I’ve been a CEO and I’ve hired and fired many a law firm in my time. In almost every case, my main reason for ending the relationship was the distant -- even cold -- attitude of those law firms. Their sole interest was to provide legal services. They were satisfied to follow the daily routine of their legal work without learning anything about our company. They sure didn’t offer us the superior client satisfaction that our own company’s employees provided our clients.
Now that I’m training attorneys, I see first-hand that the absence of client satisfaction has become the demoralizing norm in the legal profession. Bluntly, client dissatisfaction is the rule, not the exception. A recent BTI Consulting Group survey found: “Seventy per cent of clients tell us that a law firm other than their own delivers better client service.” The survey also found that “clients plan to cut law firms by another 40%”.
As I write this article, I am reminded of a conversation I had this week with a potential client. She said that all her firm’s attorneys provide “exceptional” client satisfaction. Therefore, her law firm was not in need of our services. I confess that for years I’ve taught my daughter to question authority. At this moment, I had to take my own advice. I countered: “When was the last time one of your lawyers called a client for a meeting in the client’s office to learn more about their business? And did they do it without charging the client?” After a moment of silence, she confessed, “I can’t think of a time.”
Here’s the problem. As a client, I want to deal with a vendor (and yes, like it or not, you are a vendor) who cares about me. I want a vendor -- make that an attorney-- who cares about my business and with whom I can develop a relationship. I want a lawyer whose interest in my business includes a desire to see it prosper, improve and grow.
I have been on both sides of the table and, believe me, clients are tired of hearing about how many lawsuits you have won, how many offices you have around the country and how many lawyers from prestigious Ivy League schools you have in the firm. Behind their poker face, that client could be thinking, “Half the lawyers graduated in the bottom half of their classes.”
What a client wants from their law firm is a relationship with a trusted advisor. And that advisor earns trust in one way -- proving concern for, insight in and knowledge of the client’s business. The client is in a daily struggle. Ruthless competitors circle like vultures. Pirates pluck at vital intellectual property. Employees threaten to go postal. And IRS auditors won’t understand a client’s business any more than you do. Slide into your clients’ pinching shoes and feel their pain. Then figure out how to help find solutions to ease that pain. Every client or potential client tunes in the same inter-cranial radio station every day – WIFM -- What’s in it for me?
I once heard a professional say: “What you do with your billable time determines your current income, but what you do with your nonbillable time determines your future.” This holds true for law firms today. Your own competitors are after the same clients. Creating and building lasting relationships are your best way to get new clients and keep old ones. Hundreds of law firms have great lawyers. But be aware, contrary to what you may think, in the eyes of your client, one law firm is much like another and all lawyers are suspect. Clients have no way to compare the quality of work done by one law firm or another. Clients can compare the attention, concern and interest they get.
The Perception of Lawyers
In hundreds of social situations I’ve heard the inevitable ice-breaker question, “What do you do?” I’ve seen the instant disconnect when the answer is, “I’m an attorney.” There’s a pause, a frozen moment in time. Conversation sputters. Maybe someone makes a lawyer joke – usually not very funny. Perception is reality for most people. People don’t perceive lawyers as empathetic, caring or concerned about much else except billable hours. And yes, some of my best friends and even relatives are attorneys. You should see the reactions when I say this at training seminars and workshops for attorneys.
But let’s face it, you learned, through hard work and perhaps, trial (get it?) and error, to practice law. Nobody taught courses on caring about your client’s feelings. From the very beginning of law school, the operating premise for advocates (the French for lawyer is “avocat” which is also French for avocado) was to be confrontational and argumentative in order to win for your client. At your firm, you learned from day one that you must bill 1800 or more hours per year -- leaving no time for anything else. That may make it seem that as long as you’re billing, you’re satisfying your client’s needs. Wrong.
There is an avalanche of training going on in the legal arena – from the associate level to the managing partners. The legal industry is finally realizing that the landscape has changed. To be a lawyer today means not only practicing law, but also understanding business development. And that’s something foreign to most lawyers.
With all that being said, how do you, the hardworking attorney, acquire new clients as well as developing and maintaining the client satisfaction necessary to keep today’s clients?
Simple. Don’t sell. Repeat, don’t sell. DON’T SELL.
Here’s what you do. First, start asking your current clients questions about the services you are providing to them. If you haven’t done it by now, get to know them better. Begin developing a personal relationship. Yes, a personal relationship. Start with a double-barreled question like this: What are we doing well and what can we do better? Then toss in: How can we make it easier for you to do business with our firm? Add: How important is ___ to you? What is going on in your business that we should be thinking about? Are you getting from me the personal attention that you need and want?
Show interest in what they do and how they do it and how they got where they are. Get out of your office and set up an appointment to see them on their turf. And be enthusiastic about doing it. A client can spot a set-up every time. After all, they’re in the business of selling what they do, so they can spot a phony a mile away. Talk to them about their lives, their families, their interests and yes, maybe even take them to lunch or dinner – at your own expense.
Don’t pussyfoot. Ask dynamic, powerful questions to learn as much about their business as you can. Try: What are the challenges/crises/conflicts facing you in growing your business? What are your strategies and tactics? Where do you want to be in 5 or 10 years? What trends are coming down the road that may impact the way you do business? Is the light at the end of the tunnel an oncoming train?
Ask: What are your competitors doing that you wish you could do? How do your customers perceive you in the marketplace? What are your greatest strengths – and weaknesses? Explain: We want to be responsive to your needs -- what does responsive mean to you? This question is very powerful because it puts you and your client on the same page. What responsive means to them may be totally different to what it means to you and the firm.
Asking powerful questions positions you as an expert. It says to the client, this lawyer does care about me and my business. It begins a relationship that may not have existed before. It can change the perception (the reality) and the thinking of the current or potential client about you and your firm. It says, “I’m the kind of lawyer who wants to help solve your problems.”
Take the time to stop and really listen. Practice active listening. This means being focused on that moment and listening without rehearsing or planning what you want to say next. Lubricate the conversation to show you are actively listening by interjecting, “yes” and “aha” and “that’s right” and even “hmm.” Paraphrase what the person has said. That way you’re making certain you understood as your client intended. And don’t interrupt. Let the client finish every thought and sentence, every rumination and equivocation.
If you take the time and effort to develop true relationships, the rain will come and you’ll soon be a rainmaker in your firm. You’ll also reap rewards and satisfaction from helping today’s and tomorrow’s clients. Relationships are difficult and take time and effort to develop. And remember what I said earlier? “What you do with your billable time determines your current income, but what you do with your nonbillable time determines your future.”
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