The four hardest words

  • September 26, 2014
  • Donalee Moulton

Veteran litigators know that a key to cross-examination is often to listen for the question not asked. What is it that the other side doesn't want to hear? What's the question they don't want answered? Find it and you've often found the opponent's Achilles Heel.

But lawyers often fall victim to this tendency themselves, failing to ask a crucial question because they may not like the answer. It's asking clients: "How did I do?"

Client feedback is a highly under-utilized form of practice evaluation and improvement. It opens the door to more business and gives lawyers an opportunity to learn about clients' needs now and in the future. For lawyers who want to improve their performance, it's invaluable.

"Without feedback, it's like trying to shoot with a blindfold on. It's very difficult to hit the target," says Milton Zwicker, a lawyer and law practice management expert with Zwicker Evans Lewis in Barrie, Ontario.

Clients may be confused about a legal procedure, upset about expectations that weren't met, or disappointed with service in general. The confusion can be cleared up, expectations realigned and disappointment put into context - but not if lawyers refuse to ask their clients for feedback and evaluation.

"Most of us are prima donnas," Zwicker says. "We always think we know best. Most times, we don't." Never assume you know how your client is feeling, he adds: chances are you don't, unless you've asked.

Why get feedback?
First of all, clients enjoy it. "People love to be asked their opinion," notes Bette Tetreault, a business communications professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "It makes them feel valued, listened to and appreciated. Whenever you gather feedback, you are making a statement that you care what your clients have to say. That is an important statement to make."

"[Clients] want an outlet," adds Zwicker. "We listen. There is usually a consistent pattern to what people are saying."

Secondly, recognizing and addressing clients' dissatisfaction is good for the bottom line: business tomorrow depends on satisfied clients today. Three years ago, a Florida Bar Association survey asked participants how they found a lawyer. Seventy-five percent said they followed up on a recommendation from a relative or friend.

Thirdly, feedback can provide strategic information about clients themselves: their plans, their directions, their future needs.

"A corporate client's plan to embark in e-commerce could signal a need for legal advice on the implications of conducting commercial activity in multiple jurisdictions and advice regarding IT," says Patricia Byrne of the Vancouver office of Catalyst Consulting, a law practice management consulting company. "This, in turn, could translate into a greater volume of business to the law firm from that client."

The advantages of feedback aren't just for lawyers in private practice, Byrne adds: client feedback is equally important for lawyers in the public sector. Garnering feedback can help government legal departments prove their worth and can contribute significantly to survival in an era of cutbacks and budget reductions.

How to do it
There are any number of ways to collect the information you need, ranging from a few informal questions over coffee to a professionally designed user satisfaction survey. The key is to continually gather the information, says Zwicker. "You have to make it part of your life. It's like brushing your teeth in the morning."

Byrne recommends legal firms and departments distribute a client satisfaction survey that seeks primary data on the nature and degree of value they contribute and asks how the lawyers can improve their service.

Survey instruments should be designed carefully and with clear objectives in mind in order to produce reliable results. And of course, make sure you ask the right questions.

Before sending out any client satisfaction questionnaire, Byrne adds, legal firms and departments should conduct a small focus group with a few selected clients to ensure the right questions are asked and to foster buy-in.

In those situations where a particular's client's opinion is being solicited, or where specific substantive information is being sought, face-to-face meetings work best. But be warned: they can be time consuming and, notes Zwicker, "it is painful. You have to accept the fact that people will criticize you."

Another option for getting feedback is to go directly to the source: visit the client. Not only does it make the process more convenient for the client, it also allows lawyers a first-hand look at the client's business operation. Clients should be clearly aware of the reasons for the visit, of course.

Making a change
Before asking clients for their opinion, make sure you're prepared to respond to it. Once the results are in, you'd better do something about them. That could be something as simple as explaining why you took two days to return a particular client's phone call. Or it could require overhauling the way your firm routinely communicates with its clients.

Whatever the response, clients must be assured that their feedback is being taken seriously, says Byrne. For example, if a firm or legal department uses a client satisfaction survey to collect information, the survey should clearly state that its results will be distributed to all clients. Then make sure you do just that.

"Not following up with clients after they have taken the time to give you feedback does more than just make the information-gathering process a waste of time," observes Tetreault. "It harms relationships with clients, because it erodes trust."

And it's trust that is at the heart of the communications process. Clients must believe that their lawyers are capable, committed and caring. Without that fundamental assurance, they will assuredly look elsewhere for legal services.

Donalee Moulton is a freelance legal writer based in Halifax.