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Healthy Client Road Map: 25 Tips to Keep Clients Happy, Satisfied and Loyal

03.01.17 | Susan Duncan

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Despite all the talk about clients not being loyal anymore and only being interested in pushing matters to the least expensive “bidder,”  many things about relationships still matter to most clients.  In our last blog post Sales and Service: The Loyal Client Lifecycle, we touched upon some of the ways to nurture and advance client relationships. Below is a more detailed check list of ways you can be sure your client relationships are and stay healthy.

  1. Be pragmatic and commercial. Remember that as much as your clients may like you and respect you, you represent a cost item in their organization’s budget.  Gone are the days that most clients will justify hiring a brilliant expert at all costs.  Clients will evaluate their needs relative to the cost and determine the best, most effective and efficient way to achieve results.  Lawyers who can understand and communicate with clients about their pressures, their business objectives relative to legal strategy and clients’ clients (usually the business side executives and Board) will be much more valued and valuable.
  2. Be empathetic and an avid listener. Focus on clients’ needs, interests, agenda, objectives and questions. Put yourself in their shoes to understand what challenges they face inside the job. Be genuine in your interest and listen without interrupting. Don’t try to convince clients of all you know or your point of view.
  3. Define value and success for each client. Ask each client what criteria they use to determine the value of legal services in general and then specifically, the level of value you deliver to them and how or why. Be clear on how they will measure your success – what a successful engagement or relationship will look like to them.
  4. Get to know your clients and the culture of their organization. Take time to get to know them professionally and personally, their hobbies and passions, what drives them, what their life goals are. Do some searching on the internet to see what you can find on LinkedIn, Facebook or on their company web site. Ask for an org chart to see how the legal department is structured as its own department but also where it fits in the broader structure of the organization. Try to get a sense of where your client contact fits in the organization.
  5. Develop client specific service plans and protocols. When beginning work with new clients, discuss their preferences for how, with whom and how often to communicate, how they prefer their billing, whether they want to be included in strategy discussions, whether they want status reports and if so how often and in what format (by email, phone or formal reports.)
  6. Collaborate to provide the best solution. Clients’ problems or matters often require different skills, levels of expertise and price point. There are many options for clients today other than the traditional law firm.  In addition to internal collaboration within your own practice groups and among others, proactively consider collaborating with other lawyers, experts and providers to put together the best team and solution. If you don’t, clients most certainly will themselves.
  7. Use technology, automation and tools that lead to efficiency. Continuously evaluate how effectively you manage client projects by using technology, project management protocols and early case assessment. Stay on top of new trends and products, with an eye toward artificial intelligence resources and providers you can partner with.
  8. Make use of knowledge management. Most clients assume that by now, firms have created repositories of experience and knowledge so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Do some research internally and externally to find prior projects and precedents similar to the one you are doing for clients, including reaching out to colleagues who may have done similar cases or projects. Clients often hire you because you’ve done a multitude of cases like theirs, in their industry. Demonstrate to clients that you are using that knowledge for direct benefit to them.
  9. Scope and budget matters carefully. Break down matters in stages and components and evaluate prior matters for a delineation of time and level of skill needed. Prepare budgets for clients that are detailed and that have certain milestones by which you and the client can evaluate progress and status against the budget. All budgets and work in progress should be monitored in real time through automation and accessible to clients.
  10. Manage expectations. As soon as you begin scoping a project and defining deliverables, discuss and agree upon realistic deadlines and outcomes with clients. Once you begin working on a new matter, keep the client apprised of the status of the project, discuss any roadblocks or expanded scope of work requested or required especially if it affects the budget, and let the client know when you have added any new professionals to help staff the matter and why.
  11. Be sure your bills are clear, accurate, frequent and transparent. Some lawyers think billing is an accounting function and that getting them paid is a collections activity. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Clients pay bills when they believe the value you are delivering is in line with what you both agreed upon. They hate surprises, e.g., budget overruns or additional people billing to the file they’ve never met. Even worse are bills with errors in them or when time billed is over a month old. Call clients in advance if a bill is likely to be more than you estimated or they are expecting. Billing is a chance to see how you are doing relative to the client’s perception of value and to nurture the relationship.
  12. Consider creative value pricing. Don’t wait for clients to raise this. Ask them if they are using alternative pricing arrangements now and which ones are working for them and why.  If a client is willing, proactively explore retainers, flat or project fees, pricing by stage of work or in buckets of work, and holdbacks with a potential bonus. Remember that most clients prefer predictability so they can budget for legal expenses in advance and they most certainly appreciate firms that are willing to put some skin in the game and share in some risk.
  13. Consider all staffing options. There may be a number of ways in which you could get a project completed on a client’s behalf. Be sure to delegate what can be done by lower cost personnel – a lawyer, paralegal, other technical expert or project manager and by hiring contract staff.
  14. Get to know people who are important to the client.  Become familiar with other key members of the client’s organization, including assistants.  Get to know who is in individuals’ immediate circles of influence and importance. Add all relevant contacts to your contact data base and categorize them by affiliation to specific clients.
  15. Stay in touch regularly and go visit your clients. Be in contact with every active client at least once a quarter, preferably every month especially when you are not working with them on an active matter. You should also plan an in-person visit to your five most active clients at least annually. Walk their hallways, meet some of their colleagues, and offer to do a CLE briefing for the team. You will almost always walk away with new business, in addition to earning the appreciation of your client.
  16. Be available and accessible. Try to answer your own phone personally. At a time when technically, you could be available 24/7, determine with the client what is reasonable. Provide your cell phone number but establish boundaries for when clients should or should not use it. Whatever you do, don’t ask your secretary to place a call to a client for you, then have them hold for you. This makes clients feel that your time is much more important than their time. Set an out-of-office response when you will be away from the office for a day or more. Your message should indicate when you plan to return to the office and who clients should contact in your place.
  17. Be responsive. Respond to all e-mails within four hours of receiving them. If you are not available, ask your secretary to respond for you and indicate when you will respond personally. Make sure that your voice mail message is client-friendly and helpful. Voice messages should be updated regularly to let clients know where and how to reach you or who else they can call. Doing so shows clients and other callers that you check voice mail often and that their calls are important. Be sure you use a tool that converts any phone messages into emails so you get those in your inbox instantaneously.
  18. Ensure that you and your team produces excellent work and service. Keep others informed of the status of matters by sending e-mails, reminders and copies of correspondence. Avoid last minute demands of clients. Don’t wait to send the client a draft of a document they see for the first time only twenty-four hours before it needs to be filed. Share calendars and remind team members in advance of commitments and deadlines.  Use project management tools or maintain a tickler system of all ongoing projects and matters for this client and respective timelines, benchmarks and deadlines. Make sure all work that goes out is proofread and checked again for typos, grammar and citation accuracy.
  19. Give away some free time. Provide some free counseling time and note it on the bill as “General Advice, No Charge.” If you manage a team and multiple matters for clients, you likely will also rack up quite a few management hours that cannot be billed. Indicate the amount of time you and others spend on your invoices and again in an annual summary so that the client can attach value to this.
  20. Seek feedback and input regularly and formally. Regularly ask your clients for feedback on how you and your team could improve services to the client. Ask them if there are areas in which they are dissatisfied or the firm could improve. Conduct client satisfaction surveys (by email, telephone or in-person) annually with all clients to get feedback on service. At the completion of each matter, send an end-of-matter questionnaire.  For your largest clients, conduct an annual review as both a look back review and a look forward to needs and priorities.
  21. Stay ahead of the curve on trends. Find out and stay informed about what industry, competitive, legislative and regulatory issues clients are faced with. Look for the next big need or trend in your practice niche, market or clients’ industries. Read daily news feeds on local and state issues as well as business and industry issues that may affect clients. Set up a Google alerts or use other tools to send you news daily on key issues, clients, practice trends or industries. Let clients know you are keeping your finger on the pulse to bring them new ideas or updates about how other clients may be tackling similar problems.
  22. “Look around the corner.” As you track trends, think about client problems proactively. Conduct “preventative” audits to help identify potential regulatory compliance violations, risks and issues before they become legal problems. Develop a prevention checklist for your clients. Point them to free online resources and information. Pick up the phone and call them about an issue that you have observed with other clients or you believe is coming down the line.
  23. Add value beyond your representation. Offer to do a tailored, free briefing or seminar for in-house lawyers, senior management or the Board. Take clients to your business/industry seminars and to important political, civic or business events. Inform your client about a good business deal. Try to put clients together who could share business information and opportunities. Offer to “lend” or “second” lawyers and support staff to clients when clients are in a crunch, for a week, a month, or even a year.
  24. Understand your role and value in the client’s eyes. Some lawyers serve clients as deep technical experts in a particular area, others more as trusted advisors who share and provide insights on broader business and legal issues.  Assess where you fit relative to other law firms and service providers the client uses, and also what they do themselves internally.  One good barometer is to find out what percentage of their outside legal spend your firm receives.  Chances are if it is less than 10% (and many firms are only getting 1% or less,) you have less leverage and value and likely are not considered one of your clients “partner” firms.
  25. Constantly look for ways to help clients. Whether about their legal needs or as importantly, their personal agendas and objectives, keep clients on your radar at all times. Help them as they maneuver internal politics, try to find a new job, advance their own career and expertise; they need school and medical referrals, or introduce them to a civic or charitable leadership opportunity. Clients are people who struggle with many of the same challenges you do. If you are helpful, reliable, resourceful and produce the results they seek, you will engender loyalty and develop client fans who can become your best sales force.