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15 common client-service mistakes and how to avoid them

By: Cynthia Sharp
Published: May 14, 2018

We live in an age of terrible customer service, and this presents tremendous opportunity for attorneys wanting to improve their law firm management. While even a little bit of good client service will give you a competitive advantage, exceptional client service will give you an intensely loyal client base that ensures a steady stream of referrals – and the revenues that come with them.

I discovered this when I had my own law firm for 30 years (I am now a business coach to lawyers after selling it a few years ago). Even though my hourly rate was much higher than my competitors, I had enough business to keep myself, several attorneys, and a couple of paralegals very busy. That’s because my team and I were focused on the needs of the client. As such, we dodged the following service pitfalls, which are far too pervasive at most law firms.

1. A less-than-professional first impression

Law firm A:

First impressions matter. For this reason, you always need to give your very best first impression to clients. The entire first interaction with the client, from how clients are greeted to how they are introduced to the attorney should be scripted. After all, which law firm would you rather work with?

You walk through their office door. Magazines are strewn everywhere and a plant is wilting in the corner. A frazzled receptionist glances up at you.

“Who are you here to see?” she demands, and then buzzes the attorney. “Your 10 o’clock is here.”

Her phone rings.

“Just a second,” she says to you abruptly.

She picks up the phone and mumbles into it. “Garble-Garble Law Offices.”

Law firm B:

You walk through the office door to a tidy and comfortable reception area. The receptionist smiles at you, greets you by name and confirms who you are there to see. She rings the attorney. She informs the attorney that you’ve arrived, repeating your name in the process.

The receptionist then asks if you would like coffee or water, and invites you to peruse a magazine or a binder of client testimonials while you wait.

Suddenly, her phone rings. She excuses herself to answer.

“Law Office of Cynthia Sharp. Sue speaking. How may I help you?”

Your receptionist should speak in a clear, pleasant tone, and always let callers know who they are talking to. And when the prospect visits the office, the receptionist needs to greet them by name. That’s so much more pleasant than being called a “10 o’clock” because a client is not a “10 o’clock.”

Your reception area needs to be welcoming, orderly, and designed to put clients at ease, because it’s never fun to visit a lawyer. Consider displaying written client testimonials that comply with your state’s ethics regulations in a three-ring binder. Reviewing page after page of handwritten notes complimenting your firm’s professionalism and warmth will reassure your clients that they made the right choice.

Once it’s time for the meeting, the receptionist should lead them to a clean, professional conference room or office space. The attorney should greet the client and ask a couple of warm-up questions, like: “Would you like more coffee?” and “Did you have trouble finding us?” Then get to the business of the matter. This brings me to my next point.

2. Assuming you know what the potential client wants

I have my Masters of Law (LL.M) in taxation and I was taught very early in my career that you don’t let the tax tail wag the dog. That means you find out what the client wants before offering a solution. For instance, when a client came to me for estate planning, I made sure I let them explain their goals before counseling or offering solutions. This way I wasn’t focused on saving them $250,000 in taxes, for instance, when that wasn’t aligned with the legacy they wanted to leave.

Actively listen to your clients and let them talk. Ask open-ended questions to make sure you know what they want to accomplish by retaining you.

3. Not closing the deal

You could violate Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.18, and even risk a malpractice suit, if a client thinks you’re their lawyer and you don’t realize it. All it takes is a reasonable belief of representation for a judge to rule that you didn’t fulfill your duties as a lawyer.

That’s why you must follow a process to close the deal during the initial consultation – at least if the client has a viable matter that you are qualified to handle. Steps are outlined below.

You should always ask potential clients if they are ready to move forward with a retainer. If they aren’t, ask what additional information they need to make their decision and respond to their objections. If they still aren’t ready to move forward, ask permission to follow-up. They will almost always say yes.

In 30 days, if you haven’t heard back, send a letter clarifying that they have chosen not to retain your law firm. Advise them to reach out within seven days if they change their mind and urge them to retain another attorney if they don’t retain you.

This way clients know, in writing, that you aren’t representing them. This letter also reminds them that they need to move forward with their legal decision. People procrastinate, and, more often than not, you can win a new client after sending this letter.

4. Permitting distractions and interruptions

When you meet with a client give them your full attention. Don’t permit interruptions, check email or take calls. Only look at your watch when necessary. Clients have invested in that time with you, and you should respect that investment.

5. Making yourself the only point of contact

Consider offering your clients another point of contact in your firm. Your receptionist could also be your firm’s client relationship manager, and give a card with that title on it to clients. If a client has an issue, they call the client relationship manager first. Their role is to listen to the client, answer their questions, and let them know when the attorney will be able to respond.

6. Not setting and documenting expectations

If the client agrees to retain you, always send them a welcome letter with a retainer agreement where you document information such as:

  • The expectations for the case. For instance, if the case could take three years, be sure that’s in the letter.
  • The names and contact information of the people in your office they’ll interact with, especially the client relationship manager.
  • How quickly to expect a response from your team and yourself.
  • The importance of phone appointments and how to make one (keep reading to find out more about that).
  • Why you’re honored to serve them.

7. Running late

It’s rude for any professional to keep anyone waiting. Respect the value of your clients’ time. Even the medical industry is upping their game in this arena.

8. Playing phone tag

Set up phone appointments instead. If clients call your client relationship manager, they should provide clients the information needed to satisfy them in the interim, but then schedule a phone appointment with the attorney.

In my firm, I typically set aside 4 – 6 p.m. every Thursday for these phone meetings. If you’re running a volume practice, you’re not going to remember every detail about every case at every moment, so making phone appointments will give you an opportunity to thoroughly review the status of their matter before the meeting.

9. Being reactive

As you set deadlines, give yourself enough breathing space so that you can get your work done a week before it’s due to the client, so they never have to ask what the status is. Always over deliver.

10. Not responding

Not returning phone calls is a surefire way to aggravate clients. Typically, when an attorney is avoiding a client it means they’re in over their head.

So often when the Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4, which relates to communication, is being violated, chances are Rule 1.3, which relates to diligence, is being violated, too. The attorney is ignoring a file and won’t respond to phone calls or even certified letters because, frankly, they don’t know how to.

When you’re in over your head, just refer it out. Don’t ignore it. You’re doing what’s best for yourself and the client, even if it is tough to give up that retainer.

11. Taking their patronage for granted

I think it’s an honor to take care of people’s legal affairs. Attorneys should be sincere with clients, shake their hand, and say, “Thank you very much for your confidence in my work.”

12. Mispronouncing client names

Learn how to say your client’s name, especially in this age of diversity. I have a philosophy that if someone has a difficult name to pronounce, I make a point of learning it, even if they say, “Oh, everyone just calls me Joe.” Here’s why: Their name is music to their ears and they’ll value the person who bothers to learn it.

13. Sloppy invoicing

I’ve seen too many bills that are vague, photocopied, and lopsided, and even misspell client names.

Make sure yours are well-designed, clear, and typo-free, because invoices should promote your value and position you as a meticulous professional. Accomplish this by making them a diary of everything you’re doing for the client. For instance, on April 12 you didn’t merely “deal with client matter” for 1.75 hours. Instead, you spent 45 minutes meeting with the client’s accountant and spent an hour drafting a memo.

Bills can even be a connection-builder. For instance, I would look up clients’ LinkedIn® profiles before I sent my first invoice. If we knew someone in common, I would mention that on it.

14. Improperly closing your matter

Don’t assume your clients realize their matter is closed. Always send a termination letter. Invite clients to reach out immediately if they don’t agree. Again, you don’t want to risk an ethics violation or a malpractice suit.

At the closing meeting for every client, even if a junior attorney at my firm represented them, I would show up and thank them for their confidence in our work. I added that, if they were happy with our work, we would greatly appreciate it if they could send their friends who might need our services. Then I would conclude by asking them if we could send them a client satisfaction survey. They almost always said yes.

The survey had leading questions such as:

  • Were you greeted properly?
  • Were there any staff members who gave you special treatment?
  • Were your phone calls returned promptly?

Their responses filled the testimonial binders that sat in our reception area. Their continuous referrals filled our office with a steady stream of revenue.

15. Not taking advantage of technology

One final, but important, note: You’re crazy if you don’t have a law practice management system.

Without it, the likelihood of details slipping through the cracks skyrockets and you won’t give the kind of service that will engender client trust.

With it, you’re set up to make your clients feel like they’re your sole focus because it will seem like you’re always on top of deadlines, their matters, and all their important details. A law practice management system is key to running a successful small law firm.

Here’s just a very minor example that made a real difference in our firm’s client service: My practice management system allowed me to take notes about clients. When it came time for me to meet with a client I was able to pull up their matter file and review the notes. I knew, for instance, the date they had hip surgery and I could ask very specifically about that. It was that attention to detail, coupled with diligently adhering to process, that elevated our client service from good to exceptional.

The best part of giving exceptional client service is that it’s far less expensive, in terms of stress and opportunity costs, than poor client service. When you are focused on serving clients well throughout their experience with you, your return on investment will be phenomenal, and it simply makes practicing law much more fun and fulfilling.

Terry Rheault

About the author
Cynthia Sharp is a business development strategist and veteran attorney who helps motivated attorneys generate more revenue for their law firms through her coaching business, The Sharper Lawyer.

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