It’s so comfortable to tell yourself all your clients want is for you to efficiently complete the matter, give them the bill and get out of the way. Comfortable for you, but not quite true. That’s just what clients ask for. It’s like those yellow sticky notes: No one knew they wanted them until they had them. Similarly, by doing things they didn’t know they wanted you to do, you can surprise your clients with how much they truly like and value you. And once surprised, clients are way more likely to tell others how great you are.
Five Big Surprises
While there are many ways to surprise and delight your clients, here are five things you can do with very little effort.
1. Go calling. You may think you know what your client’s day-to-day life is like. After all, this isn’t your first time at the lawyer-client rodeo, right? But all it takes is one spontaneous drop-in visit to realize that your cloistered law office is like Alpha Centaurus when compared to the world your clients inhabit every day. First, you’ll find it invaluable to your ability to help solve their legal problems once you really understand what their enterprise looks, feels and sounds like. Second, who ever heard of a lawyer who makes house calls? Imagine their surprise! And delight. (Oh yeah, don’t bill for your time.)
2. Pay a genuine compliment. I’m not talking about the false, exaggerated or gratuitous kind of compliment. Make it genuine. Clients grow so accustomed to lawyers finding fault with everything (that is, after all, what they pay you to do) that when you do offer praise, it feels particularly remarkable. “You seem to have a surprising grasp of the legal principles at work here” can send a young businesswoman out of your office several inches taller. “You always know the best restaurants for lunch” may seem meager praise, but it immediately grants respect and acknowledges familiarity. Who doesn’t like that?
3. See the big picture. Yes, the client came to you with another crappy little wrongful termination suit. It didn’t take much to handle because you’ve done it for him dozens of times. This time, talk to him about how to prevent it from happening again. Develop policy. Suggest supervisor training. (Heck, offer to teach the supervisors yourself.) Show your client that you feel it’s your job to help him succeed, not to just clean up messes.
4. Under-promise and over-deliver. When somebody asks exactly when you plan to show up, do you do that thing where you don’t want the person to get irritated so you say, “I’m leaving in five minutes”? Even though you know it’s going to take at least 30 minutes to finish the document … and that you have to send off a bunch of emails before you can leave? What happens? You not only arrive an hour later than you promised, but you prove yourself an unreliable witness. This is a really easy and well-intentioned way to destroy someone’s trust in you. Why not do it in reverse? Promise you’ll have the documents ready by Friday, but call Wednesday to schedule time Thursday morning for the client to come in and sign. Surprise!
5. Say thank you often. That client doesn’t have to choose you. There are plenty of other lawyers out there. So don’t get confused about who is doing who a favor. Say thank you when she returns your call promptly. Say thank you when you are referred to someone she knows, and when you are paid, and when you are complimented … even when she thanks you. “No. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to work with you.”
BONUS: Ask how you did. When it’s all over, that’s when you want feedback. And don’t get all balled up in thinking that since your client isn’t a lawyer he isn’t really a good judge of your performance. (Read what Roy Ginsburg says about the one thing clients can judge quite accurately.) Because it doesn’t matter whether the feedback is an “accurate” assessment, it will be the truth about what your client thinks. And what he thinks, rightly or wrongly, is what will make him come back again … or not. And boy, will he be surprised when you ask!
Merrilyn Astin Tarlton has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is Partner/Catalyst at Attorney at Work, a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on Twitter @astintarlton.