The most common complaint made by lawyers is that the constant flow of interruptions (phone calls and emails) throughout the day prevents them from getting any work done. However, the most common complaint made against lawyers is the failure to respond to clients.
Fixing these two problems may seem like a zero-sum game, like you can’t correct one without worsening the other. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the move to stop taking unscheduled phone calls in my practice simultaneously increased my productivity and client satisfaction.
My improved productivity is probably not a surprise but why would client satisfaction increase? I think it happens for a few reasons.
- The common complaint “my lawyer didn’t get back to me” really means that the client would like to know that their matter is being handled and progressing, that someone is listening and helping, or something along those lines. Those underlying needs can often be addressed by a team member who isn’t a lawyer, and I would bet money that a properly trained team member with the right personality will do it better than you. If the matter does require a lawyer, the call is scheduled so the client knows that you now have time set aside to contact them and assist.
- Scheduling calls guarantees that the client gets a response from you. That means less chance of things getting missed or falling through the cracks.
- Phone calls are more productive since you have a chance to prepare before the call.
- When something is available in limited quantities, we automatically assume it is more valuable and higher quality and we desire it more. When clients know your time is limited but they have a spot reserved in your busy schedule they feel special and are more appreciative, not to mention we’ve noticed they are more inclined to be punctual and respectful of your time.
You might worry about losing potential new clients if you don’t answer the phone every time it rings but scheduling all calls has increased our engagement rate as well. The potential new client speaks with a team member who is able to give some initial information and schedule an initial phone call with me. The key is to help the potential new client feel heard and clearly set out their next steps.
Your practice doesn’t need to be chaotic. You can take large volumes of phone calls in an organized, calm, and deliberate way that makes your clients happy and helps you be more productive. Here is the process I followed to stop taking unscheduled calls:
1. Create rules for your Calendar.
I decided the times each day during which phone calls can be scheduled. I do my best work in the morning, so on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday my phone calls are scheduled in the afternoons when my energy and focus typically dips. On Thursdays, phone calls can be scheduled any time during the morning or afternoon since I try to schedule deep focus work earlier in the week. I do not take phone calls on Fridays.
I set rules for how far in advance calls need to be booked and how close together calls can be booked.
My calendar has “flex time” built-in where I can make calls or send emails even if a true emergency disrupts my schedule. Every practice area is different and you might have legitimate things that unexpectedly upset your schedule. Build some flexibility into your calendar to account for this.
2. Create a phone script to handle incoming calls.
Over thousands of inbound calls, we discovered that almost all phone calls could be grouped into three categories. We created a detailed decision tree/phone script for our Client Coordinator to follow based on those categories.
If someone asks to speak with me, the default answer is “He’s not available. Is there something I can help you with?” I am unavailable for unscheduled phone calls so even if I am in my office is the truth to say that I am unavailable. It is crucial that the person answering the phone asks they can help the caller. At this point in the conversation, we likely still don’t know the reason why the caller wants to speak with me and offering to assist will often leave the caller to disclose more information which the Client Coordinator can use to determine the appropriate next steps. Often it will be something that the Client Coordinator can help with, even if that help is scheduling a phone call.
The caller is almost never put through to my voicemail. The only exception is if the Client Coordinator is certain that the purpose of the message is only to pass along information to me and does not require a call back. The Client Coordinator explains that my voicemail messages get just get sent to her to determine how to handle them, so by speaking with the Client Coordinator they are making things move faster.
3. Train your team.
Our Client Coordinator knows the calendar rules inside and out and must follow them. The phone script decision tree has been tested out on thousands of callers and must be followed.
The Client Coordinator is not allowed to override the rules on her own and must consult me if she thinks an exception should be made – yes, sometimes I make exceptions in special circumstances. For that reason, she needs to have a good idea of what constitutes a true emergency and what does not.
Our Client Coordinator is more involved in our files than a traditional receptionist. She knows our clients very well and usually knows the status of the project we are working on for a particular client. This allows her to offer more help to the caller than a traditional receptionist could. This is where an in-house team member can provide far superior service to the client compared to a virtual receptionist.
4. Train your clients.
From the first contact with our firm, potential new clients are learning to rely on non-lawyer team members since that is who they speak with.
In my first conversation with potential new clients, I let them know that our Client Coordinator is the best point of contact since they will get a much quicker response.
New clients receive a welcome package that includes an introduction to the team, explains our roles and once again points out that I only take scheduled calls and that our Client Coordinator is the person to contact if the client needs anything. It explains the benefits to the client that come from our call scheduling policy.
New clients usually see the benefit of our call scheduling policy right away, but we have many clients who have been with us long before the policy was in place. The key to transitioning these clients to the new call scheduling policy has been to explain the benefits to them. When you are working on matters for those clients, they don’t want you to pause to take every incoming call as that type of multitasking reduces efficiency and performance and increases the chance of errors.
5. Follow the schedule.
Make sure that you are punctual making calls at the scheduled time. If you don’t follow the system, your team members and clients won’t respect it either.