He's just tried to 'phone his lawyer
Search for the key words ‘customer service’ on the Amazon web site and a list of some 80,000 book titles pops up.
There is certainly no shortage of perceived wisdom on the topic as the never-ending stream of how-to books illustrates. What this torrent suggests is that the problem is either very hard to solve or no-one has yet uncovered a foolproof approach to achieving client satisfaction.
But for lawyers, the overriding issue is just how important is client satisfaction to the success of law firms.
Customer service is often thought of as being related to retail products and services -- customer support hotlines for mobile telephone accounts spring to mind. Many of these hotlines require the customer to pay per-minute charges for obtaining simple responses to enquiries or the registering of complaints.
However, the customer often is put on hold for what seems to be an endless musical interlude. When a human being picks up, that person is frequently not able or authorised to deal with the issue and the musical interlude continues as the agent checks another point. By this stage, the customer gets frustrated and hangs up, even more dissatisfied.
Many would say that law firms don’t have similar issues. But that’s hardly the case. How many times do clients telephone but are then unable to connect with a partner or associate on a particular matter? How many times does a client ring your billing department only to be ping-ponged back and forth between members of the firm’s staff because of lack of clarity on billing? How many times has a client complained of having to pay full fees for effectively training your junior staff? How many times has a client identified proofing errors in a contract that should have been spotted by your team?
Black belt training
Sound like easy problems to solve? One would think so since by now -- we have all had our processes streamlined, gained our internationally-recognised ISO standards certificates, trained our black belts in six sigma, performed our quality audits, and conducted client surveys. We are inundated with feedback that we store it in our databases, use our customer relationship management systems to access the data and target our marketing to capture even more revenues from our clients.
But despite all these tools and methodologies, client service remains elusive for many firms. Sure, some practices may do better than their peers and gain market share as a result. But we’ve all spent so much time getting the economics of our businesses right, keeping up with regulatory issues and the latest rulings – getting the job done, as it were -- that barely enough time is spent providing service levels that delight clients.
Providing consistent client service across in a multi-cultural and multi-language environment makes the challenge even much more daunting. With pressure on cost management and cost reduction taking centre stage, client service will undoubtedly suffer unless someone decides that it is the one thing that must increase in these rough economic times. You need to decide how important happy clients are to the success of your firm. Do clients stay with you because of your expertise and execution skills? Or do they have other criteria they rely on, keeping them loyal as clients.
Indeed, client loyalty is not what it used to be, and while corporate clients are not as fickle as retail clients, law firms should not overestimate the value of ‘long standing relationships’ to recover from client service failures.
To create or improve a firm’s service culture, the first step is to get agreement among the partners as to the meaning of client service and its role in business development and client maintenance. The second step is regularly to measure client service both externally and internally and compare the perceptions. The third step is to recognise and reward great client service to reinforce that behaviour at all levels of the organisation.
None of this is should be too difficult to understand. Yet surprisingly, client service is often not explicitly recognised as part of a law firm’s overall marketing programme. If you can answer all the following questions without too much investigation, your firm is likely to have mastered this topic -- if not, perhaps it is time to get client service back on the radar.
- Do you know the client satisfaction level of the top 50 clients of your firm?
- What are the three service attributes most valued by your clients? And what are the least valued?
- Are your clients willing to pay for different service levels? How does that get reflected in your billing practices?
- How is poor service identified and corrected in the firm? Is there a formal process for learning from service mistakes?
- Is client service part of the associate/partner performance appraisal process?
Client service requires a daily obsession with keeping clients satisfied. That does not mean doing so at any price; it does mean that clients must constantly feel that value for money is constantly being achieved in their relationship with a law firm.
Robert Gogel is the chief executive of global business and legal support company Integreon