Client Relations: Creating Loyalty in Your Best Clients

  • September 04, 2014
  • Susan Van Dyke

Over breakfast recently, a friend and colleague described how he was rescued from an embarrassing situation and provided a fascinating “in-the-field” example of how service excellence secures client loyalty.

Matt travels a lot, and on a recent trip, while boarding the plane, he experienced an incident that called for reliable client service.

As Matt found his seat and was preparing to get settled, he discovered the seat directly in front of him was reclined, leaving him minimal space to slip into his economy-sized matchbox seat. As he stepped gingerly into his spot, the aisle armrest slipped into the pocket of his pants and ripped down the side seam of his trousers, leaving an embarrassing gaping hole.

It was a short stay in Vancouver and he needed this suit. Before takeoff, Matt phoned the concierge at his hotel in Vancouver and asked them to arrange for Harry Rosen to repair his pants on arrival.

Tried, hungry and annoyed, he arrived at the Harry Rosen store just prior to closing time. He and his flapping pants were greeted by name, and he was ushered into a fitting room, where he flung his damaged pants over the door. By the time he had retrieved and pulled on a pair of jeans from his suitcase, the seamstress was handing the perfectly repaired pants back to him.

If that wasn’t enough, the store waived any fee for service, saying that Harry Rosen garments are guaranteed for life. No quibbling – just fast, gracious, free service. Sure, we’re talking about a men’s clothing store here – a high end one, at that – but the nature of this story is the service my friend received, not the custom fit of his trousers or the grade of the imported fabric.

I would bet he’s told this story a few times, and now you’re reading it here. This sort of storytelling is how strong brands are created and maintained. Good client relations aren’t just the right or ethical way to practice; they’re good for business. Here’s why ...

Happy clients are the surest source of future work and financial stability. Not only will they continue to bring you work, they’ll also refer their contacts to you. Long-term clients create a highly rewarding working relationship – one that’s mutually beneficial. Understanding this, you’ll agree that retaining clients must be a top priority for firms of all shapes and sizes. And good client relations are imperative to client retention.

When you make it easy for a client to do business with you, you’re well on your way to understanding client needs. Yet, as in any profession, there are table stakes to keeping clients: technical skills and an assortment of personal skills, as found in the 2009 “Study on the Criteria for Executive Satisfaction with the Lawyers on their Staff,” conducted in Quebec by Liette Monat Business Strategies Inc.

The study indicates that personality (29%), proactivity (18%), and work management skills (16%) were the top three attributes respondents valued. It also found an “irreversible shift of legal services toward an advisory approach,” supported with the following respondent comment:

Clients are better informed and more demanding. When faced with equal ability, they will opt for a better understanding of their business situation and thoughtful proactivity based on innovative ideas. They are looking for a partner who is ready to get involved in their success, with whom they can develop business solutions. They do not want to deal with the moods of their outside counsel. One senior corporate counsel put it like this:

We want to feel they are interested in our business. We are not an interesting legal case. We want a partner to find business solutions along with us.

Technical skills are not enough. Clients are looking for a greater understanding of their needs and their business.

Make no assumptions. Until you’ve asked questions and listened to your client.

In terms of client relations, the single most important activity you’ll engage in is asking the client about their expectations, preferences and concerns. By fully understanding how your client will evaluate your services, you’ll have a clear view of the target. You’ll hit it every time, manage your clients’ unreasonable expectations or help find a better match with a different lawyer. Either way, you’re likely to advance your working relationship with this client.

According to the “20th Annual Survey of General Counsel” conducted by InsideCounsel magazine, U.S. general counsel value creative solutions (82%), industry experience (86%), and responsiveness (99%). These stats aren’t far off what we’d expect to see in Canada.

The survey results also reinforce the desire for “open communication” between counsel and client. Clearly understanding the business pressures of your client and offering quick, practical solutions will be more highly valued than a long opinion memorandum supported with a lot of research. The lawyer may want to turn over every stone, but it’s not often the best use of a client’s dwindling budget.

To a great degree, the same priorities are articulated by general counsel from both sides of the border. Relationships are strongest with lawyers who are highly responsive, take initiative, respect their budget and deliver just enough legal advice to offer a solution, but not so much that it tips the budget scales. We’ve heard this message at every panel of general counsel.

Dig deeper and find out what your top clients really think about your lawyers and services. Client interviews are gaining in popularity in Canada and those who do it well are wisely bullet-proofing their best clients. The positive effects on the client relationship and the intelligence gained about the client’s current situation, concerns, preferences and outlook are enormous.

Don’t want to know – or believe you already know – what your clients think? That’s a risky position to take, and one that might just cost you a client.

Respond to news triggers. Always follow up with a client in the news or after a major event, regardless of whether you handle that area of law or not. Does that seem too forward? Is it considered intrusive and impolite to reach out to a client or contact when we see a news story on them or their company?

Feedback from clients indicates the contrary. In fact, some firms have scooped worked with a simple call to a client or prospect using this strategy. Some might equate it to ambulance-chasing, and this might be true if the only purpose of your call is to get additional work. I’d argue that ultimately you’d like the work, but there’s also value in gaining insight into the client’s business and their current challenges.

If you’re a small firm, set up Google Alerts for your top clients and prospective clients, if you haven’t done so already. Lawyers in larger firms should also set up Alerts, and engage your librarian to track the news if resources allow.

News items often alert us to potential work, or opportunities to discuss the client’s business and your legal services. Search your client relationship management (CRM) system for who in your firm might have a contact in the company. Time is of the essence here, so make the call right away and any questions that result from your discussion can be answered with a follow-up call later in the day.

Create a client portfolio. This will help you understand your client’s business and relate to internal forces that are driving strategies. This is homework and an important part of your client retention strategy. It’s also non-billable time.

For your most important clients – or targets – develop a file that will give you an overview of their key people, operations, plans and scope. This context will help you grow this client, or win your first engagement with a target. Most importantly though, it will give you important perspective that will ensure you and your clients are working towards the same goals.

A client portfolio should list their executives, board members, annual report, history of legal work, and strategic plan, if one exists. Any new lawyer working for this client should commit to spending 30 to 60 minutes of non-billable time to review the portfolio.

Update it regularly and ask your client for other planning documents that could be relevant to the legal team.

Mend fences. There are challenges in working in a highly complex and sophisticated area of professional services. It’s a very human experience that centres on the product of one’s intellect (and of course, the manner of the service delivery), and not the quality of the mending of one’s trousers.

Surveying and interviewing customers has been a standard business practice for decades, but it has been adopted slowly in the legal profession. Lawyers don’t typically enjoy or seek negative feedback, and many view the process as one that will result in criticisms. The matter is made worse when most top client relationships rest on one lawyer’s interactions with the client.

Whether negative feedback comes to you by way of an active solicitation, a client calling the managing partner, or another internal lawyer expressing concern, the issue must be resolved quickly. Keep in mind that all issues are real to the client, regardless of our own opinion of a situation; the only perspective that matters here is that of a reasonable client.

Here’s one road map to help you follow up and resolve a client concern:

  1. The managing partner calls to thank the client for taking the time to provide some feedback. Outline your plan and timeline for resolving the issue.
  2. Discretely meet with the internal lawyers and staff involved and gather all facts in a non-judgmental manner.
  3. Develop a resolution or action plan with your lawyers that can be proposed to the client. Some of these items might include:
    1. Regularly scheduled communication and “check-ins” by the relationship lawyer.
    2. A new billing work-flow system that ensures all work is captured and sufficiently detailed and presented regularly to the relationship partner for review prior to sending to the client.
    3. Changes to the legal team as required by the client.
    4. Response rates defined and adhered to.
    5. Budgets followed and a mechanism established for alerting the client when the budget is at risk of being exceeded.
  4. Propose your resolution to the client and actively seek their input. Finalize a plan of action with the client.
  5. Follow-up in writing with the client regarding the action plan. Reinforce the value the firm places on the client’s work.
  6. Follow-up with the client periodically.

We’re not mending trousers; we’re working on serious issues that often keep our clients awake at night. Ask questions, initiate dialogue, understand your clients and their business and have a formula for resolving issues.

How well you relate to each client will directly affect the future of your practice.

Susan Van Dyke, the principal of Van Dyke Marketing & Communications, is a law firm marketing consultant based in Vancouver. She can be reached at (604) 876-7769 or