On the second day of the LMA conference, I kept the client-related momentum going by heading straight into "Client Expectations in Today’s Marketplace" after the GC Panel. Presenting in the session were Laura Meherg and Nat Slavin of Wicker Park Group, and thanks to LMA, I can tell you: 

Wicker Park Group consultants interview hundreds of clients each year on behalf of law firms located around the world. The interviewees include business owners, company executives and in-house counsel representing a wide range of industries. Taken together, the interviews offer unique insights into the essential expectations that build strong client relationships regardless of location, industry or client history."

The session itself promised that: 

This program will highlight the most common themes in client expectations, including the complaints and praise – both big and small – that clients identify as greatly impacting the well-being of their outside counsel relationships. In addition, Wicker Park Group partners will explain what clients think about client feedback, why it’s critical to consistently seek their input, the global trends in client feedback and best practices from successful client feedback and client service programs in law firms."

 

A lot of the themes covered in the session were not new; but we continue to hear them, so there continues to be a disconnect somewhere – which means I’ll keep sharing them. 

Nat and Laura started with the Cliff Notes version of the session, saying that what clients want to know is: 

  • Can you fix my problem? 
  • Will you make my life easier? 
  • Do I like you as a person?

They then asked the audience to answer, via the poll included in the conference app, what we thought of as the most pressing client concerns. Through a word cloud on the screen, we saw that the top answers were things like "value," "cost," "transparency," "making life easier," and "understanding." These matched up with what Wicker Park Group is seeing in the results of their client surveys as well. 

What are the concrete things that clients want their firms to do, or are doing themselves, in order to satisfy these needs? There are a few of them: 

  • Outside counsel should ask their clients what their compensation structure is like – how do they get their bonuses? This will help firms understand what motivates clients. Find out how your service impacts their compensation. 
     
  • Today, many clients want to actively participate in the management of their matters – the in-house lawyers will be the "project managers" for a team of outside lawyers (from different firms) who are the experts that they’ve brought together. 
     
  • Clients want to know how law firms staff a matter – this speaks to transparency. As one GC said about his lawyer," What I really love about this guy is that he lets me see the sausage making and I want to see that." 
     
  • Clients still want their lawyers to make them look good – let the CEO look like a hero every day to the Board. 
     
  • Gain a better understanding of what a deadline means to a client – a brief may need to be turned in by a certain date, but how long does a GC need to review it? 

Laura suggested that we all read "Setting the Table," which shares what companies can learn from restaurant service (I’ll be adding that to my list, since you know I love seeing what other industries are doing that we can adapt!). 

Everyone is a Critic

According to a 2014 survey by Nielsen, 92% of consumers worldwide trust recommendations over all other forms of advertising.  We are in a relationship-heavy, referral-based business, so when someone is looking for a lawyer, they call someone they know they can trust, and ask them for a recommendation. 

Laura used the analogy of food critics, saying that because of online public forums, today, everyone is a food critic.  We can easily go online and read and submit reviews. It’s the same for legal services and others. It’s very easy to find the good and the bad about anyone online. 

Nat and Laura then shared with us some of the results of the ACC’s CLO Survey (available here for a cost), with some key takeaways: 

  • A discount is not an alternative fee. It’s just a discount (Truly, this should not need to be said). 
     
  • "Zipper" with key clients to expand the relationship further than just the relationship partner – if your firm and your client have project managers, connect them. Pricing people, connect them. 
     
  • Clients often keep a position open in their departments because they never know in this economy when they  may have to reduce overhead. 
     
  • The most frequent cause of malpractice claims against law firms are poor communication, poor time management and failing to dig deeper. How easy is it to avoid these? 
     
  • Staff development is one of the top three goals for GCs in 2015 – how can law firms help to train their teams? Staff development includes things like executive presence, business management, and communication. 

Sorry Lawyers…We’re All Salespeople

Nat told us that we’re all selling something – no matter what position we hold. And that’s true – whether we’re a marketing professional selling our latest project to our partner clients, or lawyers selling our legal services to potential clients, or in-house lawyers selling their services within the companies they’re employed by, we are all salespeople. 

I know lawyers hate the word sales, and so I try never to use it. But it’s really not a bad thing, I swear. What does it mean for lawyers? It means that lawyers shouldn’t be problem "finders" – they should be spotting issues for their clients, identifying risks and giving them tidbits on what they should be thinking about. They should be adding value. 

In 2015, value is exponentially more important than it was in 2011 – delivering value as a critical performance area rose in Wicker Park Group’s interviews from 43% in 2011 to 76% in 2014. That’s HUGE. 

So what’s the magic bullet for delivering value?

I can’t tell you, and Laura and Nat didn’t try to either. You’ve got to communicate with your clients to find out how each of them define value. This is where that "one size fits one" comes in again – every client has different and unique needs, so they’ll each define value differently. 

How your client measures the value of their outside counsel is a key question to ask for a successful relationship. An audience member asked for an example of how to get at this information, and Nat suggested asking leading questions and peeling back the layers, instead of starting with "How do you define value?" He did caution that asking too many questions is counterproductive though. 

Firms want to identify how they can add value beyond the legal work provided. This may be when a lawyer can answer a question quickly, without having to look something up, or spending time explaining their bill before sending it to them. Clients know they want value, but they can’t always articulate it, so it’s up to the lawyers to step in. 

So although we can’t identify the magic "value" bullet, the way to find out what clients value is through communication. Nat and Laura suggest creating a feedback loop – the client shares a need, you explain how you’ll follow up, and then you do it. It’s important to explain to your clients that you’re working on a solution – don’t wait to bring it up. Unfortunately, drive-by meetings teem to be the primary way that firms get client feedback, but this isn’t the best way. It’s important to be more strategic and thoughtful. 

A Word from Your Clients

What do clients really think about their outside counsel? Laura and Nat shared a few of the responses from the surveys that they’ve done: 

Smart is why you got in the door. How you manage the relationship is what keeps you inside." 

As we’ve said for a long time – being smart is no longer a differentiator. 

There are firms lined up to China who can and want to do good legal work for us." 

The legal profession is not lacking for lawyers and law firms, so for the majority of work, there are lots of firms standing behind you ready to take your place if things don’t work out with your clients. How are you making sure that’s not the case? 

One of my favorites was the pet peeves from clients, because this is a pet peeve of mine too with my lawyers, and it has to do with emails: 

  • "FYI" is not a subject line: Don’t use it for your clients. 
  • Stop writing subject lines that are too long to read. 
  • Use the subject line to tell your clients what you want them to take away from the email (briefly). 
  • Never send an email that just says "please see attachment," and then has the email written in an attached PDF (please, oh please, stop doing this). 

These things are subject line abuse (and email abuse), and we’ve got to put a stop to them. It makes it difficult not only to categorize emails mentally when them come in, so you can relate them to the relevant project, but next to impossible to find them again when you’re searching for them later, because they have only a generic subject line. 

Importantly, don’t assume that anything that has happened before with your clients will ever happen again in your relationship with them. Clients never fire firms – they just stop sending them new matters. To borrow (and adapt) a line from JFK – ask not what your clients can do for you, but what YOU can do for your clients. Then, business will flow. 

Thanks to Laura and Nat for an excellent session. Keep an eye on this space for another recap tomorrow!