Are you treating your client relationships as a strategic good to be thoughtfully managed?
In simplest terms, it’s probably unlikely — but don’t feel bad, you are not alone. A full 85% of small law firms say that client satisfaction ratings are an important measure of success, but only 37% of small law firms track them.
If it matters, then why aren’t they tracking it and managing it better? As you look at your own firm, do you recognize any aspects of your business in these stats?
As part of this year-long series on securing your legal practice’s future, I’ve focused on helping small law firms get better at building and executing their strategic plans. We started with the basic steps: Identify your goals, and then dedicate the resources necessary to accomplish them. In the most recent post, we looked at how to apply these principles to the types of tasks that are central to running a law firm as a business, specifically managing your firm’s resources. We also examined how the way you manage those resources can impact other strategic priorities, such as your relationships with your clients.
But I also believe that it is vital to have a well-planned approach around how you manage your client relationships of their own accord, not just as a consideration of other priorities. These relationships are a key source of repeat and referral business, upon which many law practices rely for existence. Not surprisingly, they need special attention.
To begin to improve your client relationships, you have to start with an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses in order to identify what strengths you can build on, and where you’re weak and need improvement. Let’s look at a couple of examples of areas that may be ripe for inclusion in many firms’ strategic plans to improve client relationships:
Most law firms don’t put enough focus on the “soft touches” that impact their relationships with clients. It can be tempting to get caught up in the legal issues at play and forget that you’re dealing with people who are most likely in a very sensitive and consequence-ridden time in their lives.
As you conduct your evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses, give yourself an honest score for how much effort you put into empathizing with your clients. Do you consistently make an effort to put yourself in your clients’ shoes?
Another potential area for evaluation is how much effort you put into influencing your reputation in the community. Do you understand the network effects of a bad client experiences?
More than two-thirds (68%) of legal consumers consider “reviews from former clients” to be one of the most important pieces of additional information then can gather when considering an attorney. If two-thirds of your potential clients are paying attention, shouldn’t you?
Setting your goals
If you’ve read my post about setting goals, you know that I’m a proponent of time-phased goals. What would that look like in the context of managing relationships?
The immediate tasks you need to accomplish to improve your client relationships are relatively basic. First, the strengths and weaknesses evaluation I mentioned earlier. Have an honest conversation with yourself and your staff to evaluate how you currently focus on your clients.
Second, establish a baseline of what your reputation looks like today and be proactive about improving it. When attorneys request reviews, 98% of the reviews left are very favorable (4.5 or 5 out of 5). Getting involved in managing your reputation puts you in the driver’s seat. Even a less-than-positive review is an opportunity for you to respond and show potential clients what they can expect in terms of your service and your character when working with you.
These two steps form the foundation for everything that follows.
For the rest of this year
Goals for the rest of the year should focus on your genuinely addressable opportunities. These are guided by the ideas and priorities surfaced by your 90-day-goal evaluations.
Your goals will vary depending on whether you have determined if you do a pretty decent job of empathizing with your clients, or if it’s typically an afterthought. Similarly, if you have an existing reputational problem — while not likely something you’ll fix in a year — you can set goals that move you forward on addressing this problem in a meaningful way.
During this phase, consider implementing a program where you and every other attorney at your firm reach out to just five current or former clients every month to ask for feedback. It doesn’t have to be an extensive interview — but I would strongly suggest that you ask a few clear, open-ended questions and then just listen, closely. The mere gesture will make a large impact with clients.
What Better Relationships Will Mean
Improving your client relationships, while a worthwhile goal in itself, has a broader impact. Around 40% of lawyers in small law firms said that increased client referrals were a key factor in the success of their businesses over the past year. Similarly, growth in existing client relationships was frequently identified as the single most important factor in increased success. This translates to more business for your firm, which we’ll discuss in a forthcoming post.
Until then, remember that the soft touch of dealing with your clients is probably the single most critical factor to improving client relationships. Treat your clients with white gloves — every one of them. We as lawyers need to realize and act like we’re in a people-centric business in all aspects of what we do.
Indeed, lawyers typically have an extensive skill set when it comes to reading people. These are the skills you employ whether arguing your case or negotiating a deal. Use those same skills of perception to treat your clients the way that you actually feel; that is, that you need and value them greatly.
It’s good business. And it’s the right thing to do.
For more insights on how to manage and improve client relationships, download the report From One-Star Service to Five-Star Opportunity.