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The Client Must Be at the Center of Innovation

Last week, I cohosted a workshop with Elevate founder, chairman and CEO Liam Brown at the 2020 College of Law Practice Management annual Futures Conference on “Breaking Away from Tradition to Become a Forward-Thinking, Client/Customer-Oriented Organization.” The setup for our session was a deep dive on innovation in the legal ecosystem, and we wanted to focus on what drives successful innovation.

Our thesis is that the client has to be at the center of innovation, which requires breaking old habits (traditions). We define three essential components for successful innovation: understanding who the clients are and what they want, improving service and making feedback matter.

Step 1: Understand who the clients are and what they want.

Client contacts at the same company often vary greatly in their motivations, responsibilities and expectations for service providers. In countless conversations, we have heard from general counsel whose role in outside counsel selection and management is very different than that of their deputies. And businesspeople have different motivations from in-house counsel. Some strategies to employ in understanding each client include:

  • Map the entire relationship. The relationship manager (partner) may be close the GC, but who is doing what work? Who are they interacting with at the firm or service provider?
  • Identify what success looks like and client motivations. The GC may want to look good to the board, the CFO may want confidence in cost management, the AGC may want specific matter outcomes to match predicted results and other businesspeople may want speed.
  • Learn to ask questions that don’t just have yes or no answers. When you take the time to listen and give clients a chance to speak, they will tell you what they want, what they need and where there are opportunities to innovate in the service delivery model and client experience.
  • Test assumptions and understanding. We all have assumptions about what is going on in client relationships and client priorities, but until those are tested and confirmed, they remain assumptions. And until you ask if your assumptions are correct, you really don’t know if you are solving the underlying problem or need.

Step 2: Improve service through innovation.

Everyone in the legal industry is talking about innovation, but what does it mean? Think of innovation in the context of invention versus improvement. Most clients want improvement, and that’s much more realistic than invention. Inventing something new is often incredibly challenging, slow to be adopted and met with extreme skepticism. When customers say they want innovation, they mostly want improvement. These four aspects of client service can always be improved:

  • Be responsive to clients and their needs. Beyond responding quickly to an email, text or call, deliver the information in a manner the client prefers. Don’t send a memo when three bullet points will suffice. And contextualize your responsiveness to demonstrate an understanding of the client’s business and personal needs.
  • Avoid surprises. Nothing is worse than having a budget expectation blown or having a client discover bad news that should have come from you. One simple mantra: Bad news never gets better with time.
  • Excellence is in the eye of the beholder. Law firms often view excellence as turning over every stone in pursuit of perfection. Clients, however, often define excellence quite differently—perhaps as being concise, demonstrating an understanding of risk tolerance or delivering to expectations.
  • Align your economic model with that of your customers. Hourly billing doesn’t drive improvement or efficiency. While the total dollars spent may not be an issue, it’s the transparency of how matters are managed, staffed and resolved that yields predictability and confidence. Customers want to know they can rely on you to make them look good.

Step 3: Make feedback matter.

Feedback cannot be a onetime thing. That’s why it’s called a feedback loop. We’ve written myriad blog post articles and book chapters and given dozens of talks on how to make feedback matter, and these are key components:

  • Use a system for measuring feedback. Many use the Net Promotor Score as an indicator of the health of a relationship. That’s a starting point. Some firms measure the health of the relationship largely based on direct feedback. The highest performing organizations use feedback as the framework for client retention and growth, which we call client loyalty.
  • Go beyond the relationship owner. The relationship manager/partner and key client contact have only one piece of the relationship dynamic. Follow the advice from above, map the relationship and gain feedback from multiple constituents to gain a holistic understanding of the customers and their needs.
  • Act and be accountable. The worst thing you can do is ask for feedback and then not act on it. Customers will tell you what they want, need and value. When they do, the firm must be prepared to act on it. In some challenging conversations, we’ve learned that the relationship partner is not a good fit and needs to be replaced. In other interviews, we’ve learned the client isn’t aware that a firm has a badly needed resource. Without accountability, there’s little motivation to act. But the risk of not acting can be massive.

Stop being reactionary and stuck in tradition. Innovation sounds intimidating, but these three foundational steps are the starting point for client-focused innovation that builds true loyalty.

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