In law firms today, not a single attorney has the luxury to show up at the office and expect to have new matters handed to them. Gone are the days when a few "rainmakers" would be deployed to leverage brand visibility, serve as the face of the firm, and bring in new business.

General counsel have found their voice and are not shy to report that many of their law firms are missing the realities of this changed economy. According to Laura Meherg of Wicker Park Group, a client feedback company that specializes in law firms, "Businesses are forced to deal with ‘real and severe’ cost pressures that they in turn need to pass on to their law firm service providers."

So how are law firms responding? Many firms are reviewing internal efficiencies and implementing project management, others are considering alternative billing and transparent pricing models. While these housekeeping measures certainly are "best practices" it is important to be mindful and look outward. One of the most important mechanisms law firms could deploy is the client interview program. The time and communication afforded to the client relationship provides authentic and personal contact. Priceless!

Recently reported by BTI Consulting, a leading provider of strategic research to law firms and general counsel, nearly 70 percent of law firm business development budgets are allocated to client development and seminars. Chief marketing officers consistently advocate and prioritize client service as a firmwide initiative. Growing relationships with existing clients is a proven cost-effective way to grow profits.

"It is not unusual to see an uptick in client work directly after a client interview is conducted," states Adam Severson, director of business development and marketing at Faegre & Benson. "Clients are busy people, too, and sometimes face time keeps you top of mind."

So not unlike a successful sports team, law firm client development strategy typically incorporates the following: A coach with vision and courage (a management team that provides direction, communication and resources), star talent (attorneys who are passionate about their practice and their client’s business), trained and consistent players (attorneys willing to learn more to become stronger), and special teams (support services that assist with client development and/or project deployment). While it’s safe to say there are many more elements to this Herculean effort, law firms benefit from these key roles.

Are law firm clients clamoring for more attention or are law firms waking up to the fact that client service is king?

Erin Meszaros, CMO at Burr & Forman, shares, "Although clients are always pleased when we take the time to travel to their place of business and discuss their needs, the true payoff for both parties is when you follow through with the things you identify during the interview." Although often overlooked, being responsive to the client’s request and making a plan to meet their expectations are vital to the success of a lasting relationship. This is where the term "flexibility" is defined.

"Make sure you listen to what your client is telling you during the interview. Follow-through on your discussion from one interview could lead to substituting a relationship partner while another could lead to cross-selling services. There is no one size fits all — each client interview, and the follow-up, is unique," states Meszaros.

So what are clients saying they want? In an article titled, "Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers" ( Harvard Business Review , July-August 2010) a customer service study revealed a massive shift that is under way in terms of customers’ service preferences.

Two critical findings were revealed; first, delighting customers doesn’t build loyalty; however, reducing the work they do to get their problem solved does. Simply put, "make it easy" for the client. Remove their obstacles, solve their problems, make them look good at their respective companies. And, second, acting deliberately on this information can improve customer service and decrease customer churn.

Seems like a no-brainer. But is it really that easy? Clients buy from a company that delivers a quality product, great value or a compelling brand, but they leave a company because it fails to deliver customer service. So while it should be easy to communicate with a client, listen to learn more about their business and try and accommodate their requests for service, it’s not always a natural process for law firms. How do you modify behavior to accommodate this change in your business process? Deploy your team.

Here are some points to keep in mind:

• The client’s business is changing. Make time to understand the opportunities and threats these changes present. Be sensitive that the client demands will shift. They are burdened with budget restrictions; therefore, they will increase rate pressure on you. They are trying to show evidence to prove your value to their bosses.

• Be prepared for negative feedback and appreciate the candor. Gleaning this information is valuable and often affords time for intervention.

• Keep things simple. The various emerging Internet technologies have created faster and more pervasive communications. This noise often serves as a detractor from the client relationship. Clients appreciate your undivided attention. Keep the focus on them.

• Emotional intelligence is valuable during client interactions. Recognize different personality types and the necessity to conform your style to their preference.

• Suggest a way to learn more about the changing needs of the company over the next month, next quarter, next year. Are there department meetings you should attend or subscribe to a company newsletter?

• Remember to thank the client for their business and ask whether your service met their needs. Do they have ideas on how to improve efficiencies?

Although the consumer market industry has always used customer feedback to anticipate industry trends and inspire new product development, it’s refreshing to learn that more law firms have jumped on the bandwagon to gather client feedback via surveys and in-person interviews.

David Kleppinger, chairman at McNees Wallace & Nurick, notes, "The firm has conducted client interviews with numerous clients over the years and these meetings have facilitated meaningful feedback on our service as well as our clients’ goals and objectives. As a result, we anticipate their needs and serve them even better."

Consider taking these steps toward better client service for a definite step in the right direction. •

Jennifer Smuts is the director of marketing and business development at Connolly Bove Lodge & Hutz. She is a past-president of the Legal Marketing Association — Metro Philadelphia Chapter. She can be reached at jsmuts@cblh.com or 302-888-6214.