When it comes right down to it, client service is the quality many clients use to distinguish one law firm from another.
If your firm offers outstanding service, clients are likely to use you again – and to refer you to others. If your firm offers mediocre or poor service, clients are less likely to use you again or refer you to others – especially when there are so many options available. Research shows that unhappy clients will rarely complain, but they will look elsewhere.
In today’s competitive marketplace, client choice is about more than legal expertise. Clients just assume that you will provide a good product—that each of the contracts prepared by ten different law firms will be an equally valid legal document.
The level of service offered by each of these ten law firms, however, will provide clients with a vastly different law firm/client experience.
The smallest factors can make a big difference—how quickly a phone call is returned, how often the client is updated on the progress of a matter, or how carefully bills are formatted to match the client’s expressed preferences. It does not take much of a bad experience to motivate an unhappy client to look for an alternative.
Client Service Standards
To keep their clients happy and to differentiate themselves from the competition, an increasing number of market-savvy law firms are creating, implementing and marketing formal client service standards. Early Canadian adapters include Cassels Brock (www.casselsbrock.com), Stewart McKelvey (www.smss.com) and Borden Ladner Gervais (www.blgcanada.com).
Some U.S. law firms actually use client service as their brand in the marketplace.
“When I was marketing partner at Coffield Ungaretti & Harris, we chose client service as our differentiator,” says consultant Ross Fishman. “We offered the legal industry’s first ‘Written Service Guarantee’ – and marketed the heck out of it. We were able to generate enormous attention. This message helped grow the firm’s revenue by more than 50 percent in the first year – in an otherwise flat economy.”
Working with the Chicago-based labor and employment firm Laner Muchin, Fishman focused on the message of “responsiveness.” “Lack of responsiveness is among the biggest complaints clients express about law firms,” says Fishman.
“As I interviewed the partners, a recurring theme emerged –‘We return client phone calls within two hours,’ says Fishman. “It was a deeply embedded part of the firm’s culture, instilled by a founder and passed along to each new associate. Bingo. That was different. The firm’s message became ‘Two hours. Period.’”
Laner Muchin issued a unique challenge and used advertising to push the challenge to non-client prospects. “Call your current lawyer and leave a message to return your call. Wait an hour or two (to give your lawyer a decent head start), then call one of our lawyers and leave the same message. See who calls you back first. We’re betting it’ll be us. If it’s not, we’ll buy you lunch and donate $100 to your favorite charity.”
“I’ve been working with Laner Muchin for more than five years,” says Fishman, “and they’ve been invited to and won some major national new-business competitions directly as a result of this client service campaign.”
Client service standards are common practice among the business clients of law firms; these clients have come to expect the same level of service from their lawyers. Well-known companies that have successfully differentiated themselves on the basis of customer service standards include The Walt Disney Company, Neiman Marcus and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.
“My favorite part of the award-winning Ritz-Carlton program is the assumption that, if a guest has a problem – no matter how small – the person presented with the guest’s problem is expected to drop everything else and resolve the problem right then and there,” says consultant Peter Darling (www.peterdarling.com).
“No delays, no excuses, nothing more important than the guest’s problem,” says Darling. “Given that a night at a Ritz-Carlton Hotel generates about as much revenue as just two hours of a lawyer’s billable time, shouldn’t law firms take client service just as seriously as Ritz-Carlton does?”
Client satisfaction among the general counsel of large and Fortune 1000 companies fell by nearly 15 percent between 2004 and 2005, according to ongoing longitudinal research conducted by BTI consulting group (www.bticonsulting.com). BTI works with a number of law firm clients in Canada. The firm does not disclose its client list.
In addition, BTI has documented a huge disconnect in perception between law firms and law-firm clients. Most law firms believe that they are doing a pretty good job at delivering client service. Most law-firm clients disagree.
“When asked to grade their law firm’s efforts at client service, more than 60 per cent of chief marketing officers ranked their firms as above average,” says BTI’s Marcie Borgal Shunk.
“In stark contrast, a mere 31.3 per cent of general counsel says that their primary law firm offered client service that was above average,” says Shunk.
This disconnect is also documented by the 17th Annual Survey of General Counsel conducted by Inside Counsel magazine. In this study, 52 per cent of law firms gave themselves an “A” on their client relationship; only 25 per cent of law-firm clients gave the relationship an “A”.
“We have seen nothing more harmful to a law firm than an unwillingness or inability to tailor its service offerings to better meet the needs and demands of their clients,” says Shunk. “Clients see a law firm’s failure to comply with even simple requests as a blatant disregard of their needs and wishes.”
Frustrated general counsel are reacting by demoting and replacing their primary law firms, and spreading the wealth among a larger network of secondary firms. More than half of the clients interviewed by BTI had done so in the past 18 months.
“Just two years ago, clients allocated more than 50 per cent of their budgets for outside counsel on two, maybe three, primary law firms,” says Shunk. “Now, this has dropped to just 30 per cent. The rest of the budget now goes to second-tier providers.
“Two years ago, there were just eight firms in a client’s second tier of providers,” says Shunk. “One year ago, there were 11 firms. Today, there are 15 firms. Many of these firms are talented and hungry—and all too eager to displace primary firms that have grown complacent about providing excellent client service.”
BTI’s research also shows a compelling relationship between a law firm’s superior client service and its financial performance—when client service standards are expressed in a formal policy and implemented in a serious fashion.
“There is no better way to increase revenues, capture premium rates and boost profits-per-attorney than to make superior client service a way of life at your law firm,” says Shunk.
BTI studied 160 ways in which law firms can interact with clients and came up with 12 that were most predictive of financial success at a law firm. Firms using these 12 tactics post a growth in revenue and profits that is 2.64 times the rate of firms who do not.
At the same time, a program to adopt client service standards should not be driven solely by financial reasons. “The motive must be what’s best for the client,” says Charles Green of Trusted Adviser Associates in an article posted at www.trustedadviser.com. He refers to client focus that is driven merely by financial goals as the ‘focus of a vulture.’
“The good news is that the field is wide open for firms that are willing to actually practice what everyone else only preaches,” says Green. “These firms truly serve the client and believe that this will ultimately return more than the self-serving, narrowly calculating strategies of the ‘vulture’ can ever hope to accomplish.”
Here are four key steps to implementing client service standard policy for your firm:
1. Create a Client Service Credo
The first step in the creation of law firm client service standards is the establishment of a general statement or “credo” that sets the level of service your firm aspires to. This is the statement that most often appears on a law firm’s Web site.
“These must be more than aspirational platitudes,” says Fishman. “If a law firm is not committed to spending the time and money it takes for implementation of a real client service program – don’t even bother. Words alone are meaningless.”
This process should start with the client. “A few years ago, we participated in a number of third-party client satisfaction surveys,” says Stephen Mabey, chief operating officer at Stewart McKelvey, a 225-lawyer firm with six offices serving Atlantic Canada.
“One recurring complaint was the perception that law firms talk about providing superior client service, but provide no evidence of client service,” says Mabey. “As a result, we developed a formal client service initiative – Service First – that we launched in 2006.
“I recommend starting this process by talking to your clients – in round tables or focus groups,” says Mabey. “Ask them about your current level of client service. Ask them about their ideal level of client service. Ask them what your firm can do to bridge this gap. If you ask, however, you must be truly prepared to change.
“Take this information – including actual client quotes – to the committee charged with creating your credo. This committee should include staff as well as lawyers,” says Mabey, “because staff members are on the front line of client service.”
2. Draft Client Service Standards
The second step in the creation of law firm client service standards is translating the credo into written protocols that guide every interaction a law firm has with a client. Whereas a firm’s credo is often published, its standards are usually kept internal.
Because they often address specific problems, client service standards are not always things a firm wants to share with the outside world. The best standards include a number of examples to illustrate each standard and how it can be put into action. Often, these examples come from real life.
“A client service standard can range from the mundane to the sophisticated,” says Shunk. “It can be something as simple as a pledge to return all phone messages within a defined time – usually between two and 24 hours. It can be something as strategic as a pledge to visit on-site with each of a firm’s top clients once each year, or a pledge to introduce each client to two additional firm partners.”
One such standard, for example, might be “If we see an unfamiliar person walking alone in the hallway, we will introduce ourselves, ask if the person needs help, and then personally accompany the person to his or her destination – be it conference room, mail room, coat closet, coffee machine, copy machine or printer, or restroom.”
Client service standards like returning phone messages and offering a greeting in the hallways can apply to every person at a law firm. Each administrative and legal group at the firm should supplement these general standards with others that specifically apply to the group’s job, area of practice or client preference.
Specific but differing client service standards will apply to secretaries, paralegals, food service, accounting, tech support, human resources and business development – all of whom interact with clients. Those who work within these areas will have the best ideas for their own standards within the context of the firm overall client service credo.
Practice or industry or client team standards will vary depending on the nature of the work – deals versus disputes – and the expectations within the client’s industry. A group that provides legal services to high-tech clients, for example, will want to provide the kinds of 24/7 availability and quick turnaround times that the high-tech industry provides to its own clients. Those in estate planning might have less urgent deadlines.
3. Adopt the Credo and Standards Internally
Once a firm’s credo and standards are adopted, they must be presented to all staff and lawyers and made part of the firm’s culture. Individuals must be trained in the practical application in everyday scenarios of the credo and client service standards.
This will not happen unless the initiative has visible support at the firm’s highest levels. Everyone must know that the firm is serious about service delivery. Firm management must “walk the talk” of client service in every interaction inside and outside the firm.
The program can be launched using the firm’s internal communications tools, as well as training sessions for individual groups. The initiative’s logo can be featured on objects like mugs, mouse pads and posters. Success stories can be noted and publicized throughout the firm. Client service standards should be a major focus of the firm’s annual retreats.
An ombudsman should be named to oversee the firm’s client service standards – one person with whom both staff and lawyers are comfortable addressing their concerns.
“Our staff members who are uncomfortable confronting individual attorneys about client service issues are encouraged go to the managing partner of their office,” says Mabey. “The managing partner can then deal with the issue through the annual evaluation process – shielding the staff member from any direct involvement.”
4. Publicize the Credo and Standards Externally
In the final step in the client service standards process, the client service credo and standards are used externally for marketing and business development purposes – to satisfy and retain current clients and to appeal to potential clients.
In phase one, your firm met with clients to discover what they want and expect to receive from your law firm in the area of client services. Let these clients know that you took their feedback seriously and have incorporated it into the way you do business.
Feature your credo prominently in external communications – print, electronic and face-to-face meetings. It should be included in a firm’s newsletters and proposals, mailed along with its bills, posted on its Web site, and discussed – including a discussion of specific preferences – each time firm representatives meet with a client or potential client.
Encourage feedback on service concerns; give clients the name of a person to contact with these concerns.
“If you are dissatisfied with our services, or if you feel we have failed to meet any of these commitments, we ask that you call the service lawyer on your matter, the alternate service lawyer, the local practice manager or managing partner to discuss your concern,” states Stewart McKelvey. “We will honestly and fairly address your concerns.”
“A client let us know about a problem that had motivated him to start moving his business to another firm,” says Mabey. “He had seen our ‘Service First’ statements, and wanted to know if we took this claim seriously. Changes were made, the client was convinced of the ‘realness’ of our service standards, and the work was kept.”
Ongoing – Continuously Improve Your Credo and Standards
The creation and implementation of a client service credo and standards is not a one-time project that can be announced and then forgotten. Client needs and client industries are in a constant state of change. As a result, law firm client service efforts must constantly change in order to keep pace.
“Client service standards are not carved in stone,” says Mabey. “They are living, breathing documents.”
Client service efforts always begin with a benchmark survey of client satisfaction – to know where you are starting from and how you need to improve. Surveys must continue on a regular basis, with feedback used to continuously improve your credo and standards.
Some firms work the survey process into their standards, surveying at the start, at the first bill and at the conclusion of each engagement. Large clients are surveyed annually.
“In 2007, I will conduct many of these surveys myself,” says Mark Young of Cassels Brock. “Nothing lets our clients know how seriously we are taking our client service initiative than an off-the-clock visit from the firm’s managing partner.”
Survey results are shared internally – via communications and meetings – and used to continuously update and refine staff and attorney client service standards. They are used to update and refine the firm’s external communications on the subject of client service.
“A successful client service program must be continuously sold and re-sold – internally and externally,” says Mabey. “Our program is new, but it is starting to gain steam. At a firm fundraising event for charity, I was humorously hit in the face with a pie as the thrower called out, ‘Service First.’ So the message must be getting out.”
Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer and ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers, law firms and other professional services providers – helping establish these clients as thought leaders within a targeted market through publication of articles and books for print and rich content for the Internet. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or firstname.lastname@example.org.