By Cheryl J. Leone
I have worked with small law firms and the mighty big law firms, and one thing is a constant: everyone has a concept of what exceptional client service is. Today it’s more critical than ever for your law firm to provide this level of service. Frankly, it does not always happen.
In strategy sessions with the powers-to-be in a law firm, I love to let them espouse the needs of the client and how the firm meets them. Then I ask them to show me the data that proves they are doing what the client wants. Without fail, the benchmarks for client service are designed by the people who are trying to provide it. I would suggest they design the measures based on their stake in the game. You have to learn to think like your clients or potential clients.
First you must understand today’s legal consumer. Hear this: today’s clients are more knowledgeable than ever before. They do not believe a J. D. degree makes you the expert. Before they even talk to you, they have done some internet research and probably feel they could do your job (sort of like my internet “medical degree” that my doctor insists on ignoring!). When they call your firm, I promise you they already know (or think they know) what needs to be done. They want to give you their opinion on the case. From their perspective, the question then becomes why they should hire you over the firm down the road. You will be hired when the client service they experience with your firm is better than the experience they had with the last firm they contacted.
The secret of extraordinary client service is simple. People want relationships! They don’t care how smart you are, how many cases you handle, how many big verdicts you get (well, maybe some do, but that doesn’t pay the day to day bills), and how much you talk about what you can do. They want you to care about them and their case. They want to believe that you hear them and are on their side.
I love Malcolm Gladwell and his book, Blink. In the book, he explains that we make decisions on things within a few seconds. Most people then take a great deal of time justifying that same decision they instinctively knew at the beginning. All of this is paraphrased of course. That initial impression is critical. The better your firm is at making an extraordinary impression, the faster a prospective client will get on board. If this is true (and I believe it is, as I am the quickest intuitive decision makers you will ever meet), then imagine potential clients making the same quick decision about you. If you only had 10 seconds to impress someone, what would you do?
I am convinced – and will lay my reputation and company on the line – that what people want is a warm, fuzzy and friendly relationship. If they sense that in you from the outset, you just got yourself a new client. In fact, I think today’s society is starved for relationships, and it becomes much more important than we realize.
To have a relationship with someone you have to put yourself out there and have a genuine interest in the client caller. Your clock is ticking as soon as you open your mouth. One of my programs involves an explanation of the Disney experience. At Disney, there are tunnels with doors opening out into the crowds. Before anyone steps through the door, there is a full-length mirror you must stand in front of with a sign that says, “Check your image, check your smile, you are about to go on stage.” In teaching law firm members, I borrow their trick. At each phone is a card that says, “Smile, you are about to go on stage.”
What is the best step you can take at your law firm? Begin a potential relationship by putting your best, friendliest, happiest, most optimistic person on your staff on the front desk. And pay them well. Lawyer Ken Hardison can tell you that I discovered a fabulous potential new hire for him while staying at a hotel. I was surprised how she had the guests laughing and talking to each other during a time when she couldn’t handle the crowd. I told her if she ever needed an office job to give Ken a call; she did and was hired. She turned out to be his best employee ever. She wasn’t very good at ‘office stuff,’ but Ken didn’t care. He paid her well to be herself. Ken would get daily compliments on her. She was a country girl who knew how to make people feel she genuinely cared for them (and she did). I am convinced she made tons of money for the firm by creating relationships for Ken.
Firm members, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, for the most part, don’t know how to be an empath (someone who can intuitively feel and perceive others). That is where training comes in. You get your people to start understanding that relationships with clients or callers are just like relationships outside the firm. You want to provide the WOW factor to everyone, one client at a time. For example, teach your people to talk about the weather (seriously). The phone rings and the caller asks to speak to someone. Your person immediately should establish a personal connection. “Glad you called. I am going to get someone to talk with you now. How are you doing today with this snow?” That prompts a short dialog. Isn’t that much better than saying, “One moment please…”?
Anyone who takes the new caller has to spend the first few minutes chit chatting. I call it the southern lawyer approach – picture your foot up on the fence post while you are talking about the crops. It is never about business those first few minutes. If you do it right, you can feel the caller bonding with you. Share something personal. Use words of understanding as you talk; it sounds corny, but it works. Here is a hint: Talk to the person like you would talk to your grandmother or grandfather. Respectful. Understanding. Caring. Interested.
In the end, it is not about exceptional client service. It is about extraordinary client service. The difference is relationship driven. Want a client service program that works? Here are some ideas:
- Test your people! What do they know personally about the client or caller?
- Reward relationship conversations. Provide time for firm members to share experiences.
- Encourage firm members to share something personal about themselves with others.
- Create client awareness areas. If you walk by a client, you are to stop, introduce yourself, ask how they are, AND LISTEN. By the way, forbid personal gossip or shop talk around clients in waiting areas. If you have time to do that, talk to the client.
- Stop the waiting game. If clients are waiting to see you or someone in the firm you are very old school. Be mindful of what their needs are, not yours.
- Know what you are selling to the client. Is it a financial reward? Revenge? Understanding? Each client is different but, in the end, they want what they want. Learn to deliver.
Back many years ago I saw a lawyer try his heart out on a case with a client that the firm adored. The firm believed in the case and the people. The firm members all interacted with the clients, and they were genuinely liked. Unfortunately, the jury came up with one of those dumb decisions that seem to occur now and then. The firm as a whole was devastated, and you can imagine how the attorney felt. The next morning the client and her husband showed up with homemade baked goods for the entire firm. They wanted the firm to know they didn’t blame them and wanted to show how much it meant to them to have the members of the firm in their lives. And many personal referrals ensued. That, my friends, is relationship marketing.
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