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Ask this one question to keep the clients coming

A client survey can take whatever form and be as detailed as the firm wants. But there is just one question to worry about: Will you refer us?

The answer had better be a yes.

Here are two very different ways to approach it. The first is simple and direct and is outlined by Linda Bishop of Thought Transformation, an Atlanta sales consulting firm. Bishop is also author of Selling in Tough Times.

The second, which is more extensive, is outlined by Austin G. Anderson, a legal management consultant in Ann Arbor, MI.

Use either approach or something in the middle, but the single question at issue is whether those clients like the firm enough to recommend it to friends and business associates.

A little pause at the midpoint

The simple survey is just a three-sentence phone call or email at the midpoint of a matter.

That’s the best time to do the asking, Bishop says, because at that point the firm can make whatever changes will keep the client happy.

It’s also necessary for the firm to protect its revenues, because an unhappy client is apt not to pay the bill.

Who does the surveying?

Not the attorney. That client isn’t going to be candid with the person doing the work. Besides, the attorney’s time is better spent on billable work.

Not a staffer either. A staffer doesn’t carry enough importance. The client sees the call as an empty gesture and a waste of time.

The person for the job is the administrator.

When the administrator calls, it’s impressive. It says the person in charge of the office looks at and cares about how people are treated, and the client feels appreciated as a human being.

And for the administrator, it’s a doable job. With only three questions to ask, the call should take no more than a few minutes.

No more than three questions

Why not have a long list of questions?

Because, says Bishop, “it’s impossible to ask every question that needs to be asked.” A client may give good ratings on dozens of individual elements yet have great dissatisfaction because of some single element the survey doesn’t touch on. Then the firm thinks it’s doing a great job while the client thinks otherwise.

She gives the example of the typical question of “were your calls returned in a timely manner?” The client might say yes but never mention that the staffer who returned the calls was rude every time.

Also, she says, a detailed survey tends to produce false positives. “Most people are fairly nice and hesitate to say ‘you are horrible.'” So they give a middle- of-the-road rating, leaving the firm “feeling good for the wrong reasons.”

Neither does calculating scores on individual elements produce anything useful. If 62% of the clients say their work was done on time, that doesn’t say whether the firm is too slow or not.

With just three telling questions, however, “it’s all black and white. The clients are happy or they aren’t. “The firm either drowns or it doesn’t.”

The telling three

1. On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being ‘the most wonderful experience’ and 1 being ‘I hate you’), how are we doing so far?

If the answer is 3 or below, ask outright what needs to be done to improve and make the changes fast.

2. Would you recommend us after this experience?

That’s the true test of success. If the answer is yes, stop there. The firm is doing a good job.

3. What could we be doing better?

Ask that only if the answer to #2 is no. Then just listen and take notes. Don’t argue. Just fix it.

A caution: if the survey is being done by e-mail, note the non-responders. Those are the clients who definitely will not recommend the firm. Call immediately and find out what the problem is.

Get a little mileage out of a good response

Bishop adds that beyond identifying the bad spots, the responses can be used for marketing, again in simple fashion.

Calculate the percentage of clients over the past few months who said they would refer people to the firm. Don’t expect to hit 100%. “Some people are never going to be happy,” says Bishop. But if it’s 90% or better, put that on every marketing piece from the website to the newsletter to the brochures. All that needs to be said is “We track our client satisfaction, and 95% of our clients say they would recommend us to their friends.”

Now for the detailed approach

Opposite that is the traditional survey that gives the details. It can be done in person or over the phone, or it can be mailed or handed to the client at the end of the matter, Anderson says.

He recommends covering eight categories.

And again, simplicity has its place. On the yes-or-no questions, use a rating scale of only 1 for agree, 2 for neutral, and 3 for disagree. That’s enough to find out what the firm needs to know. There’s no need to search out percentage points.

Also, he says, after every question, leave space for comments. A comment is valuable “because it means the client has given it some thought.”

The eight categories

1. Satisfaction with the service

  • How does our service compare to what other firms provide?
  • Did you get regular status reports?
  • How was our turn-around time in completing your work?
  • Did you give approval for any changes that were made in the scope of the work?
  • Is the location of our office convenient?
  • Are our staff friendly, courteous, and respectful?

2. Responsiveness

  • Did we return your calls in a timely manner? If not, how quickly should we have returned your calls?
  • How would you like to receive future communication from us? By phone? mail? Email?

3. Satisfaction with the legal work

  • Were you satisfied with the legal advice?
  • How did the result compare to what you had anticipated?
  • Did we give you useful recommendations for the growth of your business?
  • Did we follow the schedule we discussed? Taking longer than anticipated isn’t going to make the client happy, says Anderson.

4. Unmet needs

  • Do you feel we understand your industry?
  • Do you feel we understand your business needs?
  • Do you need other legal services that we don’t provide? If so, what are they? Anderson points out that the more the firm learns about an industry, the more it can know what legal services to
  • Did we come under the proposed budget?
  • Do you think our fees were fair for the services we provided? The answers here will show how the fees compare to what other firms
  • Did our bills accurately describe the services you paid for?
  • Were our bills timely?
  • Did you think we did any unnecessary work?
  • Did you know whom to call for billing problems?

5. Creativity

  • Did we suggest creative ways to address your legal problem?
  • Did we offer more than one option?

6. Knowledge of the firm’s other services

  • Are you aware of our other services?
  • What percentage of your legal work does our firm handle? How much do other firms handle?
  • Why do you use the other firms? Do they provide services we don’t offer?
  • Can we provide other services for you? The firm could be doing tax work for a client who needs help with employment law as well, he

7. Criteria for selecting a law firm

    How do you choose a law firm?

  • expertise in a particular area of law?
  • firm reputation?
  • attorney reputation?
  • referral by colleagues?
  • the attorney’s familiarity with your industry?
  • the billing rate?

8. Referral potential

And now for the big ones. Like Bishop, Anderson points out that the referral potential is the real telling point of satisfaction.

  • Would you engage us again for other types of service? (Here list all the other services the firm pro)
  • Would you refer us to other people?

Nobody admits to being average

Whichever approach the firm takes, surveying is the only way to get a true view of whether client opinion is good enough to keep the firm in business, Bishop says.

Perhaps because the practice of law is challenging, firms tend to overestimate the quality of their services. The attorneys put in long and difficult hours, and because of their tremendous investment in time and effort, they see their work as far above average. “Yet people have below-average experiences at law firms all the time.”

And the danger is the fact that dissatisfied clients don’t complain, they just don’t return. And they don’t recommend the firm to other people. And all the while, the firm thinks it’s doing a great job.

Editor’s picks:

How and when to ask a client for a referral

How to use client exit surveys to improve service and increase revenue

Clients cite their top 6 turnoff points with law firms









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