Everyone, it seems, has realized that clients want good service.  Most have responded by saying they provide great service.  Only a few, however, really do provide it.  How is a client to distinguish between those who talk the talk from the few who actually walk the walk?

The separation really starts with expectations.  Last week, I was having dinner with a friend (also a lawyer) who was complaining that a client had become upset when it took them a bit over a day to return a phone call.  Quite frankly, I was dumb struck.  I feel guilty if the time to return a call is measured in hours rather than minutes.  Measuring in days is just not acceptable.  Its easy to understand why my friend and I view this differently.  He was born and raised in a big firm, and grew up working on huge lawsuits.  He probably did not have to return a call to a client for years, and when he first did, it was the kind of call where the discussion would entail a huge document production.  In other words, not a time sensitive issue.  I was fortunate enough to grow up in a firm where our matters were smaller, and where we were dealing directly with CEOs and other senior officers early on.  My former partners drilled the message into everyone’s head that these senior officers were busy and it was our obligation to get back to them while they still remembered why they had called us.  As time goes by, the need for immediate call backs becomes even more apparent.  The worst thing that can happen to a client relationship is for the client to ask the next lawyer she speaks to the question she had called to ask you. 

So, for my friend, good service is same day call backs.  For others, good service is same hour call backs.  How does a client learn which kind of person she is dealing with?  Its hard to ask how fast you return calls, because no one will every respond with a precise number.  I’ve come up with a list of surrogate questions, however, that should provide information that will allow a client to meaningfully assess whether the lawyer or firm at issue really walks the client service walk.

1.  How many times every year do the firm’s lawyers gather to listen to clients or prospects discuss client service?  If client service is truly a firm priority, an annual meeting or retreat to focus on this issue, to renew, to fortify, seems the least that should be expected.

2.  How does a firm identify what it means to provide “exceptional service,” and how is that information communicated to everyone in the firm?  Knowledge of exceptional client service is not innate.  It must be learned.  If a firm is truly committed to providing exceptional client service, there must be both a systematic means of learning what great service is, and an equally systematic means of communicating it to everyone in the firm.  If a firm doesn’t have such systems, it is just stumbling around hoping that whatever they provide as service actually measures up.

3.  What type of client service training is provided to the firm’s non-lawyer staff?  There are, to be sure, lawyers who provide great service in firms that don’t care about it.  But to test whether a firm is institutionally committed to service, to determine whether it will be more than serendipity whether you receive it from their lawyers, ask about how non-lawyers are trained.  Anyone truly committed to providing exceptional client service will know that everyone must be committed to it, from receptionist, to managing partner.  And there will be a training program in place.

In my next entry, I will continue with a list of questions clients can ask to find out if the firm they are speaking with really cares about client service, or whether those lines in the brochure promising “client-focused service” are just empty rhetoric.