Can we talk? Don't wonder about your clients' concerns - ask!

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Published on 5/1/06

Consumer Reports recently published a study that listed the top 10 cars. None of them were made by companies traditionally thought of as "American automakers," the companies that built and for decades dominated the largest automotive market in the world.

I remember when Nissan (then Datsun) and the other Japanese companies first entered our market. They asked us as drivers what kind of car we wanted. We told them. They listened and began to include the features we wanted.

American car companies, on the other hand, got fat and sassy, no longer listened to the public, no longer made cars with quality, and no longer cared about their legacy and long-term reputation. The Japanese did.

How does this apply to law firms? The answer, I believe, is simple: You must provide a quality service and work product to the benefit of your clients. As a lawyer, you don't practice law, you serve clients. Without clients there is no reason to be a lawyer.

Surveys show that the two biggest reasons for client dissatisfaction are unhappiness with law firms' service performance (not the same as legal advice), and failure to keep pace with clients' changing needs. Such law firms generally fail to communicate with their clients to learn what clients want, how they want to receive it, and where the clients will be in the next one to five years.

One fundamental principle defines your future as a lawyer: Show your clients how highly you value them by how much you interact with them. Take a customer-service approach to dealing with clients, just like your favorite shops or restaurants (businesses ultimately not much different from law firms) take with you. Even the simplest steps to accomplish this can pay big dividends:

  • Return phone calls the same day, either yourself or through a staff member. Yes, we've emphasized this before, but it remains the single most frequently registered complaint against lawyers with bar associations across the country.

  • Make sure your staff members know the names of your clients. Give everyone the client list so that they never have to ask the spelling of a name when taking a message or appointment.

  • Communicate regularly with your clients. Don't wait for them to come to you. Send them copies of all relevant documents about them that come into the office and provide status reports on a regular basis. Demonstrating your work is the best way to ensure getting paid.

  • Make your clients feel like part of the team. Seek out their opinions, ask them what they want to accomplish, explain the reasons behind your advice.

  • Visit clients at their home or business. You'll get a better understanding of what is important to them, and they'll develop greater trust in you. Don't charge for the visit - but be sure it shows up on your next statement as a "no charge" item.

  • Solicit client feedback. This doesn't require an elaborate questionnaire; simply meet them over coffee and ask, "How am I doing? Should I be doing something differently? Is there an issue that concerns you? Does my staff treat you courteously?" Given this opportunity, clients will provide you with honest answers. And if there's a problem, it's better to know now than when there's an unpaid bill or a disciplinary charge against you.

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