Relationships matter

By Cheryl J. Leone

Relationships matter

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:

  1. Test your people! What do they know personally about the client or caller?
  2. Reward relationship conversations. Provide time for firm members to share experiences.
  3. Encourage firm members to share something personal about themselves with others.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

We mentor and train lawyers and staff in high performance staff attributes. For more information email cjleone@catalystgroupinc.com.

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Strategic Planning for a Law Firm

Before I begin the strategic planning process, I always ask what the values and purpose of the business are. Strategic planning is related to what the defined product of the business is. If you manufacture cars, the definition of your product is easy. But what are you selling if your business is a law firm? I have heard answers that include a financial settlement, justice, client peace of mind, or a settled case. When I ask about purpose, I have heard answers such as make money, be recognized as a leader, help people, serve justice, or punish evildoers. There is no one right answer; however, there is an answer that matches your values and your purpose.

I once asked a law firm owner what his secret to success was and he said to always focus on the questions how much and how fast. That set of questions would suggest that the business was focused on making money, but if you read their vision or mission statements, you would get the idea that their purpose was client satisfaction. When I asked which it was, making money or client satisfaction, he said both. I pointed out that most surveys by the bar associations would suggest that money was not the goal of most clients, he was shocked. I often find a mismatch between the vision of the business and what the perception of success is.

To continue with this example and the ‘how much’ component, I discovered another surprise. I asked for some good examples of cases that would represent the ideal and they were all high dollar settlements. That was no surprise, but what was a surprise was the realization that all but one of the examples lost money. By that, I mean that the return on investment for those cases was negative. When I looked at the performance measurements for the business, they were focused on how much revenue was being generated, not profit, client satisfaction or realizing the vision.

If I stand back and look at the big picture, it is not very clear what the business is about. That leads to my next question – what was the focus of the strategic plan? Well, no surprise here, there was no strategic plan. The business was being built on the brute force philosophy. This is my term for a process that pushes resources until they produce a profit.

One of the benefits of a strategic plan is a chance to look at all the elements of the business. To start the planning process, you identify the values and principles that are important. We talked about that element in an earlier blog (Get Ready to Build a Strategic Plan). The next step is to define the deliverable of the business along with its characteristics. Next, you develop a list of the resources you need to produce your deliverable. To stay on track, you create a set of metrics that will measure your deliverable. If you have all of that defined, you can stand back and ask how fast can I deliver and how much revenue can I generate.

Law firms measure financial results with real consistency, but beyond financial measurement, we find very little else is tracked and what we do find is often not connected to the firms’ strategies. What would be nice would be an approach that enables the business to track performance in four primary categories: financial, internal operations, client satisfaction, and staff. This is known as a balanced scorecard. Now you can get a true picture of “how much and how fast.”

It has been our experience that improving the performance of the staff enables the Firm to improve its internal process. This increases overall efficiency and improves the return on investment measured. This enables the Firm to improve the client satisfaction and financial areas.

Did you find some neat ideas in this blog? What are the exciting ideas you came up with, and how are you implementing them? Let me know by contacting me at dwfavor@catalystgroupinc.com.

Catalyst Group is a national mentoring company that works with professional practices and small businesses in designing common-sense plans that incorporate profitable business practices with a balanced work life.

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Don’t Skip That Vacation

Vacation Time!

If you found a way to increase productivity or improve your chances of a promotion, would you do it? One easy option: take your vacation. Think about it. When you take a real vacation – that means leaving work at work – it allows you to rekindle your creative side and recharges your batteries. If you vacation with your family, you get the added benefit of creating memories and building those relationships.

We hear a lot of excuses from business owners and managers. No one else can do the work while I’m gone. I can’t trust my employees to handle the financial end of things. My clients expect me to be available all the time. It takes too long to catch up when I get back to the office. Let me address these concerns. First, if your team is not capable of doing the work, provide training so they will learn how to handle it, then delegate. On the financial side, consider why you think you cannot trust your team. In any event, most financial matters can be pre-scheduled or automated. As for your clients, most clients understand that you have a personal life, too. With advance warning and notice of who they may contact in your absence, most people are fine with you taking a vacation. Finally, we agree it can take some time to play catch-up but replenishing your energy and motivation will allow you to catch up more quickly.

More than half of Americans (52%) do not use all their vacation days (U.S. Travel Association’s Project Time Off, 2017). As leaders, we need to encourage all team members to take use their vacation days and set an example by taking our own vacations. Be forewarned: I’ll be on vacation January 29 to February 4th cruising with Mickey, Minnie, and a 5 year old granddaughter. I’ll talk to you all when I return!

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Law Firm Strategy for 2019

What’s your strategy for 2019? When we talk about strategic planning, many law firm owners immediately become overwhelmed with the thought of having to develop a long, detailed document outlining their strategies for the year. Stop! You do not have to spend weeks writing a formal plan that will likely end up forgotten. On the other hand, every law firm success story we know of all have one thing in common: they all had a strategic plan in place that created a direction for a defined vision. These plans were not always long and involved, but in every case the owners knew what they wanted and made a map to get there. That is all strategic planning is.

A simple strategic plan

We know you are busy but taking time to develop at least an outline of a plan can help generate success for your firm in 2019. Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

  1. Set aside dedicated time to work on your growth plan. This might be an hour a week that you put on your calendar and insist on no interruptions.
  2. Start with your vision for the firm, then add in goals for 2019.
  3. Define who will accomplish these goals and how they will be measured.
  4. Meet with your team to share your vision and goals. Get their input before you finalize the plan. Buy-in from the team will help you accomplish more. Once the plan is finalized, make sure everyone knows they will be held accountable for the goals assigned to them.
  5. We recommend an annual law firm retreat. During the retreat, you will define your vision and goals for 2019. These become the basis of your strategic plan.

If you stay the way you are you will always be the way you are. Turn your New Year’s Resolutions into a firm strategic plan and do it! Hold yourself accountable. Then hold your firm members accountable to help you get there. Want to learn more about becoming a high performance, values based (and profitable) law firm? Give us a call.

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Each of Us Plays a Part

There is something deeply wrong with the moral culture of our society in this country. There has been an increase in hate crimes. There has been demonstrated a lack of belief in the value of human life. We say mean and terrible things about and to each other. Why? We believe it is a values issue. Perhaps we have become immune and put our head in the sand, assuming it is someone else’s job to fix the problem.

We must all come together to fix the problem. How? Let’s start by refusing to tolerate hate. By encouraging civility in every action. By demanding respect for all individuals. We must all take a hard look at our own values. We must come together and demand change. Firm owners and managers can take an active role in encouraging this change by defining and living their values—both personally and professionally. Give it some thought and ask yourself how you can make a difference.

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Law Firm Management Workshop

Be One of the 50

I’m excited to announce I will be co-leading a Law Firm Management Mastery Workshop on March 20-22, 2019 in Durham, NC. This 2-day hands-on Workshop includes both the law firm owner and law firm administrator/office manager/COO working on a management plan together. You will walk away with a real action plan and the tools you need to support your vision for the firm.

The Workshop is limited to 50 law firms, and there is a 100% (plus) satisfaction guarantee. Will I see you there?

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Get Your Plan On!

Strategic Planning 2019

Strategic Planning 2019Have you started planning for success in 2019? For most firms, the strategic planning process should begin during fourth quarter, so if you have not yet started, now’s the time. Many people cringe at the mention of strategic planning, but it is helpful to set your firm on the path to long-term success.

What do you need for a solid strategic plan?

  1. A GAP analysis to determine the firm’s weaknesses.
  2. Document the vision to define your goal(s).
  3. Identify resources needed (based on the GAP and the vision) to achieve your goals.
  4. Define key success measures and how you will track progress.

All four elements are needed to create a complete strategic plan—don’t skip one step because you are intimidated or uncertain. If your strategic plan is incomplete, you are less likely to implement it.

Skip the strategic plan (or any one of the four elements), and you are doomed before you begin. To have a plan that produces a positive return on investment you have to design it, implement it, and measure the results. This should be a long range plan with a useful and valid set of defined goals and measurements. There is nothing wrong with refining the plan as new information is generated, but don’t waste time creating a notebook that will never be opened. Need help? Give us a call!

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Are Law Firm Retreats Valuable?

We often have clients ask us if law firm retreats are valuable. Our answer? A resounding “yes”! A law firm retreat allows you to set aside dedicated time and space once a year (or more often) to focus on the vision and goals for the firm and develop a plan to support meeting these goals. This dedicated time – without interruptions – allows your brain to let go of day-to-day matters and really think about vision and planning.

How do we plan a retreat?

Here are a few suggestions to make your law firm retreat successful:

  1. Do not hold it at your office! It’s important to focus on planning and not be easily available to interrupt. I prefer an out-of-town retreat but a local hotel is fine.
  2. Decide who will attend the retreat. If you are worried about sharing certain details or plans with the staff, you may want to do a full-day retreat with the partners and invite the remaining staff members to come for several hours at the end. If all team members will attend, either change your voice mail and out of office email responders to indicate you are out for the day or hire a temp to answer the phones. Know this: If your people buy into your vision they will help you go forward.
  3. Put together an agenda to keep the retreat on track. Define the purpose of your retreat and what objectives you are committed to meet by the end of the session. At the end of the session, you should have goals and a task list to work toward. Good firms hold retreats every year with a theme based upon their past year plus the vision down the road.
  4. Hire an independent facilitator. While it is possible to run the retreat with in-house staff, an objective third-party can help you keep on task and focused on the longer-term vision.
  5. Don’t have money? Trust me if you have a good retreat you will make up the cost of the retreat in an increase in the firm’s revenue next year. Forward motion…any change for that matter…almost always results in increased revenue.

Now is the time of year to plan your retreat. Do not let another year go by! And if you are the sole practitioner, then go off by yourself for 2 days and dream, believe, dare and remember the most important part…make sure you ‘do’ that which you plan! For more information or just to ask a question, email Cheryl.

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Exiting a Business

Attorney Rebecca Britton has a great article on her website titled, The Importance of an Exit Plan for Business Owners. Whether you are planning on retiring and selling the firm, or transferring ownership to a partner, there are a number of things you must consider. Read the article.

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24 Hours in a Day

One of the popular questions we get at our seminars is; why do I run out of time each week? They will tell us how they set up goals and priorities but still run out of time. The simple answer is, you must factor in the standard list of priorities (basic needs and relationships).

Many things take longer than you anticipate. You may have a one hour doctor’s appointment, but do not take into account filling out the new patient paperwork in advance, driving to and from the appointment, and the quick stop for gas on the way there. Your one hour appointment just turned into a two and a half hour period away from the office. And when you have to rely on another person to get things done (in this case the doctor), their delay may impact your priority list.

It’s normal to occasionally miss your goals, but when it becomes a regular thing, it’s time to take a new look at how you allocate your time. When you set your daily and weekly goals and priorities, make sure you leave time for those standard things that must be done. This will ensure you have a much more realistic chance of completing your personal and professional goals.

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