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 not only their service expectations, satisfaction level and preferences but also the direction their business is expected to take, including current and future needs for legal advice and solutions. 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):
- The firm’s managing partner
- The firm’s COO or CMO
- A partner other than the relationship partner
- 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 percent of your clients provide 80 percent of your revenues, so pay special attention to that 20 percent. 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. (The internet holds a wealth of meaty information.)
Set it up. 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.
Watch for a list of sample client survey questions in part two of this post.