  • “We’d like to stay abreast of new developments important to you and your industry. If you send us information you’d like us to review in order to educate ourselves further, we’ll be glad to do so without charge to you. What sources do you use to stay informed?”
  • “Overall, have we met your expectations?”
  • “What concerns or issues haven’t we addressed today? What should we have asked that we have not?”
  • “How could this interview process improve?”

These questions should be sufficient to learn whether the client is delighted with your service, results and people — or not. Remember, you must address and attempt to cure any issues raised during the interview. Not necessarily on the spot, but soon after. Actually discussing a problem and then failing to address it is the worst possible outcome.

When you are done, thank the client for their willingness to spend their important time talking with you and for their frankness. Don’t forget to follow up with a handwritten personal note.

Congratulations!

By conducting a client service review, you will have distinguished yourself in the client’s mind. Now … reap the benefits.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Linda Hazelton Linda Hazelton

Linda Hazelton is the founder of Hazelton Marketing & Management, a Dallas-based consultancy offering communication and strategy, organization and business development, and profitability counsel to law firms. Linda has more than 20 years of experience at the helm of law firms. She has an MBA from the University of Minnesota and is a CAPT-qualified Myers-Briggs trainer and coach. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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