Have you looked under the hood lately? Do a client service maintenance check to grow your business.

Here is the new rule in 2013-14 for successful business development. Ready? It doesn't matter what you think — it only matters what your clients think. Therefore, now more than ever, it is important to see your practice through your clients' eyes — rather than assuming that everything is OK and you are beloved.

Over the past two years, I have been hired to act as a "secret shopper" by several very astute major law firms. I say "astute" because these firms realized that while things seemed great on the surface (clients paid their bills), below the surface, client-relations issues could be lurking and going unnoticed. In this uber competitive world, these forward-thinking firms realized that attention had to be paid to ensuring the experience of being their client was, without a doubt, outstanding on all levels. In other words — they looked under the hood.

As part of my assignment, I assessed each contact or point of entry a client could have with the firm. I emailed lawyers with messages promising legal work and then monitored how long it took them to respond. I left similarly enticing voicemail messages and monitored the callback response time. I visited the firms' websites and their physical space to assess what it was like to "see the firm the way visitors did" from the Internet and in-person perspective. I checked all of their lawyers' and secretaries' email signatures and voicemail messages to assess how user-friendly they were — (was helpful information provided, how many rings till voicemail picked up, could I get out of voicemail entirely and speak to a live person?) And, very importantly, I spoke to their clients to get their views on the service they were receiving.

The results of these audits were tremendously eye-opening for the firms. My secret shopping uncovered the following:

• Lawyers and secretaries not returning emails and voicemails — even when, and especially when, I expressly asked for help with a legal matter.

• Old, poorly decorated and, in some cases, dirty reception areas and conference rooms that suggested, in a silent way, the caliber of the firm's practice.

• Websites overcrowded with text, containing links that no longer worked and pages that were unviewable on smartphones.

• Malfunctioning voicemails rendering me unable to leave a message or get to a human.

• Clients dissatisfied with the service they had received.

• Incorrect addresses (email and snail) and phone numbers for clients.

• Invoices sent to clients that did more harm than good — and not because of the dollar amounts but because of the lack of information they contained.

And this is just some of what I found.

Welcome to the new status quo — where there is tremendous competition among lawyers and their firms, where companies and individuals have a plethora of great choices as to who to buy legal services from and where, without a doubt, one of the great dividers is exceptional service.

Consequently, you and your firm need to be uber cognizant of all areas where you are being sized up by your clients, referral sources and your target clients to ensure you are living up to their expectations.

So, what can you do?

Here are some of the key areas to be sure you have a "meeting of the mind" with your clients at the inception of the relationship:

Responsiveness: Have you asked your clients how they define responsiveness so you are meeting their criteria? Do you return calls and emails within two hours? If you don't, does someone on your staff intercede on your behalf and personally reach out to the client? Have you explained this to your client? This is a critical discussion to have when you open a new matter.

Communicativeness: Ask clients how often they would like to be updated on the matter and sent documents. Don't assume that your definition of communication is the same as theirs.

Accessibility: How easy is it to find you or one of your colleagues if there is an emergency? Set up procedures with your staff so that a client can always talk to a live person on his or her team — whether it be a secretary or managing partner of the firm. Communicate this to your client.

Invoices: How much detail will appear on them? What does the client want? How will you avoid surprises and going over budget?

Be a client for a day.

Call your office after hours and during hours and listen to how warmly you are greeted. Listen to your voicemail message. Does it provide helpful information? Instead of saying you are out of the office, does it describe what you are doing and when you will be checking your voicemail? If you are taking a deposition in Kansas and will be checking your messages every three hours, state that. That is actually helpful and informative to the caller.

What is it like visiting your office? Is the reception area pristine or in need of repairs? What does it silently say about your practice? Are the magazines on the reception area dated or inappropriate for the kind of client visiting your office? Are there any newsletters or articles you have written out on the table? How does the receptionist behave? How welcoming is he or she (does he or she greet visitors by name, offer a drink, help with parking and more)? Ask yourself how you would like to be greeted.

Is your website responsive to smartphones? Test it. If your website is older than two years, it may not be. How is the content of your website or blog? Do both provide visitors with anything of real value?

What else should you look at from the client's perspective?

• Do you understand your client's business — how he or she makes money and what his or her business challenges are? You must.

• Who does your client report to? A board, a CEO? Make an effort to make your contact look good to those he or she is beholden to.

• Do your invoices give the client the detail he or she needs to see if you are on-budget?

• Is succession planning in place and does the client know how his or her matters will be ably handled if something happens to you?

• Do they know your strategy for the case? Ask them specifically how much they would like to be part of the strategy formation.

• How nice you and your staff are to them. Take time to get to know what gets them excited and talk to them about it — whether it be sports teams, the ballet, their family or some obscure hobby. Take an interest in them. It matters.

So examine your world through the client's eyes, not your own, and do it frequently. Their view of you and your service is all that counts.

Stacy West Clark has been helping Pennsylvania lawyers and law firms expand their practices for more than 25 years. She is a former attorney with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and was the firm's first marketing director. She is president of Stacy Clark Marketing LLC, www.stacyclarkmarketing.com, a firm that helps law firms and lawyers grow their businesses. She is a member of the Chester County Bar Association.