Client service is one of the foundations of business development. Why? First, client service is the heart of your practice and should be well-executed for that reason alone. And second, excellent client service makes it more likely that you’ll get repeated and expanded client engagements as well as referrals from happy clients.
As lawyers, though, we tend to focus on the substantive aspects of client service and diminish (in our own minds, and possibly in execution) the experiential aspects. Some clients can and will judge a representation primarily on the basis of the substantive work you do. Many, however, will not… And all clients will take note of how you treat them in the course of the representation.
In the words of Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When I had to call an ambulance to our cabin in the Grand Teton National Park, client service was the last thing that was on my mind. However, the lessons started immediately and will linger for some time. Here’s what I learned.
- Be aware of your client’s emotional state, even though you may not reference it directly. The emergency dispatch officer sending an ambulance to help used short, direct sentences as we spoke. Her tone was initially more clipped than ordinary conversation, and if I’d felt panicked, her tone and cadence would have grounded me by prompting me to focus on responding to her, not on the larger situation. As we talked, and as she concluded that I was fairly calm, her tone and language pattern relaxed.Legal clients are much like medical clients in that the issue motivating the contact may be routine, with relatively low emotion, or an urgency or emergency that may carry more pronounced emotion. When you’re aware of your client’s emotional state, you can adapt your own communication to speak most effectively with your client.
For example, an angry would-be litigant may not have the emotional capacity to hear you urge restraint until you acknowledge the emotion in some way. A fearful client may need you to provide written information that his fear may prevent him from hearing when you share it orally. You need to know your client’s emotional state so that you can adapt how you communicate.
- Make it easy for your client. We were in Jackson, Wyoming, nine and a half hours from the Denver airport. The doctor suggested that we fly out of Jackson to avoid driving through sparsely populated areas. Flights from Jackson would require a 14-hour travel day with three flight legs, which provoked much consternation, until a nurse suggested the 5-hour drive to Salt Lake City. Easy.What do you know (that your client may not know) that will simplify things for your client? Be sure to share that information. It’s easy to dismiss what you know as common knowledge that doesn’t bear repeating, but it may be just the piece of information your clients needs to understand a process or to make good decisions.
Be sure to consider how to make the process of working with you easy as well. At the beginning of an engagement, ask how your client would prefer you to communicate with her. You probably have your own preferred style of communication, but your client’s preference should govern the way you operate. (For additional suggestions about making it easy for your clients to work with you, see Chapter 2 of The Reluctant Rainmaker.)
- Make your client comfortable. After spending much of the day in the Emergency Room, I slept in my family member’s hospital room on the first night. The Jackson hospital provided a comfortable cot that the nursing assistant set up for me while I was talking with the doctor, and she directed me to a small kitchen provisioned with sodas, coffee (complete with real mugs, not cardboard cups), and light snacks for patients’ families. The hospital even offered room service meals for patients and the family, and the food was both good and inexpensive. These touches offered much-needed comfort and allowed me to focus on what was most important.How can you make your clients comfortable? Drinks, snacks, and comfortable chairs are easy and fairly inexpensive. Consider what else your clients might appreciate. A quiet spot to make telephone calls? Toys and books to keep children occupied? A list of resources? Few clients will enjoy spending time in your office, but a little effort can minimize discomfort.
Take a few minutes today to audit your client care habits. Consider asking a few of your clients what they like about working with you and what would make the experience better. Don’t promise changes you’re unable or unwilling to make: if you get a suggestion that doesn’t work for you, let your client know that you’ll look for other ways to offer a similar result.