Warning: first impressions linger!

I’ve been making a lot of calls this week, not only to lawyers and law firms but also to doctors’ offices and a variety of businesses, and I’ve discovered something disturbing.  On a distressingly high number of these contacts (including some in-person contacts as well as phone calls), the people who greeted me and who handled my initial inquiry did not make me happy I’d contacted their office.  Instead, I felt that I’d interrupted something important and burdened the staff.  And just in case anyone is thinking perhaps the less-than-favorable reception was because I’m a dreaded cold-calling service provider seeking business… Nope.  I was a client or customer of each business.

The most notable example of this behavior occurred at a doctor’s office.  I hadn’t been to this doctor in a while, and when I arrived for my appointment, the receptionist gave me new patient forms without explanation.  I told her that I had been visiting this doctor off and on since about 1983, and she asked if it had been more than 2 years since I’d visited.  Yes, I said, about 2 years and 2 months.  “Well,” she said as she turned away, “we purged your file after 2 years.”  Not welcome back, not we’re delighted to see you again, not even a throw-away “apology lite” for purging my file.  When I paid my bill after my appointment, I discovered that my previous patient information was printed on it, revealing that they hadn’t purged my information after all.  Fortunately, I still like and trust the medical staff and will return because of that, but next time I call, it’ll be with a sigh because I’ll have to deal with the front office first.

How’s your firm’s welcoming committee?

We so easily fall into the trap of thinking that we lawyers provide client service and that receptionists, legal assistants, secretaries, and other staff members provide administrative support that really doesn’t constitute client service.  While that may be true on one level, it’s wise to consider how much contact the average client has with your staff as opposed to with you.  Unless you’re a really sole practitioner or a third wave lawyer who operates without staff, chances are good that the first person your client speaks with is staff.  I assure you that the client will engage with you with that impression in mind.

It’s easy to identify and weed out those who deliver obviously unacceptable client contact.  The example that comes to mind is one I overheard a few years ago while waiting for a colleage to get off a call so we could talk: “Well, [Mr. Smith], I know you think you’re [lawyer’s] only client, but you aren’t!”  Fortunately, someone who would make a comment like that is generally either retrained or fired with haste.  What about the subtle effects of less-offensive but thoughtless behavior?  Have you ever stepped back to observe how non-attorney staff in your office interacts with your clients?

Here’s a counter-example.  Janette, a receptionist at a large firm in Atlanta, is a ray of sunshine.  Everytime I walked into this firm’s reception area, I’m embraced by her warmth and welcome.  One time, when I was waiting while the person I was to meet was stuck in traffic, I had the opportunity to watch her for a half-hour or so.  She engaged every person who walked in.  She knew returning clients, asked how their travel had been, and made them feel welcome.  When she met someone new, she exchanged a few comments with them — not the kind of chatter that can annoy someone already on edge, just some niceties that paved the way for further conversation if the visitor so desired.  Every person who walked in was greeted, made welcome, and appreciated.  I’m sure the clients and other visitors engaged with the lawyers they were meeting there with the effects of that first impression still lingering.  Janette is clearly an asset to that office, and (fortunately) the firm knows it.

What does the staff at your office contribute to client relations?  Notice what’s happening when your clients and potential clients interact with your staff.    If it’s a negative contribution, how can you help to create a shift?  And if it’s a positive contribution, do you acknowledge and reward it?

8 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    The mantra, “if it weren’t for all the damn customers (clients), business would be great” seems to permeate many businesses/organizations today as manifested by folk’s attitudes towards clients, customers, patients. “Service with a smile” perhaps is fast becoming an anachonism.

    My take is that there are lots of unhappy, depressed, angy folks out there who are not so by the nature of their work, but by the nature of their frustration at trying to find happiness in all the wrong places, trying desperately to “keep up with the Jonses”, have it all, be “somebody”, and like, Sisyphus, are deeply frustrated by all the trying and not succeeding, no matter how much they make, no matter how large their plasma TV screen, or expensive their car…

    So, continually feeling like “nobodies” and unhappy, they bring their frustrations and resentments to work and often take these out on many of those with whwom they come into contact. It’s their victim consciousness working, at work. Almost never experience it with those who are inherently happy.

  2. ptlawmom
    ptlawmom says:

    Yes, yes, yes! An unhappy, unappreciated legal secretary is more likely to put forward a less-than-stellar effort. A respected, appreciated, TEAM MEMBER secretary will treat your clients like they are her own. One thing practitioners can do is send their secretaries/paralegals for NALS training – http://www.nals.org/certification/index.html. Not only does it give them schooling in client relations, but those women willing to take time out to learn the material and take the certification exams can only help your firm. If I were a solo practitioner, I would look to secretaries/paralegals with NALS certification before any others because I think it’s a mark of professionalism.

  3. bintheredonethat
    bintheredonethat says:

    A week or so ago a ‘new’ (male) solicitor retained a ‘new’ (female) counsel with the words “I’ve never briefed a woman… I hope you’re not going to sue the pants off me ”

    First impressions told so much.

  4. Julie Fleming-Brown
    Julie Fleming-Brown says:

    Peter, indeed! There isn’t much question about where that kind of attitude begins. I’m always grateful for the people who go out of their way to do their job — whatever it is — as well as possible, in a way that reaches out to other people. It’s an ability everyone has and not enough use. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Julie Fleming-Brown
    Julie Fleming-Brown says:

    PTLawMom, thanks for your comment. I’m not familiar with the NALS certification, so thanks too for teaching me something new! You’ve also put your finger on something important: the concept that client service is rendered by an entire team, not just a lawyer. Offices and teams that understand that are so much more effective than those that don’t get it.

  6. Susan Cartier Liebel
    Susan Cartier Liebel says:

    I was always taught the ‘trickle down theory.’ The attitude of the front desk people tell you whether the ‘head’ is rotten. If I go into a doctor’s office or store or any service business and the first impression I get is one of rudeness, unhappiness, or clearly not ‘customer-service’ driven, I know the actual service provider doesn’t care about me and my happiness because he doesn’t care about his employee’s or their happiness. Seldom has this been proven wrong.

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