How often do you nod to your waiter that your restaurant entrée is fine when it’s really not? It’s easier, after all, just to finish the meal and patronize a different restaurant the next time you go out, right? Are your clients doing the same thing? Do you really know? Not if you don’t ask ...
But how will your clients respond to such an inquiry, more formally known as a client satisfaction survey? Firm after firm and consultant after consultant report that firms that conduct client satisfaction surveys generally receive more positive than negative feedback, have an opportunity to address and resolve issues that could otherwise end valuable business relationships, and are profusely thanked for the check-in(s).
Charles A. "Biff" Maddock of Altman Weil recently shared with the Philadelphia Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association that 75 percent of the membership of the American Corporation Counsel Association (ACCA) consider client surveys "critical" and "vital". Zeughauser Group LLC Partner Norm Rubenstein's comments at last December’s ALM Chief Marketing Officer Forum confirm Maddock's data. Rubenstein emphasized that as much as attorneys want to believe the contrary, regular client contact and generic end-of-matter forms are not sufficient to effectively gauge and respond to client satisfaction issues.
Rubenstein also shared industry findings that should be a wake-up call to every firm and attorney 80 percent of managing partners meet fewer than 10 clients a year. Comparable data has not been compiled for non-managing partners, but you know your own numbers. If your clients aren't meeting with you, who are they seeing?
Requirements for effective surveys
In a recent presentation for the Delaware Valley Legal Marketing Association, Meherg Consulting Principal Laura Meherg said that effective client satisfaction programs begin with developing a plan that includes objectives and goals, a timeline, budget and staffing (in-house or outsourced).
Even more important than conducting client satisfaction surveys is following up on the clients’ feedback. Meherg is far from alone in cautioning every firm to abandon any form of client interviews in the absence of real commitment to respond to the findings. Failing to check in with clients sends numerous -- and generally unintended -- messages to clients, like over confidence or lack of interest are appreciation, when this is rarely the case. Obtaining feedback but then failing to act on it jeopardizes business relationships even more. Maddock quantifies the importance of responding to feedback by noting that obtaining a completed survey from clients is only 10 percent of the work.
That "10 percent" survey can be conducted in many forms, including written, online, teleconference, face-to-face and focus groups. Maddock reports that response rates are twice as high for written surveys (8-10 pages, average) over electronic forms, and the average phone interview runs 30 minutes, while it is not unusual for clients to remain for multiple hours in face-to-face meetings with the same agenda.
The other 90%
Almost as much work takes place before your survey as following it. Just as attorneys do not consider walking into a meeting on legal issues unprepared, preparation also is essential to the success of surveys and overall client satisfaction programs. That preparation should include familiarity with all recent work, what other firms your client engages, and any recent news about your client and their industry.
So, you've identified the clients to interview, committed to responding to the feedback and, now, you're faced with what questions to ask. Questions like 'What do you find to be the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the firms you work with?' and ' In what ways can we add value that won't end up on your bill?' will provide you with a wealth of direction. Spending a few minutes noting the answers you anticipate your clients will provide and then comparing them with actual answers will also be very constructive.
It's not your turn to talk
A great Disraeli quote recently came up in an attorney training session -- "Nature has given us two ears but only one mouth."
The message is clear: We should speak only half as much as we listen. Client interviews are listening opportunities, not speaking opportunities.
It is, of course, natural to respond immediately to any concerns raised. Wait. The most appropriate response in a client interview meeting is closing with appreciation for your client's responses and a commitment to follow-up in the next (fill in the blank with a number ranging from 2 - 8) weeks on all the issues raised. Meherg emphasizes you are fact-gathering to develop responses that will be provided in the near future.
The commitment to listening also will assist in keeping the meeting on track. Not straying from the survey agenda is another critical success factor to every client satisfaction program. Assigning client satisfaction interviews to firm marketing staff or outside consultants is an alternative that anyone with concerns about postponing responses or straying from the meeting agenda should consider.
In sum, many factors contribute to the successes of a client satisfaction program. These factors include actually conducting an ongoing program, adequate preparation, an emphasis on listening, and a commitment to addressing and repairing the issues that arise as the result of the program. With 80 percent of managing partners reportedly connecting with fewer than 10 clients a year, we all have a very straightforward path to increasing our clients' satisfaction and the successes of our own businesses.
Julie Meyer is Manager of Business Development at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. She has over 15 years of experience in services marketing with lawyers, accountants, consultants, and academia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.