Start listening to your client

start listening to your clientOriginally posted in The National Law Journal on August 16, 2012

Listen to your client. Sounds obvious, and in fact there’s a trend among law firms toward structured client feedback exercises to formalize the listening process. Still, many firms resist — either because they don’t think their clients want to talk about the relationship or they believe there is nothing to talk about because they are awesome.

The companies thriving in the digital age are not so naive. They appreciate how vital feedback is. Companies like Whole Foods Market Inc., Inc. and American Express Co. have made a name for themselves online by showing an ability to listen and to act.

I asked Elizabeth Duffy, vice president of the legal marketing consulting firm Acritas, to explain what she sees holding lawyers back.

“Often lawyers think their clients don’t want to give feedback, but they are wrong — it is a huge value add for the client,” she said. “Nobody is going to be offended by you asking the client how they feel.”

“But I’m annoyed by customer surveys when I call Delta to change a flight or I’m trying to get my cable to work. Won’t clients sometimes be annoyed that we are taking time to ask them this same information?” I asked.

“This is very different from purchasing a flight or a small online purchase,” Duffy said. “With client feedback, you are asking them about their business, where large amounts of money are involved. They really care about their business.”

What would law firms hear if they stopped to listen?

“Firms have a false sense of security,” Duffy said. “I often hear, ‘If something was wrong, the client would tell me!’ No, they won’t — they would merely leave. One client told me, ‘I’ll give you my feedback, but there isn’t any point because I’m planning on no longer using that firm.’ This was a client that the firm had listed as extremely happy.”

So Duffy asked the client, “Could you share what the issues are so I can feed that back to them?” We got a full rundown of the bad matter management, billing problems, not feeling valued and just a general sense of unhappiness, and we were able to get this information to the law firm. They rounded up all the partners into a conference room, shared the feedback and were able to salvage a relationship that was worth over $10 million per year.”

This should make you wonder: What large relationships does your firm have that you are taking for granted?

Of course, there is a time and place for feedback. “Ask for feedback when clients are very happy — What are we doing well? When we are excellent, what does that look like? Where are we not are our best?” Duffy said.

One of the big secrets lies in pursing client feedback for the right reasons. “It has to be client-driven,” Duffy said. “You shouldn’t be keeping up with the Joneses — it has to be market-driven. Don’t build a [client feedback program] based on what the other firm down the street is doing, but on the market forces at play. Base it on fact and evidence.”

The need for better client feedback is greater now than ever, according to Duffy. “At the macro level, we are seeing firms compete for work they didn’t have to compete for against firms they didn’t have to compete against 10 years ago. Midsize firms are more open to change and more open to trying to understand what clients really want. These midsize firms are more aggressive and as a result are growing more quickly.”

The market for legal spend is becoming more competitive, and the firms that ask good questions and listen for the answer will gain the edge.

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