Exceeding Client Expectations

August 2000

by Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC

(Adapted from "Secrets of the Business of Law®: Successful Practices for Increasing Your Profits". Available from our Secure Store and http://www.amazon.com)

With more lawyers than ever battling each other — and now other professionals -- for business in our robust economy, just doing a good job seems no longer good enough. "What have you done for me lately" is an old saw that's heard more and more as clients consider their expanding legal options. Maybe it's time to go beyond the normal, to break out and exceed your clients' expectations to grab or hold on to their business.

If some of this seems a little basic, don't let that fool you. As famed basketball coach John Wooden used to say, it's the execution of basic skills, not fancy dunks, that wins ball games.


    Law is a business, and all successful businesses understand that they exist to serve customers. But clients believe that lawyers have forgotten who they serve and why they are there. "It's the customer, stupid." What's needed is a mental shift to a customer- or client-oriented attitude. Accountants have already figured this out, which is why they're taking away legal work at an alarming rate.

    So how does a lawyer become more customer-oriented? A proven way is simply by asking clients what they want. One lawyer I know sends out a one-page evaluation form with the client's first bill, usually 30 days after the engagement letter is signed. And he asks right then: "How are we doing?" Now, there may not be much substantive progress in the matter at this initial stage, but asking for early feedback accomplishes a couple of things. First, it shows you care, and second, it gives you time at the very beginning of the relationship to make shifts in your strategies and performance. (And not incidentally, a positive evaluation in your file might even help deflect any future malpractice claims or disciplinary actions. It can't hurt.)

    You can also provide a customer survey or evaluation form after you conclude your representation. It doesn't have to be long and complicated. Usually, the best forms are one- or two-page questionnaires. And, if you have difficulty creating one, many State Bar associations offer such forms. For example, the State Bar of California sells a client survey and companion computer disk created by a marketing consultant.


    These two go hand in hand since, by definition, if you communicate with your clients, you will reduce potential irritation and stress. Clients appreciate communication; the more, the better. In fact, failure to return phone calls or to respond to letters or faxes is the number-one complaint against attorneys received by state bar associations across the country. So return those phone calls!

    And don't use the "I'm too busy" excuse. One attorney colleague receives more than 125 calls a day. He's developed a system where his receptionist routes the calls according to last name initial to three different paralegals. He discovered that more than 75 percent of all telephone calls from clients were process-oriented:

    • What's happening?
    • When's the deposition?
    • What should I wear?
    • What's the next step?

    These weren't substantive legal questions, and if he could get these questions answered immediately by someone, the client would be satisfied and would go away happy. For the 25 percent of the calls that require his attention, paralegals set up telephone appointments so he can talk directly to the clients at a more convenient time.

    The same prescription goes for written communication. Even if there's nothing much to say, send something to the client. One good idea is a regular evaluation or status report. This is a one-page form that indicates the current status of the case or matter. It can have boxes to be checked and lines or blank spaces for brief handwritten or typed comments. It can be easily reproduced by copying, by making a template in your word-processing program and laser-printing it as needed, or by reproducing it at an instant printer as a personalized business form. (Contact the author if you want a sample.) Status reports can take as little as two minutes to fill out and send off. Doing it on a regular basis lets you communicate directly with the client in an efficient yet meaningful way. Each month, it is a reminder for the client of who you are, that you've looked at their file and thought about their case or matter, and that you are doing what needs to be done to reach the client's objectives. The client rests more easily knowing that you are on top of things.


    It's important to make sure that your clients feel you care about and respect them. Appropriate gifts and hospital visits are just the starting point to interacting with clients in a way that bonds them to you.

    I learned an important lesson about caring and respect several years ago when I called up an attorney colleague across the country. We had never met and had only spoken by phone once or twice before. The receptionist told me he wasn't in and asked if she could take a message. I agreed and started to spell my name. "Oh, that's all right Mr. Poll. I know who you are." I was surprised since I had never spoken to her before. But I was also impressed and very pleased; I felt important. When I mentioned this to the attorney later, he said that every staff member has a sheet of paper in front of them with the names of all people who are important or likely to call. The list has the correct spelling and pronunciation of difficult names, contact numbers, etc.

    Realize that your office operations, like a good cycling team, are a team effort, and that clients want to know they have a solid team working for them. Personally introduce your staff, and make it clear that they, you — and the client — are all on the same team. A team whose goal is to successfully reach the objective of the client.

    Make your office and the ways of reaching you more friendly and welcoming. First impressions are sometimes lasting ones. For example, voice mail can be a valuable tool, but not when the client feels trapped by it. Make sure that a receptionist or secretary — a real person — answers the phone personally. If you're available, take the call. If you're not, have the same person give the caller the option of leaving a voice mail message or a message with the operator. Clients feel more respected and empowered by dealing with human beings rather than machines.

    And don't keep people waiting for an appointment. It shows a lack of respect and implies inefficiency and lack of organization on your part. If you can't even be on time for a simple appointment, how are you going to handle more complex and important issues?


    As every lawyer knows, you can't guarantee the outcome of a legal matter. But you can — and should — guarantee the satisfaction of your clients with the process of dealing with you. Although it's still almost unheard of, more and more attorneys are exceeding client expectations by saying: "We guarantee that you will be happy dealing with us as lawyers in the process of pursuing your objective. We do not guarantee results; but we guarantee your satisfaction." You can even amaze your clients — and your colleagues — more by adding: "And if you're not satisfied, we will give you your money back."

    The theory, of course, is that you are removing any doubt in the customer's mind by telling them that you KNOW your service will be valuable to them. And you're backing it up with an offer they can't refuse.

    Now if you think that this is a large-firm phenomenon, think again. I know a sole practitioner in Dayton, Ohio, who provides exactly the same guarantee. He says his business has gone up by more than 30 percent in just a few months of making his public aware of his satisfaction-guaranteed offer.


    "Adding value" is a management term that's been popular in the business world for some time, and lawyers are finally catching on too. Creating more value in the minds of clients differentiates your service from others in your profession. If another lawyer provides X, you provide X + Y.

    Bill Gates says (in Business at the Speed of Thought) that customer service is a primary value-added function in every business. Customer service is exactly that: serving the customer. If that means hand-delivering a package of documents, do it. If that means adding financial planning as a service to your estate planning or family law practice, do it. If that means offering a training seminar to keep your business clients out of trouble when dealing with their staff, do it! You may even have to raise your rates if there is a substantial increase in the added service provided, but since legal work is not that price sensitive, that shouldn't be a problem.


All potential and current buyers of your service go through a mental exercise routine that basically ends up with the question: "Am I getting enough value for the time and money I'm investing in this attorney, or should I look elsewhere?" Exceed their expectations, provide the value, and they will stick with you!

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August 2000