Create a Winning Client Retention Strategy in 5 Steps

  • October 21, 2014
  • Susan Van Dyke

Over the years, law firm have learned that quality service alone isn’t enough to attract and retain clients. Now, delivering quality merely gets you in the door. The new focus is on client retention.

But doesn’t customer/client satisfaction translate to retention? The answer is “not necessarily.” To keep clients, your focus must shift to the needs of the client. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen that satisfaction programs, which were developed in earnest, did not affect customer or client retention. Even very satisfied customers would purchase products and services from competitors. We see this regularly in legal services today. Clearly, satisfaction influences loyalty, but it is not the only driver.

So, how do we lock in client loyalty? Effective loyalty or client retention programs that are customized and benefit the client are uniquely appealing. Ten years ago, Canadian law firms began offering free seminars to clients as part of a value-add service. Marketing professionals, myself included, would proudly initiate these events, believing that clients would view this as a special and valuable offering.

Now practically every firm is willing to host a client seminar without charge. But when there are too many equivalent client loyalty programs in place, their effectiveness is diluted. Seminars, newsletters, special occasion cards are no longer the ultimate solution in retention strategies because they’re not customized or unique. In fact, they’re now expected by clients (whether they value them or not). A side note: since these activities are now a cost of doing business, it’s imperative they be executed with precision to maximize your return on investment. Anything less just adds to your overhead.

To have a positive effect on clients, client retention strategies must be customized and well executed.  Effective customized strategies require a sound understanding of your client’s needs and challenges, and a thoughtful approach to surpassing expectations. Realistically, no firm can design specific programs for each client, and nor should you.  But you can do a lot to ensure that your programs are unique. This brings us to our first of five steps in designing your own client retention program:

STEP 1: Select Your Best Bets

Before we even begin to consider client retention, we need to go through – yes, I know it may seem unpleasant – a client selection process. In doing so, we’re not rejecting clients; we’re simply identifying our best bets to zero in on. Not all clients are equally profitable, and focusing on the wrong ones will be costly in expended effort, as well as in terms of missed opportunities with your best bets.

Remember, revenue is based on profit, not billing volume.  So assuming that improved retention of just any group of clients will increase profit is incorrect. Not all clients are profitable; some may even be draining profits. Profitability does not follow Pareto’s Principle that “80 per cent of revenues [billings] come from 20 per cent of customers.” While the 80/20 rule often applies to billings (revenue), profits are skewed differently.

You must consider which practice areas are most profitable (billings minus costs). List the largest clients in this area. Look at, say, your top 20 clients in your most profitable practice areas. Eliminate any clients who are unlikely to bring you sustainable work, required a significant write off of billings, rose to the top of your list because of one significant matter, have difficulty paying their bills or who were acquired or dissolved. None of these clients are good best-bet contenders.

In rounding out your best-bet list, also consider adding motivated clients who bring you work in your most profitable practice areas, but may be further down your list of clients. And if you have capacity to focus on more clients, simply increase your list to the top 50 and go from there. 

Ensure that each client you select has either regular healthy billings or growth potential.

STEP 2: Do Your Homework

The most current research indicates that one of the top priorities of clients today is that you understand their business. Clients want you to know them. In this way, you will be better able to navigate and avoid legal issues for your clients while demonstrating your interest in and commitment to their industry or field. Specialists are valued for their perspective and focused expertise. Clients assume that you understand the legal intricacies of their industry, but they should also know that you understand their challenges, industry nuances and any political influences that exist.

Create client binders with information on company executives, board of directors, company promotional material, annual report, list of recent projects, news clippings, a list of competitors, and acknowledged challenges. Ask your client for background information they deem relevant. In doing so, you will round out your research. As well, the client’s awareness of your genuine interest in understanding their business will be apparent. 

As a trusted advisor, you might even obtain a copy of their business plan. Read it during non-billable time, understand it and keep it marked confidential.  Share it with every lawyer who works on this client’s matters. Try to attend their AGM or strategic planning sessions to drill deeper into their issues. In understanding their goals and tactical plans you will become more valuable to your client.

In fact, in studying the client’s business, new opportunities could arise. In your review, note your findings and questions and meet with the client to discuss. Chances are good that you’ll have identified new work and helped limit a client’s exposure.

This step should now be included in your client retention best practices. It demonstrates your interest in the client and educates all lawyers working for this client. If your firm has the resources, a librarian, marketing professional or legal assistant can prepare this for you.

With long-term clients where it’s conceivably assumed that you already have much of this information, it may not be up to date. You’ll also want to have a binder available to refer to and pass along to partners or other lawyers to familiarize them with the top clients of the firm.

With a thorough understanding of the client’s business in hand, you’re ready for the next step.

STEP 3: Conduct a Needs Assessment

Every client is different. Even clients who have the same title within the same industry can have widely varying needs and preferences. Lump them together at your peril. Instead, provide customized strategies that will keep them close.

We probably know our services better than our client, so we can help them identify their preferences with relative ease.  Having noted the client’s preferences, this now becomes the performance criteria from which we should be evaluated.  No need to cringe. If the client identifies preferences or expectations which are outside the scope (or interest) of our abilities, it is incumbent upon us to make this understood. 

A Managing Partner once described how a president of a successful company, whose practice was to change legal counsel every three or four years, chose him as his next lawyer. This client, though, set out his expectations very clearly by stating that he didn’t want to wait in reception when a pre-arranged meeting had been booked and he objected to waiting more that a few hours to have his phone calls returned. This partner took these directives to heart and kept the client long after four years had passed.

If expectations are beyond what you can reasonably surpass, they do not qualify for your target list. Clients who expect you to actually meet unrealistic expectations can quickly become profit drainers.

Service audits, though, will get you to the heart of the information you desire.  How will you actually ask a client to assess your services? One way is to first develop a needs assessment.  This report should contain all the elements of service.

Before developing a client needs assessment with an existing client, consider what you’ve already gleaned from working with them. You won’t be starting from scratch and, in some instances, you’ll simply seek verification on their preferences; “It seems that you prefer the phone over e-mail – is that right?” In other areas, it’s important to record as much detail as possible. Ask specific questions such as:

  • How frequently do you want updates on active matters?
  • Do you prefer in-depth assessments or summaries?
  • What is your preferred means of communication (i.e. e-mail, phone, fax)
  • How often do you want to meet in person?
  • How well does our staff meet your needs and expectations?
  • Do you have budgets for us to adhere to?
  • What turnaround times on phone calls and status reports, etc. do you need?
  • Which individuals within your organization should we include in correspondence?
  • What’s your level of risk aversion?
  • Do you need more or less detail in written correspondence?
  • How is the current division of legal work among partners, associates and students?
  • How frequently do you need updates on active files?
  • Is there anything about our bill format that needs to change?
  • How frequently do you want bills?
  • Is there too much or too little detail in bills?
  • Do you have any extraordinary needs that we haven’t discussed yet?

These sorts of questions will help to build a deeper understanding of your client’s needs and expectations. By noting and revisiting them each time you open a file for this client you will work towards surpassing these expectations. And, just as importantly, you will  ensure that your client perceives that you have done so.

Remain hyper-alert to client needs as outlined in your needs report. After a busy spell of working with the client, or twice per year, schedule a non-billable meeting to collect the client’s feedback (see sidebar “Rule #4: Ask for Feedback”).

STEP 4: Develop Your Retention Strategy

The emotional impact you have on clients will directly affect retention.  Clients who have extremely positive service experiences with you and your firm will seek to repeat the experience. Delivering that emotional impact is simply a matter of understanding expectations and repeatedly surpassing them.

Generally, expectations of client service in the legal profession are low. Recall that quality of technical advice is the entry fee – much like we expect our dentists to provide excellent dental care, while we don’t necessarily expect to enjoy the experience. But since we can only evaluate our experience it’s what we focus on, not the quality of the novocaine.

The bar is low and so it’s still easy to delight and surprise a client with a thoughtful and customized approach to service. And it’s a certain method of showing a client you want to keep their business.

Let’s consider a specific example: A conglomerate based overseas begins doing business in Canada. Despite their impressive track record, acquisition of assets and savvy business strategies, they have little profile in Canada.  Building a solid corporate image in Canada rises to the surface as one of their strategies to meeting their financial targets.

A law firm with good name recognition can help. Consider public relations activities that will have impact such as:

  • profiling the client’s story in the firm’s newsletter;
  • placing ads of congratulations following the completion of a deal (with client consent, of course);
  • leveraging your media contacts for the client’s benefit;
  • introducing the client to other business or industry leaders of interest
  • bringing the client to a high-profile event and making rounds of introductions with plans to follow-up with lunch or other activities to solidify productive relationships; or
  • sending their product as a holiday gift to all your staff, clients or contacts.

A brainstorming session will result in many ideas that you can bring to this client for discussion.  Do take the client’s lead on what approach they value most . Their involvement helps to underscore your commitment to their goals, so include them (but not so much that they find it burdensome).

There are many other loyalty driving activities. One example is reverse seminars, where the client shares their preferences and aversions regarding legal services with firm lawyers and staff. This demonstrates your interest in the client and provides you with a nice set of specific retention guidelines for this client.

Seminars by members of your management team are another great example. These have proven to be very valuable to clients. Consider topics such as “Communication strategies to improve customer relationships,” “Trends in technology,” “Advanced methods of researching on the net,” and so on. Many clients lack some of the resources and expertise available even in mid-sized law firms.

Attracting good corporate talent is becoming increasingly difficult. More than ever, in-house human resources professionals and executive recruiters are employing innovative methods of attracting top talent for their companies and clients. If this is an area of concern for a client, think outside the corporate box.

Boost their recruiting efforts by sweetening the executive remuneration package with discounted legal services for personal use. The client company gets either an annual budget, or discount rate with a cap on the value to distribute among their employees for personal use. You may want to make this contingent on the company sustaining a minimum level of legal fees. You’ll also want to exclude services such as employment and criminal law, but conveyancing, and wills, estates and trusts services would benefit an executive or employee.

STEP 5: Evaluate Your Strategy

It’s not how we evaluate our legal services, it’s how our clients evaluate our services that’s most important. Most of their criteria will lean heavily in non-technical areas. Rarely will a client concern themselves with your method of research, but your sensitivity towards their stated budget will indeed be appraised.

Measurement of your client retention strategies is critical to staying on track with your goals and objectives. We need validation that our efforts are succeeding and, in the event that the results are less than expected, we need to revisit our strategy and adjust as necessary.

Over the course of several months or a year, a billing analysis by top client will be a good indicator of how your client retention strategies are working. If a client’s total billings are decreasing, where they used to be steady, with no obvious explanation, the strategy is not working and either client communication is lacking or client retention/management strategies are off the mark. It’s time to take a deeper look.  Ask your client for feedback and find out how you can retain more of their work.

This is more easily accomplished informally during a sporting or arts event.  Most firms entertain clients to some extent.  As we know, this can range from lunch to a box seat at the priciest sporting event of the year –if it’s an extraordinary event that’s special to your client, then you’re on the right track. But in isolation, the usual client entertainment activities are not an effective client retention strategy for your top clients. Why? It’s the norm and is now expected.

Instead, consider these events as important informal dialogue opportunities with your clients. With few exceptions, giving tickets away to clients is wasteful. Always attend along with your client and commit to getting feedback on a couple of service areas (i.e. billing method, level of satisfaction with lawyers working for the client, turnaround times, etc).  Sure, ask how the kids are doing in school, but your goal is to get either assurance that you’re on track or constructive comments on how you might redirect your efforts.  The majority of clients won’t give you negative feedback if you never ask for their comments. They will, though, move their work elsewhere, sometimes even at greater expense to themselves.

A more formal method to ensure your client knows you’ve surpassed expectations is to revisit the needs assessment with the client. Book a non-billable meeting time on an anniversary date or following significant transactions or litigation to discuss performance issues.

To collect genuine feedback through this method, don’t have the client leader or client team lawyer lead this initiative. Either the Managing Partner, Marketing Partner, or in some cases in larger firms, the Director of Marketing is the right person.