How to Conduct Client Satisfaction Interviews - Part 1
A few years ago, the idea of a law firm holding free meetings to formally review client satisfaction seemed radical. But lately, it’s been catching on.
All right, maybe it’s not growing as fast as we business development people would like, but it is growing. According to a survey that will be published next month by ALM Research and The Brand Research Company, 56% of the top 1000 law firms have conducted client interviews and satisfaction surveys. If you are a glass half-empty type, you might note that only 5% have interviewed all of their clients. But wherever I go law firms are talking about doing more interviews, and I have no doubt that these numbers will grow quickly.
Over the last few months, I’ve been writing in this blog about the best way to do client satisfaction interviews, based on interviews with a number of experts, including (in alphabetical order) Steve Bell of Womble Carlyle, Michelle Golden of Golden Consulting, Dan Hull of Hull McGuire, Peter Johnson of Law Practice Consultants, Iris Jones of Akin Gump, Tom Kane of Kane Consulting, Patrick Lamb of Butler Rubin, Laura Meherg of Meherg Consulting, and Gerry Riskin of Edge International.
Lately, those discussions have gotten into some of the fine points of exactly what you should and should not do. In this week’s post and the next one, I’d like to go back to the basics for firms that are considering their first interviews, and provide a summary of what the experts agree on, and what you should do about it.
The most important conclusion
All of the experts agree that every law firm needs to conduct client satisfaction reviews. There are many ways to succeed, but just one way to fail: not interviewing your clients at all.
Here are five reasons you need to start soon:
1) The simple act of taking the time to review satisfaction shows clients that you care, and strengthens your relationships.
2) Formal reviews of satisfaction will identify clients who are at risk of switching to another firm.
3) You will probably get new business directly out of the review.
4) You will definitely get some ideas for improving your service.
5) You want to do this before your competitors. Law firms that do other legal work for your clients are increasingly likely to hold client satisfaction interviews, and try to take away business from your firm. You should get there first.
Which clients should be interviewed?
How do you know which clients absolutely must be interviewed? According to Gerry Riskin: “It’s really very simple. Imagine your worst nightmare: Your assistant walks in and says that a client has asked to have all their files sent to a new firm. Who do you pray it isn’t?”
In time, you may decide to interview every single significant client. That was Womble Carlyle’s goal in their award winning “Stop the Clock” marketing campaign. If that feels too ambitious, decide how many interviews would be realistic in the next 90 days, and use these criteria (from Peter Johnson’s article “12 Steps to a Successful Client Interview Program” with additions from Laura Meherg) to draw up your list:
Top ten in revenues
Opportunities for increased revenues
Concerns about decreased revenues
Perceived problems or threats
Change in client management/personnel
Cross selling opportunities
Introduction of a new “relationship” attorney
Hunches or tips
Who should do the interviewing?
Now comes the hottest issue and the hardest decision: who should conduct the interviews?
Most experts agree that the interviewer’s personal characteristics and skills are more important than whether they are lawyers or outside consultants. A successful interviewer will be able to build rapport, will know what questions to ask, and will be able to direct the discussion to maximize results.
But some experts say it’s best to hire an outside consultant, because:
Clients will be more candid with an outsider
Trained professionals conduct better interviews
The interviews will be scheduled more quickly and reliably
Other experts believe these interviews should be conducted by the firm’s lawyers, because:
Lawyers have the best understanding of the client’s situation
Interviews strengthen the personal relationship
Lawyers can promise necessary follow-up action on the spot
It is less expensive than hiring outsiders
If you do decide to have lawyers conduct the interviews, the next question is which lawyer? The partner who manages the relationship certainly has the best understanding of the client, and may want to do it herself. But having one of the senior partners conduct the review will lead to a franker assessment, and is a great way of demonstrating that the whole firm is committed to client satisfaction.
Some experts feel strongly that, as Laura Meherg put it “while every attorney should regularly have candid conversations with their clients about performance, results, needs, and goals, for a formal review of client satisfaction to be effective, the relationship/ working attorneys should NOT conduct the interview.”
One of the biggest problems with having lawyers conduct the interviews is getting them to do it. If they are not entirely comfortable with the idea, many will find that they can’t fit this unbillable task into their overcrowded schedules.
In their award winning Stop the Clock Program, Womble Carlyle overcame this problem, by running an internal competition among their nine offices. They tracked the percent of interviews completed by each office, and ran a contest in which the offices with the highest percent of completed interviews won free dinners, bragging rights, and more. It worked.
Tom Kane has advised a number of law firms on this issue, and has seen many different approaches. He suggests a hybrid that starts with a third party professional because “clients are likely to be more open.” This should be followed promptly with a visit from senior management to discuss the results and how to improve the relationship
Given the differences of opinion between experts, I think that the answer depends on the situation. As I wrote in Part 5: “each decision should be based on the individuals who are involved and the fundamental marketing question: what will make this particular client happy? A law firm surveying 10 clients could therefore decide to use partners with 5 clients and outside consultants with the rest.”
Next week, I’ll write about the logistics of conducting interviews, including what questions to ask. If you can’t wait for the details, go to the free resources section of my web page and download a copy of “How to Conduct Client Satisfaction Interviews” from the next edition of my Law Firm Business Development Workbook.