"So What Do You Want?"
One of the best ways to make
clients feel important is to understand and manage their
expectations regarding the cost, the process, the outcome, and how
you communicate with them.
Have you ever lost a client and not known
why? How do you explain clients who, without so much as a peep about
poor service, high fees, bad results or body odor, suddenly
The reasons could be many, but always
consider that unless they retired, died, went belly-up or were
deported, it is very likely that some unreported thing that you did
or didn’t do may have prompted their vanishing act.
It’s also very likely that you won’t want to
acknowledge that the way you provide your legal service or interact
with clients is hurting your practice. Thus, the thought of asking
former clients why they took their legal business down the street is
about as appealing as a root canal sans anesthesia.
Instead of tempting the hands of fate by
asking questions that may invite unwanted criticism, you pacify
yourself with lame but comforting theories:
"Their son-in-law just passed the
"They don’t use lawyers any more."
"They couldn’t afford me." (Note:
Rarely is cost the true cause of client unrest. Your fees may
become "too high" after some screw-up or lack of attention on
your part makes clients doubt the value of your service. To test
this axiom, stop returning calls from clients who normally pay
It might be nice if clients would let you
know when you’ve done something that displeases them, but, by and
large, they don’t. So, in the absence of any complaints, you wrongly
assume that everything is hunky-dory, and you just keep on doing
things the way you always have.
But until you muster the courage to ask, you
may never know what makes a client quietly fire you, and you will
deny yourself the opportunity to correct whatever flaws have crept
into your practice.
People Tend Not to Complain
If you think that a client’s silence implies
satisfaction, think about the last time you had an unpleasant
experience at a restaurant. It probably seems like yesterday. (It
probably was yesterday.)
Maybe the food was bad. The waiter was slow,
hyperactive, or a mime. Or there were two different shades of
lipstick on your glass. You may have thought about saying something,
but unless the problem was so grievous that you have little choice
but to complain, you probably endured your meal in silence and then
left, never to return, without telling the owner why.
Clients are like restaurant customers
(although it’s a rare bird who tacks on 15% when he pays his legal
bill) and it’s usually up to you to pry their complaints out of
them, especially if they’re from the Midwest. Otherwise,
dissatisfied clients will tolerate you for now, never letting you
know they’re unhappy. But as soon as they’re out of their pending
jam they’ll disappear faster than witnesses to a mob hit.
Nevertheless, there's no shortage of
delusional attorneys who cling to the belief that if they just
provide good legal work and good results their clients will be
There are at least two major flaws in that
reasoning: First, there is no shortage of attorneys who can do good
legal work. Second, relatively few clients have much appreciation
for your technical skill.
But while they may be oblivious to the
artistic aspects of a shrewdly crafted pleading, they are keenly
aware of how you treat them. Even the most unsophisticated clients
recognize responsiveness, accessibility and a caring attitude when
they see them (they also know when those qualities are missing).
More often than not, it is on that basis that they formulate their
attitude toward you and decide whether or not to use you again.
Make Clients Feel Important
After conducting more client interviews and
focus groups than I care to recall, I am convinced that, in most
cases, client satisfaction and loyalty are directly related to the
extent to which the attorney makes the client feel important. Yet,
many attorneys seem to go out of their way to make the opposite
Whenever you make a client wait for you
beyond the appointed hour ... or you miss a deadline ... or you fail
to return a phone call ... or you talk when you should listen ...
you risk making him or her feel unimportant.
At the same time, there are lots of ways to
make clients feel important, such as calling them "Your Excellency,"
peeling them a grape, washing their feet, and having their car
Simonized while they’re in your office.
A tad excessive? Okay, then consider this
alternative: Make them feel important by meeting their expectations
for good service. The trick here is that no two clients have exactly
the same definition for "good service," leaving you to ponder
Hulcher’s Second Rule of Client Relations:
You will not satisfy a client unless
you meet his or her expectations.
You cannot meet client expectations
until you know what they are.
And you cannot know what they are
unless you ask.
Understanding Client Expectations
At the outset, after you and your client
have discussed his or her matter and possible solutions, turn off
the meter and talk about what each of you expects from your
relationship and what each of you wants the other to know. You may
want to gauge their expectations for every variable:
How long it's going to take.
How much it's going to cost.
How often and under what circumstances
they want to hear from you, and via what medium.
How much the other side is going to
How much of a table-pounding,
chair-throwing, slobbering bad-ass you're going to be.
By working these issues into an early
conversation, you accomplish some very important things:
By discussing your clients’ expectations and
your ability to live up to them, both parties can leave the
consultation with more or less realistic views of how the
relationship should progress.
If you know you can’t satisfy their
expectations, it’s better to tell them up front – even if it means
losing them – than to have disappointed clients telling their
friends what a jerk you are because you didn’t do what you didn’t
say you couldn’t do. (Note: There are good and bad ways to tell a
client that their expectations are a little out of line. Saying "Get
real," "Ain't gonna happen" or "What, are you on drugs?" will not
win you a guest chapter in the next update of How to Win Friends and
Influence People. Instead, finesse them a little bit. Honor their
viewpoint – twisted as it may be – and help them save face by giving
them some new information, to wit: "I can understand why you might
want to see that gentleman's head hanging from a pike at 44th &
Camelback, but what you may not know is that several years ago the
state legislature passed an obscure statute – and I grant you, it
may have occurred in the closing hours of a long session when our
lawmakers weren't thinking clearly – that makes that outcome pretty
You dispel any notion that you’re "just
another lawyer." Instead, you’re a sensitive, caring, thorough
professional who values the client relationship as much as the
You learn enough about your clients to
tailor your services to them, rather than make them conform to your
You can avoid wasting time and effort on
niceties that mean nothing to the client; instead, you can
concentrate on the things that mean a lot.
Learning about your clients’ business and
other affairs helps you anticipate problems they hadn’t considered,
and it helps you cross-sell other services.
Finally, initial feedback sets the table for
more feedback conversations down the road – conversations that might
help you salvage a rocky relationship.
If you had a good discussion of your
client’s expectations at the outset, it will be fairly easy to
revisit those expectations later on and keep yourself on track.
There is no magic point in the relationship
at which you should solicit feedback, but after you’ve done enough
work to make an impression on your client, it’s time to find out if
you’re living up to the promise. It can happen over lunch or at the
end of a meeting or phone call:
"Loretta, when you hired me we talked
about the kind of personal service and attention you expect, and
you told me that (fill in the blank) is very important to you.
What I’d like to know is, how am I doing? Is there anything I’m
not doing that you wish I would? Is there anything I am doing
that you wish I wouldn’t? If there’s anything you could change
about me or our firm, what would it be? Do you think I’m paying
enough attention to your case? Are we always courteous when you
call or come in? Is everything okay? Can I get you a glass of
water? Would you like a slice of lemon in that? Do I ask too
She will probably respond in one of three
"You’re doing a good job and I’m
satisfied with what you’ve done so far." Congratulations. Unless
you’re such a perfectionist that you go into a pout because she
didn’t say you were doing an awesome job, consider this a
"Well, I’m a little concerned about
(fill in the blank). Also, I wish you’d return my phone calls
more quickly. Oh, and one other thing: My name is Lydia."
Congratulations again. Your relationship with the client is
strong enough that she felt free to answer your question
directly and honestly. She also gave you the chance to correct a
potentially bad situation before it became critical.
"Everything’s fine." Look out,
especially if clients say this while yawning, staring out the
window, or picking at their fingernails and contemptuously
throwing whatever they dug out of there against your office
wall. "Fine" is its own antonym – it’s the word you use when the
waiter asks you about your mediocre meal, and it’s client code
for "Just get me out of this mess so I’ll never have to talk to
you again." Never take "fine" for an answer. A clever response:
"Well, I’m glad you think we’re ‘fine,’ but we want to do an
excellent job for you. What could we do to get you to upgrade us
from ‘fine’ to ‘excellent’?"
Your clients may have much more frequent
contact with your secretary than they do with you. They may also be
more candid with her. Take advantage of that; train your secretary
to ask your clients some of the same questions that were mentioned
earlier. If she gets any feedback – especially the negative kind –
she should encourage clients to share their concerns with you
directly. At the same time, she should feel free to share client
comments with you without fearing that you’ll kill the messenger.
After the deal is closed, the trust
agreement is executed, the trial is over, or the decree is issued,
initiate one more round of client feedback.
Besides asking, "How did we do?", take this
chance to talk about the future. Ask about changes in their company
or industry. Point out other legal needs that you can anticipate.
Learn more about their other professional advisors. Finally, let
them know you’d be pleased to help anyone they might refer, and
thank them one more time for entrusting their affairs to you.
If clients offer criticism, don’t get
defensive. They’re probably not interested in your excuses and,
besides, you asked. Instead of going on an explanation binge, simply
say, "Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll try to do better, and I
hope you’ll remind me if I have a relapse."
Finally, no matter how lavish the praise or
harsh the criticism, thank them for their comments. Either way,
they’ve done you a big favor.