Posted by: johnocunningham | February 20, 2014

Communications: The Big Three Hot Buttons for Clients

I have interviewed numerous corporate clients about their experiences with professional service firms, and I have been a professional services client, both as a Chief Legal Officer and an individual working with both law firms and accounting firms.

My own experience, like that of other clients, has generally been good, but too often pock-marked by negative service experiences that have nothing to do with the qualifications or learnedness of the service provider.

The single biggest recurring complaint about professional service providers in my experience has to do with their communications skills and habits, or lack thereof. Thus, this blog post is about three simple things lawyers and accountants can do to improve client satisfaction with communication.

Lawyers, accountants and other professional service providers can greatly enhance their client satisfaction ratings and their client loyalty while reducing client defections simply by following three simple rules:

  1. Provide Regular Scheduled Updates on Each Matter. Every client wants to know, at least periodically, what is going on with the matter they delegated to their professional service provider. This is a subject that pops up over and over again in surveys to the point where it has become a cliché to say that clients want regular updates. Thus, I am amazed at how many professionals still have no system in place for insuring that clients get updates by matter on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis (according to client need and preference). It is particularly distressing to see how many practitioners in the fields of litigation and probate are unaware of this. I have concluded that many of these well-meaning professionals just assume that the client accepts that slow-moving courts and statutorily or procedurally mandated filing, notice or discovery periods are status quo and necessitate open-ended time frames for completion. This, of course, is preposterous. Clients do not “accept” unexplained delays for any reason. We want to know when a matter is expected to be completed, what will be done on the matter each month or each quarter (at least) and how progress is aligning with forecasts at the start of the matter. We want to know what you are going to do to push a matter to conclusion as soon as possible, and when you are going to do it, the same as if you were our car mechanic, our roofer, our plumber or any other service provider (all of whom turn complex projects around in a matter of days rather than months or even years).
  2. Respond Promptly to Every Phone Call, E-mail or Text. Again, this seems elementary, but many highly qualified professionals are unable to execute on this basic requirement of client service because they have no system in place for insuring a prompt response. In fact, clients continue to report that too often they have to chase down their service provider to get a response of any kind at all. There is no excuse for this. When I ran a law department, I made it clear to every staff member that we needed to answer our phones at all times (no ducking calls because you are busy), we needed to check our voice-mail and e-mail at least hourly (or have our trusted assistants do that for us when we can’t) and we needed to return ALL inquires the SAME DAY, preferably within the hour. It is acceptable to a client if you just respond with a message that you are tied up in court, in a meeting or in the middle of a massive closing, and will not be able to respond fully to an inquiry until a specified date and time. But what is NOT acceptable is just plain silence. Dead air is an indication that you are either disorganized (you lose or forget your messages), lazy (you don’t even check them regularly), or self-centered (this message is not MY priority right now, so I will just ignore it). No matter what the reason for your failure to reply promptly, it will be fatal to your client relationship if it occurs more than once in a blue moon or if it occurs without apology.
  3. Inform the Client of Any Change that Will Impact the Budget or the Final Bill. This too seems basic. If you drop your car off at the mechanic, and he tells you a repair will cost $200, then you are not going to be at all happy when you go to pick it up and he says, “Oh, we found a few other things, so that is why it took two extra days and, by the way, it is going to cost $500 now.” Somehow, too many professional service providers seem to think they occupy a “higher station” than car mechanics and thus these professional providers expect clients to just trust that they are doing what is fair and reasonable. Sorry, wrong, big fail. The client is paying you far more than the mechanic, and to those whom much is given, much is expected. If a professional provider runs into ANY problem, unexpected complication or delay, they should inform the client immediately, and give the client options for handling the complication as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Again, failure to do so will be death for the client relationship, and I know this from interviewing dozens and dozens of decision-makers.

These three communications tips are not as easy to implement and execute as they might seem. You need to develop a system for 24/7 receiving and monitoring of client communications, you need to develop a system that insures accountability and responsibility for responding to those messages within specified time frames, and you need a system to insure that the expectations are being met (because the client will not necessarily tell you if you are failing – they will just leave).

The good news is that if you can raise your scores on this most basic client expectation, you can greatly enhance your probability of retaining that client and even getting referrals from that client.

It is not about your qualifications. It’s about your level of care and consideration. Nobody knows where their doctor went to school or where the doctor graduated in their class, but patients know whether the doctor answers the phone, returns calls, does or does not listen well, and promptly communicates results of blood tests, x-rays, body scans and other diagnostic tests. It’s about communication and respect.




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