How is your practice going? Ask your clients

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Published on 7/6/09

Not enough law firms ask their clients, "How are we doing?"

As a result, many lawyers unfortunately never figure out that their client is unhappy. If they do not hear from a client after completing a matter, they just think that the client has no additional legal work. They do not realize that the client was so unhappy that, although they did not complain, they will not return.

In a 2008 column, I wrote that sending simple, regular status reports can do much to communicate with clients and show what you are doing for them. Status reports can reveal problems that arise when the client does not understand what you have accomplished and refuses to pay the bill when it comes due.

I offered to share such a form to those readers who e-mailed me, and the response was significant. However, this did not truly indicate a desire for full communication because status reports only convey information from the lawyer to the client. Far more important to maintaining the lawyer-client relationship is finding out what clients think.

For years, the main tool for doing this has been one that many lawyers dread: a written client survey form. Most lawyers are reluctant to ask the questions. They are afraid of the answers. But what better result could you get than to be told there is something that you can correct and thereby strengthen the relationship when you do? The client feels appreciated and heard and recognizes that you care enough to ask and to make a change.

Too often, marketing gurus suggest that written surveys be sent in the mail after a matter or litigation is concluded. I suggest that this is the wrong time. No matter what you learn from the responses (and typically there are few responses, not even a statistically valid amount), it is after the fact; you will not be able to salvage that client relationship if there is real dissatisfaction. A far better strategy is to send a short survey with the first billing. If there is anything wrong, it is best to know at the beginning of the relationship, when you have time to correct any deficiency.

In larger firms, experience suggests that it is very beneficial for the managing partner to periodically visit the top 10 clients of the firm. Even when I was in industry, the fact that I, as a CEO, cared enough to visit a customer had a dramatic impact on our relationship and the buyer's/customer's goodwill toward us.

Such a visit does not have to be an elaborate production. Simply meet clients 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 is better to know before there is an unpaid bill.

If clients do not believe that a firm is serving their best interests, they will take their business elsewhere. That is particularly true in today's recession/depression. Proactive communication with a client can prevent the dreaded "cut your fee, or I'm gone" message that far too many firms receive.

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