Clients come to us for what we do, but also for who we are. They stay for what we give them, which means we have to consistently meet their needs and follow through on the commitments we make to them. Keeping clients happy is looking to the future: happy clients bring repeated business and spread the word about our services. From the first consultation through the rest of our working relationship with a client, and in every contact we have with that client after our representation has ended, we should be consistent in the image we present. The image should be not only that of an effective and experienced advocate, but also of someone who sympathizes, listens to clients’ needs, and always pays attention to clients. Being that lawyer for our clients provides rewarding relationships and cultivates future business and referrals.
In these competitive times, we are generally not the only lawyers in town who are working in a particular practice area or with a particular set of strengths. Some of our competitors might be right down the street, or in the same office building. To potential clients, each of us is selling who we are at least as much as we are selling what we do. The rapport we develop with potential clients may be the only reason they choose us over a different attorney. This is true in a firm of any size. In a small office, we may have more direct contact with our clients, but in a larger firm as well, the rapport the individual attorney establishes with a client at the earliest contact can be what keeps the client happy—and what keeps the client with the firm.
How does a potential client come to our doors? Through our marketing efforts, we have presented something about our practices, our offices, and ourselves before ever meeting the person. At our first contact with the potential client and at every subsequent contact once the attorneyclient relationship has been established, we have the opportunity to reinforce the image we presented. This is why client development is inextricably linked to new business development and marketing. And knowing our markets—knowing who our potential clients are—will help us focus on the needs those individuals have, and that will help us understand how to meet those needs.
But setting aside a marketing discussion, the potential client who comes to our offices is waiting for us to make an impression (our office staff, whose importance should never be underestimated, also make an impression). What are potential clients looking for? Potential clients want a good lawyer who is also sympathetic, who is knowledgeable and also approachable, and who will explain things—and they want a lawyer who will listen to their needs and protect their interests. Some potential clients have never consulted with a lawyer before and are apprehensive. They need to trust us before they will hire us. If they find the right qualities in us, if we develop a good rapport with them at that initial contact, then they can trust us. Establishing that trust is the way to win clients.
Four factors are involved in projecting those qualities and earning that trust:
- Knowing ourselves. Part of knowing ourselves is knowing our strengths, and how to effectively communicate about those strengths. Knowing ourselves also involves being aware of how we talk to people we are meeting for the first time, and how we gather information from them. Again, clients appreciate a lawyer who listens to them and shows sympathy. This may come naturally to some of us, or may be something we have to work at. Our awareness of our own habits can help us hone our interactions with potential clients.
- Being confident. Talking to potential clients with confidence helps establish the necessary trust to turn them into clients. Focusing on our strengths will help us talk with confidence about ourselves and the services we provide. But we should not spend too much time talking; we also show confidence through the interest we show in others, the questions we ask, and the time we allow for others to talk to us. We should take an interest in who our potential clients are and our questions (and listening to the answers) should reflect that interest.
- Taking the time to explain. When potential clients ask questions, we should remember that this may be the first time they have been exposed to a process that is routine for us. We should take the time to explain what is involved, paying attention to the words we use. If we use terms potential clients do not know, we risk alienating them or making them feel we are unapproachable.
- Listening and asking questions. Again, we should not be afraid to let potential clients talk. We can rein in lengthy explanations and redirect the conversation if needed, but sometimes potential clients need to tell a story, vent frustrations, or let us know additional (and possibly important) pieces of information. Not only can this information be useful, but letting them talk may make them feel more satisfied with the consultation, and listening will make us seem more sympathetic to them, as well.
In addition to a standard set of questions, for potential clients in a particular practice area we might use focused questions designed to elicit key pieces of information. It’s also a good idea to ask potential clients what their goals are for the matters they are bringing to us. This makes them feel we are eliciting information that is important to them, and it may also give us valuable information about their expectations and the direction we need to take as we represent them. That can shape communications we have with them after we have been retained.
After we have won a client, we need to cultivate that relationship, keep that client satisfied, and lay the groundwork for future business and referrals. A happy client will talk about us and recommend us when the opportunity arises.
Sometimes it helps to keep the most basic concepts in mind, and one very basic desire that clients have goes a long way in keeping them satisfied:
Clients want a lawyer who pays attention to them. This gives rise to a commitment for us to make, a rule to follow: we should always pay attention to our clients. Once the rapport is developed with potential clients, the trust is established, and we have been retained, clients want a lawyer who will continue talking with them and will keep them in mind. This shows clients that their interests are being protected. What this means is that we should: 1) have procedures in place in our offices to follow up frequently with clients; and 2) be prepared to make regular contact with our clients ourselves and not always through office staff.
- Procedures: Clients require regular communication even if there is no news or report to make. This could mean monthly phone calls, emails, or letters, or it could mean more frequent contact than that, depending on the circumstances. It is wise to have a tickler system in our offices (a reminder system connected to our calendars) to alert us and our staff when it is time to communicate with each client. The communication might be, for example, a quick update relaying news or information, letting clients know that we are waiting for a hearing date, or reminding them there can be no activity until x or y is accomplished. It also can remind them to contact us with any changes or updates. Every communication should welcome questions, and when clients contact our offices, we and our staff members should be prepared to respond promptly, even if the response is to set an appointment for a conversation at a later time.
- Personal contact: If our clients did not want to hear from us, they probably would have picked a different lawyer. Being in contact with our staff some of the time is fine, and strong relationships with our offices can be built that way, but our clients also need to hear directly from us to be reminded that we are thinking of them and keeping their interests in mind. This might sound laborintensive for us, but it can be accomplished through a plan in our offices to alternate between communications from our staff members to our clients and communications directly from us. And when clients talk with our staff members, it is important they be reminded that we are available for questions if they have them. Our clients need to feel we are available to them, even though we cannot be immediately available all the time.
All of this sets the stage set for future business and referrals from our clients, but what happens when they no longer have a reason to be in regular contact with our offices, when the matters they initially brought to us are concluded, and we want to make sure they remember us?
It is a good idea to have a plan for continued contact with our clients after our work for them is done. It might start with a brief letter thanking them for their business, and it could be as simple as sending cards around the holidays. Depending on the circumstances, social media might be an appropriate and easy way to keep in touch with former clients. We may not be able to follow up in a long-term fashion with every former client, but long-term contact will be natural with some individuals, some lasting relationships will develop, and happy former clients can connect us to the worlds they engage with and carry our names with them wherever they go. They can make our experiences as lawyers rewarding.
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