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LMA Annual Conf post: Live Client Feedback & Best Practices

At the 2009 Legal Marketing Association Annual Conference, Laura Meherg of Wicker Park Group and law firm CMO Erin Meszaros presented a workshop on client feedback. Billed as a “live” client feedback interview, the highly interactive program had the underlying goal of spreading the message that while the interview is important, the key components of a successful client feedback interview are the preparation and follow up. To that end, here are some of the questions, and answers uncovered during the program.

At the onset of the program, the audience asked several questions, including:
• “What do you do with partners who say, ‘If you dare talk to my client…’?”
• “How do you get leadership buy-in?”
• “How do you discourage relationship partners from conducting a feedback interview?”
• “How do you maintain momentum with the follow up?”
• “How do you get past the love fest; only talking about the good?”

None of the questions posed are uncommon! For partners that don’t want anyone else talking to their clients, if the relationship seems in good shape, move on. Talk to clients of partners who understand the value, keeping in mind that most companies regularly talk to their clients, and they are used to making decisions based on client/customer feedback. And that’s one of the key arguments you can make to get leadership buy-in as well: act like clients! Companies never go to market with strategy without testing that strategy in the marketplace. And the way they test that strategy? They talk to their clients.

As far as discouraging the relationship partner, remind them that too often the relationship partner and client have a hard time looking objectively at the relationship and focus on the matters. Also, there is a natural tendency for the client to be anxious about the “cost” of the conversations with the relationship partner, while they are less so when an internal or external third-party conducts the feedback. There are myriad other reasons, to not have the relationship partner conduct the interview, among them, the client may have actually worked with that partner at the firm before going in-house!

Finally, while we have conducted hundreds of client interviews, we have never left one that is simply a love fest. There are always opportunities that are uncovered, even if service improvements aren’t required. And on the topic of follow-up to all the great information, there is nothing more important: if you are taking your client’s time to ask, you must follow up!

Many of the answers to these questions are expanded on in the further reporting on the program, below.

Part I: The Preparation 
Meszaros brought in a partner from her firm to talk, unscripted, about a client characterized as a privately-held industrial company that is family owned, has multiple legal needs, no in-house counsel, an outside “consigliore” who has significant influence over the hiring of outside counsel. Recently the partner, who himself has represented the company in multi-million litigation matters, has attempted to introduce a corporate partner, who dropped the proverbial ball in the follow up. The most pressing questions the relationship partner had included:
• With 1,600 employees in 30 states, what other corporate opportunities are there with the client?
• Who else is representing the company regionally and internationally on non-litigation matters? Specifically FCPA, environmental as well as labor & employment work.
• Who are his other “go-to” lawyers?
• Can we help them with updates and training on antitrust and compliance issues?
• Did my partners failure to follow through on my introduction, damage our relationship, or worse, prevent us from getting any corporate work in the future?

Part II: The Interview
For the second part of the program, Meherg and Meszaros shared videotapes of several different interviews of in-house counsel, a law firm managing partner expert in client interviews and a corporate head of the real estate interests of a regional energy company. It should be noted that while the interviews were unscripted and not directly related to this aforementioned client relationship, the responses reflected highlights of the most common themes, both negative and positive, expressed by most client feedback interview subjects. The themes focused on:
• Adding value beyond the bill
• Avoiding surprises and managing expectations
• Understanding individual client communication styles, and complying to client service requirements and policies for outside counsel
• Their general receptivity to independent (non relationship partners) doing interviews 
• The lack of firms actually asking about their service
• Dealing with problem attorneys (both partners and associates at a firm)
• Over lawyering and not making the client feel valued
• The traits most admired in other attorneys
• Getting to know the clients business off the clock

Part III: The Follow Up
Audience participants identified several common themes or areas where the relationship partner and firm could provide important follow-up. These included:
• The perception that firm’s over lawyer (over staff) matters: 
Answer: Create billing strategies that incentivize efficiencies on the part of the firm and eliminate the perception that associates are put on matters simply to gain experience at the client’s expense.
• Perception that partner hands off work to associates (bait and switch): 
Answer: Partner should explain the transfer of work and explain the benefit to the client. Use the short window of opportunity to address the feedback and tell the client what the firm is going to do to correct the perceived handoff.
• Who does the follow up with the client? 
Answer: The relationship partner.

And most importantly, whenever you take time to talk to clients, you are making a promise that you are going to follow up.
The audience came up with these specific follow up action items: 
• Relationship partner needs to know how the client learns about their own business; in some cases it might involve a facility tour.
• Make sure firm complies with billing standards, as well as company communication policies for matter updates.
• Report to the client what was heard, and how the firm is going to solve any concerns or problems.
• Read trade journals to understand the clients industry.
• Show the client on the bill what you aren’t charging them for: Tour facility charge = $0, Participate in weekly department meetings = no charge.

Further expanding on the ideas of the audience, some of the best practices most often for firms embarking on a client feedback program include:

• Don’t try to convert everyone at once. Pilot the program and start with willing enthusiastic partners. The results will speak for themselves and help sway skeptics.
• Share success stories from other firms including tangible results. Use language from “the client” expressing their interest and desire to tell the firm how it is doing. 
• CFI is not a substitute for relationship partners engaging in ongoing dialogue with clients to establish expectations and objectives and then evaluating performance. Effective CFI programs in firms can help attorneys gain more skill and comfort conducting these important conversations every day.
• Assign a project manager to monitor feedback. Provide status reports on follow-up to firm leadership. 
• Use skilled interviewers. Assure clients of confidentiality and the constructive use of feedback to improve their relationship and service to all firm clients.

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