Lawyers are professional service providers. Which means, in addition to merely performing analysis and exercising judgment, you have to actually communicate with people. And people are going to try to communicate with you. Clients, potential clients, opposing counsel, colleagues, courts, etc, all vying for access to you.
If you’re doing it right, you won’t have enough time to answer every inquiry as it comes in. Which means, if you don’t have a system for effectively answering these inquiries, your service will suffer, you’ll miss new client opportunities and you’ll commit malpractice.
Of course you’ll also need to set boundaries. Whether it be setting “business hours” after which you refuse to answer phone calls, texts and emails, limiting inquiries to a scheduled times or turning off your smartphone entirely, too much access is a productivity crusher.
Your system for answering inquiries also needs to help you understand from where your clients come. If you do not track the source of your clients, you will have a hard time deciding what’s working and what’s not. For example, are any of those lawyer directory subscriptions paying off?
So, what’s a busy lawyer to do? Here are some pros and cons of common options.
Answering Your Own Inquiries As They Arrive
While this is common, for most attorneys, it’s not really an option. You can’t answer your phone while you’re in court. You shouldn’t answer your phone while you’re meeting with a client. And getting constantly interrupted by inquiries destroys productivity, concentration and work flow. As you can see, this “system” breaks down fast. And it doesn’t scale, at all. You’re on the front lines of every single inquiry. Whether it be your next big client or someone trying to sell you online advertising.
On the hand, responding to inquiries like this does allow you control your first impressions. After all, your client intake process is critical to your success.
Responding to Your Own Inquiries As Soon As You Can
Once they realize that “answering inquiries as they arrive” isn’t really an option, most lawyers I know turn to some form of answering “when they can.” Which, if you have an effective system for getting things done, can work, at least at lower volumes.
If you adopt this system, I strongly encourage you to create several daily response times. Meaning, you set aside some time every couple of hours (not more than 3 or 4 hours apart) to respond to inquiries. This is your best chance for balancing periods of uninterrupted work time without sacrificing client communication and missing new client opportunities.
Now, if you’re not actively seeking new clients and you are putting this system to work effectively now, by all means stick with it. Perhaps you only need to analyze and tweak it from time to time to understand how well it’s working in terms of responding to clients and others in a way that represents your values and priorities.
However, as your reputation and book of business grow, it’s likely that you’re going to find that even this system has limitations. And it’s not uncommon to hit a point where you simply have trouble keeping up. And since you’re still on the front lines for all inquiries, you’re going to have to weed through inquiry trash.
Further, if you’re in engaged in any advertising, whether online or offline, you’re going to miss potential clients. Now, you might contend that people who aren’t willing to exercise patience, leave you a message and await your response, aren’t the type of people you want for clients. And that’s fine. But then I’d suggest you’re wasting your money on advertising.
The bottom line is that most people have short attention spans. They’re impatient. They want instant gratification. You can hate this. You can avoid these people to the best of your ability. But don’t waste your time and money trying to attract people and then expecting them to wait for you. They won’t.
For many lawyers delegating the role of front-line inquiry fielding to someone else will make the most sense.
In-House Inquiry Answering
If you get to the point that your time is better spent doing other things than serving at the front-lines of inquiries, it’s time to start considering how to delegate that role. Of course, this doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Perhaps you only delegate fielding inquiries during certain times of day.
If you’re a solo, with no staff, you’re going to have to run the cost-benefit numbers of hiring some help. It’s rare that hiring a full-time receptionist makes sense for a solo practitioner. However, if you have support staff who you’re already paying, and who have bandwidth to field inquiries, that’s probably your best bet.
Of course, delegating front-line inquiry answering is probably going to be both uncomfortable and liberating at first. If you’ve been accustomed to making first impressions and like having control over that experience, you’re going to have to spend some time getting this new person up-to-snuff.
However, you’ll also likely notice just how much more productive and effective you are without the constant interruptions.
Once you make the switch to delegated inquiry response, make sure you have systems in place to measure and monitor whether inquiries are being handled the way that you want them to be. Pay particular attention to:
- The speed with which inquiries are getting responded to.
- The quality of the responses (do they meet your professional standards).
- The efficiency of the responses (are solicitors being identified and filtered effectively? are clients given priority access?).
- Missed inquiries (does the phone ever go unanswered?)
If hiring a dedicated in-house receptionist doesn’t make economic sense for your practice, perhaps you can outsource it.
Outsourced Inquiry Answering
Outsourcing isn’t an inherently bad idea. But if you’re going to outsource answering inquiries, you better partner with people you trust, as well as, have a reliable system in place to track their performance.
If you decide to outsource your front-line inquiry answering, here’s some advice:
- Avoid Automation – I strongly recommend that you don’t answer your phones with a recording or your emails with a generic autoresponder (unless you’re on vacation). It might be tempting to have a recorded message or automated menu options answer your phone. Don’t do it. You are guaranteed to miss opportunities.
- Multiple Notifications – I also recommend that you get multiple forms of notifications when someone inquires. Email and/or text messages come to mind. Get in your face reminders when people reach out to you.
- A Clear System – Provide your outsourced answering person with very clear instructions about how you’d like the phone answered, how you’d like calls prioritized, distributed, screened, etc. Don’t rely on someone else to try to make important decisions about whether or not you want to take on a caller as a new client.
Of course, outsourcing doesn’t relieve you of your obligations to communicate with clients and respond to important inquiries. You still need a system for responding and communicating with people professionally. But you don’t necessarily have to answer every phone call. Here’s how Sam does it. Remember, even the best virtual receptionists aren’t perfect (though I think Ruby is darn good, we them too).
While this post tended to focus on phone inquiries, there are obviously many other ways that people will try to inquire. Email, web forms and social networking tools all provide people more access to us. And how we manage all of those other types of inquiries are just as important as how we answer the phone.
So how are inquiries answered at your firm? What systems do you have in place to measure inquiry answering quality?
(Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dagoaty/4433773988/)