From the 2014 Issue of May/June Strategies, Learn How to Find Success Using Client Feedback
“No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” This quotation by Sophocles neatly describes why it is so difficult to gain acceptance for client feedback programs in law firms. Yet, without systematically seeking input from clients, law firms don’t always know when they’re not hitting the mark. Often, a lawyer or firm will act as if no news from a client is good news, when in fact it could be much more sinister.
Clients don’t always fire a lawyer or firm outright. Instead, their dissatisfaction compiles until they have a new matter or case to assign and decide to try someone else rather than compound the dissatisfaction. If the incumbent lawyer is engaged in a long-term matter, he or she will go on working the matter and may continue to think the client is happy and loyal, when in fact the opposite is true. It can be difficult to understand what factors are chipping away at client satisfaction and loyalty without regular client feedback initiatives until it’s too late.
On the other hand, client feedback might just as well uncover a client who is highly satisfied, and in those cases, there is a direct correlation between a high level of service and the client’s degree of loyalty. Luckily, clients have a predilection to stick with their incumbent firm for many reasons, including the lawyer and team’s knowledge of its company and legal history; the efficiencies of reusable work product; personal relationships; proprietary technology connections, such as portals; and many other factors. It takes a while for dissatisfaction to trump these other factors.
How can a law firm generate and sustain client satisfaction and loyalty? First, the firm must understand what drives both satisfaction and loyalty from the client’s point of view. This cannot be achieved without systematically asking clients for feedback, which firms can accomplish in myriad ways. The best client feedback programs combine several of the following methods:
- Conduct key client visits by the firm’s chairman or managing partner or by the practice group leader in the case of larger firms. Just as the firm is interested in understanding the client’s short- and long-term plans, clients are often equally interested in understanding the current and future direction of the firm, which is best communicated by someone in a position of leadership.
- Client interviews conducted by an outside third party are particularly effective when the firm wishes to gain feedback from a fairly large amount of clients in a short time or when feedback is going to be used for strategic planning reasons.
- Informal client visits by the partner managing the relationship with the client are helpful to ensure the right team is supporting the client, to determine how current matters are progressing and to understand the client’s potential future needs. This gives the firm a chance to gear up for changing needs and conditions.
- Client interviews conducted by a senior manager or CMO can be useful, as long as the manager understands the substantive issues that the client may raise and also understands that this is not a hard sell situation. The manager must also enjoy a high level of respect and credibility from the lawyers and firm leadership for this to work.
- Client surveys conducted online or via hard copy are good for assessing satisfaction in a quantitative manner. If scores indicate dissatisfaction, in person follow-up is necessary.
- End-of-matter questionnaires are a good way to capture what impacts client satisfaction regarding a specific case or matter.
No matter what method is chosen, there may be initial internal resistance to asking clients for feedback, especially when that is done via anyone other than the partner in charge of the relationship. A common roadblock to implementing client feedback programs is the perception that by asking questions, it will cause the client to think of things that are making him or her unhappy. This is a dangerous and naïve point of view. If dissatisfaction exists, it’s best to uncover it and fix it. There are many tools and tactics that can be used to overcome internal resistance. Consider the following ideas:
- Suggest a pilot program of one to three clients. Pick long-term, loyal clients. Even with these clients, there will undoubtedly be surprising (and often positive) feedback. Hearing positive business development intelligence is a compelling reason to begin soliciting feedback from clients.
- Send the firm’s managing partner or chairperson to conduct the interviews. Someone from the marketing or management team can accompany the managing partner/chair. Sending a busy firm leader sends the message that the initiative is a high priority, and the firm is sending someone with no skin in the game or hidden agenda.
- Create demand by clearly communicating the benefits of client feedback, and then seek lawyers who are willing to volunteer their clients, rather than mandating which clients will be visited in the initial wave of feedback.
- Use feedback wisely. When you hear something negative about a specific lawyer, share that feedback carefully with only those who need to know. View negative feedback as an opportunity for coaching or training rather than a chance to punish.
- Be quick to report positive results. When partners see what’s in it for them, this will start to increase demand.
- Share feedback about trends and patterns broadly in client preferences on an unattributed basis, so all the lawyers in the firm will benefit from the lessons learned.
- Capitalize on business development opportunities learned through client feedback immediately to promote tangible results.
Sometimes, firms question who owns and manages client feedback programs: firm management, practice groups or the marketing department. Ultimately, all of these entities should work together. While client feedback often uncovers marketing or business development opportunities, this should be a side effect and not the primary goal of the program, which needs to be determining how the law firm can do the best job possible in the service of the client. That philosophy and approach will drive decisions about who gathers the feedback,
who hears and learns from the feedback, and how the firm and lawyers change behaviors and approaches to increase client satisfaction and loyalty.
The list of benefits of implementing a client feedback program to both the client and the firm is long; in that case, why not ask your clients how you’re doing?
Roger Quillen is chairman and managing partner of Fisher & Phillips LLP.
Terri Pepper Gavulic is the director of legal support at Fisher & Phillips LLP.