Client Satisfaction — the Compass Some Firms Forget They Had

By Don Aronson and Bruce Heintz – Aronson / Heintz Associates LLC

[Originally published on the Legal Sales and Service Organization, Inc. (LSSO) website, at www.legalsales.org, in March 2004 and reprinted here by permission.]

Of 25 industries whose image was surveyed, a recent Gallup poll rated the computer industry, followed by restaurants and the grocery business as the best.  As you might guess, the legal field ranked among the three industries with the worst images, receiving scores only a bit better than oil and gas (remember Enron?) and health care (remember HealthSouth?).

Yet, as reported along with last summer’s AmLaw 100 listings, an average partner in the top one-quarter of these firms earns more than $1,000,000 per year – much more than an average in-house senior lawyer. These two seemingly conflicting trends – i.e., a low opinion of the profession and lawyers’ high incomes – presumably exist due to the differing compositions of the audiences for the Gallup poll and for those evaluating lawyers’ bills.  Nevertheless, law firms would be well advised to spruce up their image.  To address this situation, law firms should take steps to ensure that their clients are not only “satisfied” with the services provided and how they’re provided but are also “loyal” to the firm providing the services. 

As Aric Press asked in his March 2003 American Lawyer article entitled, “The Client’s Hour”:  “What exactly do you know about your clients?  And how do you know it?”  For too many Responsible Partners, and their firms, the answers to the foregoing questions are mostly guesses.  Press continued, “The question of how you treat your clients is not just a matter for your marketing department.  It goes, among other things, to your governing structure, to your assessment systems, and ultimately, to your vision.” 

So, if the firm has a sense that it might have, in some respects, lost its way regarding how it treats its clients, here are seven areas in which client satisfaction can provide a “compass” to lead the firm toward getting and staying on the right track.

1.   Increased Revenues and Profits — What is the business case for seeking client satisfaction feedback?  It has to do with the imperfect nature of communications, or “gaps in communication” – in this case, between professional advisor and client.  Professionals and clients are engaged in a continuous loop of interactions regarding expressed needs (“We need help on a particular matter.”), expectations regarding the provision of services (“It’ll cost $50,000 and take five weeks.”), mid-course corrections (“You should have informed me sooner about what you were planning to do.”), and after-service evaluations (“You did a good job overall, but there were several glitches.”).  But often, because we’re all human, the client either fails to state what he or she expects or is not otherwise clear or forthright in expressing his or her feelings.  And, sometimes, the professional advisor doesn’t really want to hear the bad news, or misinterprets what is said, or worse, assumes all is well and that no specific communications are required.  These gaps in communication translate into gaps in service quality and/or in missed opportunities, which can get translated, or even amplified, into thousands, or millions, of fee dollars.  The simple point here is that more precise communications regarding client satisfaction can lead to sustained or increased revenues.     

2.   Energized Client Teams and Practice Groups — The most pronounced organizational revolution in law firms today is the creation of client teams and practice groups.  These teams are composed of members from various areas of law or separate departments.  While much has been written about how to organize and motivate client/practice teams, one of the primary reasons they should come together is to engage in the common enterprise of figuring out:  (a) “How satisfied are our clients?” (b) “What can we do to increase that satisfaction?” and (c) “How do we develop long-term loyalty?”

3.   Modification of Partners’ Behaviors — Managing Partners all dream of being able to change lawyers’ behaviors – and for good reasons.  Some lawyers have truly misbehaved while others could benefit from additional developmental training.  But how can behavior modification be achieved?  The cowardly way is to try to get results by tweaking the partner’s earnings through the machinations of the firm’s compensation system.  While this theoretically seems sound, in practice it often does not get results, and can even backfire.  Another way is trying to cajole, embarrass, or otherwise talk the partner into changing.  But most of the partners whose behavior needs improvement are too independent to listen – they just walk away.  Alternatively, the firm can bring in a fast-talking consultant who by force of personality may temporarily mesmerize some partners into thinking they ought to change – but when the consultant leaves, so does the partners’ resolve.  So, whose voice is the most sure to get action from a partner?  That voice, of course, is the one from his or her most important client(s).  The client, and that client’s satisfaction, is the partner’s lifeblood.  Therefore, he or she just has to listen.

4.   A Strategic Plan that Is Built on a Solid Foundation — Many long-range plans cover a broad range of subjects and seem almost too grandiose to ever get implemented.  But what if a key ingredient to the strategic plan were:  steps the firm needs to take to increase the satisfaction of current and future clients.  Then, with respect to growth and mergers, for example, the firm would have a yardstick to measure the value of such initiatives.  That is, would the firm’s current client base think the merger was a good idea?  Would a future projected client base agree?  Or, regarding additions or deletions to the firm’s service offerings, what is the package of services that will be most helpful to the firm’s clients?  And looking internally – at the way the firm is organized, the way it is governed and the powers given to individual partners – are these issues currently being decided in a vacuum, or being left to politics, or should client satisfaction serve as the supreme premise in each case?

5.   Focused Marketing and Business Development Efforts — Law firms have been spending a lot of money on branding, are thinking more about how to access client feedback and are gingerly using the term “sales” more frequently.  But for each of these marketing and business development [i.e., sales,] efforts – and the expensive programs behind them – have law firms asked, “How will these efforts address client satisfaction?” After all, won’t increasing satisfaction naturally lead to more loyalty – including expanded use of the firm’s services, which is the fundamental objective of marketing and business development.

6.   Client-Centered Professional Development — Professional development at the partner level is one of the most overlooked opportunities in a law firm.  While much effort is invested in training associates, law firms often underestimate the value of providing more guidance to partners.  In many firms, about 20% or less of the partners are outstanding client handlers.  These are the partners who look after the largest clients, seem to develop business easily and represent much of what is happening around the firm.  But what if the firm could train the next 10% to 30%, or more, of its partners to be much more effective client handlers?  Or, what if the firm could train its top client handlers to be even better?  The course book for this effort is simply:  how to be a world-class Responsible Partner, based on client feedback regarding those positively perceived partner characteristics and attributes that are most commonly noted by the firm’s highly satisfied and most important clients.

7.   The Core Value of the Partnership — Why are the firm’s “partners” staying together as partners?  Is it the money?  Or is it the opportunity to find professional satisfaction?  Perhaps, it is both.  But, what are the guiding principles, the mission, and the call to action for this group of very smart and talented people that the firm has assembled?  If the firm were to adopt client satisfaction as that core value, the firm’s goals would be instantly in sync with the clients’ goals, and a symbiotic – win-win – relationship would be achieved. 

Client satisfaction is the new mantra in law firms.  But is it just getting lip service or have law firms fundamentally incorporated client satisfaction as a key foundational value and a primary operating guideline?  Regardless of the comings and goings of managerial fads, the ups and downs of the economy, or the intrusions of competitors, client satisfaction is a compass that will never fail to point a law firm in the right direction.

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Donald Aronson and Bruce Heintz, of Aronson / Heintz Associates LLC, have interviewed thousands of executives as part of client feedback programs for some of the country’s leading professional services firms. Don Aronson can be reached at daronson@aronsonheintz.com or 212.874.4181, and Bruce Heintz at bheintz@aronsonheintz.com or 781.891.6850.

 

Aronson/Heintz Associates LLC
New York City: (212) 874-4181 // Boston: (781) 891-6850

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