I am a client service junkie. I admit it. I am always on the lookout for law firms who are doing more than lip service and actually creating protocols and initiatives to make every client feel special. And it is well worth the effort. According to BTI Consulting, “when firms adopt—and truly live by—(client service) standards, their growth in profits per attorney is 1.5 percent higher than firms not applying a consistent client experience across their firm.” Michael Downey, a past president of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) law practice management section states that “lawyers’ failure to return phone calls, communicate on matters and move matters forward are major causes for ethics complaints.”
So I thought we would look at two small firms doing huge things in the client service arena. Note—none of what they are doing is rocket science or expensive.
West Chester, Pennsylvania-based MacElree Harvey has a great story to tell. Recently several shareholders of the 36-lawyer firm went to a Disney Institute Workshop sponsored by the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce. The workshop examined how Disney works to create a world-class service experience. Some of the things they learned included how to: “design quality service standards to create a consistent service experience, use tools to gauge the needs, wants, stereotypes and emotions of (clients) at an individual level, understand the processes necessary to develop a culture that consistently delivers exceptional service and recover effectively from a service failure and turn it into an opportunity to strengthen customer relationships.”
The shareholders came back to the firm eager to examine, manage and even reinvent the client experience. The firm printed up a client service initiative (CSI) strategic plan that leads with a quote from Walt Disney, “When I see things I don’t like, I start thinking why do they have to be like this and how can I improve them?”
Because of the plan, client service is now on the agenda of every department and staff meeting. To create a better in-person experience, the reception area has been upgraded using local a client vendor and contractor. Niche practice groups have been created to help the firm better serve the needs of clients. Outstanding new lawyers have been hired. At the monthly group meetings, lawyers and staff are sharing their client communication experiences (good and bad) and identifying opportunities for improvement. This exercise has been integrated into every practice group meeting. The goal is to constantly reinforce the service standards the firm has adopted and get all team members on the same page.
Specific items, among many others, the firm has committed to include:
• When an attorney is unavailable, providing the client with an estimate for a return call as well as minimizing “hold” time;
• Making client invoices more detailed and easy to understand, training the staff on what informative billing entries look like and eliminating “.1″ phone calls from the bills;
• Providing no-cost status calls at regular intervals;
• Creating a client handout that explains fees;
• Spending time with the client at the inception of the relationship to get to know them personally and learn their communication preferences;
• Establishing “greeting” protocols for when clients come to the office;
• Being on time for every meeting;
• Creating an internal newsletter highlighting great service moments and creating a team environment within the firm to foster greater collaborations with staff and foster familial relationships—in the halls, after hours with the attorneys working hard to avoid extended periods of time working behind closed doors.
Next steps include the introduction of a client interview program and upgraded software to the website to allow online payment of invoices. According to the firm’s CEO, Michelle Foster “Our CSI is an important initiative to supplement our strategic plan that makes the client’s positive experience our main focus. We are also striving to treat employees as clients in this regard. We have learned that when our employees feel valued and appreciated—and they are—the service our clients receive is immeasurably better.”
Chicago’s Laner Muchin is a 42-lawyer labor and employment law powerhouse boutique with a similar good story to tell. Years ago, before the advent of cellphones and computers, the firm’s then-Managing Partner Richard Laner literally walked the halls of the firm to monitor how fast client phone calls were being returned. Today, firm President Joe Yastrow says the firm has taken responsiveness and accessibility to incredible new heights. The firm has in writing, a pledge to return every phone call AND email within two hours. They actually have a “challenge” in place for potential clients with a dedicated website (www.lanermuchinchallenge.com) that has a live stopwatch on it. The challenge dares prospective clients to call their current law firms and Laner to see which firm responds faster. If the other firm responds faster, Laner will take the prospect out to lunch and donate $100 to their favorite charity. To this day, with the program in place for over 10 years, they have never lost the challenge.
When the program was launched, the firm held training sessions for all lawyers and staff to learn detailed protocols so that every email and call were returned within two hours. Yastrow himself sat in on all of them. Systems were put into place, that remain today whereby voicemail and email messages combine with “case coverage” by more than one attorney to ensure that even if a lawyer is taking a deposition in the Sahara desert, a client will be able to speak with someone right away. Yastrow’s own secretary (along with every other lawyer’s in the firm) keeps a list of lawyers who can step in for him if he is unreachable. The receptionist and office manager are, likewise, trained on how to handle a call from a client when the lawyer is absent.
Said Yastrow: “Clients can be gained or lost based upon a firm’s responsiveness. We know affirmatively that countless clients have come to us and stayed for decades, not just because of our employment law expertise, but because we are incredibly responsive and have made that a tremendous priority.”
We believe that this defining characteristic will serve as the foundation for our continued success in a competitive market with ever increasing client expectations. A brilliant lawyer only makes an impact if they’re available when you need them.”
OK. Here is my challenge—that your firm undertake a comprehensive review of how you can both improve service to clients and create a tremendous work environment for employees. I challenge you to see this through and watch your revenues grow. As always, I am here to help. •