Misconceptions Regarding Client Satisfaction Feedback

By Robert J. Robertson, National Proposals Manager for Greenberg Traurig LLP and President of the Metropolitan New York Chapter of LMA.  He can be reached at robertsonr@gtlaw.com and 212.801.6724.

[This article was originally published on the LawMarketing Portal, www.lawmarketing.com.]

On October 16, 2003, the New York Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association hosted a panel discussion on “Misconceptions Regarding Client Satisfaction Feedback from the Firm’s Crown Jewel Clients.” 

Panel members included Don Aronson and Bruce Heintz of Aronson / Heintz Associates LLC, a New York and Boston based consulting firm specializing in client satisfaction surveys for professional services firms, and Lloyd Johnson, the publisher of Chief Legal Executive, Litigation Management and IP for Executives magazines, who brought the perspective of the GC/Client to the discussion.

Client Surveys Are a Valuable Market Research Tool

The panelists stated that appropriately executed client surveys should be viewed as an effective form of fundamental Market Research that can provide highly valuable input for use in the areas of: Competitive Intelligence; Strategic Planning; Firm Branding; Practice Group Positioning; Client Relationship Management; Client Retention & Expansion; and Recruiting.

Yet, the panel argued, some misconceptions still exist regarding the use of client surveys.  Some of the most common include:

-  Key Execs Won’t Like Them nor Have the Time 

-  Written Surveys Can Capture What’s Needed

-  The Responsible Partner Should Do the Interviews

-  The MP/Senior Partners Can Provide All the Necessary Client Coverage

-  Third-Parties Won’t Understand Clients’ Needs

-  These Surveys Are for Problem Clients Only

-  “Clients Will Have Criticisms We Can’t Remedy”

-  “Unless Our Competitors Are Doing It, We Don’t Have To.”

To help dispel some of these misconceptions, the panelists discussed various key issues that surround obtaining client feedback including, clients’ attitudes about surveys; client survey “best practices”; survey benefits for both the partners and the firm; and steps to consider in launching a Client Satisfaction Feedback Program.

Client Executives Welcome Being Asked for Their Feedback

When things go wrong, Lloyd Johnson noted, General Counsel rarely take the initiative to provide feedback to the law firm – instead, they just send less work, i.e., the process of “marginalization.” 

And, according to Johnson, some GCs admit that they “never found anybody happy with [giving and/or receiving] negative feedback.”  But, when asked about participating in client surveys, they “feel fine about it” and “think it’s good to provide feedback.”  These comments point to the GCs genuine interest in providing feedback in a setting where they have been expressly asked to offer their opinion rather than in the context of making their comments in an unsolicited manner.  Regarding the best approach for feedback, one GC said to Johnson, “I think coming and asking directly, ‘How are we doing?’ is … a good way to do it.”

Aronson and Heintz mentioned that of the thousands of in-person interviews they have conducted, many of the interviewees have commented that they are flattered to be asked for their opinions, view the surveys as evidence of the firm’s commitment to the importance of the relationship, and are pleased to participate in what they view as a mutually beneficial process.  In fact, many of these same executives belong to organizations that participate in similar client satisfaction programs for their own clients and understand the value of the information obtained in the process.

Client Survey Best Practices

Among the Best Practices discussed by Aronson and Heintz were the following:

•      Pre-survey orientations are necessary.  These orientations provide the interviewer(s) with an opportunity to understand the overall needs and objectives of the firm and also those of the partners vis-à-vis their specific clients.

•      Firm management should determine which clients are to be surveyed.  Relying on partners to volunteer their own clients may result in excluding those clients whose issues are in most need of being addressed.

•      Senior executives of key clients should be interviewed in person.  The law firm should want to find out what is on these executives’ minds.  And client executives prefer in-person interviews so they can discuss what they believe is relevant. 

•      In-person interviews involve effective use of open-ended questions and other interviewing techniques to ascertain the client’s issues.  Resorting to reading a long list of prepared questions, which primarily address the firm’s issues, constitutes little more than a written survey done orally.

•      The interview must not be perceived by the client as a fishing expedition for new work.  Nevertheless, a well planned and executed client survey will often result in not only maintaining the current level of work but also identifying additional areas of opportunity.  However, use of in-house interviewers, such as managing partners and marketing personnel, may create the wrong impression merely by their titles or their approach.

•      The interviewer should be independent of the client service team.  He or she should also have the appropriate stature and maturity to create the proper impression of the firm and, obviously, possess sufficient interviewing skills and experience.  There’s much more to the process than just asking questions and taking notes.  Not having someone from the service team interviewing the client may especially  make sense in light of clients’ reticence to provide negative feedback directly to the service provider.

•    Interviewees should include both law department personnel and business executives.  All key economic decision-makers and key influencers with regard to the hiring and/or retention of outside legal counsel – up to the level of Chairman, if appropriate – should be considered for interviews. 

•      Survey reports should be comprehensive and should interpret, but not regurgitate, the interviewees’ comments.  In other words, the reports should not be a transcript of what each interviewee said.  However, selective use of quotes is appropriate to support the report’s findings, which should be summarized by topic rather than by individual. 

•      Surveys should not be used for the evaluation of firm personnel.  This would very likely cause the survey program to be viewed as part of a punitive process.  As a result, internal support for the program would probably be limited and the designation of clients and individuals to be interviewed could be biased. 

•      The client survey process should be a recurring effort.  Before initiating client surveys, those who are to have oversight responsibility and those who will be conducting the interviews should be certain they have ample time in their yearly schedules to successfully implement and sustain the program.

Client Surveys Benefit Both the Partners and the Firm

Once misconceptions are addressed and firms are educated about the value of the process, Partners generally have had a favorable reaction to client surveys and the survey results, referring to the feedback received as “invaluable.”  Partners have also observed that their clients are very supportive of the process - often, in contrast, to how they initially thought the surveys were going to be received.

As for firm management, they have found it useful to obtain “independent verification” of the level of service being provided and the perceived quality of personnel assigned.  Furthermore, after several surveys, management has been provided with an assessment of how the firm and relevant practice groups are positioned in comparison with the competition - a critical component of legal marketing strategy development.

Launching the Client Satisfaction Feedback Program

The presentation concluded with a suggestion of the following five steps to consider in launching a successful program: 

1.  Start with the business case – discuss client and firm objectives, pros and cons of various survey alternatives, qualitative and quantitative targets, etc.

2.  Identify supportive partners who will act as champions and/or sponsors and who will volunteer their clients.

3.  Working with the supportive partners, identify the clients and the interviewees for two to four pilot surveys.

4.  Gain appropriate firm approval to initiate the pilot surveys and determine how and to whom – aside from the applicable responsible partners – the results will be presented.

5.  As necessary, arrange for the orientation and training of the interviewers.


Aronson/Heintz Associates LLC
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