WAKE UP! News from the Trenches About Client Service
Tara Weintritt, Partner, Wicker Park Group
Daniel H. Weintraub, Managing Director and General Counsel, Audax Group
Here at Wicker Park Group, we have been interviewing clients on behalf of law firms for over a decade. The feedback has evolved after more than 3,000 interviews, but the core messages are similar. Clients want you to spend their time and their money as if it were your own. They want you to know their business and industry as well as they do. They want transparent, efficient, and effective communication that makes them look good internally and makes life easier. They need and expect responsiveness and they welcome proactive insight and advice. They want you to appreciate their internal pressures and be open and willing to change with the marketplace and industry demands. And generally, they want to like you.
We have been telling this story for over a decade, but every now and then we meet someone that so effectively tells the story that we realize there is nothing more powerful than the voice of the client. Many years ago, we had the pleasure of meeting Daniel Weintraub, Managing Director and General Counsel of Audax Group. Audax Group has $12.0 billion in assets under management across its Private Equity, Mezzanine, and Senior Debt businesses. Dan gets it—he exudes and exemplifies client service, views his relationships with outside counsel as partnerships, and clearly articulates what clients need and expect today. From our perspective, few say it better.
If you are looking to maintain, deepen or expand your most valued client relationships, Dan has some important advice. Take note:
Surprisingly, in a highly competitive legal environment, there has not been a substantial improvement in client service. Some lawyers get client service, but too many fail to meet the expectations of clients in the changing legal landscape. These demands aren’t surprising, but they are necessary if you want your client relationships to survive and even thrive.
- Know your client. Obvious, isn’t it? But it still needs to be said based on my experiences. As the manager of the law firm relationship, I don’t want my internal clients saying to me, “How in the world did you hire this guy?”
- Take time to learn the institutional knowledge about the client.
- Ask questions of the client, ask others who have worked with the client, and take opportunities to visit the company and its facilities in person.
- Nothing bothers us more than when we have a precedent/standard with your firm that isn’t known by the lawyer at the firm representing us.
- Ask how we prefer to communicate with you and have everyone on your team adjust accordingly.
- Responsiveness is still very important. It continues to be a major issue for clients. Lawyers, by and large, still don’t get it.
- If you’re contacted, acknowledge it quickly (even if it is to simply acknowledge receipt).
- If you don’t have an answer right away or need to pass the work to someone better equipped, keep the client regularly informed.
- Take responsibility for a request. Even if you don’t handle it personally, follow up to make sure someone does.
- Understand if we are calling you, chances are that one of our internal clients is wanting an immediate answer. Assume all requests are time sensitive unless the client tells you otherwise. Do not be afraid to ask the client if there is a deadline for a response.
- Don’t fake it. The client can (or will be able to) tell when you don’t know an area of law well enough.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have the answer to something. Figure out who does. If there’s no one in your firm with the expertise, you’ll build goodwill by admitting that someone outside your firm would be better suited for the task.
- Don’t give advice when you don’t know the area of law well while assuming you can correct it later. Attempts to later clarify advice will fall on deaf ears because we have most likely already taken the advice and implemented it.
- Pay attention to old clients. There are some lawyers that put much more effort into winning new clients than making old clients happy. They are missing the boat.
- Old clients can give you more business and are (or should be) your best sources of referrals.
- Be proactive. Gone are the days of simply responding to client requests. Your clients expect you to proactively check in and offer advice.
- Speak up when you think the client needs something not being requested.
- Think ahead (will they want this?) and be prepared (but do not proactively bill in the event the work is not needed).
- The best relationship partners act as symphony conductors—finding and developing individual talent, helping those talented individuals learn to play in harmony, and together producing music that none could produce alone.
- Small gestures matter. Whether a small problem or a small success, clients will notice.
- Don’t neglect the minor requests and expectations from clients. Those irritations risk overshadowing the great work you have done. For example, you may have done a great job representing the client, but if it takes several months to send out the closing binder, your client will just remember that.
- Look for opportunities to show appreciation or gratitude. When pitching a new client, have all the people who attended the initial meeting send a thank you note after the meeting.
- Don’t annoy your clients. Many of them dread doing the Chambers, Legal 500, Best Lawyers, etc. surveys but will never tell you. Chances are you are not the only lawyer requesting the surveys (some in-house lawyers can get 10+ requests just for one publication). Think judiciously before asking and coordinate with your partners so the client only receives one request from the firm, not multiple requests.
- Make our lives easier, not harder.
- Get feedback regularly. Client interviews matter and can uncover major problems or the potential for significant new work.
- Clients are human and don’t want to give negative feedback to you personally. Use someone else at your firm or an outside consultant to do the interview.
- Doing the interview is only half of it. You need to take action based on the feedback.
- Communicate well. The ability to communicate efficiently with your clients will set you apart.
- Very rarely do clients want long memos. Write to clients with a good lead, a conversational tone, and uncomplicated words and sentences.
- Draft emails so that they can be read on an iPhone while walking down a street.
- Ask yourself whether non-lawyers could understand the points you’re making without knowing anything else about the topic.
- Keep clients abreast of important developments, especially bad news. It doesn’t get better with time.
- On TV, crimes are solved in the first 48 hours. If a partner leaves your firm, you have 48 hours to communicate with the clients and keep them at your firm. Be proactive and reach out (ideally visit in person).
- Be professional. Whether in face-to-face meetings or on the phone, ensure you are always professional.
- Don’t check your phone during meetings with clients. How would you feel if your spouse was at an important event for your firm but was busy checking his or her emails instead of participating in the event?
- Dress appropriately for client meetings. Your clients may be “casual,” but you are charging $900 an hour. You should look the part.
- Travel appropriately—clients will notice.
- Don’t talk negatively about others at your firm or another firm. It makes you look bad.
- Review the bills before they go out. Bills are monthly advertisements for your firm and are rarely treated that way. Clients may not read the marketing emails that you send out, but you can be sure that they will read your bill.
- Too often, if I find a problem on a bill, the partner will say, “Oh yeah, I was going to write that off.” You are sending a signal, whether true or not, that you hoped to get away with it. A bad entry will completely overshadow all of the good work you did.
- In retail, the customer is already right. The same is true for professional services. If you make a mistake, don’t become defensive but rather acknowledge it. Remember it is a lot easier for the client to find new counsel than counsel to find a new client.
Really good reminders, Tara. These are a great course in client service and retention. Also, I am amazed anyone would think of checking his/her phone during a client meeting.