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Client feedback interviews--a winning combination for everyone.

It is hard to find a law firm Web site (or any professional service Web site) or firm mission statement today that does not have a focus on "client service." Can you name which firms promise they deliver the "highest standards of service," provide "unparalleled commitment to responsiveness and efficiency" and "a dedication for what matters most to their clients"? If you answered any of the AmLaw 200, you would probably be correct. Now if we asked 100 general counsel "Who actually delivers on their promise?" the response would be quite different.

Client feedback interviews represent one of the best measurement tools in finding the answer to such a question. Such interviews are hardly a new effort in legal marketing, yet many are still struggling to implement a process or conduct more than two a year. As I write this, I have just finished the notes from our firm's 65th client interview. I can say without hesitation that the interview program is by far the best and most important initiative we have implemented within our department.

There are three important aspects of the client feedback interviews:

* How to make them as successful as possible;

* Creating a compelling message to sell this initiative; and

* Developing key strategies for implementation.

[1] How to make them successful

Client feedback interviews are an opportunity for clients to give your firm feedback on how they view the relationship, work, value or anything else you ask about. They can be conducted by an outside vendor or internally, but if you choose to do them in-house, be certain that the primary relationship partner or executive is not present for the interview. The value of these interviews is candor, and it is difficult to receive this type of feedback with the key relationship people in the room. Interviews can certainly be done via a written survey or over the phone; however, we have found that nothing replaces a face-to-face meeting.

There is no magic to the task; however, the devil is in the details. Here are a few quick tips to making the most of the interviews.

* Make it easy for your lawyers to introduce this program to clients. Prepare talking points, scripts and Q&A documents to make the process simple and streamlined.

* Take the time to interview multiple parties at various levels within an organization. Presidents, senior executives and key decision makers are clearly important, but do not overlook the next level of management that could be making decisions on hiring (and firing) legal counsel daily.

* Take time to prepare. Conducting pre-interviews with all internal parties who have contact with the client is critical to the success of your interview. Include everyone who touches the client--partners, associates, paralegals, assistants, etc.

* Ask direct, specific and open-ended questions. You will get very different responses to "Are you pleased with the level of service?" versus "What could we be doing to improve our level of service?"

* Listen carefully. Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear.

* Summarize what you have heard and take time to review and confirm what you have agreed to do during the meeting. There is nothing more detrimental to a relationship than broken promises.

* Debrief the entire team upon your return and ensure you have benchmarks and measures in place to guarantee you will follow up with the client's wishes.

[2] Selling the interviews

None of this may be groundbreaking or earth-shattering; it really is the basis of all good relationships. But here lies the challenge: How do we prove that the value of the information outweighs the (perceived) pain of the process? You need a compelling and truthful message for all parties involved:

The responsible lawyers: Even overachievers and superstars could find reason to be slightly skeptical of an initiative that dissects the relationship with their most valued client. However in a world of fierce competition, we can't afford to let our egos stand in the way. And even if the news from the interview is different than expected, it is a roadmap for success.

Our clients: I have personally never had a client refuse the chance to speak with us. Yes, the timing has been bad and we have postponed. Yes, they have asked us to interview others within the organization. But we have never had a flat refusal. However, I have heard plenty of lawyers (thankfully most not from our firm!) say on behalf of clients that their client has no interest in this type of meeting. Don't pull the lie detector test out, but in fairness to the firm, you need to dig deeper. You need to understand the source of denial. If it is truly the client, you must be respectful and move on. If it is the lawyer, taking the time to understand the skepticism will allow you to respond appropriately.

The marketing department: This initiative can enhance marketing's role. If time (or lack of) is the issue, then outsource it. The voice of the client holds more weight than any message we deliver. If you can be a partner with the client and deliver important key messages for the firm and lawyer's success, you have strengthened your position and reputation within the firm.

[3] Key strategies on implementation

The best initiatives in the world will fail without a well-developed plan, key components for success and a clear goal. Here are a few things to consider before you embark on a client feedback interview program.

* Start small. No need to announce at the firm's annual retreat you are launching this program until you have some successes under your belt. Use a few early adopters and evaluate and adjust after three or four interviews.

* Have all the key components in place before you launch the first interview. (Talking points, scripts, Q&A, sample agendas, research, ways to add value to the client, criteria for selection, scheduling process, firm goals, etc.) These documents will make or break your program.

* Understand the time commitment. This is not a quick fix and should not be taken lightly. The planning, implementation and follow-through can be very time consuming. Understand how you are going to support these efforts before you launch any program or interview.

* Plan to celebrate positive results. Nothing breeds acceptance (and convinces other lawyers) more than success. Your firm and lawyers need to see the value of the time early and often to keep the initiative alive. Wishing you the best of luck with your current or future client feedback interview program. May it bring all of us a little closer to the successful relationship we all want to achieve with our clients.

Tara Weintritt is the director of client service and marketing at Miles & Stockbridge. She can be reached at tweintritt@milesstockbridge.com or 410/385-3446.
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Author:Weintritt, Tara
Publication:Strategies: The Journal of Legal Marketing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:1126
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