Client Services: How To Kill Your Competitors With Kindness

During a commencement ceremony, which celebrated the talent and achievement of Princeton University’s 2010 graduating class, all eyes were on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The invited speaker had just minutes to impart generations of wisdom and business savvy responsible for bestowing riches upon riches to his grandfather and millions of dollars upon himself.

“What made this family of entrepreneurs so successful?” wondered the clever young minds of the current graduating class. And, Bezos would tell them what his grandfather had told him years ago.

“It’s harder to be kind than clever,” he said.

Now, kindness—in the business world—is often overlooked. More frequently leaders are associated with traits such as shrewdness, higher education, or preparedness.

Bezo’s point—rather, his grandfather’s—was that it’s possible for any individual to obtain or develop a keen intellect. However, learning to be kind, and leveraging that kindness to a business advantage, is key to success and harder to master.

Take, for example, the following anecdotal story as referred to by Bill Taylor in his article for the Harvard Business Review Blog.

“The story, as told in AdWeek, goes like this: Brandon Cook, from Wilton, New Hampshire, was visiting his grandmother in the hospital. Terribly ill with cancer, she complained to her grandson that she desperately wanted a bowl of soup, and that the hospital’s soup was inedible (she used saltier language). If only she could get a bowl of her favorite clam chowder from Panera Bread! Trouble was, Panera only sells clam chowder on Friday. So Brandon called the nearby Panera and talked to store manager Suzanne Fortier. Not only did Sue make clam chowder specially for Brandon’s grandmother, she included a box of cookies as a gift from the staff.”

“It was a small act of kindness that would not normally make headlines. Except that Brandon told the story on his Facebook page, and Brandon’s mother, Gail Cook, retold the story on Panera’s fan page. The rest, as they say, is social-media history. Gail’s post generated 500,000 (and counting) “likes” and more than 22,000 comments on Panera’s Facebook page. Panera, meanwhile, got something that no amount of traditional advertising can buy—a genuine sense of affiliation and appreciation from customers around the world.”

Marketing experts will agree that the above story emphasizes the importance of customer service to a company’s survival and bourgeoning reputation.

But law firms don’t have “customer service,” per se. They have client services. And, how exactly does the above tale reach the customers of legal services?

Unlike Panera, law firms don’t bank on repeat customers for business. Jordan Furlong for Slaw explains, “Many clients [of law firms] are one-offs—most people don’t need to immigrate twice or get multiple divorces—so the lawyer has little motivation to encourage repeat business.”

In addition, lawyers by nature are much more interested in the product and process—finding a creative solution to a case or winning in court—than the person behind it. Once out in the real world, attorneys are eager to make a name for themselves, create legal precedent, or earn partnership.

And, partnership is rarely the product of previous client satisfaction. Rather, it’s a product of attracting additional business from new clients.

All of these reasons (and more) explain why law firm managers deprioritize customer service. Certainly—even when aware of its importance—law firm managers generally do not have a client services strategic plan or policy.

In the end, it’s easier to ask first what benefits the firm, as opposed to what most benefits the client. But, pure kindness pays in unforeseen ways. So, in the spirit of Panera—take steps to earn your bread and butter with kindness through the following changes:

  1. Don’t charge clients for their monthly status report phone calls. Welcome lengthy discussions and questions about the case. Put your customer at ease by easing off the billable-hour clock. Furthermore, lengthy meeting minutes are often discounted off invoices during billing anyway.
  2. Furlong suggests, for valued clients, install a 24/7 “hot line” (phone or email) at which a responsible and competent firm professional can be reached for and will respond to urgent issues—the law firm equivalent of “roadside assistance.” After-hours inquiries could be fielded by part-time lawyers or those employed with an offshore legal services provider affiliated with the firm.
  3. Write a formal client services policy for employees. The policy should explain firm expectations for high-quality service, including a detail description for how to interact with clients. Include an “emergency procedure” for especially disgruntled customers.
  4. Furlong also suggests creating a referral incentive program for clients. Provide a discount for future services, which encourages repeat business, each time a client refers another person to your firm.
  5. In addition, create a referral incentive program for employees. Provide a percentage of winnings to any employee or associate (not just partners) who referred friends or family as a client. Not only will this garner more business, it will also bolster the relationships between and feelings of trust among members of the firm.

This year, learn what the most success CEOs, businessmen, and mothers already know. Kill (and bill) with kindness.

-WB

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