Taking the blinkers off

It was reported recently that a major law firm had been dropped by a FTSE 100 client primarily due to a lack of satisfaction with both relationship management and price. This is probably particularly galling to the firm concerned, as other press reports would suggest that this client will require extensive legal services over the next few months. Unfortunately for many firms this is not an isolated instance.

We regularly work with firms who have tales of disaster – finding that they were no longer part of a client’s panel only after the event.

Changing advisers is a task that few clients undertake lightly. It is time consuming and often a big upheaval and takes senior people away from their main focus of running the business. Most clients would prefer nothing more than to believe that their legal advisers really understood their business, delivered sound, timely, practical, value for money advice in the context of that business, were responsive and communicated appropriately with them and their people. And a bit of uncharged-for additional service every now and again wouldn’t go amiss either. Given this scenario, how many clients would really want to go through the hassle of panel reviews and beauty parades?

As the recent story illustrates however, some clients reach the point where they believe that their lawyers don’t manage the relationship at all well – and fail regularly to deliver value for money. Moreover they believe that their lawyers don’t listen to their complaints – or don’t care. Surely if their lawyers really cared, they would do something about rectifying the client’s perceived problems?

However, many lawyers have told us that they genuinely did not know that their clients had reached the point of discontent that would cause them to walk away from the relationship. The client’s decision had come as a total surprise. We have two responses to this.

Firstly, the client has no obligation to tell their advisers of their dissatisfaction. As long ago as the late 80s, Bain & Co published their conclusions based on extensive research into client satisfaction and dissatisfaction. One nugget from this research was that the overwhelming response to poor service delivery was to take one’s business elsewhere in future. Just walk – don’t waste time with complaints and recriminations. Only a small minority are vocal complainers who give warning of their unhappiness. The message is fifteen years old now. Don’t rely on hearing about complaints in order to assess the efficacy of service delivery.

Most dissatisfied clients will vote with their feet and we will find out about it after the event. Perhaps as a sop to past relationships and to soften the blow, they may allow us to pitch at the beauty parade but our chances of winning are next to nil. The client’s views are shaped by experience and future promises are a poor form of counter argument.

Secondly, firms should be proactively seeking their client’s opinions of how well they are delivering their services and managing the overall relationship.

Law firms themselves believe that they are very good at planning, managing and delivering fee-earning work. They also believe that they communicate well with their clients when carrying out work on their behalf. These conclusions are drawn from the results of the recent healthcheck into the subject of managing key client relationships carried out by The PACE Partnership. Thirty-eight significant commercial law firms participated in the survey.

However one of the very lowest responses was in relation to compliance with the statement that: “We have a procedure for getting feedback on every significant piece of work we undertake”.

The question has to be asked – how do law firms know that they are doing a really good job if many have no structured way of getting feedback from their clients?

There are a number of ways of finding our how we are doing in the eyes of our clients. We can ask them for short form tick-box feedback after every piece of work (though we should not anticipate a high response). We should carry out a review with the client after every really significant piece of work as part of our planned project management. We can engage (from time to time) independent researchers to encourage clients to provide feedback that they may find difficult to communicate directly with their lawyers. A variant on this approach is to use some senior partners to carry out this role. 

Probably the most powerful method however is to carry out client service review meetings once or twice a year. In this meeting the core members of a key client team meet with their counterparts within the client and discuss all aspects of the client/firm relationship. The benefits of client service review meetings are contained in the sidebar. The firms that really listen to their clients use a combination of these approaches, selecting methods relevant to the clients in question.

Moreover firms must listen to the responses and respond. Too many firms carry out client surveys and believe that this is their tangible demonstration of client focus. This is only the beginning. The ensuing action – based upon the feedback provided by clients – is much more important than the research. If we really want to infuriate clients, then we should ask them what they would like us to improve, put the conclusions on the top shelf – then do nothing!

It is all so obvious, so simple. No rocket science here. So why do many firms have no structured ways of obtaining regular client feedback? In our experience the biggest barrier is partner resistance. There is a very real psychological problem. Asking for feedback means hearing from our clients what they think we do well and also hearing what they judge to be below par. Lawyers often interpret criticism, however well meant, as accusations and evidence of failure. “You delivered everything we needed on time and technically extremely well – but it was clear to us by the people you threw at the transaction in the latter stages that your project management was lacking at the beginning and at one time was close to out of control. We were worried in the middle of the deal that you were going to drop the ball.” A happy and relieved client giving feedback.

Probably more so than any of the other professions in which we work, lawyers have a passion for being right. They want to give the very best advice to their clients. They want to assist their clients to get the very best deal. Second best is not good enough. Second best is a departure from self imposed standards. Second best represents personal failure. Such standards are laudable. However they also create a barrier.

Managing a complex client relationship perfectly over a long period of time is much more difficult than providing exact legal advice on a number of separate occasions. In many small ways we may fail to meet the (sometimes seemingly unreasonable) demands of the client. Rather than being confronted with this evidence of ‘failure’, some lawyers seek to avoid it and oppose any form of structured feedback being obtained from their clients. They fear exposure and would rather run the (uncertain) risk of losing the relationship entirely than face the (almost certain) risk that the client may find some shortcomings in the way the relationship is managed. Some lawyers are tempted to turn the client’s feedback into a question of who is right and who is wrong. There is no right and wrong – there is just the client’s perception. That is their reality and that has to be dealt with.

Until these lawyers (who are often very influential within their firms) recognise that client feedback is a form of learning for the firm and a key input into improving client satisfaction – and not a form of public criticism – the idea of listening to clients will continue to meet resistance. 

Summary: The benefits of client service review meetings

  • We find out the client’s perspective of our work
  • We find out what the client likes
  • We find out what the client is less happy with
  • We agree what we can improve
  • We can ensure that the client understands the benefits and value that we are delivering
  • We agree what the client can do to help us deliver better in future
  • We can use the opportunity to find out what is happening in the client’s organisation
  • We can explore the future – as the client sees it
  • We can identify opportunities – potentially to cross-sell other capabilities
  • We strengthen our current relationships
  • The meeting can provide the opportunity of building new relationships
  • The meeting can generate referrals from a satisfied client
  • The meeting demonstrates that we really do care

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