In order to keep them happy, we’ve all been told at one time or another to “think like a client.”

The idea of thinking like your client can be a bit overwhelming when you add it to your existing workload – while we all endeavor to understand our clients’ challenges, concerns, and pain points no matter what field we’re in, unless we’ve spent time there ourselves, we’re only privy to second-hand knowledge (for the most part).

But whether we’ve been on the client side in our own industries or not, we’ve all been and are clients – as lawyers, you are purchasers of various services, from consultants to building services to office products and more. In our personal lives, we are consumers of goods and services, including everything from groceries and electronics to personal care, travel, etc. At some point, we’ve likely all considered what it is we want from those interactions – things such as understanding of what you’re really asking, common courtesy, on-time delivery, exceeding expectations, etc. 

Think Like a Client

When we consider the ways in which we’re a client, and how that might translate to good client service in our own practices and professions, it’s usually the pain points that first rise to the surface:

  • Has someone ever promised to do something in a particular time frame, and failed to meet that time frame? Did they go a step further and fail to inform you of the delay?
  • Has someone failed to deliver something that was of an expected quality, and then tried to cover it up, or make it seem as though you were at fault?
  • Has someone ever been having a bad day, but passed that attitude of anger or impatience along to you as the client?

These and any number of scenarios like that can happen incredibly easily, and do happen regularly.  None of us are particularly happy to be on the receiving end, and it will often make us question not only whether that person will be seeing our business again, but also whether we’ll pass along our impressions to friends and others.  Word of mouth is a very powerful thing, as we know.

When we get frustrated with these things, it’s often about what’s behind the surface act that really bothers us, and that’s what’s worth digging into:

  • If there’s a delay, are we annoyed that the project wasn’t completed on time, or more annoyed that we weren’t kept in the loop or looked foolish because of the delay?
  • When there’s a lack of quality in the item or service we receive, are we looking for acknowledgement and willing to come to another resolution?
  • Were we expecting a level of politeness and civility that was lacking?

It’s easy to identify these frustrations and annoyances in the interactions in our own lives – and to then translate them into the client experience that we’re delivering. While you absolutely want to be engaging with your clients regularly to get their direct feedback, you can also be taking the initiative to pursue a superior experience.

  • Manage expectations: delays in matters come up regularly, and most clients will understand this. If you communicate the reason for the delay and the new expected time frame, they’ll be much more reasonable than if it’s a surprise. This is the same for cost adjustments.
  • Communicate to your clients’ preference: if you’re not sure what works for your client, ask them. Some clients will want to hear from you regularly to reassure them, but some are fine with waiting until you have something to tell them. It differs from client to client, but the communication style should be determined by their preference, not yours.
  • Use the client lexicon: Lawyers like legalese. It’s so common in the profession that many lawyers don’t even recognize when they’re doing it in many cases. None of us likes to feel stupid, and with each area of specialization (this is true of everything, by the way – legal matters, computer terminology, grocery stores, EVERYTHING), there is an individual lexicon. These lexicons are specific to that industry or area of specialization, and knowing them isn’t a matter of common sense, it’s a matter of experience. Your client is experienced in their own lexicon – it may be business-related entirely, it may have some legal influences, or even a lot of legal influences. But it will not be as extensive as yours is for your own field, simply because it does not have to be for them to do their jobs well. Bear that in mind when you’re communicating with them.
  • Be willing to hear them: Saying “I’m sorry” is a delicate thing for lawyers, because I know they worry about liability. But when something doesn’t go right – and that can happen to all of us – usually the client wants to be heard and acknowledged, and wants you to help them work towards rectifying the issue, if it’s possible. Truly listening to someone, recognizing and hearing their feelings and concerns, can go a long way towards improving the client relationship, even when there’s an issue. Impress your clients with how well you listen when things are uncomfortable, as well as how well you listen throughout the matter.

Think Like a Provider

It’s not just about thinking like a client though – we’re providers of services, and we should think like providers. But more than that, consider how it would feel to be the provider of a client that is YOU.

In all of the above scenarios, we were keeping an eye out for our interactions as a client, to see where our pain points were. What gets us frustrated or annoyed? What makes us mad enough to want to take our business elsewhere, and suggest that others do the same?

We’ve looked at the root of the issue, and what’s really driving those feelings in these interactions – and that will help you to be a better provider of legal services to your own clients.  But now, let’s think about the chain reaction, and how we, as providers, may be causing that.

Think, for a moment, about the things that your clients do that drive you crazy as a provider.

  • Are they asking questions that you think they should already know the answer to?
  • Are they bugging you about a matter that you thought you’d given them a transparent time frame for?
  • Are they really surprised about the turn that the case took, even though you’d noted in your initial discussions with them that it was a reasonable possibility?

We all have that mental list about our clients – the things that really irritate us because “don’t they already know the answer to that??”

Now that I’ve got you good and irritated, look again at that list, and walk yourself through what it really means:

  • Is a client asking you a question that you believe they should know the answer to because this is a new situation for them, and they’re not yet familiar with the lexicon? Are they asking you for the millionth time because they’re busy and it slips right out of their mind after speaking with you? Are they asking because they’re covering up what they really want to know, that you’ve got the matter well in hand?
  • Are they bugging you about something that you’ve already checked in on? Why might that be? Perhaps they are anxious about the outcome, or they’re anxious about your level of commitment.  Usually, if this is happening, it’s the type of client who needs a little extra hand-holding throughout the process. If you really want that client to be happy, you’ll take the time to do it.
  • Do they seem surprised by something that happened during the matter, or an additional cost? Is it possible that you didn’t communicate quickly enough to them that something had come up? Did they really understand from the outset the percentage that the outcome was likely? Or were they focused on hearing only what they wanted to hear? With some clients, over-communicating will be necessary – you have to go by feel to decide whether they’re truly understanding the risks and outcomes that you’re projecting as possibilities.

Each of these scenarios will be different for each client, so ask yourself what it is that they are REALLY asking.  Put yourself in the position of being the provider for yourself as the client – when you’re purchasing something in a new situation or even a familiar one, what is it that you want? When you ask certain types of questions, what are you really asking? How do you want the providers to answer those questions or meet those needs? How do you want to be treated?

Yes, it’s true that we’re all different, and we will all consume goods and services differently. But while you can make adjustments for various personal and cultural concerns, in general, we all want to be treated with respect, to understand what we are receiving and when we will receive it, and why certain things are happening.

We can assume that by virtue of the client seeking you out as their attorney, that you are already qualified, intelligent and talented in your field. For some matters, talent will outweigh everything else – the client won’t have to like you, you just need to be the best at what you do.  But those are few and far between.

This may seem like completely obvious advice, which you’re entirely sure you’re following – but as things get busy, and we are focused on the “important” parts of our day, including fiercely advocating for our clients, sometimes the softer skills of client management can slip, just a little bit. It’s worth considering from time to time whether we need to readjust the way we handle each of our clients, to ensure we’re treating them individually, engaging with them fully, and providing them what they need, in the way they need it.