No partner likes to receive a complaint from a client. However, what is far worse is when a partner does not receive a complaint, when a client feels aggrieved because of a firm’s actions or inactions and does not complain.

Economic and competitive changes that have occurred during the last several years have caused law firms to reassess their marketing strategies in order to continue to obtain additional work from existing clients and to attract business from new clients.

For most law firms, obtaining new work from existing clients is the most productive method for ensuring that clients are satisfied with the service provided by a law firm. One of the worst things that can happen to a firm is for dissatisfied clients to leave quietly while they are dissatisfied. The damage that this client may inflict upon a firm by talking to other people about their bad experience is a lot worse than if the client is willing to let the partners know about their dissatisfaction.

Many law firms have retained my management consulting firm to develop and conduct client surveys to obtain feedback about clients’ satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the attorneys and staff who served them, the timeliness, responsiveness and value of work performed, the need for additional services, the need for greater cost or quality control, the need for greater lawyer specialization and whether they would use the firm again and refer the firm to friends and associates. To conduct client surveys, we interview senior operating and staff executives of the firm’s clients to obtain their perceptions about how efficiently and effectively clients are being served and the extent to which partners in law firms understand the business objectives of their clients.

Obtaining information from client surveys may be the most important marketing activity a law firm can undertake. Most firms that initiate client surveys have found their clients to be impressed that the firm cares about their opinions. Also, as the result of surveys, law firms may detect certain misunderstandings that, if not clarified, could fester and result in dissatisfied clients.

Client surveys are usually conducted in one or more of the following ways: mail surveys, telephone interviews and personal meetings. The approaches that law firms follow for surveying clients vary based upon the nature of the firm’s practice, the number of clients to be surveyed, the relationship between the client and the firm and the firm’s objectives to be obtained from the survey.

PLANNING THE SURVEY

Planning the client survey is a critical part of the survey process. An individual or committee should be responsible for administering the survey.

This includes determining the information to be obtained, determining whether all or a representative number of clients will be surveyed, recommending the process and the individuals responsible for surveying clients, meeting a budget for the survey process, and tabulating the results, determining whether the survey results will be made known to all or selected members of the firm, the methods of responding to survey participants (if their identity is known) and, based upon the results, recommending corrective action to be taken.

SELECTING CLIENTS TO BE SURVEYED

All or a representative number of clients may be surveyed. Criteria for making this decision frequently include:

• The amount of revenue produced by the client and area of practice.

• The client’s potential to grow significantly.

• Whether the firm or the client have particular problems or concerns that may manifest themselves in a decline in business, client complaints about the work performed, and the attitudes of attorneys, fees and costs charged.

• Whether the firm needs to obtain more information about the client and its current or future operations, as the result of expansion, reduction or other significant changes in the nature of the services required.

SAMPLE QUESTIONS

The questions to be asked should be brief and to the point. They should be easily understood by the clients. Mail surveys may include multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank and short narrative responses. Telephone interviews must be structured so that the questions asked will provide the desired answers. The following are representative of what the law firm may ask:

• The client’s opinion of the firm and services provided.

• The client’s level of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with the breadth and depth of the attorneys’ understanding of the substantive nature of the work they are called upon to provide by the clients’ executives.

• The client’s level of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with the breadth and depth of the attorneys’ understanding of the industry in which the client’s businesses are involved.

• Which other law firms has the client employed during the last five years in (the city in which the law firm is based)? Other cities?

• What kinds of work does the client currently refer to other law firms in (the city in which the firm is based)? Other cities?

• If attorneys at (the firm) possessed the expertise in the substantive areas of work currently referred to other law firms (in the city in which the firm is based), would you refer this work to the firm? If no, why not?

• What types of legal services does the client anticipate will be needed during the next two years? How effectively do you believe our attorneys are equipped to satisfy the client’s legal needs?

• To what extent does the client believe the firm’s attorneys could “add value” to the client’s company, e.g., by conducting educational workshops attended by the client’s executives? Do the attorneys bring to the attention of executives recent legal developments affecting the industry and business in which the client is involved without being asked to do this, as opposed to only performing the specific legal work that has been assigned?

• For each of the kinds of substantive work the client refers to the firm, to what extent has the client been satisfied, concerned or dissatisfied with the following (when responding to this question, please compare the services obtained from the firm to the services provided by other firms): The quality of the firm’s legal work? The professional and personal compatibility of its attorneys assigned to work on the company’s files? The timeliness of its performance of the work? How cost-effectively the firm staffs the client’s work with attorneys and paralegals? The fees and expenses incurred for the quality of the work performed? The extent to which the client’s executives have been kept informed as to the progress of our work? The responsiveness of attorneys, paralegals and staff to the client’s telephone, e-mail and written inquiries?

• Is there anything that the firm’s attorneys may do that would cause the client to utilize their services more? If so, what?

• Whether the client feels that the firm has let him or her down. If so, how and when?

• Whether the client would recommend the firm, or specific attorneys, to others, if asked.

• Whether the client has a comprehensive understanding of the firm’s capabilities.

MAIL SURVEYS

The mail survey is the least expensive and frequently the fastest way of obtaining information from a large number of clients. To make the process especially meaningful, questions may vary depending upon the work performed. Firms produce color-coded questionnaires for different clients and areas of practice.

Personalized letters are sent in cases involving relatively few clients. Where there are many clients, a general letter is usually sent and is addressed “Dear Client.” A postage-paid return envelope is enclosed in the personal and general letters. The letter accompanying the survey is usually signed by the lawyer responsible for the client or the practice area.

To encourage responses, the return envelope should be addressed to the firm, rather than to the lawyer who signed the letter. Some firms have the response directed to its marketing director, others address the response to the firm’s administrator.

The functional value of mail surveys is limited for the following reasons:

• The response rate is generally about 50 percent or lower.

• The mail survey is impersonal and may not generate the goodwill that the telephone or personal surveys often do.

• The responses produce limited information because of the length of the questionnaire.

• Mail surveys allow clients to remain anonymous.

• Mail surveys have limited success in determining the clients’ needs for future work or for identifying the firm’s expertise and capabilities in other areas of practice.

TELEPHONE INTERVIEW

The telephone interview allows a relatively large number of clients to be surveyed, by services provided, attorney and other selected criteria. Interviews should not be expected to exceed 15 minutes, unless the client is willing to devote the additional time. Telephone interviews may be conducted by the responsible attorney, another attorney in the practice area or a nonlawyer who is familiar with the work performed for the client.

The major problems with telephone interviews are the inaccessibility of clients and their unwillingness to discuss their opinions about the attorney or firm over the telephone. Most firms that utilize telephone interviews instruct attorneys to inform their clients about the survey call prior to the conclusion of the matter so that the call does not come as a surprise. Also, firms that have experienced particular success with telephone interviews inform their clients about the types of questions that will be asked during the survey. This allows the client to “think about” the responses in advance of the telephone conversation.

PERSONAL MEETINGS

A personal meeting is the most effective survey process since it enables the partner responsible for the client, or other partner, to visit with one or more client executives to learn how effectively the firm has been serving them. The meeting permits the partner to obtain additional information about how the law firm may better match its capabilities with the client’s needs, and the suitability of the fit between the attorneys who work for the client and client’s executives.

During this meeting, the partner should reinforce the firm’s commitment to that client and determine what the firm may do to refine or provide better or more effective legal service to that client. The partner should attempt to identify and remove perceived or actual barriers between the client and the firm in order to improve communications and services. Also, this meeting is an excellent opportunity for the partner to obtain insights about the client’s needs and to recommend approaches about how the firm may assist the client’s executives in achieving their objectives.

Personal meetings may take 30 to 45 minutes or longer, depending upon the attorney’s relationship with the client and issues to be discussed. During the meeting the partner should be sensitive to and respond to clients’ nonverbal signals such as body language and facial expressions, as well as to their comments.

Personal meetings are costly. A partner has to visit the client’s office to interview one or more executives. Some executives may be apprehensive to speak candidly with the attorneys, hence the value of having an objective third party conduct the survey, such as a management consultant who is experienced in preserving client-firm relationships.

UTILIZING SURVEY RESULTS

Conducting client surveys involves a commitment on the part of the firm to follow up on the responses. The firm should acknowledge each client response, if its identity is known. Specific responses should be given to those clients who have expressed some concern or have offered constructive suggestions. These responses should explain what the law firm plans to do to address the issues, or why it cannot. This may be done by letter, telephone call or personal interview.

Properly structured and implemented, client surveys can be beneficial for retaining and generating new business from existing clients. During the survey process, a partner may obtain important information about the needs, perceptions and plans of major clients as well as assess the level of satisfaction of these clients. Their problems and concerns may be identified and addressed and goodwill may be generated as clients appreciate the firm’s interest in improving its services.

The particular survey approach utilized by a firm depends upon the information to be obtained. A firm with a great number of “casual” clients, such as real estate closings or personal injury, may decide that a written questionnaire is most appropriate. A firm that services a number of continuing business clients on a wide variety of matters may utilize personal interviews. A firm that wishes to learn about the level of satisfaction of clients in a personalized practice area, for example matrimonial, estate planning and administration, may utilize telephone surveys.

I recently spoke with partners in one firm who were apprehensive about surveying clients because they did not want to “muddy the waters.” These partners believe that if a client has a problem with an attorney or the firm, the client will make his or her dissatisfaction known.

I disagree with this logic. In today’s highly competitive legal market, attorneys must utilize every opportunity to ensure their clients are satisfied. The survey process may be imperfect, however, every bit of information about what a law firm may do to better serve its clients is important and worthy of consideration.

Further, the survey is a positive method for lawyers to “stay close” and reinforce — and possibly improve — their relationships with their clients. Rather than taking clients’ complaints as personal attacks, partners should utilize them as the methodology for getting at the root of the problem to make it better for the clients. Most importantly, if something is wrong, fix it.
Joel A. Rose is a certified management consultant and president of Joel A. Rose & Associates in Cherry Hill, N.J., which consults to the legal profession.