How to irritate a client
Here’s the latest in National’s continuing series of cautionary lists — from not returning phone calls to not caring about their affairs, here are nine actions to avoid if you want satisfied, loyal clients who stay for the long run.
By Michelle Mann
Remember that client you once had? The really promising one who gave you interesting work, or the small business that looked like it was going places? Ever wonder why you never heard from them after you wrapped up that first task, or why they suddenly stopped calling? The answer might be found right here.
Most lawyers don’t realize when, and how, they have offended, upset or annoyed a client. Clients, like the rest of us, dislike confrontations and direct complaints, so if they’ve been unhappy with a lawyer’s service, they might express that unhappiness simply by not returning. The lawyer, who hears only silence, never learns what went wrong.
National has previously brought you lists of how to irritate a judge, and (for in-house counsel) how to irritate a CEO. This issue, we cast the net wider, to examine the numerous ways in which lawyers can irritate a client — so much so, that the client may simply give up on the relationship.
We interviewed both lawyers and clients to find out all the little things that can hurt a relationship, and how to give clients what they often want but will rarely come out and demand.
1. Communicate poorly.
Our interviewees couldn’t say it often enough: good communication is the foundation of good lawyering. In fact, almost every client complaint can be traced back to a breakdown in lawyer-client communication. Dan Pinnington, Director of PracticePRO in Toronto, says that more than half of all claims against lawyers are related to client communication.
"Once you include things like basic practice management issues, it’s about 75%," he adds. "Only about 6% of claims involve substantive legal issues, such as failure to apply the law." When mistakes happen, it’s invariably because lawyers didn’t listen properly or didn’t get their message across. Lawyers must ensure the client understands the situation and the available options; letters of engagement are invaluable in this respect.
At the same time, you can’t go too far the other way. Janis Byrne, in-house counsel with the Penney Group of Companies in St. John’s, says clients can suffer from lawyer over-communication. In the corporate context, that means disorganization and conflicts, as too many lawyers send too many messages. "An outside counsel team should co-ordinate between its lawyers and select one point of contact within the firm," Byrne says.
2. Neglect instructions.
Worth a closer look is the most common reason for a malpractice claim, says Pinnington: failure to follow a client’s instructions. In the end, this boils down to a credibility issue between the lawyer and client, and lawyers don’t always emerge from those contests successfully. Be proactive, he advises, by ensuring that the file backs you up with detailed communications on the steps you’ve taken and the advice you’ve offered.
The flip side of this coin is when lawyers unilaterally add to the client’s instructions. Gilles Lemieux, in-house counsel with Haemacure Corp. in Montreal, warns that delegating work to other lawyers without the client’s knowledge or consent can be a major irritant. If you want to carry out tasks or research beyond what’s normally required in the circumstances, confirm it with the client first.
And while clients can be demanding, don’t simply do whatever the client is asking, says Byrne. Instead, provide feedback concerning the work to be done, the timing and the cost, especially if any of these three appear fraught with difficulties. "Don’t be a ‘Yes’ person," she says. "Be realistic. Make sure your bases are covered and that responsibilities are defined."
3. Be unpleasant.
Many lawyers (and their staff) don’t think much about the manner in which they deal with clients; accordingly, they often don’t realize when they’re being abrupt, aloof, nosy or even flat-out rude. "It doesn’t cost anything to be nice and courteous to people," says Judy Payne, counsel with the B.C. Pension Corporation in Victoria and British Columbia Co-Chair of the CBA’s Public Sector Lawyers’ Conference.
"The whole purpose of the law office environment is to make clients feel comfortable and welcome," she points out. "Clients are turned off by rude staff, by being ignored, or by staff members [who are] overly chatty about their business," she adds. Accordingly, train your staff to communicate well. "It has a direct impact on firm business and contributes to whether clients will want to do business with you," says Payne.
4. Surprise the client.
Despite popular opinion, not everyone likes surprises, least of all clients. Pinnington says surprises come in many different forms, and clients hate them all: higher-than-bargained-for fees, unexpected disbursements, unanticipated outcomes on an important matter. Many lawyers, fearing the client’s reaction to a worst-case scenario, will avoid discussing the possibility of bad news altogether. This rarely has a happy ending.
Pinnington stresses the importance of managing client expectations, making clients aware of possible outcomes, and above all, keeping it realistic. "Be extra careful with instructions from a difficult client," he adds. "Explain timing, costs, and possible outcomes, thereby reducing the chance of a surprise they won’t like." Byrne agrees: "Be realistic — be brutally honest, both from a cost perspective and on the issues."
5. Go AWOL.
"Hello, I’m not at my desk right now, but if you’ll leave a message, I’ll call you back." What is the only thing more annoying to clients than having to leave a message on your voice mail? It’s when you don’t return the call right away, if at all.
The most common complaints received by Patricia Fraser, Chair of the Complaints Investigation Committee of the Law Society of Manitoba and a lawyer with Meighen Haddad & Co. in Brandon, concerns lawyers not returning phone calls and e-mails. "Remember that this is often the client’s only case," she says. "They really need feedback, even if it’s to say nothing much is happening."
The current speed of communications — particularly with e-mail — has led some clients to anticipate instantaneous replies, an expectation that must be managed. With a troublesome client, it is even more important to be upfront, explaining why daily contact is not necessary. "Make sure they know you can be unavailable at times," Pinnington says. "Take control, rather than letting the client control you."
Judy Payne suggests having a full-service desk in place — clients often want to reach a person rather than a recorded message, and experienced legal secretaries can help in explaining some matters. Lemieux adds that lawyers must report to clients on the status of the file on a regular basis, although "regular" will be largely dependent upon the relationship.
6. Be vague.
Lawyers are cautious by nature, preferring to hedge if the answer is not clear-cut. This tendency to give brief, ambiguous answers — including to questions about fees, disbursements and time estimates — makes clients unhappy. Nobody expects lawyers to guarantee outcomes or predict the unpredictable — most clients understand the element of risk in all things legal — but that doesn’t mean you should hide behind the all-inclusive "it depends" answer.
Certainly, when it comes to fees and time-frames, most lawyers can estimate an amount and duration based on similar work completed in the past; this is especially the case for transactional, solicitor-side work. "If you truly can’t estimate the time or cost, give at least the parameters, the typical costs, and don’t make a commitment," Pinnington advises. Fraser stresses the importance of using clear language in lawyers’ communications and documents.
7. Know nothing about the client.
"There’s a lot of client frustration with the feeling that they are not being paid enough attention," says Fraser. "Some clients complain that their lawyer doesn’t even seem to know what their file is about." Show interest in the client’s affairs, both those related to her case and those that simply matter to her personally. A good Contact Relations Management (CRM) program can help keep track of client information.
Corporate clients, says Lemieux, favour long-term relationships with firms whose lawyers take the time to get to know the company, its background, its business perspective, and its tolerable risk levels. He recommends that lawyers meet with management in order to better know the company’s objectives and business plan. This broad view helps the lawyer understand how legal issues specifically affect the client.
Payne agrees: "The big thing is to listen to your client, know what makes them tick, their values, their industry. Be cognizant of the dimensions of their world, so that when you provide advice, it is skewed to this. Your own office is a very dangerous place from which to view the world."
8. Invoice poorly.
Invoices are another form of communication with clients — and a major point of contention in relationships with them. Complaints range from not recognizing some of the lawyers’ names appearing on a bill, to invoices that bill pennies per page for photocopies and secretaries’ overtime. Nickel-and-dime bills that arrive well after the matter is closed cause clients’ blood-pressure levels to rise.
Lemieux says late and vague invoices render the bill difficult to evaluate. Fraser agrees, recommending that invoices illustrate the costs detail by detail. An itemized invoice is particularly important in litigation, she says, where costs have a tendency to escalate and the whole process generates more client frustration. And, more positively, it will also illustrate for the problem client that excessive communication with the lawyer costs money.
9. Ignore the extras.
Good service can often turn on the smallest acts of consideration. "There are lots of little proactive things lawyers can do for established clients to provide value-added service," says Payne, such as writing a brief memo for clients when a new case is released, highlighting its relevance to the client. "This lets the client know you are thinking of their interests." Why not make reasonable efforts to make the client feel special?
Payne says it’s also important to send clients closure letters, summarizing the work done, explaining the status of the file, and enclosing copies of any orders. "This way, they see the job is completed," she says. "Clients appreciate that attention to detail wrapped up in nice little package at the end."
Ultimately, says Fraser, an extended history of poor client service can lead to discipline, while alienating clients can leave the lawyer with no repeat business and no referrals. "The best base of clients is the ones you have satisfied and the people they know," says Fraser. "But this only comes [about] if clients are happy with what you have done and how you treat them."
"It’s really important to keep existing clients happy," agrees Payne. "It’s much cheaper and more efficient to keep them than look for new clients." And since many referrals come by word of mouth, negative comments are likely to spread faster than positive. If a client is not happy with your services, promptly address their feedback and complaints, so they know you have heard them and taken action, she advises.
The best advice is to actively manage client expectations about your services, their timing, the results to be obtained, and the costs for obtaining them. It’s really quite simple, says Fraser: "Treat your clients the way you would like to be treated."
Michelle Mann is a Toronto lawyer and legal writer. Her previous article for National, "Movin’ out," appeared in our June/July 2004 issue.
Illustrations by Peter Ferguson: Three in a Box
Comment irriter un client
Neuf gestes à éviter pour garder auprès de vous celui sur lequel vous comptez.
Qu’est-il arrivé de ce client qui semblait si prometteur et qui, soudainement, s’est volatilisé? Était-il mécontent de vos services? Vous ne le saurez probablement jamais puisque souhaitant éviter la confrontation, il est disparu en silence emportant avec lui les secrets de son insatisfaction. Difficile alors de savoir ce qu’il faut corriger.
Voilà pourquoi après « Comment irriter un juge » et « Comment irriter votre chef de direction », National a voulu connaître la recette infaillible pour faire disparaître un client pour de bon. Le ton est peut-être à l’humour mais le sujet n’en est pas moins sérieux.
1. Négliger la communication
Plus de la moitié des réclamations en responsabilité contre des juristes découlent de problèmes de communication, estime Dan Pinnington, directeur de PracticePro à Toronto. Ainsi, la plupart du temps, lorsque quelque chose ne fonctionne pas, c’est que le juriste n’a pas su bien écouter ou faire passer son message. Confirmez les aspects importants de votre mandat au moyen d’une lettre reste la règle d’or dans ce domaine.
Cependant, le souci de bien communiquer ne doit pas devenir contre-productif, prévient Janis Byrne, conseillère juridique en entreprise chez Penney Group of Companies de St-John. Un porte-parole par dossier est suffisant.
2. Ne pas respecter les instructions
Ça peut paraître simple mais selon Pinnington, il s’agit d’un des motifs les plus fréquents de poursuite en responsabilité. Le meilleur remède est encore une fois de tout documenter et d’expliquer au client les tenants et aboutissants de façon réaliste.
Assurez-vous aussi de ne jamais déléguer de travail à un autre juriste sans que le client n’y consente, recommande Gilles Lemieux, conseiller juridique en entreprise chez Haemacure Corp. à Montréal.
3. Être désagréable
« Il n’en coûte rien d’être sympathique et courtois avec ses clients », rappelle Judy Payne, conseillère juridique de la B.C. Pension Corporation à Victoria et vice-présidente de la Conférence des juristes du secteur public de l’ABC. « Le but premier d’un cabinet juridique est de faire en sorte que les clients se sentent confortables et se sentent les bienvenus », ajoute-t-elle. Faites-en sorte que votre personnel communique bien ce message.
4. Surprendre son client
Une facture plus salée que prévue, des déboursés inattendus, un résultat improbable constituent des surprises désagréables pour le client. Par peur de décevoir, plusieurs juristes éviteront d’exposer le pire scénario. Pourtant, c’est souvent ainsi qu’ils s’attirent des ennuis. N’hésitez pas à dépeindre l’état d’un dossier de façon réaliste et traitez des questions de coûts et d’échéancier avec franchise.
5. Disparaître sans laisser de traces
Qu’est-ce qui enrage davantage un client que de laisser un message sur votre boîte vocale? Que vous ne retourniez pas le message laissé sur votre boîte vocale. Pour Patricia Fraser, avocate au sein du cabinet Meighen Haddad & Co. à Brandon et Présidente du Comité des enquêtes et des plaintes de la Société du Barreau du Manitoba, il vaut toujours mieux informer le client de ce qui se passe même si dans les faits, il ne se passe pas grand chose. Prenez garde toutefois de ne pas laisser le client vous envahir, prévient Pennington. « Assurez-vous qu’il comprend bien que vous ne pouvez être disponible en tout temps. »
6. Être vague
C’est dans la nature des juristes d’être prudents. Pourtant une réponse évasive sur la question des honoraires, des déboursés et de l’échéancier est souvent ce qui met le client en rogne. Personne ne demande de prévoir l’imprévisible, mais sachez qu’un maigre « ça dépend » ne suffit pas. Lorsqu’ils vous est vraiment impossible d’estimer le temps que vous devrez passer dans une affaire, fournissez au-moins certains paramètres et surtout ne faites pas de promesses, conseille Pinnington.
7. Ne rien connaître du client
« L’impression qu’on ne lui prête pas suffisamment d’attention peut générer une grande frustration chez le client », explique Fraser. Non seulement est-il important que vous maîtrisiez le dossier mais il importe aussi de bien connaître certaines informations générales sur le domaine dans lequel oeuvre votre client et sa tolérance au risque.
8. Ne pas se soucier de la facturation
Loin d’être une perte de temps, la facturation constitue une autre façon de communiquer avec votre client. La présence d’un nom inconnu à la facture ou d’un calcul de temps de travail trop radin et expédié des mois après que le dossier soit terminé attiseront l’insatisfaction d’un client. Soyez le plus détaillé possible, séparez le tout par items et facturez de façon régulière.
9. Faire le strict minimum
L’impression d’avoir obtenu un bon service découle parfois de petits gestes tel que prendre la peine d’informer le client d’une nouvelle jurisprudence qui peut l’intéresser. « Comme ça, le client sait que vous avez ses intérêts à cœur », commente Payne.
Il importe aussi de donner au client l’impression du travail accompli. « Pour ce faire, Payne suggère d’envoyer une lettre de fermeture de dossier résumant ce qui a été fait et d’y joindre en annexe une copie de toutes les décisions relatives à cette affaire. « La clientèle apprécie ce genre d’attention ».
— Mélanie Raymond