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Clients cite their top 6 turnoff points with law firms

Don’t jeopardize repeat business by unwittingly antagonizing the clients.

Keeping them satisfied is a worthwhile investment. Lose one client and you have to work twice as hard to find someone else.

An Illinois firm developed a list of client turn-offs after it conducted a series of client satisfaction surveys.

The firm began its research informally with one-on-one discussions with clients, usually at breakfast or lunch. The attorneys simply asked their clients how they felt they were being treated.

Later it began sending written surveys twice a year. But the surveys still asked the same question, “How are you being treated?”

The firm follows up on every negative response, sometimes with a phone call and sometimes with a lunch visit. Even a lukewarm negative response gets a follow-up because if one client complains about something, chances are others feel the same way but are reluctant to say anything about it.

1 Who’s calling? Sorry, not here

Perhaps the greatest turnoff the clients have cited over the years is a receptionist or secretary who screens their calls out. Clients hear a “who’s calling?” followed by a “not here” as in, “Yes, the attorney is in but doesn’t want to talk to you.”

When clients started pointing that out, the firm made it a rule to eliminate the screens and have attorneys take all their calls. There are exceptions. But that is the rule.

Doing so can cause an inconvenience because the attorneys sometimes have to answer solicitation calls from telemarketers. But the benefit outweighs the inconvenience. Clients know they have continuous access to their attorneys.

When an attorney is out of town, the rule is that the receptionist must be told where the attorney is and the return date so that information can be given to anyone who calls in. Otherwise, all the receptionist can tell the client is, “I don’t know when Attorney A will be back,” which leaves the client feeling abandoned.

2 You missed a bill! Pay up now!

The second big turnoff is one that ongoing clients’ experience. They have been paying their bills regularly and are late one month. It’s particularly rude to send a form letter saying the payment is a month late.

The firm doesn’t ignore those late payments; it just handles them more humanely.

When a payment is late, the attorney calls the client, not to demand payment but to find out first if the services are acceptable and second if the client is having some financial difficulty the firm can help with. A late payment is often an indication the client is not satisfied with the work. When that’s the case, the personal call will identify the problems and perhaps solve it.

That markets loyalty. It tells the client the firm is in the fight with them.

In addition, a month or two of understanding encourages people to come back with other matters.

3 The bait and switch lawyer

The next turnoff is legal bait and switch. An impressive rainmaker brings in the client and the firm pushes the work down the hall to an associate while the rainmaker goes on to find more new business.

A client doesn’t pay for a firm. A client pays for a lawyer. At the very least, a client expects the originating attorney to be the case manager and to be present when the case goes to trial. That’s why the firm got hired.

The firm has therefore set a rule that whoever brings in a matter stays with it in some capacity. If other attorneys will work on the matter, the rainmaker tells the client up front and explains that having associates do part of the work will save money. If an attorney change occurs during the matter, the client is notified beforehand.

4 We can handle this without you

The fourth turn-off is arrogance. Clients resent being brushed off with a “don’t worry, we’ll handle this” response.

Dismissing client views on a legal issue is the same as patting a child on the head and saying “off to bed.”

Clients are paying a lot of money for the services and they feel they’re entitled to more than just a smart lawyer.

When clients come in, their business and often their livelihood are on the line. They want to know what approaches are possible and they want to participate in the decisions.

5 We don’t want recommendations

The fifth turnoff is similar to the fourth. It is not asking the client for strategic recommendations.

The client knows more about the business than the attorney does. Often the client has suggestions for solving an issue that the attorney isn’t aware of. For example, the firm may be seeking a cash settlement while the client knows of a business relationship with the other side that would allow swap in services in lieu of cash.

Or the client may know the facts about a witness that the attorney needs to bring up in a deposition.

Clients come up with good ideas. Asking for those ideas not only helps the outcome of the matter but builds the relationship because it makes the client a participant and not a bystander.

6 The copier as profit center

The sixth turnoff the clients have cited is fees that aren’t explained and aren’t justified.

For that reason, the firm has set up a system of money communication.

Before a matter is begun, the attorney gives the client an estimate of the fees. The estimate is not precise, but even if it is in a range of $30,000 to $100,000 at least the client gets some of idea of what to expect.

In addition the firm does not charge for nonprofessional services such as word processing because most clients see that as overhead and something that should not be tacked on the bill.

The attorney also tells the client that passed on costs such as photocopies, faxes and calls are not marked up. No client wants to pay extra so the firm can turn the copy machine into a profit centre.

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