If you’ve ever been a guest at a five-star hotel, you know that it feels different from a two-star hotel. While the end result (a place to sleep) is the same, the experience is totally different. A two-star motel gets the job done, but you forget all about it the moment you leave the lobby. With a five-star stay, however, you remember the experience. If you can, you return the next time you’re in town—and recommend it to your friends and family.
This type of varied customer response to different levels of service seems obvious when thinking about hospitality. But it also applies to the legal industry.
In today’s experience-driven world where people are accustomed to the effortless services of Netflix and Amazon, many forward-thinking law firms are shifting towards a more client-centered approach—and prioritizing client-first legal services is one of the best ways for firms to be more client centered.
In the following guide, we’ll cover law firm client service and the importance of exceptional customer service for law firms. To bridge the gap between the great customer service in general and client first legal services specifically, we interviewed attorney John Strohmeyer of Strohmeyer Law at the 2019 Clio Cloud Conference (you can also read his thoughts on law firm client service at his blog, Five Star Counsel. On his journey to becoming a lawyer, John worked at five-star hotels—gaining key insights about the importance of client service along the way.
What is law firm client service?
To John, law firm client service is really about the kind of experience you give clients—past, present, and future. Put simply, law firm client service is “the experience that a business is providing, beyond a technical or physical product.”
Law firm client service statistics
It may seem obvious—good service means happier clients means more business. Still, many lawyers neglect or overlook opportunities to improve their law firm client service.
For example, when it comes to lawyer-client communication the 2018 Legal Trend Report found significant gaps between client expectations and lawyer perceptions. Specifically, 42% of clients want to be updated on their legal matter every week, compared to only 24% of lawyers who think their clients want to be updated weekly.
Improving their law firm customer service can help attorneys like John stand out, and get more clients. In some cases, simply showing up can help you stand out.
“I mean, when I get calls and just hear people say, ‘Oh, well, you answered the phone,’ or, ‘We called somebody else and they didn’t come off professionally,’ it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It’s almost like it’s too easy sometimes. And that’s not true. It’s a hard job no matter what, and it’s something that I feel is differentiating me.”
What does exceptional law firm client service look like?
As Jack Newton explains in his book, The Client-Centered Law Firm, you don’t necessarily need to be constantly wowing your customers in order to give them a positive client experience. The key to exceptional law firm client service centers on accurately meeting your clients’ expectations and delivering on their needs in a way that makes their experience as effortless as possible. In most cases, this translates to making things easy for your clients, and clearly letting them know what the legal process will look like.
“The more that you can make yourself the better option and the easier option to deal with,” John says, “it will result in better clients, and more clients, and more referrals, and all the rest of that happy chain of events.”
Setting law firm client service standards
Whether it’s at a five-star hotel or a law firm, you can’t consistently deliver the level of service customers expect without having a framework to follow.
Working at the Four Seasons, for example, John saw how set standards—developed with the customer’s experience in mind—allowed staff to deliver an elevated experience to guests.
A detailed system
“Just working at the hotel, there were structures to how you did everything,” John explains. “It wasn’t an accident how anything happened at the hotel. Of course, things got adapted all the time … but there was a 21-point list of things you had to hit on a check-in.”
From the client’s perspective, these service standards were invisible. All the guests knew when they checked out was that they’d been treated well and they had a positive, consistent experience.
Anticipating client needs
Structured standards for service, John notes, makes it easy to anticipate customer needs.
“As the person checking in, you knew, ‘All right, well I’ve got to structure it this way so that I can make sure I’m providing all the information that a guest is going to need,’” John says. “Things like, ‘All right, you’re checking in. Where are three places you can get food in the hotel right now?’ Because somebody who’s checking in has traveled from somewhere else, so anticipating that they’re going to have that need.”
These kinds of structured standards can simplify the process of law firm client service. However, John notes that many firms are thinking only one step at a time: “It’s more, ‘Okay, here’s our next thing, here’s our next thing.’ And not thinking, ‘Okay, well 10 steps down the line, we’re going to want it to look like this.’”
How can lawyers begin to structure customer service standards at their firms? For law firms—and in almost any industry—the basic steps are the same:
- Gather information about client needs.
- Identify and write down the clear steps required to meet those needs.
- Train all staff on the process (and why it’s important).
Tips to improve law firm client service in your practice
Improving law firm client service in your practice can be a boon for your firm. But it requires effort and a shift to a client-centered mindset. Consider the following tips that can help you get started.
1. Develop deep empathy for your client, and act on it
When you’re caught up in the technical aspects of legal work, it can be easy to forget that legal issues can be incredibly stressful for clients. As The Client-Centered Law Firm outlines, empathy is key to running a client-centred law firm—and it’s also a critical skill to develop if you want to offer great client service. Actively make an effort to show empathy and understand what your client is going through. More importantly, look for ways to act on that empathy.
This can be as simple as getting in the habit of using a person’s name three times when you’re speaking with them on the phone to show that you’re truly listening—a habit that John picked up at the Four Seasons.
“We’re clearly paying attention to each other [sitting across from each other], but if we’re on a phone call, you don’t know if I’m paying attention to you or if I’m worried about somebody who’s yelling down the hall or anything else,” John explains. “So, I’ve got to reinforce that I’m listening by using your name and kind of calling you back and saying, ‘Hey, I’m right here. I’m still paying attention to you.’”
2. Review your client journey, and look for areas to improve
The client journey is the path your client takes with you, and it starts earlier than you think—from the first moment that your client realizes that they have a legal issue. Examine and map out the journey of your client’s experience—stage by stage—from start to closing their case. Break your processes down for each touchpoint in the journey, think about each point from your client’s perspective, and look for opportunities to improve. This post goes into further detail about how to get started.
3. Create a seamless client intake process
One of the key touchpoints in a client’s journey is the client intake process, so it better be seamless. Technology can help (Clio Grow, for example, can automate your intake process with tools like shareable, online intake forms), but you should also periodically assess how your process is really working for your clients.
“I’ve revamped the onboarding process recently, because the way we were doing it, we ended up not having clients like it that much,” John says. “The reaction to this feedback from clients was, ‘Oh, okay great. I’m going to stop doing it that way. We’re going to revamp and make it easier for everybody and kind of address those pain points.’”
4. Be responsive
If you want to improve your law firm client service, you need to be responsive.
Ignoring or not getting back to clients in a timely way is stressful for them, and is a quick route to a poor experience (and a loss of business for your firm).
Despite this, according to the 2019 Legal Trends Report, 64% of clients indicated that they’d contacted a law firm that never responded. When you also consider that 79% of potential clients indicated that they expected firms to respond to phone or email messages within 24 hours, lack of responsiveness is a clear area for improvement for many lawyers.
5. Communicate clearly
When you’re striving for client-centered legal services, your communications should generate ease for the client. Whether you’re speaking directly or exchanging emails with a client, communication should be proactive, clear, and use plain language.
As John explains, great law firm client service requires a shift in how lawyers communicate with clients. Instead of just telling clients that something will get done, lawyers should make an effort to clearly lay things out: “You need to clearly say, step one is this, step two is this, step three is this—in terms of letting the client know what the process looks like.”
6. Price your services with your clients in mind
Ensure that your pricing strategy aligns with your clients’ interests. This doesn’t mean discounting your expertise, but rather, as John explains, “recognizing the prices that I’m going to charge are based on my knowledge and service that I’m providing and a whole host of things.”
Make your value clear
If clients feel underserved or unnecessarily in the dark when it comes to legal costs, they’re not getting a client-centered experience. To mitigate this, price your services in a way that helps your client clearly see the value they’re getting. If the billable hour makes it hard for clients to anticipate what their legal costs may be, for example, you might be asking them to shoulder too much pricing risk—and an alternative billing model could better serve them.
Consider different pricing models
While the billable hour may still be a common strategy for lawyers, there are other pricing models available that might work better for clients in certain situations. When looking at your legal billing strategy, consider offering alternative billing arrangements like sliding-scale fees, flat fees, or subscription-based billing.
Offer online payment options
Allowing online payments by credit card (Clio Payments, powered by LawPay, lets you offer online credit card payment options) makes the billing experience easier for clients. The added convenience for clients may also help you get paid faster, too, as the 2018 Legal Trends Report found that 57% of electronic payments get paid within the same day they are billed, and 85% get paid within a week—a win-win.
7. Make your services accessible to everyone
In order to have truly great law firm client service, make an effort to ensure that your services are accessible to all potential clients.
Your law firm website is a good place to start. By making it easier for more people to find your firm online, you can increase access to your legal services. Evaluate your website for accessibility, looking at factors pertaining to:
- Technical design. Are you able to modify your website’s design to make it accessible to people with low vision (using screen readers)? Could it be more accessible to people who are using mouse alternatives due to mobility issues? The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are a good resource.
- Visual design. Can you add text descriptions of photos on your website for people with limited vision? Consider what colours you use on your website (to accommodate people who may be color blind). Similarly, look into contrast checking your text color to your page’s background color for ease of reading.
8. Use technology (the right way) for better client service
As Jack outlines in his book, technology can help shape better client-centered experiences. Tech can be helpful for clients if they see it, and it’s almost always helpful for streamlining processes in the backend of your firm. This can benefit your clients without them even realizing it.
The key to using technology the right way at your firm? Prioritize process over shiny new tools when choosing tech. Focus on adding technology that can meet your firm’s specific needs, and that you and your staff will actually use.
By leveraging Clio Manage’s practice management software, for example, you can keep your cases better organized so you can focus more on your clients, while also making things like e-signatures and online payments more streamlined and convenient for clients. Clio Manage’s Law Firm Insights Dashboard also makes it easier to track your firm’s time and billing—so you have more time to spend on client first legal services.
9. Solicit feedback from your clients
The only way to really know if your client service is good (or not as good as it could be) is to go straight to the source. Ask your clients for feedback, even if—perhaps, especially if—you know that things didn’t go well. Even negative feedback has value. Honest client feedback is the best way to measure how you’re doing so you can do better in the future and stand out from competitors.
Asking for client feedback is the first step, but it’s also important to establish a system to measure that feedback so you can gather useful, actionable data from it. Using a metric like a Net Promoter Score (NPS) when collecting client feedback is a good way to track your progress over time.
By delivering exceptional law firm client service to legal customers, you can elevate your firm from one that just provides legal deliverables to a firm that clients recommend, review positively, and return to when they need further services.
A good place to start is by researching and brainstorming ways to better serve your clients. Jack Newtons book is an essential resource for learning about client-centered law firms.
Be patient, and remember that adopting client-centered legal services is an investment in your firm’s future. As John says, “To be better at service, it does take investment. You’re not going to do this for free. And so, that may mean that it takes longer to get certain things done or you may have to get something else done. The response is, then, if you’re providing more service, you can raise your rates, and raise what you’re charging to reflect that.”
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