Posted by: johnocunningham | August 19, 2015

Top Communication Complaints of Clients

In my experience interviewing both commercial and consumer clients of law firms, the top communication complaints are the same:

  1. “It takes forever to get a call returned (or email replied to) and I end up calling multiple times to get a response.”
  2. “Nobody ever tells me what is going on with my case/audit/probate/permit or license/government filing, etc.”
  3.  “I spent an hour talking to my lawyer and I was more confused when I finished than when I started. Why can’t he/she speak English?”

You might think that these complaints are only in reference to really bad lawyers, but that is not the case. Often, the busiest lawyers in the greatest demand seem to be unable to develop an operational system that keeps clients informed in plain and simple language that they understand. Many also seem to be oblivious to just how annoyed their clients are, perhaps because they are so focused on the heavy demands of daily practice.

Lawyers don’t need to hire expensive consultants to tell them how to fix these problems. They just need to set up a simple process, communicate it and inspect its operational efficiency periodically.

For example, each problem could be prevented from recurring as follows:

  1. Institute a policy in your office that ALL calls are to be returned within 24 hours, NO EXCUSES. The call might be returned by a paralegal or secretary saying that the attorney is at trial, and can call next week, but a call must be returned so that the client is not sitting in the dark wondering what happened (one client I recently interviewed told me her attorney had a stroke and nobody told her about it for several weeks while communications went unanswered). An attorney may provide access to emails and phone messages to responsible associates to insure responsiveness, or the attorney can simply respond to clients after hours via email, but whatever the methodology, the communication must take place with the client within 24 hours. Periodic spot checks with clients, which can be done by secretaries, can determine whether the policy is being followed. It also pays to reward the secretary or assistant for discovering policy violations – that way you know that nobody in the office is part of a “conspiracy of silence” on complaints (this is something top notch service companies figured out a long time ago).
  2. Institute another policy that every client must be updated on every matter at least once per month. It might not be unusual for lawyers to experience months or even years of delays in litigation, in probate, or in government applications for licenses or permits. But it is NOT what the client expects. They expect and deeply appreciate even a one-line letter telling them the reason for any delay, the strategy for fighting it, and what forward progress, if any, was made this month. Make sure that memos to the file or copies of monthly client communications are in the client files. If spot checks show they are not, there must be consequences. Clients get downright angry with lawyers for accepting the complacency of legal or regulatory processes rather than fighting for the client to get things expedited. Believe me, they get so angry they can NOT talk to you about it (and thus you don’t know it is happening).
  3. Test your client communications on a focus group. Pick a few people inside or outside of your office who are not lawyers to review samples of your written communications and provide feedback on them. Try having one of your support staff – one of your trustworthy, courageous and vocal staff members of long tenure- sit in on a client meeting to just listen. Ask them after the meeting how you did and where they got lost listening to you. As lawyers, we talk in jargon, just like any other professional. It is so much a part of our education and our training, that we don’t even know it. We have to remember that our clients do not speak this language. Even lawyer-clients hate it when someone does not explain things to them clearly (a commercial lawyer may know little or nothing about trial practice or IP or other legal disciplines, but they expect their counsel to not just know about it, but explain it simply and quickly.)

There is no reason to lose a client due to a mere communications glitch… and yet, it happens all the time !

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