Breaking Down Client Service

You may not have noticed, but the market for legal services is shifting. It’s not just that every year, law schools graduate more young lawyers looking for billable work. The internet has democratized information (but not knowledge), and potential clients are a few clicks away from finding what they think is the right answer to any legal question. If that weren’t enough, companies like LegalZoom are providing low-cost solutions to problems that lawyers traditionally have been paid to solve. Combined, they form the larger trend: the market for legal services is undergoing a dramatic transformation, and soon you’ll be forced to transform with it.

You’ve probably noticed this shift already as you deal with other service providers. What you considered acceptable service years ago no longer meets your minimum standard. As other businesses have gotten better, you as a customer have raised your standards as well. In the past, banks were only open Monday to Friday, from 9 AM to 5 PM. Now, many banks have extended their hours to include Saturdays, and you can access your accounts online 24 hours a day. These days, you probably wouldn’t accept a bank that didn’t provide online access. The standards have risen, and consumers have driven it.

Your standards as a customer aren’t the only ones that have changed—your clients are raising the bar as well. Just like the banks, your clients now expect you, their lawyer, to deliver more than you did in the past.

Clients aren’t interested in the old way when lawyers did things in their own time with minimal input from or check-ins with the client. The old days—when lawyers could afford not to think about how they treated their clients—are over. Today’s clients have a choice and are demanding something that’s sorely lacking in most legal services: namely, service.

Lawyers are highly trained specialists who work for years to gain the skills necessary to practice. Despite all those years of education, lawyers never receive effective direction in how to run a law firm, manage client relationships, or generally take care of people.

Worse, many lawyers have no idea that this is an issue. After all, they’re always head-down and working hard for their clients. But that means they’ve missed the customer service developments going on around them. Delivering highly technical legal work on time and under budget isn’t enough anymore.

The combined pressure of too many new lawyers, access to basic legal knowledge via the internet, and automated alternatives like LegalZoom are squeezing the market. Lawyers can no longer rely on merely having a law license and doing great legal work to get clients—we’re surrounded by competitors. If delivering a top-quality legal product is merely table stakes, then lawyers need something else to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Providing a superior level of service, by serving clients in a way that makes them feel comfortable about you as a professional and as a person, is a differentiator that can help you weather the coming changes.

It’s all well and good to say that we need to be better at service, we need to describe what service is, in concrete terms.

Customer service is the experience that a business provides beyond its physical or technical product.

As with any good definition, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with some business basics. Every business engages in the same fundamental transaction: a customer (or a guest or a client) exchanges money for a product that is a combination of three different, though intertwined, components: a physical product, a technical product, and a service product. All three components are present in every transaction (though the relative composition of each product varies).

  • The physical part of any product is the part of the client’s experience that they can pick up and touch. The customer is primarily purchasing a physical item, even technical know-how or service during the sale goes into that product. This physical item could be a pound of Land O’Lakes butter, a ream of Hammermill copy paper, a Mercedes-Benz G-wagen, or the Lego Ultimate Collector Series Millennium Falcon.
  • The technical part of any product is the part of the client’s experience that is based on the knowledge of the business. The client is purchasing knowledge from the provider. This technical product could be a patent, a copyright, investment advice, or legal advice. Additional value can be added to a physical product by including intellectual property—think of the additional price that can be charged for the Lego Millennium Falcon because it adds Star Wars intellectual property to the plastic construction bricks.
  • Everything else that the client pays for is the service product. This is how the client interacts with the business, and how the business ensures that delivery of the product is as easy as possible. The client is primarily purchasing the experience that is delivered by the humans who are delivering the physical and technical product of the business. Examples of service are dinner at the Union Square Cafe in New York, a flight on Southwest Airlines, or a night at the Four Seasons in Shanghai.

Now that we have an idea of the components of a product, we can drill into the three components of service: the people delivering the service, the delivery of the service by your people, and the systems used to measure the quality of that service. If service comes from your people, your delivery, and your systems, what can you do to start improving right now?

Service can only come from the people in your firm. Every employee of the firm, from the mail clerk to the managing partner, is responsible for the service experience. So, every person in a service-oriented firm should first and foremost be friendly. But beyond that, they should be caring. They should not only care about the work that they do, but they should be empathetic to the clients and each other. Finally, every employee in a law firm needs to be honest and trustworthy.

To improve this aspect of service, everyone in your firm needs to understand that you expect each interaction to start with a smile. A warm, friendly smile conveys that the firm is a warm and friendly place to do business. Show emotion—this is a technical field, but we’re not mindless legal automatons. That doesn’t mean we need some fake grin permanently plastered on our face. Individual circumstances will obviously change your reactions. But we do need to start with the expectation that each interaction should be a pleasant experience.

After focusing on the people, we focus on the quality of service delivery. When the firm’s employees interact with clients, they should remain alert, attentive, and connected to the client to show that they’re paying attention. It seems simple but think back to a time when you dealt with someone who wasn’t looking at you—while they were supposedly helping you. Did you feel like you were being served? In addition to that sense of connection, employees should always be prepared for client meetings, so that they project a sense of practiced experience. Clients want to feel like you’ve done this before, and that there won’t be a rush to tie up loose ends at the last minute.

To improve delivery, you can better connect with clients by using their names—especially on the phone. While we can easily display attentiveness when someone is across the table, doing so on a call requires a specific verbal strategy. By working in a person’s name three times during a call, you can show that you know who they are and care about their individual needs. While using a name three times in a call sounds excessive, it becomes easy with practice. You’ll use it when you start the conversation, and you know you’ll use their name again when you end the call. This leaves a single time to be worked in during the call. A phone call only allows voices to be transmitted, so by using a person’s name, you help ensure that they know you are paying attention to the caller.

The third aspect of service is the systems that the business uses to consistently deliver its product to its clients. Systems are the glue that provides the metrics to evaluate service delivery and allow your team to consistently deliver for clients. Consistency is key. It’s not acceptable to have a high service day on Monday, then completely fall apart on Wednesday. Every client should receive a similar (exceptional) experience. Beyond consistency, the systems should be efficient so that the client’s time and energy aren’t wasted.

Ultimately, you can’t improve service without setting up systems. For many law firms, merely documenting the informal systems that are in place can improve service delivery. Ideally, these systems should be set up as checklists so that employees deliver services consistently. Though checklists are often dismissed as dry and “one size fits all,” having a roadmap frees up an employee to focus more on the individual client. Because the system is already there, they don’t have to think about what to do next, and can instead stay attuned to the client’s needs and demeanor. By systematizing your firm and training your staff, you will raise the bar to the point where they’re not worried about the basics, and they can focus on taking care of the client.

Clients aren’t hiring your firm because of its immaculate furniture, monogrammed glassware, and mid-range gallery art. You as an attorney are smart, capable and probably care a lot about your work—but that doesn’t mean that you’ve cornered the market on serving clients well. Clients come to you in times of need, and you should be more than just a good lawyer. You want to be the provider that clients talk about, and who your competitors aspire to be. By improving your service delivery, you can be the lawyer clients rave to their friends about.

About the Author

John R. Strohmeyer is the proprietor of Strohmeyer Law PLLC, where he assists clients with estate planning and international tax issues. He spent four years working for the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, primarily as the night manager before heading to law school. Contact him on Twitter @JohnTheLawyer.

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