The Loyalty Equation
By Edward Poll
Engaged clients stick around; disengaged clients fly the coop. Here’s how to build loyalty.
In any setting, loyalty is built through communication, commitment and satisfying a need. And it is certainly how lawyers and law firms build loyalty with their clients. The fundamental truth of the legal profession is that lawyers should not just practice law, they must serve clients and earn their loyalty. If clients do not believe that a lawyer is committed to serving their best interests, they'll take their business elsewhere.
Loyalty is built through more than mere competence. The very first Rule of Professional Conduct (1.1) asserts that "a lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client." But competence is actually a pretty low benchmark. Clients see lawyers as competent, and on a skill level typically can't tell the difference among lawyers. But what clients do understand and appreciate is a lawyer's loyalty, as shown by concrete actions.
Years ago I was involved with the State Bar of California's campaign to raise the image of lawyers. The State Bar conducted focus groups. I expected those interviewed to have a negative view of the lawyers who represented clients against them. However, the focus groups, to a man and to a woman, said that it was THEIR lawyer (not the opposing lawyer) who created a negative perception. Poor service, failure to return phone calls, inaccurate arithmetic on the billing statements ... and on and on and on.
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 don't communicate with their clients to learn what clients want, how they want to receive it, and what the clients' future needs will be. Client satisfaction and client communication are synonymous.
Show your clients how highly you value them by how much you communicate and interact with them, and they will respond with their loyalty. 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. This can’t be repeated often enough. Unreturned calls remain the single most frequently registered complaint against lawyers with bar associations across the U.S.
- 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.
- Send clients copies of all relevant documents about them that come into the office, or provide status reports on a regular basis. Demonstrating your work is the best way to ensure that relations are harmonious, and that you get paid.
- Make your clients feel like part of the team. Seek out their opinions, ask them what they want to accomplish and explain the reasons behind your advice.
- Show your clients that you’re doing your job by sending them copies of documents, by writing, or calling them. Keep them informed and tell them what’s happening at every step.
- Be complete in your billing statements. Use action verbs to describe your services. Clearly indicate the specifics of what was accomplished. This gives clients an appreciation of the effort expended and the successes achieved on their behalf.
- 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.
- 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.
Service is the best message
Reinforce communication by practical steps that build client loyalty. One way to do this is to establish what marketers call a unique selling position. Be different. Offer something that your competitors don't or can't. Create something new that your clients need or want.
If you can't think of what makes you unique, you're really nothing more than a commodity to your clients. A unique selling position is a key strategy in establishing higher rates. It can be approached in a variety of ways.
If you handle estate planning, for example, you could add financial planning as a service, either as part of the fee package or for a designated added fee. Sometimes, showing that you provide better-than-excellent service is all you need to establish a unique position - for example, calls consistently returned within two hours, or final client documents nicely packaged in an attractive folder.
You can also show that you are cutting edge. An effective Knowledge Management program is a good example. Electronic Knowledge Management through a shared database makes information available faster and more completely to clients and others in the firm. The result is greater efficiency, better communication and faster turnaround that reinforce client perceptions that you care.
Clients may send out an RFP that signals they are looking for their current firm to do something to justify continuing the relationship. A firm that has established its unique selling position can take a step such as "productizing" a certain service - that is, providing a tangible product that preserves the intangible, value-added services it wants to continue offering.
An example might be a blog that that combines observations on breaking legal or regulatory issues with specialized content and research - with the option of asking specific questions outside of the regular fee. It might also involve the lawyer suggesting ways to manage an IP portfolio more effectively, or offering to submit electronic invoices that itemize and detail services provided.
It might even involve the client suggesting ways to pare back discovery costs in litigation by agreeing to a reduced number of depositions. Any of these strategies creates a way of providing legal services that are unique for a special client. And that builds loyalty.
Loyalty is a lifetime achievement
The bottom line is that loyalty is the product of performance. Performance is a factor of many different things: communication, understanding and focusing on the corporate client's business objectives, use of technology, and specialized knowledge. It defines a true collaborative partnership that goes both ways and benefits both sides.
Edward Poll (email@example.com) is a certified management consultant and coach in Los Angeles who coaches attorneys and law firms on how to deliver their services more profitably. He is the author of Attorney and Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law: Planning and Operating for Survival and Growth, 2nd ed. (ABA, 2002), Collecting Your Fee: Getting Paid from Intake to Invoice (ABA, 2003) and, most recently, Selling Your Law Practice: The Profitable Exit Strategy (LawBiz, 2005).