Client Surveys and Audits

Back in January, I copied a portion of an article that provided a list of questions lawyers should ask themselves. It was an interesting list of questions, but I was struck by how the wording of the questions could cause lawyers to avoid taking a sufficiently critical look at themselves.  I have been unable to locate the original article, so I begin with apologies to the author of what was a very helpful article.  I wanted to take a couple of the questions and rephrase them to help guide lawyers to a more critical introspective look.

Example 1

From the article: “Is your business model focused on the client?

My comment and rewrite:

This question invites “of course” as the answer.  Perhaps if the question was this: In what specific ways is your business model client-focused?  And this as the follow up: What are the 3 most significant ways in which your business model is not client-focused?

Example 2

From the article: “Are you entrepreneurial enough to encourage innovative experimentation?”

My comment and rewrite:

This question likewise invites the “of course” kind of answer.  Perhaps wording the question to ask the lawyer to identify their five most innovative experiments and what define what happened based on the outcome of the experiments, followed by “what more is needed?” will elicit more actionable information.

There were other examples, but the point is the way you frame the questions determines the quality of the answer.

Something interesting happened recently.  Jeff Carr, Nicole Auerbach and I consulted with a client about how to improve the law department’s performance and save money.  Shortly afterwards, Nicole and I consulted with a law firm about moving to alternative fee arrangements.  The interesting thing was that we found ourselves enjoying being consultants.  We found, in these two experiences, that we have a lot to offer.

This should not have been a surprise:  Valorem has been a classroom of sorts since we formed the firm in 2008. We learned from trial and error how to do alternative fees when there was no roadmap to guide us. We also figured out how to frame the national discussion about AFAs when no one was talking about anything but the billable hour. We learned how to divorce hours from pricing when most people to this day still use hours as the basis for calculating an alternative fee.  We learned that AFAs are just one of several tools necessary for a successful representation and delivery of exceptional client service.  You learn a lot in 9 years, and believe me, we’ve been drinking through a fire hose.

We are grateful that clients have responded so favorably. In 2016, Valorem was recognized as one of 22 law firms “Best At Delivering Alternative Fee Arrangements,” and has been recognized for the past four years as a member of the BTI Client Service A-Team. For the past two years, we have been recognized as one of the “Most Recommended (by clients) Law Firms.”  And I have been humbled to have been named a BTI Client Service All-Star MVP for the past four years.  We’ve learned a lot, but we also have put what we’ve learned into action.

We haven’t exactly kept most of the lessons we have learned a secret. I have shared my thinking on alternative fees in two books, and shared my thoughts on customer service and the delivery of value in this blog, which I started back in 2004.  And I have written extensively (with my friend Paul Lippe) about what we affectionately refer to as “the New Normal” in a column for the ABA Journal. These columns are soon to be released in book form. Jeff just started a blog, Life at the Speed of Prevention, that focuses on the enormous untapped value of preventing legal problems from occurring. Nicole, Jeff and I also speak regularly at various industry events across the country to share the lessons we’ve learned and our (often outspoken) views of the legal market.

In the past, though we’ve willingly helped others with their AFA programs or customer service initiatives, we drew the line at formal “consulting.”  But as we found ourselves enjoying the consulting experience, and as more people are asking us to devote more time to this aspect, we realized that maybe the line we had drawn in our minds was a bit artificial.  And one of the many good things about being in a small firm is the absence of rigid rules, or objection to changing them. So we’ve erased the line, and have officially launched a consulting practice for both companies and law firms on these broad topics (and anything in between):

 

For Law Departments:

  • Analyzing processes to identify and eliminate waste
  • Analyzing workflow to identify prevention opportunities—reducing work coming into the department at the front end
  • Alternative Fee Arrangements (training and structuring fees, making AFAs profitable)
  • Deploying tools to reduce total fees even if they are billed by the hour
  • After Action Assessments and programs to embed continuous improvement into the Department’s culture
  • Developing RFPs for AFA engagements
  • Deploying an low-cost arbitration program to address small cases that, in the aggregate, can add up
  • Designing prevention programs and helping departments see around the corner to know what’s coming

For Law Firms

  • Alternative Fee Arrangements (training and structuring fees, making AFAs profitable)
  • Firm culture audits to determine if the firm is customer-focused
  • After Action Assessments and programs to embed continuous improvement into the Firm’s culture
  • Responding to RFPs that address AFAs

Our goal is to help others go through the learning curve we experienced, but at an accelerated rate and without having to learn the hard lessons through actual experience.

So as they say in the consulting biz, if you have interest in any of these topics, please give us a call. We will customize the right program for you.

patrick.lamb@valoremlaw.com   nicole.auerbach@valoremlaw.com    jeffrey.carr@valoremnext.com

 

I am normally reluctant to write about “us,” but I am so tickled by a recent report recognizing Valorem as a “brand elite” firm that I am breaking from this general practice.  Thank you for this indulgence.

Valorem Law Group is deeply honored to have been recognized by BTI Consulting as a Brand Elite law firm. BTI ranks law firms “with the best brand standing among [General Counsels] and legal decision makers.” Valorem was recognized by these GCs and decision makers as a Client’s Choice Recommended firm, a Client Service Strategist and as a “Leaders of the Best” for the Value Driver category.

The recognition as a “Recommended” law firm is gratifying. As BTI explained in its report:

Recommending a firm to a peer is a task corporate counsel do not take lightly. A recommendation is a personal statement about the type of provider—the quality, service and commitment-to which you are willing to entrust your company’s fate.

The firms earning recognition as a Client’s Choice Recommended firm command a highly respected place in the eyes of legal decision makers. These firms are mentioned regularly as part of clients’ casual conversations. The names of these firms are top of mind, evoking a level of comfort and attachment which clearly designates them as the preferred option for new work.

Valorem’s recognition in the Client Service Strategist category reflects the success of the firm’s commitment to provide superior service . As BTI states, it is “making changes other firms don’t to improve the client experience.” Superior service “goes far beyond being responsive and having chemistry—this is a systematic and formal approach to delivery embraced firm wide.”

Valorem is Latin for “value.” We chose the name to reflect our most profound commitment, delivering value to our clients. For this reason, our recognition by GCs and legal decision makes as a “Leader of the Best” in the Value category is so deeply appreciated. According to BTI, value is “making changes in process or the client experience to add value.” It is achieved “when a law firm delivers more than what is expected. Delivering value requires [firms] to articulate your value in terms the client deems important” and can include money saved, better outcomes than expected, faster resolutions, risks avoided and making things simpler.

The BTI surveys are the gold standard because of the duration of its research in these areas (25 years); its independence (no law firm or organization sponsors the research); the seniority of the persons surveyed (47% General Counsel, 53% direct report to GC); the number surveyed (648 in depth interviews); the size of organizations surveyed (more than $1 billion in revenue); and its unprompted questioning (for example, asking which firms a GC recommends rather than whether the GC would recommend ABC firm). Because of the rigor of BTI’s approach, its surveys and reports carry extraordinary value in the industry.

I am flabbergasted.  I just opened up my first email this morning. It is from Joyce Smiley at JKS Company, and she sends a periodic report, also published online, Verbatim, What Clients Say. The lead paragraph states:

In a recent phone conversation with the name partner of a law firm, he claimed to be “skeptical” of conducting client satisfaction interviews. He compared the project to “going to the doctor for an unpleasant test” and would prefer to “put it off.”

The first thing that comes to my mind is the weekly ESPN segment, C’mon Man!  Really?  Such neanderthal views in 2013?

Llet’s start with the very basics.  Your clients have views of your firm.  They do–honestly.  Your choice is to learn those views or not.  The arguments in favor of not knowing are:

Okay, so there are no good arguments.  There aren’t really any bad arguments either.  So how about the arguments in favor of conducting client satisfaction interviews?

  1. Clients like them.  A lot.
  2. They strengthen relationships, because talking about what can be done to improve relationships is what adults do.
  3. They identify weaknesses in your organization.  Did you know that your star associate antagonizes the client’s staff?  Maybe that is something you should know.
  4. They identify issues of concern on the client’s side.  Did you know your client was becoming frustrated with the uncertainty in billing amounts and had tried a fixed fee firm–and liked it?  Did you know your client had given work to an LPO and was happy with the outcome and thrilled with the cost?

There are many more reasons.  But as I have said before, the existence of people like the name partner in Joyce Smiley’s post only makes life better for those who conduct such satisfaction surveys.  Meanwhile, that partner is back in his office with his quill pen, rotary phone….

Michael Rynowecer writes as “The Mad Clientist” and his latest post, Outtakes for the Client Service Laboratory makes you wonder just what kind of drug-induced haze so many seem to live in.  Take these two examples:

  1. A partner in an AmLaw 50 law firm conducted a client feedback interview with a large client. This same partner sent a single, separate invoice for the time for the interview—$1,042—clearly labeled as such.
  2. “I received a call from someone (one of my attorneys) who asked me if I wanted them to do something for me. I said, ‘No’ and they billed me $400 for the phone call.”
    –General Counsel, Fortune 1000 Retailer

Is it possible for  lawyer to be so desperate for billable hours that he or she would do something quite as stupid as done either of these examples? Or is it just good old-fashioned dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks stuff?

Long-time readers know I believe the answer is "of course."  Seth Godin lays out both sides of the argument is a recent post and urges people to choose one approach or the other.  Actually, you choose to invite criticism or you automatically default to the option of not doing so.  While the reasons for not inviting criticism might be of interest in a high-turnover business, it is difficult to imagine a cogent argument for not keeping clients happy (including finding out what you can do to improve) in the legal business.

In August 2009, I wrote that hearing the word "fine" from a client was a bad thing:

if you hear the word "fine" (as in, "everything is fine"), understand that you’ve just been sentenced to death. And if you doubt me, remember this post the next time you’re out at a restaurant having a mediocre or worse meal, and your waiter asks how everything is, and you answer with "everything is fine."

Jay Shepherd provides a great illustration of why the word "fine" does not mean what we think it does.  He tells the story of a conversation with a friend who says that everything is "fine" at his law firm.  By the end of the conversation, the friend is confiding that things are so "fine" that he is thinking of leaving the firm.

In terms of client satisfaction, don’t ask questions that allow clients to answer this way.  And if you hear this in an answer, you really need to probe deeper to understand just how bad thing have gotten.

 

It is year end.  Have the senior managers of your firm visited your firm’s most important clients this month?  Has there at least been a phone call to each of the primary personnel you deal with at key clients?  If not, what on earth are you waiting for?  You should be looking for opportunities to ask your clients how you’re doing and year end is one of the very best opportunities to ask. 

Remember, clients rarely fire their attorneys.  They simply stop hiring them.  So don’t be foolish enough to believe that "if they had anything to say they’d say it" line.  You don’t believe "the check is in the mail," do you?  So why would you be so gullible on client satisfaction.

Drop a dime.  It’s a great investment.  No, make that it’s the best investment.

John DiJulius writes that the customer experience can be viewed through this formula: Reality – Experience = Customer Experience. I would change this a bit, to Reality – Expectation = Customer Experience.  Clearly, this formula can lead to a negative number.  The nice thing about this formula is that it forces the person employing it, in our context a lawyer, to recognize that its about what the customer thinks he or she experienced and what the customer expected, rather than what the lawyer’s thinks the customer experienced or expected.  Focus on the Customer Experience from the customer’s perspective is critical if you want to be known for the quality of your customer service.

Over the weekend, I was cleaning out some old files on my computer and I ran across a slide show I had put together for a presentation on client service.  I thought I would post them here.

There were two over-arching points to the presentation that are worth reminding yourself of everyday:

1.   You need to know what your client thinks about you.  In detail. Not asking, assuming you know, drawing inferences–those approaches are for losers.  Ask.  Ask aggressively, by which I mean you should frame your questions in ways that are design to elicit criticism.  You must never lose sight of the truth that no lawyer is perfect. Because that is so, every client should have criticisms are suggestions on how you can improve performance or the delivery of value. 

2.   The second truth is that if you hear the word "fine" (as in, "everything is fine"), understand that you’ve just been sentenced to death.  And if you doubt me, remember this post the next time you’re out at a restaurant having a mediocre or worse meal, and your waiter asks how everything is, and you answer with "everything is fine."  You need clients who are more than satisfied, more than pleased.  You need clients who are advocates, who think you are so great that they want to have legal problems just so they can deal with you. 

Certain companies have effectively branded themselves by providing such extraordinary products and services that they become the standard by which competitors are judged.  If your service firm is not the benchmark by which others in your industry are judged, you have room to improve, and improving enough to become the industry benchmark should be a focal point of your efforts.  Anyone who is not the standard is at grave risk of losing clients.

 

Continue Reading Some Reflections On Client Service