As an attorney in today’s world, do you sometimes feel more like a customer service agent than an actual attorney? You have emails, texts, and phone calls from clients to return 24/7 and it’s really hard to keep everyone happy.
Over the course of the last decade, our law firm has serviced thousands of clients and managed to keep the vast majority of them extremely happy. I want to go over how we did it and how you can apply certain tips and strategies to your law practice to make your relationship and communication with clients a lot less stressful.
Client Service in the Digital Age
In this episode, we’re going to talk about client service in the digital age. There are so many ways for clients to get in touch with us, to bombard us with messages, and they want responses yesterday. So, how do we deal with this? I have managed thousands of clients over the course of the last decade and I’m here to explain to you how I’ve done it and some tips and tricks for how you may do it in your practice.
I think the best place to get started with any conversation about managing clients and communication is ensuring that you have an excellent rapport with your clients. This starts from day one and it continues through day 2, through day 100, through year 5. You have to have an excellent bedside manner. I liken the delivery of legal services very much to the delivery of medical services. As lawyers, I think it’s sometimes hard to take ourselves out of the lawyer bubble and understand how things appear from the client side.
To do this, I want you to think about the last time you went to a doctor’s office and whether or not that was a positive experience. Most of us have gone to the doctor and sat in the waiting room for an hour. We get in to see the doctor about whatever problem it is, and they spend about two minutes with you. You’re telling them whatever you found on WebMD and they’re just basically “Yeah, it’s probably this and here’s something and goodbye.” Then they’re in and out of the room. They didn’t seem to really care about you and your concerns.
On the other hand, we’ve all had an experience, too, where you’ve walked into a doctor’s office, haven’t had to wait forever, and it’s like a surprise. Then, we’re in there with the doctor and they’re spending time with us and asking questions about our family. They ask us about what’s going on at work. They ask us about how we’re feeling and all these different things that are going on in our lives. They get into whatever the symptoms are you’re having and they spend some time talking to you about what it could be, what they’re thinking, how they’re evaluating, what they’re seeing in the moment with you, how they want to treat it.
They’re just talking to you like a human being. And when you leave that doctor’s appointment, whether or not that doctor was any good and actually identified what your problem was, you probably left thinking you have a good doctor because they sat there and they listened to you and they explained to you in very clear terms what they wanted to do and why they wanted to do it.
Now, what would your clients say about you when they left the meeting from your office or they left a phone appointment with you or conference call? Would they feel that you took the time to know about them? Do they think that you took the time to understand what their concerns were about their matter? Did you actually care? Because if you cared, it will come through to the client. And if you don’t really care, then that’s going to come through too.
You can’t fake authenticity. If you do care about your clients, you already are on your way to having excellent client service. Because when you have these conversations with your clients and when you explain what the legal situation is and what the next steps are and what the entire process looks like, and you do it in a way that is not confusing and full of big words, then that client’s going to leave your office thinking they’ve got a great lawyer. So, when they call you or email you again and you explain to them it can take a couple of days to get back to them, they understand because they know when you get to them you’re going to take the time and you’re going to care.
Ever since I started my practice in 2008, the one thing I’ve always been able to do with my clients is connect with them on a business level. I help people protect their brand, but typically there’s a lot of business and marketing issues that go into protecting a trademark or registering a trademark. If the attorney only knows trademark law and says, “Well, this is what the law says about this trademark that you’re trying to register and enforce,” it’s just a very transactional, black and white relationship with a client that isn’t normally going to pull any warm and fuzzies to the surface. But what I’m able to do is understand a client’s business and the practical business realities around whatever’s going on with the trademark. Again, whether it’s a new trademark to try to select, whether it’s enforcing an existing trademark, understanding the practical business situation on the ground is something that a lot of attorneys can’t do.
I ask my clients questions to understand their business situation better. What’s going on in the business? Where are they in a particular marketing program? All these types of questions just to understand the backdrop to whatever the legal problem is. By actually caring about what’s going on in their business, I develop a rapport.
I grew up in a family business. My dad ran 12 automotive centers in and around the Philadelphia area. So I really understand the struggles that a small or midsize business goes through when they’re doing a variety of different things. I breathed business when I was a kid. It just was my entire life and that’s an advantage I have and I deploy that with my clients. I can genuinely understand what they’re going through and have empathy for what they’re telling me they’re going through from a business context.
My recommendation to you is to think about what special skills you have. What superpowers do you have to connect with your clients? What can you really understand about what your clients are telling you and how can you explain things to them in ways that are easy to understand.
How Can You Continue to Keep Clients Happy?
Attorneys just do not connect with their clients a lot of times on a personal or business level, but, once you’ve done that and established the relationship, typically now all you have to worry about is doing four things and you’ll keep that client happy forever.
1. Set Communication Expectations with Clients
The first pillar here is to set client expectations on communication. In my practice, where I have literally thousands of clients, this has been something that’s been extremely important for us because we simply get more phone calls and emails in any given day than we can possibly respond to.
I remember working in my first law practice and the rule at the law firm was if you got a phone call from a client before 3:00 in the afternoon, it had to be returned the same business day. If you can do that, fantastic. But the reality of my schedule is that I just can’t return phone calls that quickly. Especially because when you return the call to the client, typically they have substantive questions about their matter and you may need to pull the file and be ready to talk intelligently to the client about their matter.
So, what I typically do at the start of any engagement is explain to clients that if you need a phone call, it could take two or three days. In today’s world, that can seem like an eternity, but on routine matters, there’s no reason that a client in today’s world needs to expect to get you immediately. If you set the expectation that it’s a routine matter and you can work the client in the same calendar week, then you should be fine. But telling the client that’s how it works before you even get started is incredibly important.
During the engagement process as lawyers, if we know that there’s a prospective client out there, we’re going to be calling and emailing them back right away. We want to make sure that no other lawyer gets in there and takes the client from us. Then once they’re in the door, we’ll get back to them when we can. Well, the client feels like it’s a bait and switch. When they were trying to become a client, you’d get back to them within the hour and now it takes three days. But setting that expectation when they’re engaged is critical. You can say, “Look, now that we’re getting engaged as a client, this is how it works.” I always explain to clients that if I get back to you right away, I may not have the answers to your question because I haven’t had a chance to pull your file and refresh my memory as to what’s going on. If they really need to talk about it, then they can set up an appointment.
Our firm has an online calendaring system that makes it very easy for clients to schedule appointments. In most cases, this makes our client communication much smoother. Now, I don’t doubt that there’s always going to be an emergency here or there. And I think setting expectations about emergencies is important too. You know, I always tell clients, look, if you want the number to my bat phone in case you need to shine the Batman signal in the sky, I can be available for that. Make sure it’s a genuine emergency and not just, “I have a question about something.” Because that’s just not the way our practice works.
Most of my clients do not make up a huge percentage of our overall revenue for our year. If you have a client that’s 50% of the revenue for the year for your firm, you may have a different level of service that you need to provide that client. You may need to have your own cell phone for that client to call that you answer 24/7 if you have that kind of client. But whatever way it goes, even if it’s your only client and it’s the most important person in the world, understanding what your availability looks like and understanding how they can get in touch with you solves a ton of anxiety and a lot of emails like, “I can’t get in touch with you. Why can’t I get in touch with you?” Solves all that kind of problem when they know what the expectation is. Then, of course, you need to deliver on those expectations.
The last thing I want to say about setting expectations on client communication is that you also need to make sure that channels are well-defined. These days, I find that a lot of clients want to text you. If you want to accept texts for your clients, that’s fine. Depends on the practice area you’re in. I don’t like it because I can’t really create a file with text. And I also don’t need clients emailing, texting, and calling me. I just can’t keep up with all of that. Regardless, you need to set that with your clients depending on how you want to communicate with them, because if they start texting you and texting back, are you creating the right file? Are you keeping that communication on file? Are you too available? You can’t ever break away because people are texting you all day long. Figure out what works for you and your firm, but make sure you talk to clients about that so they know how to get in touch with you, too. Let them know what your preferred method of communication is and how you work with your clients.
The flip side of the coin is if you’ve got one or two clients, you may need to communicate the way they want to. So find out the way they want to communicate with you and deliver on that. Find whatever you need to be able to deliver on the communication style of the client if they are that big and important to your practice.
2. Have Staff Follow the Same Expectations
The second pillar of really good client service is to ensure the other attorneys and staff in your law firm know how you’re expecting them to communicate with clients and what the client expectations are, as well.
As the owner of my business, I’m on 24/7 and I’m always responding to people. But that’s not the same responsibility level that other attorneys and staff share at our firm. But, they’re going to have communication with clients just like I do. Ensuring that everybody else at the firm knows how to communicate with certain clients is important. I’ve seen too many situations over the years with other law firms where someone’s used to a certain style of communication from the principal or the person that brought them in, and then other people in the firm start working on the matter and the communication is different, right? It’s just not the same.
Again, those other folks in the firm also may not have the same rapport with the client that the person that brought the client in has. So if I’m on the phone with a client for half an hour, understanding their business, developing this relationship, and we get to a point in the process where there’s another attorney at the firm they’ve never heard of or worked with before, that other attorney is now fighting an uphill battle to get into the client’s good graces. So if the client emails that attorney or paralegal or whatever it may be, and that person doesn’t get back to them immediately, all of a sudden the expectations and the rapport that that person had with me are questioned. They might feel like they’re not getting the same level of service. So ensuring that everybody knows what’s going on with a particular client and how that client needs to be serviced and ensuring that they’re keeping up with your expectations as the law firm manager, owner, whatever it may be, is incredibly important.
3. Communicate Efficiently
Our third pillar is to have efficient communication with your clients. If I get an email that’s 10 paragraphs long from a service provider, whether it be my accountant or whoever it is, there’s no way I’m going to read that. I am just too busy and you should assume your clients are extremely busy running their businesses.
If you’re going to send an email or message, make it short and concise. If what you need to explain to the client cannot be done in a short and concise email or phone message, then you likely need an appointment.
We have a lot of clients that we worked through a lot of issues with. And the one thing I can tell you in sending out a lot of emails asking for even very simple things from clients over the years is that people just do not read and absorb what’s in an email very well. They’re going through it too quickly.
If we send a client an email and we ask for three things, I typically get one or two back. The more complex the email gets, the less the client’s absorbing it, the less the clients understanding it and the less you’re going to get back what you need. The one tip I can give you here is that if you want to try to avoid a long phone conversation with a client where there’s a lot of back and forth is to use a video sharing software. We use a program called Snagit. Snagit allows me to create a little screen capture talk to client through the screen capture. I can send the client a link to the video and then they’ve got a video they can watch on repeat. So if I’m saying something that they’re not quite getting and they want to watch it a couple of times, they can.
Plus, they don’t have to sit there and read through this text and really understand the way that I write because the way I write might not be the way that they really can understand. But if I’m just talking them through something, it’s a lot more likely they’re going to get it.
It also saves me a lot of time on endless conference calls or meetings because I can put the information together and put it to the client. Now, the client may still have questions, but they’ve got the vast majority of the information and they’ve understood it before we have to have a conversation. I will leave you with this on the Snagit thing or whatever screen capture software you want to use- I have received such positive feedback on this over the years because clients also don’t look forward to getting on the phone with their lawyer. They’ve got other things they need to be doing. By being efficient in my communication and just giving the client information they need in a very easily digestible manner, they are grateful for that. It goes again toward building the rapport with the client.
4. Stick to Your Agreed Upon Budget
The final pillar is budget. If you tell a client something’s going to cost $3,000 and you show up with a $10,000 bill, you may as well just move towns. You’re going to get bad reviews, the client’s going to be furious with you.
You have to keep an eye on budget. In my firm, we do mostly flat rate work. And this helpful because as we go through the process, some client shave more complicated matters that require more time to be spent on. On the other hand, some clients we spend a little less time on because it’s more streamlined. That’s where flat fees really work because in some instances you may lose a little, while in other instances, you may win a little bit. But it all evens out over time. Ultimately, you’re delivering the same value to each individual client.
If you can’t do flat rates, and I understand there’s instances where flat rates are not really ideal, you need to make sure you’re constantly on budget with clients. When we work on an hourly rate matter, what I typically tell clients is that we have a capped hourly rate. We’re going to start with an initial budget.
Let’s call it $2,000 and we’ll bill against that $2,000 until we get close, and then at that point we’ll stop and say, hey, we’re close to that initial limit. Here’s where we are in your matter. Are we okay to keep proceeding? Because now the client understands, okay, this is how the bill has looked so far and I can approve another $2,000, $3,000 of time, whatever it is, because I know they’ve made enough progress to justify their bill, and then we’ll continue to have check-ins throughout the process. Again, it’s going to depend on who your clients are, right? If you have a client that’s a Fortune 500 company, they’re going to be a little less concerned about every couple thousand dollars. But if you’re dealing with people that are paying you as a small business, medium-sized business, these budgets are going to become incredibly important that you keep an eye on.
The minute you just forget about budget and send the client a bill that’s outside their expectations, you’ve just ruined all the rapport you’ve ever had with that person because all they’re going to see now is the money. So keep that in check, keep a close eye on it and keep talking. Be open and honest. Have lines of communication about money. Just like you always want to have lines of communication with a spouse, even, you know, about tough subjects, you want to have lines of communication and be very open about money and budget to your clients. And this again will go a long way. If you’re someone who always keeps his or her word about what something’s going to cost and what you’re going to be able to deliver, you’re going to earn that trust and a longer leash from your clients as time goes on.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode. As you can see, client service really starts with the relationship that you can have with your clients and the rapport that you build over time gives you a longer, longer leash on what you can do and not do with a particular client. But the bottom line is every client’s likely to be different and just always remember your bedside manner. And if you do that right, the vast majority of times you’re going to have clients that are extraordinarily happy with you and your law firm and spread the word to others.
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