Delight your clients.
That’s a good New Year’s Resolution for lawyers, right?
It’s an entrenched, almost clichéd piece of general business advice. But should lawyers try to delight their clients? It seems like the answer should be “of course!!” But what does that even mean?
A recent reference to delighting the client prompted this post, “3 Vital Mindsets for Creating Impact for the Legal Industry” by Seyfarth Shaw’s Laura Maecthlen on Medium. She reflected back on her hectic law practice in the final month of 2015, when she wasn’t thinking broadly about the legal industry but rather working away with depositions, negotiations, and a lot of detailed, focused, specifically client-centered work.
This day-to-day level of law practice, Maecthlen suggested, is an under-appreciated source of ideas about legal innovation. Those ideas should come not only from large-scale abstract thinking about the legal industry, but also from “the everyday activities of working lawyers . . . in the trenches of our legal system every day.” As she wrote,
It is in this space — personal, one-on-one and face-to-face — that we create real change for ourselves and each other.
And this observation—essentially, “small is the new big”—leads to the question of delight:
With all the talk of innovation in our industry, a person could easily lose track of the real goal of innovation, which is to create positive impact. If you stop to consider what we as practitioners are trying to accomplish, you realize it’s simple: higher-value client solutions aimed to delight our clients. Innovation is only one means to achieve this.
What do others say about delighting clients in the legal industry?
On a positive note, legal marketer Merrilyn Astin Tarlton advised lawyers to surprise and delight their clients in several ways. Drop in on their clients, free of charge, and learn more about their business. (This is common but excellent advice.) Give compliments. Help clients see patterns and prevent those patterns from occurring, such as better training and policies to reduce a pattern of lawsuits. Over-deliver and deliver early, rather than setting suggested deadlines and then meeting them just barely or missing them. Say thank you, often.
But the delight concept often comes wrapped in some more ominous tones.
Non-delighted clients are less likely to be long-term clients, and many lawyers are deluded about their clients’ level of delight. That was a theme developed by lawyer and and knowledge-management consultant V. Mary Abraham interviewed legal leadership consultant Susan Hackett. The post is “Focus on Clients; If You Delight Them They Will Stay.” Hackett’s work shows that 85 percent of outside counsel give themselves an “A” for their work, but only 35 percent of in-house counsel would in fact recommend their outside counsel to other clients.
What can lawyers do to climb into that 35 percent—to get that “A” grade and make the client “fall in love” with their services? One big step has to do with listening, with two necessary sub-parts to make it work. Part one is about asking meaningful questions of clients:
The very best way to deliver value to each client you serve is simply to ask them what it is that they value, what it is that you’re doing right or could do better, what it is that other lawyers or service providers offer them that makes them pleased with the service, and how it is that you personally could improve. Ask it in person, ask it in surveys, ask it outside the course of matters, ask it during the matters on which you’re serving. Saying once a year over dinner, `so how are we doing?’ is going to get an answer as specific as `just great.’ Trust me, that’s not the feedback you need.
And part two is about listening to and doing something about that feedback:
Asking for feedback is not the same thing as acting on it. Too many of us ask for feedback and then we sit back and `admire’ (or ignore) the results. Instead, we need to take actions that allow us to improve from the feedback. If you receive positive feedback, look for ways to apply the principles underlying your success to other kinds of work. At a minimum, when the evaluations relate to performance, include them in the performance reviews of those involved. After all, if lawyers’ compensation and advancement are only tied to the number of hours they’ve billed, and not to how well they serve clients, we’re all in trouble.
Delight also came up in the context of “in-house counsel gripes” which is practically its own genre of posts on Law 360. Rich Baer, then of Qwest Communications and now Liberty Media, urged lawyers to borrow the delight aspiration from non-legal businesses:
When you’re thinking about client service, don’t think like a lawyer, think like the owner of a great restaurant or the manager of a wonderful resort and really strive to delight your client every time you’re dealing with them.”
While this statement itself is positive, the rest of the post (which quoted other in-house counsel as well) essentially bludgeoned the reader with what not to do. Don’t surprise the client, don’t max out bills, and don’t send 50-page memos when short e-mails can give the same information. (The post also quoted Baer criticizing outside counsel who fail to share a “simple thank you for the business”—the mirror-image of Tarlton’s advice to say thank you often.)
Thinking about what not to do brings us back to the business theory of whether delight should be a client service goal at all. If you search “delighting customers,” the top result is a Harvard Business Review piece urging the opposite: “Stop trying to delight your customers.”
The article argued that the vast majority of decisions are made not because someone is delighted and drawn to the amazing service of a business. Rather, these decisions are made because of being annoyed, put off, frustrated, and otherwise subject to terrible service. Customers have the impulse to “punish bad service” much more so than to “reward delightful service.” (This idea is rooted in psychological studies that “Bad Is Stronger than Good” previously discussed on the blog here.)
Therefore, the HBR piece argues, the better approach to customer satisfaction is not delight but “reducing their effort—the work they must do to get their problem solved.”
In her post on goals for 2016, Seyfarth Shaw’s Maecthlen was onto this as well. She urged finding clients’ “pain points” and making “process improvements” to address them. (This rhetoric is consistent with the legal project management movement that sometimes speaks in the language of delight.)
Addressing pain and process comes up in so many different ways. Many process improvements are substantive, like the suggestion above about recognizing and mitigating a pattern of small sporadic lawsuits. Of course the method of communication itself may be a pain point as well.
Here, as I write on a Friday afternoon, a small but specific example comes to mind. Some clients may not enjoy receiving a barrage of legal updates late Friday afternoon as lawyers clean and close their own inboxes. The lawyer may feel a sense of respite and reprieve, while the client now has a list of things to do just at the beginning of the weekend. Other clients may appreciate a regular consolidated end-of-the-week update. What is their preference?
Asking what they want and respecting that preference is not all that innovative. But, to paraphrase Laura Maechtlen, it’s this one-on-one and face-to-face work that can—perhaps—add up to a sense of delight.