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October 28, 2009

Three questions to ask your most important clients

Back in the good old days, before the economy headed South, I wrote a number of posts about how important listening is to develop stronger relationships and new business.  I even posted suggestions to get clients doing more of the talking, including 34 questions for clients and prospects and 24 more questions to ask current clients.

When we coach lawyers on how to develop new business, we often refer to updated and expanded versions of those lists.  Given today’s cutthroat competition, we encourage lawyers to start with defensive marketing to protect their most important clients.  Here are three critical questions that we encourage lawyers to ask every important client:

1. On a scale from 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with our firm?

There are many ways to phrase effective questions about client satisfaction, but the best way is to ask for a numerical rating, which forces clarity and frankness.

We ask our own clients this question at the end of every program we deliver, and to be honest many shy away from giving a number.  The client is always right, so if they don’t want to be pinned down with a number, we go with the flow.  The important thing is to begin a genuine conversation about satisfaction, and to encourage clients to talk about the things you really need to hear, rather than more comfortable vague praise.

If clients do give you a number, there’s a good chance it will be lower than you expected.  I’ve written before about the Lake Wobegone effect, named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional community in which everyone thinks they are above average, and their ratings will be high.

The best place to see this effect in the legal community is in a series of surveys published in Inside Counsel magazine, comparing ratings of satisfaction from clients and the law firms who serve them.  In their most recent survey, 43% of lawyers thought they were earning an A for their work, but only 17% of their clients agreed.  So if you think you deserve an A, you’re probably wrong.

And if your client gives you an 8 or less on our 10-point scale, you need to do something about it.  As noted in my post about Fred Reichheld’s research on the loyalty effect, you might think that 8 out of 10 is a pretty good rating.  But it is not good enough to protect you from aggressive competitors.

2.  What could we do to increase our rating?

Ask this question even if you scored 10 out of 10.  It is impossible for a client to be too happy.

Be prepared with questions to probe how people really feel, such as asking which team members they like to work with, and which they don’t, or what could have been done differently in a recent matter, or how easy your firm is to do business with.  You might even work in some of the questions from previous lists in this blog, such as:
•    How well do we listen to your concerns?
•    How well do we understand your goals?
•    How well do we understand your industry?
•    Do we do a good job keeping you informed?
•    Do we explain legal issues in terms that are easy for non-lawyers to understand?
•    Do you perceive us as genuinely committed to your business success?
•    Do you perceive our lawyers as prompt, responsive, and accessible on short notice?
•    Are our billing statements accurate and complete?
•    Do our invoices include an appropriate level of detail?
•    Do you think our fees are fair and reasonable?
The important thing is to follow this conversation wherever it leads.  Resist the temptation to defend yourself; save that for a different meeting.  This time, just listen and learn what you could do better.

3. Have you heard any interesting ideas from other law firms?

This can be a tricky question to ask, but you need to know what your competitors are doing.  If you ask the question directly at the start of a conversation, it may sound desperate or pathetic.  Plan instead to sneak up on it.

Start with industry chit chat.  When the client mentions another firm, ask “Have you talked to them lately?” and “What are they up to these days?”

If you can turn the conversation in this direction, I’ll bet you a nickel that at least one of your clients will report that she’s been talking to your competitors about alternative fees.  If you want to know more about that topic, see our Guide to Alternative Fees, which is free, and the research report on our Survey of Alternative Fees, which isn’t.


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