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The Friday Five

How to Make Clients Happy: 5 Simple Workplace Tips for Young Lawyers

By Joan Feldman

Life is complicated, but your relationships with your clients don’t have to be. Following these simple tips will help make clients happy to work with you.

If you want to keep a business client happy, don’t waste their time — and try not to make working with you a chore. Here are five tips for communicating with clients, based on decades as a small business owner.

1. Keep It Simple (Really, Really Simple)

Like most small business owners, my attention span is short. As much as I value our relationship, I’m not as fascinated by the inner workings of your back office or new tech as you are. And, despite some people’s best efforts, most small business transactions are not that complicated.

One of our favorite vendors has changed their billing system three times in the past seven years — each change accompanied by a lengthy memo explaining the process and its reasoning. I couldn’t tell you what the memos said. I don’t care. Absorbing that information could harm my brain. So, like most clients, instead of wasting my time learning my vendor’s system, I am going to use my own. When I get your invoice, I’ll pay it within the time stated on the invoice. You probably won’t mind. Simple!

Of course, it is critical that your firm has systems and that you document them and communicate them clearly — otherwise, chaos. But as a small law firm or solo, try not to overthink or over-explain them to your clients. Please keep it simple!

Another vendor wants to use Trello to track our progress, while another wants me to log in to a proprietary portal. I don’t want to be unreasonable or obstinate; I’m willing to learn. Still, I have that famously brief attention span. So, while I may nod and smile during our meetings, I don’t care about your project management system. As the client, you are in charge of making my life easier — keeping me informed and making sure I deliver on my end so that you can do your job. I’ll need polite reminders — sometimes a little cajoling and handholding, too. Your app of choice doesn’t matter all that much to me. I’ll do my best, but we all know you’re going to end up emailing me.

You may find this behavior ridiculous and unreasonable. (Why won’t clients follow instructions?) But, despite your bulletproof systems, the point is that not all clients will fall in line. Especially if you make it too complicated.

Once you’ve agreed to work together, keep your engagement letters brief and explanations of your processes even briefer. If more explanation is necessary for ethics purposes or to cover yourself, write the details in a separate document for me, or store it on your website and provide a link.

Of course, the lawyer-client relationship doesn’t center on billing processes or project management. The keep-it-simple mantra also applies to advising clients and helping them figure out their options. Be clear in your language and writing, especially when it gets complicated. Don’t overwhelm them with details and expect them to remember everything as the matter continues. Repeat. Remind. (And be kind.)

2. Respect Communications Preferences

Most articles on client service say you must always ask clients how they prefer to communicate: Email? Text? Phone? Fax? USPS? That’s good advice, but it isn’t that useful without context. As a client, my “preference” is that we communicate regularly — meaning you return my calls, texts and emails — and you tell me precisely where we stand, what I should do and when.

So please, explain what clients should expect from you and how you usually communicate. Then ask the client what they prefer. Are they comfortable using DocuSign? Dropbox? Is it OK to call during certain hours?

“Jake, I’m going to send you an email with a secure link to that contract in three days. The link will take you to a portal where you’ll sign the contract electronically in three places. Be sure to call my assistant or me and we can walk you through it if you wish. You’ll have 24 hours to turn it around.”)

Respecting clients’ communication preferences is table stakes for client service. Yet many service providers fill portals and apps with documents clients never read and wonder why things go wrong.

3. Get Your Names Straight

You’ve just ended a call with a new client and want to send a copy of your notes or a short proposal. It’s natural to want to name the document written for Mr. Smith “Smith.” But consider how many documents labeled “Smith” are sitting in Mr. Smith’s files. Without some other identifier, your document — especially if you share it via Dropbox or Google Docs — will get lost in a long list of “Smith” docs. Your firm likely has naming conventions for official documents. If not, here’s a tip: When naming documents, include your name first, followed by the client’s name. For example:

“[Your Law Firm Name] – [Client Name] – Meeting Notes – [Date].”

This may seem petty. Most people don’t spend time obsessing over the way documents are named — until they can’t find them and waste time searching for them. And then they curse the arrogant fool who thought it was a good idea to send a document labeled “Smith” to a company named “Smith.”

In all things, even document names, you make clients happy when you make it easy to work with you.

4. Have a Good Subject Line

You know those one-word email subject lines like “Hey” or “Check-in” or “Feedback”? Even your close friends hate that.

Vague email subject lines are the bane of busy people. Don’t require clients to guess why you are emailing them. Be specific. Ask your question in the subject line. Then repeat it in the body of the message. Preferably on the first line, with a clear ask and a deadline if appropriate.

Of course, you want to be polite and professional — always start with a salutation that includes the recipient’s name (Hello, Smith”). But you can save the pleasantries for the end of the message.

Remember the pyramid method: Important information on top, pleasant but non-critical stuff at the bottom.

5. Just Be Honest

You likely want to be the kind of person who shows up — the lawyer, team member or boss who can be trusted to always uphold their obligations and meet their deadlines.

Good luck with that.

If you’re human, you are going to fail. You’re going to forget things. But you can keep the failures from catastrophic levels by being honest.

When starting out, you will underestimate how long it will take to get things done — to write a proposal, research a case, format a brief, or fill out a UPS form. You may be overwhelmed by other work, or maybe you’re still learning how to manage your time. (“I’ll work late all week and through the weekend!”)

You may procrastinate because you are afraid to start. You may be stuck because you don’t know where to start.

Your first impulse may be to stall until you can figure it out, but stalling will only make things worse. Excuses and obfuscations are not the best way to build a relationship as a trusted advisor — and your clients are not fooled. From the client’s perspective, we’d rather know the truth so that we can manage expectations and our own clients’ or investors’ demands. The truth we can work with.

If you are in a firm, admit you’re in trouble and ask for help. If you are solo, tell your client you need more time — deadlines can often be stretched. Then, find another lawyer to help you. Or, outsource other work so you can make this matter a priority.

Admitting you need help may sound counterintuitive — and terrifying. After all, you are supposed to know all the answers. But consider the anxiety your client is feeling. When you put your client first instead of your ego, it’s much easier to ask for help.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Joan Feldman Joan Feldman

Joan Feldman is Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of Attorney at Work, publishing “one really good idea every day” since 2011. She has created and steered myriad leading practice management and trade publications, including the ABA’s Law Practice magazine where she served as managing editor for a dozen years. Joan is a Fellow and Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her @JoanHFeldman.

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