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March 15, 2017

Lessons learned reviews – Part 1 of 2

By Jim Hassett and Gary Richards

Some lawyers hold meetings at the end of every significant matter to review what worked, what didn’t, and what could be done better the next time. In large matters, they also conduct these “lessons learned” reviews after completing each significant milestone or phase.

These discussions are a learning opportunity and a marketing opportunity. Such a discussion can enhance your relationship, help you learn more about what an existing client values most, and enable you to provide more value. If a large matter is at a pivotal point, a mid-course review and redirection could be the difference between success and failure. Could you possibly think of a better way to develop new business?

The lessons learned review could be long or short. You could hold a formal group meeting and send the questions in advance, or you can simply ask your client some of the questions below. If you think of this as marketing, it will be obvious that it is better to have the discussion in person, maybe even over lunch. The phone can be a good second choice, but email is a distant third. You want to get people to open up and speak freely, and that is unlikely to happen via email.

The length and formality of the process should depend on the size and significance of the matter, your relationship with the client, and on how much work they are likely to have for you in the future. This section lists a number of different questions you might ask. In many cases, the first two will be enough.

The two most important questions

Unless there is a major open issue requiring an immediate joint review, or a client requests a lengthy discussion, we recommend that you assume that clients have little time to spare. This may mean limiting the debrief to two simple questions:

  1. What did you like about the way we handled this matter?
  2. What could we do better?

The first question is a classic “easy to answer” opening. Ask this one first, because it will get people talking freely.

The second question is the one you really care about, since you are likely to learn far more from criticism than from praise. No matter how much clients like your work, they can always like it more. And in today’s highly competitive environment, it is in your interest to turn every client into a raving fan.

If the second question opens the door to a laundry list of complaints, do not get defensive. Do not argue, disagree or explain your position. In fact, at most lessons learned meetings you should say very little and listen more than 90% of the time. Keep probing for more information. These meetings are designed not to understand reality, but rather to understand the client’s perception of reality. Because when it comes to client satisfaction and new business, perception is everything.

When clients raise problems, you need to reassure them that things will be better in the future. But in most cases you should not get into the details at the initial discussion. You need time to think about the best way to solve the problem, and to assure client satisfaction. So be prepared to say something like, “That is an important issue. Let me talk to a few people about the best way of preventing that from happening again, and then I will get back to you.”

Of course, if you do promise to get back to your client with a solution, you must put a high priority on completing follow-up as soon as possible.

If your time is limited, and your clients’ time is too, you can stop here. But if you want to consider more questions, read on.

Two more questions you could ask

If you have time to probe deeper, you can also add one or both of these optional questions:

  1. Working together, how can we improve the value you receive in the future on matters like this?
  2. On a scale from 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with our firm?

The first question is optional and focuses on the issue which is most likely to lead to new business: how to increase perceived value. This is a slight rephrasing of a key question suggested in the ACC Value Challenge Briefing Package (p. 7). Note the phrase “working together,” which stresses the need to align interests and collaborate more closely.

The second question is also optional. There are many ways to phrase effective questions about client satisfaction, but the best way is to ask for a numerical rating, because it 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. The reason is that most people overrate themselves. Psychologists call this the Lake Wobegon effect, named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional community in which “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

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 one such 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.

Another way to get at this fundamental issue is to ask, “On a scale from 1 to 10, how likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?”

In his business bestseller, The Ultimate Question, Fred Reichheld argues that companies should focus more attention on loyalty by measuring the response to this one simple question. Reichheld and his colleagues at Bain have published several books and many studies showing that companies with high customer loyalty rates grow revenues twice as fast as their competitors. They have also shown that companies can increase profits by 25% to 100% simply by increasing customer retention by 5%.

Clients who rate the likelihood at 9 or 10 out of 10 are called “promoters” and are responsible for generating sustainable growth. You might think 7 or 8 on this 10-point scale would also be pretty good, but Reichheld has found that these people are motivated more by inertia than by enthusiasm. He calls this middle group “passives” and notes that they will often jump to another company at the first sign of a better deal.

The most serious business risk comes from “detractors,” people who rate the likelihood of referrals at 0 to 6 on that 10-point scale. From a strict financial view, many of these detractors may be profitable in the short term, but Reichheld notes that, “Customers who feel ignored or mistreated find ways to get even. They drive up service costs by reporting numerous problems. They demoralize frontline employees with their complaints and demands” (p. 6). 

Eighty percent of negative comments come from this detractor group, and in this age of email and internet ratings, a single complaint can reach hundreds of potential clients in the time it takes to hit the send button. In short, detractors “suck the life out of a firm” (p. 30).

This post was adapted from LegalBizDev’s new LPM Tools and Templates.

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