Recommending that law firms seek client feedback has become so commonplace and widespread in the industry that the advice is almost clichéd. That being said, it continues to surprise me that many law firms do not take advantage of the opportunity to seek routine, reliable input from the consumers of their services. In my experience as a law firm leader and consultant, asking clients to provide candid comments about the services that a law firm provides can be essential to developing successful strategies as well as deepening relationships. In almost every other service industry where expensive, expert services are provided, there is a premium placed on the consumer’s views about the state of the relationship and the value received for the money spent.
In my past life as a firm managing partner for client relations, I designed and oversaw several third-party client feedback programs and personally sought out feedback from hundreds of my law firm’s clients. My efforts left me convinced that the benefits of meeting firm clients and soliciting feedback is the best—and, frankly, the only—way to ensure that a law firm is providing the level of services and value that clients expect and need. One important lesson I learned from doing client feedback myself was the need to listen and listen carefully before I spoke. I would like to share some of my insights in the form of “Eight Ways That Listening to Clients Will Improve Your Law Firm and Add Value to Your Client Relationships.”
Reason 1: Your Law Firm Looks Different From the Outside
Law firm managers think that they know their firm. Of course, the view from the inside of any firm is unique and valuable in managing a firm, setting strategy, dealing with fiscal hygiene, and developing high-performing and effective firm governance. The insider’s perspective is naturally somewhat flawed by virtue of the fact that it can never appreciate the experience and perspective of the consumer of the firm’s services. I will share my first experience reading candid comments from clients about the law firm I helped lead and believed I knew inside and out after 30 years of practice. I was floored by how many ways my views about the firm diverged from that of our clients. Practices that I believed were premier were seen as mid-market; partners whom I believed were service all-stars were rated as mediocre; and reputations I thought were well-established were barely known in many corners of the market. It is sobering and incredibly enlightening to see your law firm the way your clients see it. The reflection of a law firm through the mirror of the firm’s clients is candid and often unforgiving, but just about as valuable a self-assessment learning tool that exists.
Reason 2: There Is No Better Succession Planning Tool
Many firms at present are grappling with partners nearing retirement age and maintaining a stranglehold on their client relationships. The “boomers” are working longer and for a variety of reasons are reluctant to let go of client relationships without a struggle. One of the most striking aspects of third-party client feedback is the candor provided by clients about what is working and not working in the relationship. I suppose I should not have been so surprised by the fact that many clients who were pleased with their relationship partners also expressed deep concerns about the fact that senior partners were not introducing more junior partners to the relationship. Clients associated with very senior partners used the feedback opportunity to communicate with firm leadership the necessity for succession planning and a deeper bench of talent to ensure future, ongoing client services. Client feedback is invaluable in law firm management efforts to effectuate successful succession planning and institutionalize important, long-term client relationships to protect the economic success and the future of the law firm.
Reason 3: Eliminate the Filter and the Bias
The simple fact is that a relationship partner rarely wants or seeks candid client feedback. The classic comment of the law firm relationship partner when it comes to clients falls into the category of: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The pervasive attitude I observed during my tenure as a managing partner was that seeking comments from clients was “looking for trouble” and something to be avoided at any cost. Some partners viewed the suggestion that a third party should interview clients as an insult and actively or passively resisted management’s attempts to set up and complete client feedback interviews. I heard every excuse imaginable, from bad timing to political infighting by new in-house staff. This was in furtherance of efforts to forestall the inevitable and head off having someone sit down with their clients without the relationship partner to filter and edit the comments. This reflects, in my mind, a none too subtle form of self-interest. The more the relationship partner balks, the more management should insist on having a third party sit down and ask the client to assess the relationship, the firm’s services, the value provided, and the ways in which things could be improved. Firm partners do not “own” clients. It is in a law firm’s long-term interest to make certain that the culture of the firm enforces the view that all clients are clients of the firm, not the personal property of any partner. Third-party client interviews eliminate the filter and the bias often associated with a relationship partner’s reports of client satisfaction.
Reason 4: Demonstrate Your Firm’s Commitment to Its Clients
There is no clearer message that a law firm is committed to client focus and adding value to its client relationships than sending an emissary out to meet the client and solicit input on the ways in which to deepen the relationship and add more value. This is materially different than “pitching for more work.” The client feedback session is dedicated solely to the interests of the client. The experienced interviewer comes in after doing his or her homework and with a list of relevant questions to elicit a better understanding of the overall state of the relationship, touching on everything from legal work product to billing statements, with a list of suggestions for making the relationship more valuable to the client. Suggestions such as offering secondments, free legal issue briefings, credited CLE, or more collaborative billing statements are generally a good start and welcomed by clients. This approach is a demonstration that the firm is committed to making the relationship better, and not just focused on its own interest in increasing revenues.
Reason 5: Dig Into the Client’s Business and Industry Challenges
Starting each session with a deep dive into a client’s business and industry challenges is one of the first steps to customizing the message on value. As a preliminary to any feedback meeting, a close read of the media feed, corporate filings, and website of a client is a must. This can then be followed credibly with an initial set of probing questions into the challenges the company is facing, what is keeping its executives and GC up at night, and where the company sees its future. If you leave with nothing else, the answers to these questions are worth every penny of the expense of the exercise. Not only does the exercise demonstrate a strong knowledge base and interest, but it often develops into a discussion of areas in which the company might need legal or other services. In my experience, it also creates a common bond between the firm and its clients and a commitment to problem-solve together.
Reason 6: Strengthen Client Collaboration Efforts at the Firm
I assume as a premise that most successful law firms today are seeking ways to encourage collaboration in providing legal services to clients. This mindset involves moving from the more transactional model of handling one-off deals and cases to one where a team of lawyers are focused collaboratively on solving multidimensional, complex business problems for clients. Nothing focuses and reinforces robust client-focused teams more than the opportunity to seek input from the clients they service and to have the chance to tailor services to a client’s expressed needs. Why guess at what the client values when you can ask directly and get exactly the information needed? Firm management can then take that powerful information back to the group of lawyers in the firm charged with the responsibility that the client receives the best, most responsive and valuable customized services. Client feedback strengthens and empowers collaboration in the firm and allows firms to take their practices upmarket by holding front-of-mind position when clients face more complex legal and business challenges.
Reason 7: Provide Clients a Place at the Table
Perhaps the most concrete way to create and empower a robust law firm Client Collaboration Program is to invite clients to take a seat at the table and join the conversation. Imagine having a client team so transparent and client-focused that it invites the client representatives to join in the discussions directly, and contribute to the proposals about how and where to add value. Listening to clients can move a firm from a formal client feedback program to the logical next step of inviting the client representatives to be part of the collaboration and participate directly in the value discussion.
Reason 8: Client Feedback Is Invaluable to Informing Strategy, Managing Talent, and Improving Services
Listening to your clients can lead to business opportunities and head off misunderstandings or a breakdown in the relationship. Asking clients to provide candid input about other law firm providers can inform a firm about ways that competitors are providing better or different services. Thinking about lateral partner acquisitions, opening a new office, promoting an associate, or having a conversation with a partner about performance: What better source for input than soliciting the views of the relevant firm clients? Many strategic management decisions might be significantly improved by asking clients their views and really listening to what they say.
In summary, I am more than a fan of soliciting client feedback; I am convinced that it is the very best way that a law firm can guarantee that its most precious assets—its client relationships—are being nurtured, protected, and expanded. A firm that does not unlock the dynamic force of the feedback from its consumer base risks not only its economic success but also its future.