After 30 years of interviewing in-house counsel and other clients about their law firm relationships, two words define the best client relationships: manage expectations.
Managing expectations flows through every aspect of what clients want, need and expect from outside counsel. It’s also the key to high-functioning teams of lawyers working collaboratively to achieve a goal (whether it’s the delivery of work product or growth in new areas).
- When we ask about communication, clients tell us, “They do a good job of letting me know when I will hear back with an answer.”
- When we ask about quality of work, we hear, “They do a good job of giving me the right amount of information so I can make a decision or pass it on to my colleagues.”
- When we ask what they value from outside counsel, they say, “We appreciate that they understand what is going on in our world and bring insights that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”
- When a partner asks a colleague for insights on an esoteric issue, the colleague responds, “What is the client trying to accomplish?” That’s making sure expectations are met.
So, if managing expectations is the key to world-class client service, why do firms often fail to meet that bar? Too often, lawyers assume what the client wants without taking a moment to clarify the end goals and ask, “What does success on this project, matter, etc. look like to you?”
By asking what success looks like, it becomes virtually impossible to not manage expectations. Whether it’s between a lawyer and a client or internally within a firm, the successful handoff of information and alignment of goals reduces friction, increases satisfaction and drives relationship growth. In the thousands of interviews we have done, making the client’s life as easy as possible given the circumstances is tied to the highest client loyalty.
Some best practices for managing expectations include:
- Confirm the difference between a practical deadline and a technical deadline. If something needs to be filed on Friday, ask the client when they need the draft to review.
- Never assume goals are the same. If it is the third, 10th or 50th time a lawyer or firm is working on something that is similar, it still always makes sense to ask, “Has anything changed since the last time we did this that I should know about to deliver on what you expect?”
- Share information. When handing off work to a colleague, let them know what the client’s individual needs are for the project beyond the base delivery of work product.
- Check in throughout the relationship and project lifecycle. Circumstances change, people change and priorities change. This often happens faster than can be proactively communicated by the client (or even occur to the client to communicate). Having informal and formal interactions (phone, email, text) to just check in and see how things are going on a project between the time it is assigned and when it is due (as well as after) prevent misaligned expectations.
When thinking about what you can do in 2023 to drive greater client loyalty, protect your most valued client relationships and win business from the competition, consider managing your clients’ expectations a priority.