Without clients, your law practice can’t survive, regardless of your technical excellence. Your clients’ expectations will color their experience with your firm, and the better your clients’ experience, the more loyal and satisfied they’ll feel. To get the most satisfied clients, you have to identify, manage and exceed clients’ expectations. Ultimately, that translates into more work and more referrals for your firm.
Your clients depend on you not just for your professional advice, but for your ability to guide them through the process. Much of the friction that arises in the attorney-client relationship arises not from the lawyer’s technical legal abilities, but as a result of the lawyer’s failure to be a good guide for the client. Don’t overlook the value of leading the client through the process and providing them with the tools and information to understand that process in addition to discussing the legal realities of their situation.
The legal system may be a completely new and foreign experience for a client. It is often emotional, anxiety-producing and confusing. Clients value lawyers who have a good ‘bedside manner,’ who understand their business, who are trustworthy, and who reduce their anxiety and provide peace of mind. Being a good guide for your clients accomplishes many of those aims.
Good communication and setting expectations with the client at the beginning of the engagement are essential to creating the proper tone for the engagement and establishing your role as guide and leader.
Identify Clients’ Expectations
Your client’s expectations will control the engagement and their perception of the value that you provide. Don’t leave it to chance that you’ll meet them naturally; find out what they are.
Clients have expectations about outcome and services, but seemingly identical clients do not have identical wants and needs. Two clients with different objectives or goals may require different legal services, a different approach, and a different fee structure even if the clients appear to have the same problem or issue to be resolved.
To ascertain the client’s expectations, ask questions and be sure to LISTEN to the client’s response. Resist jumping in with your solution or interrupting. Ask questions about the substance of the client’s matter and their desired outcome, but do not forget to ask about the client’s expectations about things like frequency and mode of communication, availability and accessibility, prior experience with the legal industry or with this particular issue and expectations about budget and fees.
Manage Clients’ Expectations
Are the client’s expectations realistic? As the professional, you must play a role in defining and re-shaping what some of those needs, wants and expectations are and should be, based upon your own expertise and experience.
Once the client has defined their expectations, discuss the potential pitfalls of the client’s desired course of action and the risks in taking or failing to take an alternate course of action. Explore the likelihood that the client’s objectives and expectations can realistically be met. Provide the client with options.
Some define good client service as determining the client’s wants, and then delivering exactly that and nothing more. That is short-sighed and a disservice to clients. Clients hire lawyers for their expertise, advice and experience. Sometimes what the client ‘thinks’ they want is, upon further reflection or exploration, not in the client’s best interests. When a lawyer is able to suggest different alternatives that would better meet the client’s needs, or more effectively accomplish the client’s goals, it is incumbent upon the lawyer to do so. It is good business and your clients will appreciate it.
Creativity and innovation in the approach to a client’s problems may be the best value a firm delivers. A mindset that places a premium on the client’s stated wants and disregards the firm’s ability to assess the situation and suggest alternatives, is a huge loss for clients and de-values the importance of hiring an attorney. It’s this kind of thinking that leads people to the conclusion that legal services are a mere commodity.
Outline the process. What better way to build trust than to outline the process for the client at the beginning of your work together? The client’s trust in your abilities and your advice will be reinforced at each stage of the engagement. Create a basic document that outlines each step in the process that the client’s matter will go through.
Define the scope of work. Difficulties arise between lawyers and clients when there is a misunderstanding or lack of agreement about the scope of the work to be performed and the manner in which that work is performed. These items should be discussed in detail with the client and incorporated into your representation agreement.
Develop ‘FAQs’. You probably get asked the same questions over and over from different clients (or even from the same client at different points in the process). Start creating a list of those “Frequently Asked Questions” along with appropriate answers to those questions so that you aren’t caught off guard.
Exceed Clients’ Expectations
Meeting expectations may satisfy your client, but will it ‘wow” them enough to return in the future or refer other clients? Instead of simply meeting clients’ expectations, strive to exceed them. Under-promise and over-deliver; it creates increased profits by increasing client loyalty.
Exceeding clients’ expectations does not have to require additional expenditures of money or time, and can be accomplished simply and effectively. Seemingly small changes can make a big impact. Some good examples include: anticipating clients’ wants and needs; providing easy access to firm staff and answers when needed, including extranets or client portals; making clients feel as if the firm cares about the client and her business; delivering before a deadline and providing extra resources or introductions to others that can help the client in areas where you can’t.
In short, exceeding clients’ expectations is an excellent strategy. It is the essence of good client service.
(photo: A speedometer with the words from Shutterstock)