Approaching and Applying Client Service
By Aubrey Hecker, Reginald Trueblood, Mollie Wilner
November 11, 2022 | 13-minute read
Client Services Process Improvement Content Type Article
According to a recent legal industry study,1 85% of United States lawyers report that client satisfaction is critical to success, yet only 37% of those surveyed are formally measuring client satisfaction rates. This is a stark contrast to the hospitality industry, which for decades has scrupulously analyzed customer satisfaction feedback and implemented responsive, sustainable solutions. This entrenched attention to client perceptions has given many hospitality brands a well-deserved reputation for service excellence (see the Ritz-Carlton’s Gold Standards,2 for example).
Although the hospitality and legal industries are different in many ways, both provide “high-touch” client services and are in the relationship business.
What follows is a Q&A with two legal marketing industry professionals — Aubrey Hecker (Lathrop GPM) and Mollie Wilner (Lathrop GPM) — and Reginald Trueblood, a hospitality and service engagement consultant, in which they discuss client service best practices and how to apply them at law firms.
What is the difference between client service and client engagement to you?
Aubrey Hecker (AH): Client service is the interaction you have with a client in the moment. It includes the communication and direct service provided by every individual at an organization. Client engagement is a service model and is directly connected to the overall culture of your business. Strong client engagement requires good client service, but good client service alone is not going to create loyalty, business or service area expansion, and increased revenue. Client engagement ultimately will. To make this part of a firm’s culture, attorneys and staff at every level all should know not only how to provide great client service, but they should be empowered to do so in the moment. Herein lies the challenge.
Strong client service skills require strong emotional intelligence, and that is not something everyone is born with. In fact, studies show that lawyers score high in intelligence but below average in emotional intelligence.3 Plus, since client service and emotional intelligence are not courses taught in law school, it is up to the individual law firm to provide the necessary training on client engagement and make it part of their culture.
It is customary in the hospitality industry to train employees on emotional intelligence skills and I think it makes sense for law firms to do the same — attorneys at the very least, and at best, all employees. Even with this training, not all attorneys will subsume the role of client relationship manager, and that is perfectly okay. It takes all different types of attorneys to make a law firm ecosystem go-round. But, even if you (as an attorney or staff member) are not the client’s first-choice call, it is still equally important that everyone who has client interaction on any level provide equal quality service — that is what will create strong client engagement.
Reginald Trueblood (RT): Any company or business can provide assistance and advice before, during or after a purchase. While law firms do not provide goods in exchange for money, they do provide assistance and advice in exchange for money, thereby providing customer (or client) services. This exchange is common for most businesses. However, providing engaging service is something altogether different. Client or service engagement is a culture of realized standards and a framework of defining, planning, execution, analysis and measurement of related processes and customer sentiments that support client engagement culture. Process improvement initiatives and root cause analysis should drive organizational decisions and changes to improve brand loyalty and promote your company.
What are excellent client service standards that all law firms should focus on?
AH: Part of excellent client service is just about being a good human. Shouldn’t we all be looking for ways to help others and enhance another person’s development? That mentality towards others goes for neighbors, clients, colleagues, your child’s teachers or business prospects. Try shifting your mindset to finding solutions and making connections for others just because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re looking to get something out of it.
RT: Services standards should include specific, notable actions at key touchpoints during the client journey that inspire an emotional connection to your brand. Some of those actions are ensuring your clients feel welcomed and acknowledged whenever there is an opportunity, showing you care by having procedures in place that demonstrate attentiveness and concern for your client, and establishing company guidelines and protocols that support your service model, resulting in strong client engagement and satisfaction ratings.
Mollie Wilner (MW): Client service is an area where law firms can — and should — really differentiate themselves. There are the “service 101” basics that all clients should expect from their attorneys: being responsive, communicating succinctly, clarifying pricing, listening deeply and meeting regularly. There are also “gold star” levels of service that clients may not consciously think they need, but by following will create sticky, lasting relationships. These include knowing about milestones in your client’s family; being easily reachable after hours, on weekends and over holidays; thoroughly knowing the client’s organization chart and internal politics; being proactive about sharing key industry intel; and sending thoughtful, personal gifts. One Atlanta lawyer we know of, for example, sends Georgia peaches to his clients every year — something unexpected and regionally branded that helps him stand out. Another lawyer, who knows his client has a severe corn allergy, did not send her a popcorn tub for the holidays, unlike other outside counsel did. Every law firm has client service stars — their success tactics should be captured and shared broadly as part of ongoing professional development training within law firms.
What can law firms learn from the hospitality industry about client-first culture?
RT: Law firms, much like hospitality companies have many competitors within their field. To compete in today’s digital-first world and culture of sharing information and service experiences quickly and via many different communication channels, companies must employ creative listening and measuring tools to understand whether their service model is effective. It is important to note that whether a company has an established and communicated service model or not, they technically have a service model in place if they serve people. Hospitality companies understand having a brand that is service focused and dedicated to delivering consistent, remarkable service is directly connected to driving loyalty, the likelihood of recommendation and revenue growth. Dynamic tools such as CRM and survey platforms, customer engagement teams and a culture of service engagement that is immersive and inclusive are key components to their success.
MW: A formal and regular program of client feedback can help law firms be recognized for excellent client service in the same manner that standouts from the hospitality industry are. We want our client experience — at every point along the journey — to exceed expectations. Since those vary from client to client, the only way to ensure we’re meeting client needs is to ask. This can be through post-matter surveys at the conclusion of a client matter; holding annual, in-depth client feedback interviews with key clients; creating a client service dashboard so that firm leadership can easily see where we are in the feedback/follow-up process with any client at any time; and sending out periodic electronic surveys. These efforts keep our finger constantly on the pulse of how our clients feel about the service provided by our attorney teams, and hopefully reinforce to our clients how committed we are to exceptional client service and engagement across every level of our firm.
How do you turn a negative client service situation into a positive one?
RT: Service recovery is an art form. Most are not innately equipped with the service skills to successfully recover a customer that has experienced a service shortfall that results in true customer forgiveness. Customers who demonstrate forgiveness remain promotors of your company, and if given the opportunity, remain loyal and use or recommend your company. This is no easy task.
Service providers must understand the impact their current service model has on its customers. This data should be measured and tracked over time and benchmarked against predetermined timeframes and events for implementation of processes that ensure client satisfaction preemptively. Additionally, staff must know and understand your service model, have recovery empowerments at their disposal and embrace their role in promoting the service culture. Track problems reported and use your service engagement team to develop root cause analysis methods to create sustainable service solutions, including service training.
MW: I firmly believe that very few negative client responses to service are insurmountable. Immediate communication is key. Attorneys will need to own their part in any poor client service situation and offer a clear plan for remediation. This might look like an “A-team” visit to the client’s office with senior decision makers from the firm or write-offs on a bill. It might also look like a simple phone call to discuss what went wrong.
At my firm, we have a client innovation team that encompasses practice management, pricing, business development/marketing and client service. When we learn of any negative client feedback, we hold swift meetings between key members of the internal team and the attorney relationship manager to troubleshoot what went wrong, why and what we can do to repair the situation. We then arm our attorneys with the tools they need to discuss a plan with the client. We had a client who was recently unhappy about a perceived mishap, and who told us after the fact that the attorney called right away and took ownership of the situation, noting: “I appreciated that she made the call — that shows she has character. A lot of people can’t do that.” The very worst thing is to ignore poor client service comments, hoping they will go away or resolve on their own. They will not.
The Importance of Client Service Standards
By Aubrey Hecker
Expanding on what I said within the Q&A, law firms should be teaching these client service standards that we’re talking about. I was on the Netflix “Partner Track” bandwagon this summer, and while there are many aspects of the show worth dissecting, one scene resonated with me. In it, senior associate Tyler — who had recently and publicly quit the mega law firm he was working at because of blatant discrimination issues — was interviewing at a mid-size law firm who touted their forward-thinking diversity and inclusion (D&I) program. Securing this position would have gotten Tyler “back on the partner track.” He left the interview feeling good about his renewed future. As he was riding the elevator back down, there were three associates from said mid-size firm making disrespectful comments about a female riding in the elevator with them. After denouncing the misogynistic associates, Tyler left the building and never went back, even though that would undoubtedly close the door on his partner track future. The point is that a law firm can say whatever it wants on its website about D&I or client service excellence, but the actual behavior by every individual at the organization is what tells the real story about a law firm’s culture. It just as easily could have been a client riding down in the elevator with two employees from the firm’s IT department complaining about a client’s security audit they resent having to work on, or an associate complaining about a non-billable client task they are required to do.
What advice do you have for marketers to get buy-in from attorneys?
AH: One key to success as a legal marketer — overall — is patience and I think that applies here as well. In our role, it is very much “show” over “tell.” It helps to demonstrate the value in small increments — start with the low hanging fruit and work your way up. Pick one client with a willing relationship partner and work through a journey mapping exercise, develop a client team around this, get client feedback and look for ways to improve service at every interaction point. Then analyze and track their overall engagement. That being said, to have a true firm culture of client engagement, it needs to come from the top down, include training, and frankly, it should also have ties to compensation.
RT: Companies that do not measure service engagement cannot be certain their customers are truly happy with them. Growing revenues year over year is certainly a wonderful goal, but connecting how much of that growth is directly attributed to client engagement is important. Most companies that focus on measuring client engagement satisfaction and sentiment discover they can be more financially successful. Including a client engagement effectiveness initiative as a part of yearly business planning would be the first step. Include tools that allow analysis of survey feedback, client journey mapping and omni-channel engagement as a part your digital transformation planning. Doing so will provide insights and clearly identify specific patterns that will drive positive changes. The ability to market a law firm that has a commitment to client engagement in word and action is invaluable.
Can you give us an example of companies that have built strong brand loyalty by diversifying their way of thinking?
AH: The Ritz-Carlton is notorious for getting nods on questions like this and I think it’s worth mentioning. What I like best about the brand is their simple, yet perfectly characterized motto, "We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen."2 This also illustrates the point about the importance of training all law firm attorneys and staff on client service standards. There are plenty of other hotel brands that do this right, which is why the hospitality industry, as a whole, has a reputation for service excellence.
I grew up thinking that Nordstrom had the best customer service around — they certainly had my brand loyalty from the late 1990s through the early 2000s, when I spent nearly all of my part-time hostess paycheck at “BP” aka Brass Plum, their juniors department. I thought it was the coolest place to shop, plus they made it so easy to return something you didn’t want — no tag, no receipt, no problem. They even treated us pesky teenagers with respect and top-notch service.
RT: Apple, Delta and Starbucks to name a few. None of these companies would be as successful as they are without strategic framework built around constantly analyzing customer sentiment and experiences and using the findings to develop strategic and sustainable solutions. They are dedicated to listening to their customers and employees, and a culture of innovation.
MW: I do a lot of reading about client service and am constantly hearing about how outstanding the pet products retailer Chewy is in this area. I know someone who received a custom pet portrait from Chewy — something the company sends out at random to say “thank you” — with a shipment of a routine product order during the pandemic, and she is now fanatically loyal to them for life. There is also Zappos, the online shoe retailer, that calls itself “a service company that happens to sell shoes.” Zappos famously doesn’t use scripts with their customer service agents and doesn’t place time limits on service calls, empowering their teams to do whatever they feel is the right thing to do in customer interactions.
These companies stand out because of service experiences that are unexpectedly wonderful for their customers, who return to them over and over. Law firms can absolutely recreate their own versions of pet portraits or branding that empowers both attorneys and professional staff to feel like they are “a client service company that happens to provide legal services.”
- Thomson Reuters, Legal Executive Institute, State of U.S. Small Law Firms Report, 2019.
- The Ritz-Carlton. Gold Standards. https://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/about/gold-standards
- American Bar Association. How successful lawyers use emotional intelligence to their advantage. https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/publications/youraba/2017/october-2017/how-successful-lawyers-use-emotional-intelligence-to-their-advan/