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Five Ways to Manage Client Expectations

When clients hire you, they have a picture in their minds of what it will be like to work with you. Sometimes it’s a very precise picture based on their perceptions and experience during the selection process. Other times, it’s less well-defined, but you can be sure it’s there. After you’re hired, clients compare the picture they have in their head with the reality of how you and your firm perform. Ultimately, how well everything matches up will be a good indicator of the client’s level of satisfaction. Some clients, especially when there’s a lot at stake, experience “buyer’s remorse,” that moment of truth when they wonder whether they’ve made the right decision. The first six months to a year after you’ve been hired is the time to reinforce your client’s decision and minimize any doubts they may have. This is the time to prove your commitment and dedication to your client. But how?

You can affirm your client’s decision to hire you by showing empathy, listening to carefully to them, and paying close attention to their needs and issues. You can help clients identify and clarify their expectations so you all know what is needed to establish a rewarding and satisfying relationship. The goal is not just to have satisfied clients, but to end up with highly satisfied clients who are willing to expand your role with them and refer other clients to you.

The president and COO of a large company recently hired a local lawyer and his firm. The lawyer spent considerable time learning about the client, listening to his concerns and issues and, in the process, established trust and earned the client’s confidence. Just eight months after the relationship began, this is what the client said:

“I go to bed at night knowing I have the best legal representation possible.

I know that by my lawyer’s ability to articulate, to listen and to provide on-going communication. I really do believe communication is critical. It gives you assurance and confidence. The communication from my lawyer is outstanding. My comfort level and confidence level in him and his firm are huge factors; they are the most critical.

I don’t have time to devote to this matter. It’s one of a hundred things on my radar screen so I need to know I’m in good hands. I can tell you things that don’t work is when lawyers don’t listen, when they do 90 percent of the talking, when I don’t hear from them, when there are disappointments along the way and it’s kind of blown off – all kinds of little things that add up.

My lawyer is a tremendous listener. He’s articulate and does a great job of keeping me informed. I walk away thinking we’ve got a good firm and I trust them and what they’re doing. I don’t question the decision, the follow-up or the process.”

The COO described it perfectly: Clients are more likely to trust you when they believe you are interested in them and their issues. They want the comfort of knowing that their lawyers are looking out for their best interests. And you can only do that when you know what “their best interests” are.

Roadmap of Client Expectations

Successful lawyers take the time to find out what’s important to their clients and what their expectations are from the outset. In order to meet clients’ expectations, it’s important to clarify them. An ideal time to do that is at the beginning of the engagement.

Clients appreciate having an opportunity to talk about how they’d like to see things work. When they talk about service, communication, staffing and billing, it not only helps the lawyer learn what’s important to clients, but it also gives the lawyer a chance to manage expectations that may be unrealistic. What follows are five key ways to start your client relationships on the right foot and pointed in a direction that will earn loyalty and contribute to creating highly satisfied clients from the outset:

1. Find Out What Your Client Defines as ‘Excellent Service.’

Research has shown that clients’ views of service depend primarily on what was actually delivered and in what manner, in relation to what was expected (Heskett, Sasser, Schlesing. The Service Profit Chain, Harvard Business School). This suggests that:

  • Service quality is relative, not absolute.
  • It is determined by the client, not by the service provider. Always.
  • It varies from one client to the next.
  • Service quality can be enhanced by meeting or exceeding clients’ expectations or by taking steps to control such expectations.

And remember, you can’t exceed expectations if you don’t know what they are. Ask questions about what your client defines as “excellent service,” and ask for examples of good and poor service. You can help clients articulate their expectations by listening carefully to the answers and asking questions to help them clarify what they’re looking for. This is also a good way to build trust – an underlying benefit of managing expectations.

2. Get to Know Your Client Inside and Out.

Take the time to get to know your clients at your expense (and if it applies, add a N/C note on their invoice). Take an interest in them personally and professionally. Areas on which to focus are:

  • Their business, industry and competitors
  • Their distinct advantages, strengths and weaknesses
  • Their outside interests and values
  • Their personal and professional goals and plans
  • Articles, brochures, annual reports and website information.

An excellent source of information is the organization’s internal newsletter. After the client relationship is established, ask if it’s possible to be put on the company newsletter mailing list. Read trade and industry publications to learn about their world. And share all this information with everyone at your firm who works with the client. When you know a lot about a client, you’re in a better position to provide more relevant and valuable legal counsel.

3. Introduce Everyone

Identify who will be on your firm’s client team and what their roles are – including secretaries, paralegals and receptionists. Communicate that information to your client and to everyone on their team. Make sure the client is introduced to everyone at the firm who will have contact with them. Help them feel connected to you and your firm. And make sure your team meets with all the relevant people from the client’s organization – at their office, if possible. Ask everyone on your team for ways to cultivate the relationships on an ongoing basis. This is a good topic to brainstorm regularly.

4. Find Out the Best Ways to Communicate

As the COO quoted above said, “Communication is critical. It gives you assurance and confidence.” Ask questions about the flow of information and the best ways for it to occur. For example, find out about such things as:

  • Frequency of communication.
  • Amount of detail.
  • In writing, email, by phone, frequency of F2F meetings.
  • Extranets and firm website access.
  • Who should be included in the loop.

There’s nothing worse for clients than to have to call their lawyer because they don’t know what’s going on. Work with your clients to establish a comfortable exchange of information. If you’re comfortable, give your client your home phone number. Effective communication with clients creates confidence and builds trust. It will strengthen the relationship and reduce the potential for conflict from the outset.

5. Don’t Shy Away From the Bills

The two areas where clients typically express the most dissatisfaction are service and billing. When it comes to billing, it’s important to discuss:

  • Timing and frequency
  • Format and detail
  • Budgets
  • Billing for multiple matters

If possible, work with the client’s billing needs and try to develop a process and format you can both live with. Some lawyers understand that bills can be a part of marketing. They can be used to describe the process, to communicate the amount and type of work and to highlight work that was written off. When bills are produced with a client in mind, there is less dissatisfaction and clients are more inclined to pay their bills on time.

Even though it’s ideal to review all of these issues early in the relationship, you also accomplish a lot at other times. Logical times to raise questions about service, staffing, communication and billing are annually, semi-annually or at the close of a significant matter. An end-of-matter debriefing with your clients is an opportunity to ask questions about that particular matter such as what went well and what could be improved.

Many Reasons to Invest

There are many reasons to invest the time and energy to build strong, lasting client relationships. Studies have shown that client loyalty is the best predictor of profitability (Heskett, Sasser, Schlesing. The Service Profit Chain, Harvard Business School). Highly satisfied clients are more likely to pay their bills and pay them on time. They incur lower revenue losses due to write-downs. They are more likely to use other services of the firm and are happy to give referrals. Highly satisfied clients are also typically less expensive to service, complain less and are more rewarding to work with.

Understanding client expectations and meeting or exceeding them builds trust, creates confidence and contributes to the client’s sense of loyalty. Clients want their lawyers to bring added value to the relationship; it’s of great value when you facilitate open lines of communication. Minimizing surprises and eliminating disappointments helps your client look and feel good. And when you help your client look good, you look good. And that’s how rewarding, long-lasting relationships are supposed to work.

Originally published in Marketing for Lawyers.

Business Development Coach Joan Autrey helps lawyers strategically build thriving practices. For details, contact Joan.