Fiona Martin, marketing director and head of employment law at Martin Searle Solicitors, explores how some lawyers are still failing to deliver customer service – and losing business as a result. (Updated 27 March 2023)
Your clients are better informed, more demanding and prepared to move if they do not get the service they want. They pay for a premium service, and they expect it.
But they compare the service they get from lawyers with the service they get from other service providers – personally or in business – and they don't like it. As survey after survey shows, too many lawyers deliver the legal expertise customers need, but fail to deliver the customer service they want.
Clients and lawyers vary, but the same core issues come up again and again. Address these and you win.
Every lawyer knows that understanding client needs is an essential part of the service. Where lawyers differ is in how they put that into practice.
Too often, the process is geared to identifying what legal services can be provided. Instead of really listening to what the client is saying, you're waiting for them to stop talking so that you can get started.
It's easy to be impatient, particularly when you've heard a similar story from dozens of clients before. But clients need the chance to tell their story. And they need to know that you are genuinely interested. Nobody likes being patronised or ignored.
If you have a continuing relationship with the client, that interest needs to go further. As well as paying attention to what they are telling you now, clients want you to anticipate their future needs. They expect you to help stave off potential problems and capitalise on opportunities, rather than just reacting to what has already happened.
"Problem solvers are reactive; trusted advisors are proactive. Trusted advisors sit at the table when strategic decisions are being made. They take the time to understand their clients' needs and goals."
Scott Simmons, BD coach and trainer, Legal Balance
Solve my problem
Lawyers tend to think in terms of input – the legal advice they can give and its quality. But clients take the quality of your advice for granted. What concerns them is the output – getting a good result and being able to move on.
It's by listening to them that you find out what the client thinks a good result would be – their priorities and expectations. You have the opportunity to manage those expectations, making sure that the client knows what is realistic. A precedent-setting settlement might delight you, but leave a client deeply disappointed.
Don't underestimate the importance of speed. For a client in pain – upset about a divorce, or nervous about the future of their company, or under pressure from their boss to improve their performance – the longer it takes the longer they suffer. Speed may not be of the essence legally – does it matter whether your client gets the decree absolute today or in a month's time? – but it makes a difference emotionally.
"Clients can't directly judge your legal expertise. So they look for a track record of success working with similar clients or in the same industry."
Bruce Roxburgh, co-founder, Roxburgh Milkins
Look out for any bad habits you have fallen into. Make a conscious effort to do better.
- Multi-tasking when you are supposed to be listening.
- Ignoring calls and messages because you have no progress to report.
- Palming clients off on an associate when you know it's you they want to talk to.
- Failing to live up to your promises.
- Arrogance – for example, assuming you know what is best for the client.
- Being too consultative – clients want clear advice and recommendations.
Keep me informed
Frequent communication is vital to maintain a good relationship. Make it clear from the outset how and when you will keep the client informed. Clients want regular progress updates, even if that's just to hear that you're still waiting for something to happen.
Clients who are happy with how you keep them updated are less likely to feel the need to over-communicate.In any event, be responsive when they contact you. It's not unreasonable for clients to expect a reply to calls and emails within 24 hours. Look for opportunities to use technology to improve communication – for example, sharing information online through a live matters dashboard.
Unless the client asks you, there's no need to explain the legal intricacies of what you are up to – clients want you to solve their problem, not teach them law. Explain the practical implications of what's happening and any choices they need to make. Advise them on the best course to take, without legal jargon.
Above all, keep your promises. If you say you'll call tomorrow, do it without fail.
"When you apologise to a client for taking so long to get back to them because you were busy, all they hear is that someone else was more important to you."
Rob Hailstone, founder and CEO, Bold Legal Group
How can you stand out as excellent in the way you serve your key clients?
- Invest in learning about their business and industry, at your own expense. Think of this as part of your continuing professional development.
- Second associates to work in the client's offices. Offer to attend their project meetings (at no extra cost).
- Be positive. Focus on solving problems, rather than highlighting all the difficulties that need to be overcome.
- Let your client set the service standards. Ask them how often they need updates, how they want them and so on.
- Be proactive. Let them know about upcoming issues that might affect them. Put together seminars (either in-house or open) on issues that they are interested in.
- Keep the client informed about costs. Grasp the nettle if costs start to overrun.
- Take ownership when things go wrong. Empathise with the difficulty it is causing the client, rather than rushing to defend yourself or assign blame.
- Go the extra mile personally. Fit in with the client's other commitments.
Different clients can have very different attitudes to price. Some are very price-conscious, for others cost is less of an issue than quality. Domestic conveyancing has become largely commoditised while high-value practice areas like mergers & acquisitions remain relatively immune.
But what all clients value is transparency in pricing. They want to know how costs are calculated. If you aren't working to a fixed fee, they at least want a clear indication of the likely total. And they want prompt, accurate bills.
Even where clients are less price-sensitive, they expect value for money. In part, that means providing a standard of service that justifies your hourly rate. It means looking at ways to lower costs, for example by using technology or outsourcing low-value work. And it means avoiding irritating charges for administrative tasks like photocopying.
Client care standards
The Law Society Lexcel Standard for legal practices recognises the importance of client care as part of practice management. It sets out the kind of policies and procedures your law firm should have in place.
What it doesn't cover is attitude. The way you – and everyone else at your firm – approach client care is fundamental to delivering the service clients want.
Meeting the Lexcel Standard is a good starting point, but you can do more. The best law firms aim to provide outstanding care and exceed expectation – for each individual client.
Getting feedback from your clients is the best way to understand how well you are delivering what they want – and what you can do to improve.
In many other businesses, it's routine to conduct a post-engagement review. Take the client to lunch and ask how they feel the project went. Ask them to say what they weren't happy about or liked least, and how they think you could have done better. Ask how you compare to other lawyers and professional advisers they use.
Ask clients if they are happy to recommend you. Analyse recommendations and repeat business to see how different lawyers in the firm compare. Is that the nature of their practice area and clients, or a reflection of levels of client satisfaction?
Consider following up lower-value clients with a survey asking similar questions. Reach out to all twenty of your most important clients to see what they think. Follow up with clients who have stopped using you, or with the biggest reduction in billings, to find out what has gone wrong. Then use what you learn to do better.
"Regular real-time how-are-we-doing-on-a score-of-1-to-5 client feedback and quality control is far better than sending occasional questionnaires out at the end of a case."
Simon McCrum, managing director, McCrum Consulting
What clients want top ten
- Really listen; focus all your attention on what the client is saying.
- Be patient; let them tell you when they've said everything they need to.
- Make sure you understand what the client wants to achieve and their priorities.
- Manage expectations.
- Routinely update clients on progress; let them know if you are going to miss a deadline.
- Be responsive when clients contact you.
- Keep your promises; if possible, under promise and over deliver.
- Be transparent about your pricing.
- Deliver value for money.
- Ask for feedback and look to continuously improve the service you provide.