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The “branding” of legal services may be en vogue at the moment. But slick brochures, nifty logos and targeted advertising campaigns make little difference if lawyers provide shoddy service to their best source of new business: their existing clients, law firm marketing directors agree. Which is why firms increasingly are conducting surveys to gauge their clients’ level of satisfaction and determine how to keep — and expand — relationships with their longtime customers. Indeed, client surveys may be a more important marketing tool than ever before as businesses retrench and new clients are harder to come by, according to law firm marketing consultant Susan Saltonstall Duncan. “In this era, it’s all about client retention,” Duncan told the Legal Marketing Association New England Chapter earlier this month. STRIVING FOR PERFECTION Duncan won’t get any arguments from Suzanne Titus, director of client relations at Hartford, Conn.’s Halloran & Sage. “More than ever we have to stay on top of what our clients think about us,” Titus maintained. “It’s something you have to do on a continuous basis.” In that regard, Halloran & Sage, in recent years, has switched from a practice of surveying clients at just the completion of a legal matter, to a system where “client-relationship partners” are responsible for getting feedback from clients on an ongoing basis, Titus said. Even if clients rate their lawyers a “9″ on a scale of 1 to 10, firms still need to find out what they can do better; there’s always room for improvement, she added. Citing a Harvard Business School study, Duncan told a roomful of LMA members that, unless firms regularly earn a performance rating of 4.5 or above on a scale of 1 to 5, they are at risk of losing clients to their competitors. And, though many partners believe their clients are comfortable enough to come to them with complaints without any prompting, most often that is not the case, Duncan warned. “Ninety-five percent of [clients] who are unhappy,” she insisted, “aren’t going to tell you.” But they almost undoubtedly will share their malcontent with colleagues at other companies, which could end up having a devastating effect on a firm’s reputation, Duncan said. Legal outfits, however, have a variety of options in uncovering such dissatisfaction — and addressing it — before any damage is done, from retaining consultants to interview clients in person, to sending out survey forms to in-house counsel to complete at their leisure. The decision on what method to employ depends on a firm’s objective and reason for undertaking the effort, Duncan said. EXPANDING CLIENT RELATIONSHIPS Roughly six years ago, for example, the internal marketing staff at Edwards & Angell, which has offices in Hartford, Boston and Providence, R.I., completed in-person interviews with the firm’s 50 largest clients. “There’s really many purposes to the exercise,” managing partner Terrence M. Finn said. But “clearly the main purpose is to assess the service that you’re providing.” Another goal, Finn said, was identifying additional practice areas where Edwards & Angell could be helpful to its existing clients. “As much as addressing specific issues, it really helps orient people in the firm to a client-centric focus,” Finn acknowledged. Lawyers there, he added, became more aware of their customer-service skills in anticipation that their clients were going to be polled on the subject. Though Finn is hard-pressed to cite a specific example of how a client relationship was expanded by the effort, he said the survey was worth its cost, which was considerable, when factoring in the hundreds of hours the firm spent on the project. Edwards & Angell, he noted, has experienced unprecedented growth in the years since the survey was completed. Increased client satisfaction is certain to have played a role in that, he said. The firm surveyed clients again this fall. But this time, written questionnaires were sent to them by a consulting firm as part of a firmwide public relations initiative, according to Finn. The questions also weren’t about customer service, but how Edwards & Angell is perceived in the marketplace. Client input will be invaluable in helping the firm brand its various practice strengths, Finn said. Written surveys, noted Duncan, a pioneer in law firm marketing whose consulting firm is based in Madison, Conn., are a cost-effective alternative to time-consuming, in-person interviews. But often they only produce responses from clients who are either very happy or extremely unhappy with the service that they have received, she said. “You miss the whole middle group.” What’s vital to successful survey programs, Duncan said, is acting on clients’ comments. Tyler Cooper’s Mastrianni said her firm adopted a client survey program two years ago. Under the initiative, every six months a batch of questionnaires are sent out to clients with matters that have recently wrapped up. Clients are picked to be surveyed at partners’ discretion. Any feedback, Mastrianni said, that is “less than glowing” is taken up by her, the individual partner or partners and Tyler Cooper’s managing partner. Sometime client comments don’t merit a response, but usually the attorney that is the subject of the input calls up the client and together they reach a solution, Mastrianni said. “It is difficult to salvage a bad relationship with a client survey,” she acknowledged. But in instances where the lines of communications are still open, “it allows us to maintain an ongoing relationship with them even though the [particular assignment] is done,” Mastrianni noted. Clients’ assessments aren’t always negative. On the contrary, when Tyler Cooper launched the survey program, many partners expected clients to complain about the time it took them to return their telephone calls, Mastrianni said. But of the 400 clients sent questionnaires that year, only two of them raised such concerns, she said.

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