An increasing number of law firms are implementing formal client feedback programs. This article will outline four reasons why you should not ask your clients for feedback and will provide food for thought on whether you and your firm should buck or embrace this trend. But first: What is a client feedback program, and how do they purport to work?
What is a client feedback program?
Client feedback—sometimes referred to as “client listening”—is a mechanism for allowing clients to give feedback on the relationship and/or the service quality through a separate channel from the day-to-day provision of the legal service. These programs vary in size, scope, and level of formality. Some firms collect feedback from across their client base, while others focus primarily on key clients or practice areas. Some firms opt to run the program themselves, while others prefer to engage an independent third party.
While online options to collect feedback exist and are a cost-effective way to obtain high-level information from clients, law firms more typically take a more personal approach to gathering feedback using the telephone or in-person interviews to gather deeper insight. As with any client development initiatives, the key is to select a methodology that aligns with the firm’s culture and meets its clients’ needs and expectations while making the best use of available resources.
The legal industry has been slow to adopt client feedback, long viewed by other industries as a critical tool for driving excellence in service delivery.
Acritas’ research discovered that while three-quarters of firms talk about conducting feedback only 16% clients have been asked.
However, as recognition of the benefits of these programs spreads, a growing number of firms are collecting feedback in a more formalized manner. Firms are seeing tangible benefits from their client feedback programs, including strengthening and expanding client relationships, and opening up opportunities for business development.
With the preliminaries out of the way, here are our top four reasons not to collect formal client feedback.
1. You are too busy.
We all know that client relationships already take considerable time and energy to develop, so it makes sense to conclude that you are definitely too busy to add client feedback to your client development toolbelt. However, client feedback interviews may be one of the most simple and effective ways of strengthening a relationship with a client, new or old, and may help you identify previously unknown opportunities to develop new business or identify the risk of losing a client before that actually happens.
As part of its formal client feedback program, Dechert partners sit down in person with clients to ask about past performance and how the firm can improve. The interview often leads to a broader discussion about the client’s goals and challenges and future opportunities to work together. At a recent feedback session, a senior partner learned that his longtime client was experiencing difficulties with outside counsel from a competing firm dealing with a transaction in another region of the world. The partner listened carefully to the client’s concerns, and following the interview, he was able to introduce the client to some of his partners with strong credentials in the relevant geography and practice area. The client conceded that he hadn’t considered Dechert for the work originally because he simply wasn’t aware of the firm’s capabilities in that area. The feedback session led to a follow-up opportunity to educate the client about additional areas where the firm could be of service (and, in turn, resulted in new work the firm would not otherwise have landed).
Client feedback programs may also be less time-intensive than you would think. A well-defined client feedback system (like the one employed by Dechert and other firms) makes use of a standard set of feedback questions and metrics that can be tailored to the interview and the nature of the client relationship. This means that, while some preparation is necessary ahead of each session, the fundamentals of the discussion guide or questionnaire remain the same, so there is no reason to start from scratch when moving from client to client. The initial time commitment invested in creating the program is countered by the favorable economy of scale as the program is repurposed for additional clients.
2. Your clients are too busy.
As a lawyer, you understand the pressure your clients face on a day-to-day basis. You may think that the last thing clients have time for is discussing their perceptions of you and your firm, so you definitely shouldn’t ask, but you might just be missing a valuable opportunity.
Even when clients are very busy, they will usually make time to participate in their law firms’ client feedback programs because they see the value in the process. Clients often comment that too few firms seek feedback, rather than that too many firms do.
Clients in service industries are often wholly committed to the merits of feedback in their own business and, increasingly, we are seeing clients initiate and lead the feedback process, proactively providing unsolicited feedback to their preferred provider law firms. Firms that are already geared up to handle this feedback engage with these clients more effectively.
When asking for feedback, be respectful of the client’s time and be flexible. If you have scheduled a 60-minute conversation with the client, but when the time comes you find that they can only spare 20 minutes, seize the opportunity. You will be surprised how much insight you can gather from just a short interview. A well-designed topic guide or questionnaire can be easily adapted on the fly to focus on the essential questions.
Be creative in how you use your client’s time. If they are visiting your firm’s office for a training event or a CLE session, could you schedule a feedback discussion over lunch?
So, don’t assume a client doesn’t have time until you ask them. The client can always say no or suggest a period or format that will work better for them. And remember, even if your clients do decline the opportunity to participate, they may still value having been asked.
3. You might receive negative feedback.
It is very natural to be concerned about what your client might say, even with your strongest relationships. Since you cannot guarantee that the feedback you receive will be positive, it’s better not to collect it in the first place.
In reality, most client feedback interviews are very positive, and you are more likely to find the feedback encouraging and confidence-building. Where issues are raised, it is important to know about them and to have the opportunity to address them before the relationship is harmed.
Since 2002, Acritas has been commissioned by many law firms in the US and globally to conduct client feedback programs. Acritas has completed over 1,000 client feedback reviews in the past two years and can attest that the majority of feedback clients provide is positive.
To provide wider market context, we looked at Acritas’ Sharplegal research—an annual survey of law firm clients where they rate their satisfaction and likelihood to recommend firms. In this research, we see only a small proportion of dissatisfied clients (which we define as those giving the firm a score of 6 or less out of 10 for satisfaction).
In 2017, 556 US clients gave feedback on a firm they work with—only 5% were dissatisfied.
In the global study, 1,203 clients gave feedback on a firm they work with and only 6% were dissatisfied.
The law firm/client relationship at its best is a trusted partnership, based on open and candid communication. Rarely will you discover a major issue that the relationship manager and firm isn’t aware of at some level, but it can happen. Recently, Acritas uncovered one such issue during a feedback interview. The law firm was on the brink of being fired, but acting on the feedback, it was able to save this significant relationship.
It’s rare for client feedback to turn up such huge issues. Much more often, problems or frustrations will be new or at an early stage. Picking them up early means they can be fixed before lasting damage is done. While it may be uncomfortable to hear negative feedback or constructive criticism, it is better to know about and address clients’ frustrations before they develop into a bigger problem.
4. You already know what your clients want and need.
You’re a good lawyer, so you are in near-constant communication with your most valued clients. You already know what they want and need from you, so why collect feedback from them in a structured way?
It is true that an ongoing relationship with a client provides many opportunities to collect feedback. However, it is important to periodically take a step back from the day-to-day management, and have a more strategic discussion. A feedback interview can be an effective way to understand more about your client’s goals, needs, and expectations, to understand how the firm is performing, and how best to support your client to deliver their objectives. It also helps demonstrate the firm’s commitment to listen, understand and improve. Firms whose work is transactional may find that clients feel neglected “in between deals.” Client feedback will reveal issues like this and provide a touch point with your client in between transactions.
In addition to periodic relationship reviews, other triggers in the relationship life cycle that can prompt a feedback discussion include on completion of a major matter; when a pitch has been delivered (whether you win or lose); when there has been a change in organizational structure—in the client organization or in your firm. When revenues with a client have been increasing or decreasing, or when new competition enters the market, the firm can learn a lot by seeking feedback.
Clients often criticize lawyers for not sufficiently understanding their business or not being better informed about the client’s ambitions and strategy. A feedback interview is an opportunity to talk with clients about their priorities and how the firm can support them. It can provide the firm with a forward-looking viewpoint, enabling the firm to be more proactive. As demonstrated by the Dechert example above, client feedback sessions can open the door to new opportunities and can highlight areas where the firm can provide additional support.
While you have regular conversations with your clients and you know what they might say, it is worth considering the benefits of asking an independent third party or an objective colleague to conduct the interview. Clients may be more willing to discuss any concerns they have and often share a different perspective with an independent party.
Establishing a new client feedback program or broadening and formalizing an existing approach can be challenging. There is often resistance from within the firm, and you or your partners may naturally feel apprehensive. But the challenges are not insurmountable, and, with the right structure and support, the outputs can be highly valuable to the firm and the client.
Client relationships are a law firm’s most valuable asset and must be treated as such. Despite the many reasons not to collect formal client feedback, it just might be that you should.
One last factor to consider: there is no point in asking your clients for feedback unless you are prepared to take action. When you ask a client for their feedback you are setting the expectation that you are willing to take their comments on-board and, if needed, to change.