Client Retention—It’s All in the Listening

Do you know the answer to any or all of the following questions about your best clients?

  • Name and occupation of spouse or significant other
  • Name and ages of children, schools they attend and hobbies
  • His or her personal interest (hobbies, sports teams, extracurricular activities)
  • Last vacation spot

For years, law firm marketing conferences have brought in speakers to talk about “client/customer satisfaction.” The law marketers scribble notes as they listen to how some of the nation’s top service brands—Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Southwest Airlines—employ extensive staff training to provide a first-class experience. They stress how everyone from the valet to the front desk to housekeeping is responsible for developing that brand loyalty through a superior consumer experience.

While the same holds true in a law firm (that every single employee has that same responsibility), the key to ensuring nearly unbreakable client retention is in the relationship attorney’s ability to seemingly know all of the answers to the questions above.

Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco chain provides a nightly wine hour for guests. The hotel rotates various levels of staff through the wine-pouring duties, giving them a chance to casually chat with the guests. The personal connection over a glass of wine allows the guest to learn more about the hotel while staff gets to know the guest in a casual atmosphere. On a recent stay at the Monaco in Pittsburgh, I chatted with a nice staffer about hotels, travel and work. It turns out that in this case, Rob was the general manager of the hotel. I was impressed that he followed up the conversation by finding my name and contact information, leaving me a detailed note thanking me for my patronage and reciting back at least four personal elements of the conversation. As if that was not impressive enough, my passing mention of going to the Monaco in Chicago the following month registered as well. In Chicago, I found myself upgraded with an array of treats in my room and a note from assistant GM Erica welcoming me—and letting me know that the Pittsburgh folks had told them one of their favorite guests was coming her way. This was all about listening. Needless to say, you can guess where I’m staying on my next visits to Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Of course, not all of us have the recall capacity that Rob was able to show. Attorneys chat with lots of people every day. Remembering which client’s kid goes to Northwestern and which goes to Temple is not always easy. The same listening and recall capabilities extend to your own staff, to courthouse staff, deposition takers and anyone else who, if you show an interest in their non-work-related life, may pay dividends in your work life.

Like many people, I visit my dentist twice a year—every six months. As I sit back in the dentist chair, he asks me questions about my wife’s new job, the Little League season, my daughter’s most recent play and how the Eagles/Phillies/Temple are doing. I always try and remember similar specifics in regard to his wife, children, and love of golf. The level of detail in his chit-chatting is pretty amazing.

Does Dr. Marchinek really have such amazing recall that he remembers more about my family than I sometimes do? Of course not. He jots down notes on the folder. It is as simple as that. At each visit he takes a quick look at my records and picks up where our last conversation left off. I try and do the same thing with my clients—recalling specifics about family and interests that have absolutely nothing to do with “work.” Yet it sure does. The ability to transcend attorney/client relationships beyond talking shop is at the core of retention. In the vast majority of matters, your longtime client has expectations of you—to do good work, bill at a proper rate, provide good communications—but lots of lawyers are capable of delivering those core elements of law practice. Not everyone cares about you like I do. It is all in the listening and the recall. Just be sure not to run the clock when discussing a Europe trip this summer.

When my wife and I visit two of our favorite restaurants, Bibou and Helm, extremely popular Philadelphia BYOBs, we are always impressed by the personal attention. At Bibou, we are welcomed in like long-lost relatives. The chef comes out and greets us toward the end of the meal. At Helm, Justin, the general manager who runs the house, and one of the chefs always make it a point to stop by our table and welcome us back. Do they really remember us with such detail? Probably not. Did they jot notes down after our last meal? Unlikely. They have the Open Table reservation system. It tells all and knows all.

The law firm’s answer to Open Table is CRM (client relationship management software). Many midsize and most large law firms invest heavily in CRM—although few attorneys use it beyond helping organize the holiday card lists and putting together e-mail groups. CRM allows you to record and share with others at the firm many of those same details that help with retention. You don’t need to have Rob’s recall or the dentist’s manila folder. The software gives you the chance to memorialize data. And you don’t need CRM to accomplish this. I often put those personal notes (like your spouse’s name and kids’ ages) into the Outlook contacts field. Your ability to save and share that information simply helps cement that client/customer loyalty—in some cases for the entire law firm, not just your own interactions.

While my examples—hotels, dentists, restaurants—are not legal-specific, I know many attorneys who are just as skilled at employing the great art of listening and remembering. It is not an accident that some law firm’s great originators and rainmakers can reel off as many personal details as they can professional ones. It is the personal that goes the furthest when it comes to locking in a client for the long term. For all the client satisfaction surveys and interviews, show me the lawyer who knows where you vacation, your favorite food and your kids’ sports league—and I’ll show you a client for life.

About the Author

Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on marketing and business development, and is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. Micah is the immediate past Editor-In-Chief of Law Practice Today and a current member of the Board of Editors. He can be reached at or by phone at 856-234-4334, and on Twitter at @mbuchdahl.

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