Client Opinion

Client Opinion

By Emily Morris.

Most consumers are accustomed to rating businesses almost as soon as a transaction concludes – and to providing a variety of other feedback. But most law firms have never asked their clients how they’re doing, even on an annual basis.

“When clients are unhappy with the service they’re getting, they tend to give work to other firms rather than give direct feedback to the lawyers,” says Jim Durham, a lawyer and former marketing consultant who joined Littler Mendelson in San Francisco in 2013 as chief marketing and business development officer.

Motivated by ever-increasing competition, firms are beginning to see the importance of keeping their customers happy – and of figuring out just what’s gone wrong when clients are dissatisfied. “As law firms have gotten bigger and the number of clients has shrunk, [firms have become] more strategic about making sure that they really understand their clients’ needs and not taking their clients for granted,” says Nat Slavin of Newport Beach, a co-founder of the Wicker Park Group, which specializes in client relationships.

It can pay off handsomely.

“In almost every case, even though the intention is 100 percent to get feedback, the clients also talk about ways in which the firms could actually get more work,” Durham says.

In a 2013 survey of 2,074 senior in-house counsel, the market research firm Acritas Sharplegal found that clients who rate their overall satisfaction with outside counsel at 9 or 10 (out of 10) spend much more on those firms than less-satisfied clients do.

Some firms do email surveys. But Slavin and other marketers say interviews by phone or in person solicit better results. He estimates he conducts 70 to 75 percent of his feedback interviews in person, tailoring them to address the firm’s goals for the specific client relationship being reviewed. He uses questionnaires only rarely, such as when he’s working for lawyers researching market conditions in a given industry.

Some general questions he asks include what the clients value in the relationship, how individual firms and lawyers differ, what could be done to add value to the relationship, and what competing firms do that the client values or doesn’t value.

Some firms hire third parties to run their client-feedback programs, while others keep them entirely in house, says Lizzy Duffy, a vice president with Acritas. Duffy says interviewers should be independent, so clients feel comfortable expressing opinions. At its most basic, the process reveals whose business a firm is losing or at risk of losing: “If you’re able to understand where the satisfaction level is, you can then identify if there is room for improvement,” she says.

From his consulting days, Durham recalls learning during one interview that the client had, over a period of years, cut the work it gave the law firm in question, from about $2 million to $750,000. After learning what had been vexing the client, Durham says, he and the firm came up with a plan to address the problem. The result? Billings from the client went back up.

“The firm had assumed the work was declining because the client ‘was doing fewer deals.’ In fact, the firm was systematically being fired because the client wasn’t happy with the service,” he says.

Feedback also can reveal when clients aren’t informed about a firm’s full range of services. “We have seen things as specific as a client who was just fundamentally not aware [of] some of the capabilities of the firm,” Slavin says. “And they were intending to do an RFP to look for new counsel.”

Duffy stresses the importance of developing a client-feedback program, understanding the findings, and then acting on them. There’s a big difference, she says, between firms that pay lip service to their customer-feedback programs and those that value a thorough program. If a client reports being unhappy with something, it is crucial that the firm address the problem.

Slavin suggests starting slowly, perhaps with a pilot program, but always involving top firm managers. “You have to have leadership buy in,” he says. “That may sound obvious, but if we talk to a client and there is a problem or an issue, leadership has to be on board to deal with that issue.” The worst mistake a firm can make, he says, is to go out and get valuable feedback and then “do nothing about it.”