The world is a complex place. To simplify navigating through it, we all make simplifying assumptions – many of them formed more or less subconsciously, and many without the benefit of deeper research or more rigorous thinking.
If our assumptions are wrong, the outcomes could be relatively benign (“Surely, the line for lunch at the deli won’t be too long”), cause some moderate harm (“No problem, I’ve got enough gas to get home”) or be near fatal (“I’m certain our wedding anniversary is next week, not today”).
In our roles as client-serving professionals – lawyers, accountants or management consultants – we also make assumptions with regard to our clients, including about their needs, their preferences and the advice we give them.
Many assumptions about clients are likely to be valid and result in good or, at least, non-injurious outcomes. Nevertheless, the point of this article is: Shouldn’t we be more deliberate and questioning about the assumptions we make about clients – in order to ensure that we don’t end up with self-inflicted client relations issues.
So, the big question to ask regarding each key client is, “What is the magnitude of the chasm between reality (investigated, verified, analyzed and understood) and any one of the key assumptions we have made about the client, such as might be based on old news, hearsay, supposition or out-of-date paradigms?”
Following are some examples:
What do general counsel want? - I believe this is the most dangerous intellectual pursuit on which a client handling partner can embark. Why? It assumes that the general counsel of your key client has similar needs and preferences to general counsels, in general. Do you remember your logic classes in high school? Applying the general (What do general counsel want?) to the specific (What does your client’s general counsel want?) is a logical fallacy. Don’t assume. Instead, go ask your client’s general counsel, specifically, what he/she wants from you and your firm.
I’ve talked to our key contact and I haven’t heard any complaints - The relationship between a law firm and its client is a many splendored thing. For example, a general counsel often doesn’t know about all of the relevant opinions that other persons in his/her organization might have about your firm. Also, the law department might be able to provide only part of the story, so input from the business-side executives is also needed. For example, dissatisfaction might be brewing deep down at the lower levels of the client’s organization, or with executives with whom you don’t have regular contact, but nevertheless are important buyers of the firm’s services. When I conduct a client satisfaction and loyalty assessment at a key client of a law firm, I often interview 8 to 10 or more individuals – those that comprise the key touch points in the relationship. This eliminates assumptions and ensures that small engagement problems can be identified and fixed before they escalate into larger relationship issues.
We have competitors at that client, but we’re in the driver’s seat - I’m certain that these famous last words have been spoken by many a responsible partner regarding a key client of a law firm. Certainly, on the list of the most lethal assumptions a professional can make about his/her client, competitors’ activities rank near the top. However, getting actionable feedback from a client about a firm’s competitors requires the right setting and some conversational finesse. When talking about competitors, the information that needs to be extracted cannot be superficial, but requires deep diving into such issues as: on what matters are the competitor firms working; which partners are involved; how well are they performing compared to your lawyers and firm; what is the methodology employed for selecting providers and parcelling out available work; is an important executive’s brother-in-law or next door neighbor a partner in a competitor firm?
We have a client team assigned - This might be one of the most misleading assumptions ever made in a law firm. The whole notion of ‘client teams’ is, in many firms, still at the experimental stage. While it’s usually clear who is the named responsible partner, various silos of lawyers from different practice groups working on the same client are often engaged in just doing their own thing. Further, each of these silos might be operating under their own set of disparate or even conflicting assumptions.
Key executives won’t want to be interviewed for their feedback nor have the time - This assumption ranks up there with other common misconceptions (that is, false assumptions), “Unless our competitors are doing it, we don’t have to” and “These interviews are for problem clients only.” Acting on these aforementioned assumptions leads to, ironically, no action at all – and leaves the client partner and the firm dependent on partial and/or out-of-date information. As regards to whether key executives appreciate an opportunity to provide their feedback, the answer is resoundingly yes. I know, I’ve interviewed thousands of executives and many of them have reported their positive feelings about the interview process back to the law firms on whose behalf I was conducting the interviews.
The Responsible Partner should conduct the feedback interviews - Of course, the firm’s responsible partner and, for that matter, any partner or associate on the account, should have their ears tuned for feedback and, in appropriate situations, initiate the conversations. However, it’s been found that the candor quotient with regard to feedback is higher when there are more degrees of independence between the interviewer to the person being interviewed. For this reason, often an independent third party works well. Where a “client visitation” is conducted by the firm’s chair/Managing Partner or another senior lawyer, although potentially valuable for relationship building, such meetings are not ideal for drawing out all the available intelligence. Additionally, because they are busy lawyers, rarely do these firm members take the time to fully document the results of the interviews – a necessary step if the resulting action plans are to be implemented over a multiple-year period.
We know what’s good for that client - Wrong again. To address what buyers want and how to give it to them, there’s a new movement in Corporate America called Customer Experience Management. Some companies have formed separate departments to address this function and placed special focus on the company’s B2B Enterprise Clients, the moniker for the largest dollar accounts. The resulting action programs include those such as Voice of the Client, Client Satisfaction and Loyalty Assessments, Key Account Management, Employee Engagement and Customer Data Analytics. The goal is customer-insightful decisions, defined by Bruce Temkin, a customer experience visionary, as the result of “infusing a deep, relevant understanding of customers across an organization that affects how employees make decisions.”
Think about that in terms of how your firm might serve its key clients. Based on facts acquired from the clients. Please, with no assumptions.
Bruce D. Heintz heads Heintz Consulting LLC, an independent Boston based consultancy specializing in client satisfaction and loyalty assessments. Bruce can be contacted on 617-571-7750 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This edited article first appeared in Marketing the Law Firm, an ALM publication, and is reproduced with permission of the author.
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