April 2007

Not too long ago, I ran across a post on the the number of words in various writings generally regarded as among humankind’s best.  The Pythagorean Theorem–24 words; The Lord’s Prayer–66 words; The Ten Commandments–179;  The Gettysburg Address–186;  The United States Constitution–1300 words.  I am told that the U.S. Government’s regulations on the sale of cabbage total 26,911 words.  With that in mind, I was struck when I read this: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”  The statement, attributable to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, applies equally to writing, itself just a type of design.

Why is this important to client service?  Good writing communicates much in short order.  What do our clients lack?  TIme.  Don’t waste it.  Each word you write or utter should prove you value their time more than your own.

I’m a big fan of Jim Collins’ book, Good To Great.  Look here, here, here and here for some posts that discuss the book.  In a twist on Good To Great, David Maister asks whether marketing consultants can help firms that have decided to eschew greatness and remain satisfied with Good.  His post is "Good To Good,"

I found the comments to be especially interesting, since most implicitly assume the desire to be great exists in every firm.  I firmly believe the contrary is so, though not all firms would admit that they have decided that good is good enough.  Certainly, some have.  But perhaps the greater number are the ones that pay lip service to greatness but refuse to take the steps necessary to be great.  I am not for an instant castigating firms for following this road–most are small firm where personal relationships trump other issues that may be roadblocks to greatness.  But the fact remains that there are precious few great firms in the world, far less than would be expected is those who claim to seek greatness actually did.

This made me wonder whether clients played a role in this issue.  I think they must.  If clients actually demanded greatness, there would be more movement to firms that actually achieved it, and thus far more pressure on firms to actually become great rather than merely talking about doing so.  But most clients don’t leave their "go-to" firms even though few of them qualify as "great."  Why?  I think there are a mixture of reasons.  Personal relationships, to start.  The next is that good frequently is good enough.   And lastly, I believe clients are reluctant to rock the boat, in large measure because it is impossible to rock your boat without also rocking their own.  So the great middling of law firms continue to exist without real pressure to achieve greatness.

I find myself holding restaurant menus as far away as possible just to know whether I’m ordering something I actually want.  I glanced at one of my business cards the other day and I couldn’t read my phone or email addresses. 

Here’s the story.  I’m turning 50 in two weeks.  I have to wear reading glasses. Sometimes they are not nearby and I certainly don’t want to put them on to read the business card of somebody I just met.  And I certainly don’t want clients having to struggle to read my email address or phone number.  What’s the answer?  Larger font on business cards.

While you’re at it, think about the font size on your powerpoint slides.

Remember, old guys like me are not the exception anymore.  As baby boomers move up in the world and edge closer to retirement, there are more people with my symptoms than ever before. 

Still catching up on some old blog posts I saved.  Two terrific posts from Guy Kawasaki on customer service here and here.  Here are a couple of sound bites to wet your appetite to read the entirety of both posts:

Integrate customer service into the mainstream. Let’s see: sales makes the big bucks. Marketing does the fun stuff. Engineers, well, you leave them alone in their dark caves. Accounting cuts the paychecks. And support? Do to the dirty work of talking to pissed off customers when nothing else works. Herein lies the problem: customer service has as much to do with a company’s reputation as sales, marketing, engineering, and finance. So integrate customer service into the mainstream of the company and do not consider it profit-sucking necessary evil. A customer service hero deserves all the accolades that a sales, marketing, or engineering one does.

Keep customers in the loop. Customers should never have to ask what are you doing. Let them know what’s happening as you’re doing something (such as look up up their account or researching an issue). Extend keeping customers in the loop beyond the actual communication as well – if you’re having a service outage, post it right on the front of your support section. Be honest – tell them what’s the problem, when service will be restored, and what you’re doing to prevent it from happening again. Apologize profusely and don’t be cheap (aka offer compensation). This way, customers feel that you appreciate them and do go out of your way to keep them in the loop.

Follow-up. Probably the biggest difference between acceptable and great customer service is how often (and how well) the customer service department follows-up. If a customer makes a suggestion, follow-up on it and give them a call or send them an email with the result. If a customer calls with a customer service problem and you believe it’s resolved, send them an email or give them a call asking if their problem has been resolved to their satisfaction. Make follow-ups personal (avoid “Our records indicate you had a problem on April 1, 2006. If you need further assistance, please contact us.”) and sincere and customers will truly appreciate it.

If you’re hungry, there is lots of food for thought in these posts.  Of course, Guy is not a lawyer and so these posts are not law-specific. You’ll need to read with an open mind!

  I had a few moments of free time, so I started looking back at some blog posts I had saved but hadn’t really had time to read and think about.  Guy Kawasaki of How To Change The World posted about an interview with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google.  Guy’s post caught my attention because of it’s title–"You don’t learn very much when you yourself are talking."  Despite having a hard time following that axiom myself, it is one I really believe in, and there is not a meeting of Cub Scout Pack 69 where I don’t say the very same thing to my scouts.  So I figured I would give the interview of whirl.  After all, Google has encountered a bit of success and maybe the people who helped them achieve that success might know a thing or two.  So I was off to the interview, found here on YouTube.

The interview begins by noting that its taking place on the campus of Stanford University, where Eric Schmidt teaches two days a week.  When asked why he teaches, Schmidt talks about the value of listening to the new generation of entrepreneurs and the questions they ask.  Schmidt offers that he learns from these questions and from the teaching experience.  

The CEO of one of the great companies of the world actually talking about the value of listening.  But not only talking about it, but showing he believes it.   Most lawyers refuse to believe they can learn much from non-lawyers.  Makes me wonder at times.

Its a 10 minute listen, and well worth the time.

   My friend, Dan Hull, of What About Clients? fame, has established himself as one of the blawgosphere’s leading thinkers on client service issues.  I have to resist the temptation to link to every one of his posts, but some are just so compelling that the post deserves every effort to have it read by the broadest possible audience.  So, if there are any who find this blawg who don’t subscribe to WAC? (you should change that immediately!), this post is for you.

Starting by noting that The Folgers Coffee Company had just received an Ease-of-Use Commendation from the Arthritis Foundation for its new cannister, Dan asks why law firms don’t develop and apply ease-of-use concepts to our services.  The full discussion is a must read.  And I strongly recommend following the link to find the "ease-of-use" standards applied by the team of scientists who conduct the reviews (click here to get there).  The key is evaluation of the product from the standpoint of a person with arthritis.  In our world, we have to ask ourselves whether any of us really look at our firms critically from the standpoint of a client. 

I just finished a terrific article by Joel Henning in the January/February issue of Executive Counsel.  Joel’s article is “Law Firms and Great Hotels.”  He relays his conversation with Ellen Dubois du Bellay, Vice President for Learning and Development of The Four Seasons, generally acknowledged to be at the forefront of outstanding customer service.  One of the many things that struck me was her statement that “our service excellence is based on making sure we have the right people to start with.”

That is a pretty easy thing to say–most businesses and law firms would say the same thing.  But Ms. Dubois du Bellay then explained how every single person hired by The Four Seasons, regardless of position, interviewed at least 5 times.  The last interview is by the General Manager of the Hotel at which the person will be employed.  This means that the General Manager of every Four Seasons Hotel or Resort interviews every maid, every waiter, every bellman.  Joel (ever the master of the understatement) then writes: “I know of very few law firms that explore the attitudes of job candidates as thoroughly as The Four Seasons.”

Most every law firm website pays homage to the idea of client service.  A prospective client who wants to know if the firm is walking the walk or simply talking the talk would do well to ask if the law firm cares as much about client service as The Four Seasons.

I am reminded of a conversation with my friend, Gerry Riskin.  Gerry was talking about his time as a Managing Partner of a law firm, and he recounted how he thought that one of the most important interviews he did was for the receptionist, since she had more client contact than any one else in the firm.  I wonder how many other Managing Partners make it a point to do as Gerry did.

We have a lot to learn from businesses like The Four Seasons.  More to come.

I was honored to co-chair a recent seminar sponsored by Harris Martin.  My co-chair, Gil Purcell from the Bay Area, is an accomplished lawyer and thought-provoking speaker.  During a discussion about jury selection, he played a presentation that just knocked me over.  While absolutely applicable to jury selection, the points made in the presentation are even more profound when considered in the context of the the profession and our clients.

After the seminar, I learned that the presentation was the child of Karl Fisch, a teacher at Arapahoe High School in Colorado.  Fisch writes a blog called The Fischbowl, which is worth looking at if you are interested in your children’s education.  His original presentation was school-specific.  A professor at the University of Minnesota remixed the presentation, removing school-specific references. 

The result is a brilliant piece of work, found here.

Put aside the questions raised about our education system.  Put aside the questions raised about electronic evidence issues, or job security.  Think for a moment about how businesses will operate in this environment, and the impact those pressures will have on law firms serving those business clients.

The Did You Know presentation accomplishes in seven minutes what Tom Friedman accomplishes in 400 plus pages in his brilliant work, The World is Flat.  The pressures to operate globally are growing exponentially, even for the smallest businesses.  Cost control pressures will continue to grow, unabated.  In short order, firms that are tied to anything–large numbers of people, big lease investments, technology platforms that do not permit on-a-dime movement, etc. will go the way of the dinosaur.  The future, it seems to me, will belong to firms that can build virtual teams, assemble the talent needed for a particular case and then different talent for the next case.

Tom Peters frequently writes about the growing inability of large businesses to move fast enough to adapt to the pace of change in today’s world.  I, for one, believe his opinion will apply equally to law firms.

What do you think?