Client surveys

Getting feedback from your client or potential client is important, but it needs to be done properly. Information is key for both law firms and clients. And while companies gather data about the firms and the lawyers with whom they work, often without their knowledge, there is concern that lawyers don’t do the same. Yet that information is available, ready for the taking.

Client surveys
Illustration: Blair Kelly
Getting feedback from your client or potential client is important,  but it needs to be done properly.
Information is key for both law firms and clients. And while companies gather data about the firms and the lawyers with whom they work, often without their knowledge, there is concern that lawyers don’t do the same. Yet that information is available, ready for the taking.

One strategy that crosses many items off the lawyer-client relationship management to-do list is surveys. Conducted online, on paper, over the phone, through meetings or by a third party, they provide insight into the firm’s performance to help identify problems that may otherwise go unnoticed. But surveys are a flexible tool and can also be used to promote the law firm and its business development efforts and gather information about clients.

“Very few firms did this when I was general counsel and I always thought that was a mistake,” says Sterling Miller, who, after two decades as corporate counsel, now serves as senior counsel at boutique law firm Hilgers Graben PLLC in Dallas, Tex., where he instituted the use of client surveys at the completion of every client project. “Right off the bat, you’ve created some goodwill with the client.”

In fact, Canadian Lawyer’s annual corporate counsel survey found that 87.8 per cent of large companies asked were not surveyed by law firms, 5.3 per cent had in-person surveys done, 4.8 per cent were over the phone and 2.1 per cent were written.

Surveys can be a great way for law firms to manage relationships and to learn about potential problems, says Jana Schilder, co-founder of Toronto-based marketing and public relations firm The Legal A Team. “You always want to know what your clients are thinking. You always want a frank relationship with clients. You want to be proactive and offer solutions before you get called on the red carpet,” she says.

Schilder suggests firms dealing with individual consumers conduct surveys with no more than 10 questions annually to existing clients and prospects who asked for a consultation but didn’t hire the lawyer or firm. The legal contact with the major business clients may not be so interested in filling out a questionnaire, she adds, so a meeting over lunch might be a better option to address four main areas: what the client thinks the firm does well; what it didn’t do well; what is the client’s major concern; and how can the firm help with its concerns. The purpose is to determine the client’s level of satisfaction about the overall outcome, the working relationship of the firm and if the wants and needs of the client were addressed.

Surveys of several clients might reveal trends, such as a particular area or person within the firm that requires improvement. The results might also indicate the need to expand a practice area and provide additional services to the client.

Surveys might also validate the work of the firm or the lawyer and may be used in promotional material. The information gleaned can ultimately be used to provide some useful analytics for the firm, says Howard Kaufman, who was in-house lawyer at Xerox for years before becoming counsel at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in Toronto. “You need an objective, statistical type of information periodically to know what’s happening in the marketplace and how you rate,” he says.

Client surveys don’t always have to be done after the work is completed. They can also serve as a business development tool to recruit clients. Kaufman suggests corporate counsel sometimes warm up to lawyers surveying the marketplace to target specific clients, asking them about their needs, concerns and key issues and providing awareness of what the firm does well.

Management consultancy Altman Weil, Inc. has surveyed clients in search of business opportunities and to perhaps identify legal services that the targeted company is not using. But often, surveys involve in-person meetings, says Altman’s Philadelphia-based principal Eric Seeger, whose work focuses on law firms.

“We’ve seen a significant movement away from surveys towards face-to-face conversations with clients. Ten years ago, law firms were doing client surveys to let clients know they cared.
Nowadays, when firms conduct surveys, they do so because they want the objective data that the survey generates on how they’re perceived by clients and whether they have any service issues or competitive disadvantages that should be addressed,” he says.

Many firms dropped the use of surveys in cost-cutting measures resulting from the 2008-09 economic downturn, observes Seeger. And some of that money was diverted to business development — getting lawyers out of the office to meet with clients. Altman Weil, he adds, has determined that clients appreciate direct conversations and Seeger stresses the importance of having senior lawyers involved with the file get feedback about budgeting, case strategy, matter management and efficiency.

“Lawyers can’t be afraid to talk about methodology and price in a very transparent way. The more sophisticated clients have collected data on what they should expect to pay and which firms outperform other firms. It behooves a law firm to understand how each client selects and evaluates outside counsel and make sure they’re performing well in the areas the clients most care about,” says Seeger.

“Clients’ budgets have been squeezed, they’re managing against the annual budget number and they’re rewarded for performance against budget. So the law firm has to be collaborative in helping the client meet their budget goals.”

In fact, Catherine Mitchell, curator of The JoyfulProfit Movement in Mississauga, Ont., which works on relationships between professionals and their clients, sees the lawyer’s ongoing interaction with the client as an opportunity to casually survey the client and gather intelligence. “What I see has happened, while the move toward wanting to get client feedback is great, I see it becomes as a sort of panacea” where the firm relies on doing a survey once and doesn’t worry about it again, she says. “But the individual practitioner has the opportunity to get feedback at every interaction.”

She suggests identifying crucial junctions in the file beforehand that can serve as checkpoints for the lawyer to gather information and preferences from the client. “Clients are giving feedback in every interaction, but if you don’t see it as feedback, you’re not going to put it in that bucket.”

Surveys, she adds, also send a message to the client that their views are important and they can serve as a way of demonstrating that a customer-oriented culture is important to the firm. “I believe where it has its most value is inside a commitment to a client-centric culture” as an expression of that commitment.

One approach is to identify beforehand critical moments in the file that can be used to get information and feedback from the client. And she suggests information be gathered on the individuals involved in the file and the organization, as well as the overall industry.

But the key is storing and accessing the information that is gathered so it can be easily accessed by others within the firm when they need it and correlating it with other surveys to provide a broad picture of clients and their views of the firm.

Information gathered throughout the interaction with the client could be an effective method, observes Anne Ristic, assistant managing partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP, where lawyers can use a variety of tools to capture feedback, client information and their preferences.

“This whole approach gets ignored as a tool because it’s not a program. But if I look at lawyers who I think are actually the most successful at building client relationships, it’s kind of like they’re doing this all the time” — listening and understanding what the client is saying or not saying and understanding their preferences as well as any displeasure they might communicate, says Ristic. “When you’re sitting there with your client, do all the things you have to do, you’re getting all this information.”

Traditional surveys aren’t universally used at Stikemans, she adds, but feedback is considered vital. What the firm does rely on for large institutional clients is formal interviews conducted by the managing partner or chief officer. There are also annual formal feedback sessions based on a set of questions. Another strategy is a debriefing after each engagement, focusing on four questions and done in 30 minutes.

“I feel like I want to double down more on getting those de-briefs on a case-by-case basis with the individual clients, getting that informal feedback, capturing that, doing those more personal, grassroots ways of gathering feedback rather than the more impersonal, institutional survey,” she says.

The bottom line is without any type of feedback, the main method a client will use to express their dissatisfaction is by not using the firm again. Simply asking the questions can help secure business that might otherwise be lost, concludes Miller, whose Ten Things: Creating a Client Satisfaction Survey is being included in a book being published by the American Bar Association based on his blog posts. “Every law firm should have a process that they use, generally, to get better. You really need to reach out externally and be ready to take that criticism.”

Effective surveys
In seeking feedback from clients, there are some basic areas that should be covered:

• Was the project properly scoped;

• What was the client’s experience with the firm, its lawyers and staff;

• What the client thinks the firm does well;

• What it didn’t do well;

• What is the client’s major concern;

• How the firm can help them with their concerns.

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