Transforming Relationships, Exceeding Client Expectations

Transforming Relationships, Exceeding Client Expectations

Hans Muessig

Think for a moment about your clients: What do they value of your services? Are you meeting their expectations; are they satisfied? Do your billable hours provide a business advantage for them? Are they engaging the full range of your services?

A previous article in this series speaks to the issue of client satisfaction. Many law firms, Jeff Wolf said, believe they are meeting their clients’ expectations, while the clients feel otherwise. (Jeff’s article is "Client Satisfaction and Creating Relationships".) He goes on to quote a recent survey that found "Seventy percent of clients tell us that a law firm other than their own delivers better client service."

The current economic situation only magnifies the challenge of maintaining client satisfaction and loyalty. What worked two years ago won’t work now. Clients can easily switch firms and will shop for lower fees unless you provide them exceptional value.

How do you make sure you are meeting (exceeding) your client’s expectations? You may be doing a great job, but how to you make sure your client is satisfied with your services and that you have their loyalty and complete book of business?

Client Expectations and How to Exceed Them

Most clients are interested in more than competent and responsive legal services, but their priorities are very clear: until they are satisfied with the basics they will be reluctant to send additional business your way. Nor will they respond favorably to additional services and a more complex relationship. Indeed, poor service may lead them to take their business elsewhere.

When a client’s day-to-day needs are satisfied, they will look for (and pay for) engagement and insights that enhance their business. Clients, as Jeff notes, "want a lawyer whose interest in my business includes a drive to see it prosper, improve, and grow." Most clients expect a business partner, not someone who simply takes care of their legal business.

How do you transform your client relationships from transactional, legal service arrangements to that of a partner and trusted advisor; one where insights and knowledge of your client’s business position you as an expert who can truly help them be more successful?

Jeff’s article offers suggestions to start the transformation: Ask lots of questions and listen to the answers. Begin a dialogue about the client’s business, its challenges and goals, and what they want from you. The more you learn about your client the more you ask them: "Where do you want to be in ten years? What challenges or conflicts will impact your progress?" Taking time to understand your client’s business will uncover additional opportunities to proactively provide services and you will gain their trust as their advisor. (And along the way you can make sure you are meeting their expectations for competent and responsive services.)

Creating and building lasting relationships is your best way to get new clients and keep old ones. This means you must do some relationship and business development work that is not directly billable. And that is how you change the game; how you get to know the client better, build client loyalty, and differentiate yourself from your competition. By enhancing the value you provide to your client you’ll see an increase in their satisfaction, and be able to develop to a solid book of future business.

Shared Expectations

One of the most effective ways to change the game is a process called Shared Expectations. In less than a day a Shared Expectations session will transform a relationship more quickly and thoroughly than any alternative, and demonstrate a level of commitment to your client that is unmatched.

In a nutshell, a Shared Expectations session enables two parties – you and your client – to take the time to:

  1. discuss your expectations of one another; identify where those expectations are being met or not;
  2. recognize a common set of priorities; and,
  3. act on those priorities by collaboratively developing a concrete plan to transform the relationship and move forward.

An experienced, neutral facilitator guides you through the structured process and takes the notes. The process is similar in many ways to mediation. And like mediation, Shared Expectations is successful because the parties are in control of the outcome, will work toward a resolution based on their common interests and goals, and have an investment in following through on the agreement.

But Shared Expectations is different in that it more often focuses on the "hows" of the relationship: how is the relationship working and how it is not, where do you both want to go with the relationship, and how do you get there together? It is an opportunity to step back from day-to-day business and invest in the future by listening to the client, and then collaboratively defining a process to address their future business needs (which becomes your business development plan). At the end of the day both you and your clients have the same goal: a mutually-beneficial relationship. A session is the fastest way to achieve this because you will know exactly what your client’s priorities are and how they expect you to meet them!

When I coach teams ahead of a Shared Expectations session I’ll tell them they will learn many new things about one another. Both parties will give a candid assessment of the relationship as it stands. Here are three typical client assessments: "You do a great job but there’s lots you are missing." Or: "Law firms are all alike; I need someone who can help me with my business." And finally: "I’m not happy with your services and am reluctant to give you more business."

The Shared Expectations process is flexible and can easily address a wide variety of issues. The format and length of a session allow for productive, open discussion and effective, mutual resolution of expectations. The process also accommodates relationships at different stages. A session is appropriate whether the relationship is brand new, challenged because of client satisfaction issues, or plateaued and waiting to move to the next, more strategic, level.

  • In a new relationship a session will allow you and your client to determine how to work together effectively on day-to-day requirements, to define the engagement process as you learn their business, and to agree on how you will proactively identify the need for future services.        
  • For the "challenged" relationship the first order is to deal with the satisfaction issues. A session provides a safe, neutral place to discuss all the issues, prioritize them, and then collaboratively build an action plan to resolve them to everyone’s satisfaction.        
  • For plateaued relationships a session provides a forum to explore a client’s strategic goals and objectives and how you can act as a trusted advisor. The outcome is a plan for ongoing discussions of solutions and services you can provide that support the client’s goals and objectives.

There are also some common themes that get worked through in every session. These include roles and responsibilities, processes, communication, a common definition of success and how to measure it, and a framework for ongoing business planning. Clarity around these issues is essential to a successful, profitable, and vital relationship.

I enjoy working with teams and doing these sessions. It is exciting to watch a team take full control of their relationship and collaboratively chart a path to mutual success. Clients are often the most surprised and pleased with the outcome of their session. They will frequently say something like "I wish we’d done this six months ago. We need to do it again in six months to make sure we are on the right track! Thank you."

The BENEFITS The immediate outcome of a session is a stronger, more open, collaborative relationship. The facilitator’s notes – your action plan – from the day become the "roadmap" for how you and your client will change the game. As you both work the action plan you will be able to take more control of the relationship – with the client’s concurrence – and effectively manage client perceptions. You will be able to consistently demonstrate your commitment to their business and ensure their satisfaction. And with more effective strategic planning (business development) you will confirm your role as a trusted advisor and build a solid book of future business. Said one client: "this is the single most powerful tool you offer to change the direction of a relationship."

The lasting benefits of a session are substantial. What is in it for you:

  • Strengthened client relationships achieved because you know what the client expects and how to meet their expectations;
  • Clients will perceive you as focused and responsive to their business and therefore are more satisfied in the services and advice you provide.
  • Your business development work will be more productive.
  • Finally, your client will get exactly what they want: a competent and responsive advisor who clearly understands their business goals and priorities and proactively supports them.

It is a WIN-WIN!

Take the next step: Take control of your client relationships in a way you've never done before and enjoy the success and accolades of your clients! Contact us with questions or to discuss one or more potential sessions. Follow this link to learn more about Shared Expectations.



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