Client service. It’s table stakes in the legal industry. The price of admission, really.
Attorney life is marked by long hours, addressing clients’ needs and ensuring that each filing, deposition, and other pieces of work product is optimized to achieve the best results. But great client service, as critical as it is, is no longer the sole differentiator clients rely on to hire or retain their legal services providers. It is the expectation.
The catch is, great service means different things to different clients. It’s more than just optimal matter outcomes. And it’s definitely much more than a timely return of a phone call or tickets to the big game.
So, what is the secret sauce to building loyal relationships with the clients you value most? What makes clients stick with you and your firm through thick and thin? How do you make your clients not just loyal, but sticky?
The key to sticky relationships is meeting your clients where they are.
It’s responding to what each of them values, what’s important to them, and their preferred communication styles, perceptions, and wants. It’s recognizing that they must deliver results to their internal clients, constituents, and executive leaders and that it’s your job to make them look good.
Let’s start with communication.
Because the definition of exceptional client service varies by client, it’s your job to know from the start how they want to communicate with you. We recommend that every new matter kickoff includes a conversation about how your client likes to receive and consume information. Have this conversation early, discover their preferred communication styles, and then adjust your style to meet them where they are.
What does this look like in practice?
Consider your hard-driving client who never seems to have time for a phone conversation, let alone a face-to-face meeting. Email may be the most efficient way to provide information and updates, but don’t write a thesis and expect them to engage. They likely won’t, and even worse, you’ll have aggravated them in the process. (Not to mention, they’ll likely be mentally adding up the hours you’ll bill them.) Adjust your writing style to include bulleted lists, deadlines, and action items “above the fold” in your email. Make it easy to digest information and don’t make them dig for it. Strike the right balance between too much information (read: burned hours) and too little for them to make a decision or to move ahead in the context of their matter or business. Attention spans and character counts become even more precious if your client prefers that you communicate via text, a platform to which many—not just millennials—are gravitating.
On the flipside, maybe you’re working with a client who ruminates on every last detail. Those are the folks who want a thesis-level summary of their matter status. Cater to their thought process and style of thinking. Be organized in your communications, provide context, background, and specifics to the degree that it adds value and provides the necessary input for clear and even easy decision-making. Some clients may want a weekly update—regardless of whether anything has changed in the case or matter. Or they may simply want to confirm that every “I” is dotted and every “T” crossed.
If you’re ever in doubt about whether to deliver a data-laden missive or a concise risk analysis, simply ask them for their preference. (And when that detail-delighted client emails you, and you’re in the middle of something, by all means, shoot off a quick email or text to let them know you’re on it, rather than letting their email die on the vine.)
In those early days of the relationship, you can and should also establish communication protocols. Today, we’re bombarded by messages via text, email, VM, Slack, Trello, smoke signals, and telepathy. It can get overwhelming for even the most conscientious and communicative. Set up mutually agreeable guidelines: phone for emergencies; texts for urgent; emails for more deliberative responses, and the like. Managing multiple missives will be a whole lot easier.
Look for hero moments to help make your clients look good.
Position yourself as a true partner rather than “outside counsel,” and consider yourself an extension (and vice versa) of the individual client or family, the organization, or the in-house legal and business team.
We recently conducted a client feedback exercise for a law firm, which generated a raving review from one of its clients, the general counsel of a large corporation. The GC consistently pointed to his partnership with the law firm as a supreme differentiator in the attorney-client relationship.
“We feel like an extension of the firm. And they feel like an extension of our team. There’s no daylight between us when it comes to feeling this is a true partnership,” said one of the clients we interviewed.
Developing this type of close working relationship creates a mindset that resonates with clients and makes you “stickier.” If you’re sticky, you’ve earned the client’s trust, loyalty, and perhaps friendship. If you’re really sticky, you may even garner a premium for your services.
For corporate clients especially, to know their pain points and their plus points is to know their businesses better. In-house counsel say that they see themselves as business people first, lawyers second. They know the law is nuanced and complicated, and that a legal issue might fall into any number of rabbit holes. But in-house budgets and decision-making processes often don’t allow for every rock to be turned over—nor do they need such minutiae. They need to know the greatest risks and exposure, and to make an informed business decision from there. When you are the first line of defense, helping your clients shine a light on the greatest or most likely perils, you’ll demonstrate where legal strategy fits into their overall corporate strategy. This generates legal solutions as the right course of action based on a solid assessment of risk and reward for their particular business.
Wouldn’t you love to receive this feedback from a client, a glowing review we fielded for another of our clients?
“She took the time to really know my industry. On her own time. I know that level of knowledge means we can shortcut issues—and she can help me be proactive when change is happening.”
You can absolutely feel this kind of client love! Bring industry insights to your clients. Read what they read (or that they wish they had time to read) and send value-based articles with easy-to-digest summaries at the beginning of your email.
Have a client that is always on the go? Share links to worthwhile and relevant podcasts, micro-learning opportunities, and webinars that allow them to engage with content while mobile—better yet, if there’s a valuable nugget or take-away from the recording, direct them to the specific timestamp on the recording to help them move quickly through the noise.
An overlooked component of exceptional client service that cuts through the clutter is referrals and the forging of partnerships among others in the legal profession and your clients. The power of making introductions to a colleague or a resource to help them solve a problem is under-recognized. Also, be on the lookout for industry events that clients may want to attend or sponsor. Engaging in these activities helps you provide insight and key learnings to your clients, and increases your knowledge of their businesses or personal legal matters. The result will be another opportunity to become stickier.
Your client’s boss is your client, too.
Particularly for those corporate clients, a critical element to understanding their business is understanding the chain of command within their organization. Your GC reports to a CEO and/or a board of directors. Work with them to anticipate questions they might receive from those parties regarding a current or potential matter or case. Arm them with the information they need to look good in the eyes of their supervisors. If outside counsel misses a deadline, your client—the GC—has to explain that away. Avoid putting them in that spot.
Going beyond the matter at hand.
Take an earnest interest in your clients’ business operations, business concerns, and professional lives—and take it beyond the hourly rate. To become their partner, consider the myriad activities that would help you understand their angst, pain, and satisfaction. For example:
- Attend your clients’ industry-related event—and don’t charge them.
- Attend your clients’ annual business meetings/retreats—and don’t charge them.
- Provide annual training and bring your colleagues with you—and don’t charge them.
(Are you starting to see a theme here? It’s about your investments in the relationship that will pay dividends in the long-term.)
In addition to attending their activities, create your own memorable interactions and experiences for the client, such as:
- Host informal lunch-and-learns to educate clients about emerging legal trends and relevant changes. Invite clients to bring others who might be impacted by these changes—CHROs, CIOs, CEOs, and others. This provides exposure to others in the organization, reinforcing your value and institutionalizing the relationship, and helps your client reduce risk and exposure that could negatively impact them.
- Participate in tours at the client’s manufacturing plant, operations center, and HQ to help you see and learn their business from the inside out.
- Consider annual look-backs and forecast meetings. At the close of your clients’ fiscal year, coordinate a review of the past year, the legal issues tackled, ways to improve, and better coordinate legal response, and take a look at the next year to find proactive ways to deliver greater value.
- Know your clients’ budgeting cycles. Meet with them during the next year’s planning to see how you can help them manage legal spend and adequately protect them from risk in the next fiscal year. And, if you are seeking a fee increase or rate change internally, let them know as soon as possible and discuss how this impacts their allocations for the coming year.
- Forge partnerships between your staff—associates, paralegals, executive support—and their counterparts in your clients’ operations. This creates multiple points of contact within the organization, aiding your ability to gather real-time intelligence on emerging issues of importance to your client. It also creates bonds that extend beyond the lead lawyer on both sides, ensuring consistency of representation for the client and sustainability for the law firm should any of the key parties move, retire or otherwise change.
We are steadfast believers in differentiating your practice in ways that go far beyond the practical application of the services you are contracted to provide. To establish client stickiness in today’s competitive market, it’s simply not enough to deliver solid legal counsel. Clients demand more. They want authentic, committed and savvy partners dedicated to helping them prevail—within the context of legal services, and in their businesses or private matters.
About the Authors
Martha Cusick and Deborah Murphy are consultants with RainBDM, a business development and marketing consultancy for lawyers, law firms, and other professional services providers. Contact them on Twitter @rainbdm.