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“I’m tired of hearing about ‘improving the client experience.’ People come to me because I do excellent work. They don’t care if I’m nice.”
Might sound familiar, but it’s only half right.
Your clients expect you to do your job correctly — you’ll hear about it if you don’t. Provided your legal work meets their expectations, it’s the overall experience you provide that they’ll remember more. That’s what will bring them back, and move them to send their friends to you.
Don’t believe it? Think about how you choose between similar services. If two restaurants have great food at comparable prices, do you return to the one with slow, rude service, or the one where you felt taken care of? When choosing between two skilled doctors, do you pick the office that runs late and then rushes you through your appointment, or the one where you’re seen promptly and the doctors and staff really listen to you?
When you make your clients’ experience better, they’ll not only be more positive about you and your legal work while it’s going on, they’ll be more likely to say good things about you when the work is done.
Your client’s experience improves when you hit three targets: demonstrate your competence, show respect for your client, and remove as much uncertainty as possible from the process so they feel less anxious (remember, anxious people are cranky people).
Here’s the trick, though: You can’t just tell your client that you’re competent, respectful and predictable — you have to show it. To start, focus on three aspects of the client experience:
The first contact. During business hours, your phone should be answered by a helpful, friendly human being. People tolerate automated systems, but when they’re unsure of what they need, they almost always prefer talking to a real person. Train this real person to ask the right questions so the caller gets to the right person on the first try. Nothing communicates incompetence and disrespect (and gins up anxiety) like being bounced around in search of someone who knows what she’s doing. Designate a backup attorney or staff member to whom particularly difficult calls can be directed.
For electronic inquiries, the process is similar. It should go without saying, but if you allow people to send email to a general office inbox, designate someone to check for inquiries and route those emails to the correct person at least a couple of times a day. Responding to emails within 24 hours shows your competence as well as respect for the person who contacted you.
The appointment. Making your own appointments or having a staff member handle your calendar is a matter of personal preference. Whether it’s you or your assistant scheduling the meeting, make sure you have adequate time to handle the problem the client wants to discuss, with little risk that you’ll need to reschedule, be late or cut the meeting short. Also, schedule enough time beforehand to prepare for the appointment, and enough time afterward to complete follow-up work.
The details. In addition to setting the appointment time, get your client’s contact information, including mailing address, telephone number and email address. Find out whether she prefers lower-tech (mail, phone) or higher-tech (email or text) communications from you. If she prefers phone calls, ask if it’s okay to leave messages at her number.
Be clear about whether a fee will be charged for an initial consultation. The only experience some people have with lawyers are the “Free initial consultation!” TV ads. Make sure, though, that staff do not discuss fees beyond the initial consultation fee.
Find out if your client needs directions to your office. If so, mail or email a map, with driving instructions and public transit options. Tell the client where she can park and if she’ll need to pay to park – unexpected parking fees or parking tickets are downers for everyone.
Confirm the appointment a day or two before it happens, using the contact information you got when you set the appointment. It saves your time if the client can’t make it, and it lets the client know you value her.
Plan ahead to put your client at ease in your office. If you wing it, odds are you’ll look disorganized, which does nothing to increase your client’s confidence in you. Create a plan by asking yourself some simple questions: Who will your client see, what will those people do, and where will your client be, physically, while she’s in your office? Then, create a script to follow — for yourself and anyone else your client will see when she’s there.
First contact. A friendly, helpful person should greet your client as soon as she walks through the door. It doesn’t matter if it’s a receptionist, another staff member or you — whoever it is needs to make your client comfortable and explain what happens next.
Comfort. Take her coat. Offer her something to drink — you don’t have to run a coffee shop, but do have two or three options available. And make the options decent — if her only choices are water or burned coffee from the pot you made six hours ago, “Can I get you a glass of water?” is just fine. Show her where the bathrooms are.
Where she’ll wait. If your office setup permits, keep your client’s time in a public waiting area to a minimum. If she’s coming to you with an uncomfortable problem, waiting in full view of other people can make her feel exposed, even if no one else knows exactly why she’s there. Giving her a private waiting space, like your conference room, shows you respect her privacy.
People. Will a staff member meet with her first, or will you? Again, this depends on your office and your personal preference, but she needs to be told who she’ll see next. Make sure she’s introduced personally to all the people she’ll work with regularly before she leaves. Putting faces to names helps your client and your staff work well with each other.
Time. Be. On. Time. If you are running late and must break this cardinal rule, tell your client how long you’ll be — and overestimate. If you’re running 10 minutes late, tell her you’re 15 minutes behind — it will give you a cushion, and she’ll be pleasantly surprised when you show up sooner than she anticipated. But seriously, be on time.
The meeting. Your meeting should communicate to the client that she has your undivided attention while she’s there. It’s easier to maintain focus in a conference room than it is in your work space, so set up a conference room (even if it’s small) for meetings if at all possible. Have notepads and pens available for your client, as well as a box of tissues.
If your work space must double as your conference room, pay special attention to how the room is set up. Have a clean, uncluttered meeting space in the room. Sit down in that space, and make sure no identifying information for other clients is visible — file or box labels, random papers, computer screens. This protects your other clients’ privacy, and assures your client you’ll protect hers as well.
Regardless of where you meet, avoid interruptions. If you’re expecting a call that can’t wait, however, tell the client up-front that you might have to duck out for a few minutes. If the meeting must end at a particular time, tell her that, too. People are usually forgiving of a tight schedule, but hate being surprised by it.
At the end of the meeting, cover the next steps with your client. What communication will she have from you next? If you need to meet again, set your appointment right then, or be clear on who calls whom. If you set an appointment, give her your card and write the appointment date and time on the back.
Communicating with your client as the matter moves forward gives you many opportunities to demonstrate your competence, respect and predictability, but only if you create a plan and stick to it. Consider your practice and your life outside your practice, set your boundaries accordingly, and then communicate those boundaries clearly to your client before she leaves the office.
While 24/7 availability may be popular, it’s not necessary if your practice isn’t prone to emergencies. Decide what hours and days she can call or email you, and tell her the maximum time she’ll have to wait for a response.
“I answer my calls, texts and emails between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays. If you need to leave a message for me, or if you send a text or email, I’ll get back to you within 12 hours. You can contact me outside that time if it’s an emergency.”
Explain “emergency” — something that may not be fixable unless she talks to you immediately. Anything that involves (or could involve) the police is an emergency. Being unhappy with language in the first draft of a tentative agreement is not.
You’ll have other opportunities to create a positive experience for your client, but even if you focus only on these three areas, you’ll avoid most of the problems that contribute to clients’ negative attitudes about dealing with lawyers.
Remember what Maya Angelou (really) said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Mary Taylor Lokensgard is a recovering attorney with over 15 years of experience in private practice, including plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, estate planning and administration, and elder law. She’s now working for herself as an independent writer, and tweets sporadically @marylokensgard.
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