Client feedback initiatives are part art and part science. One can research and prepare for conducting interviews, but there’s no substitute for jumping in and engaging with participants. The key is listening – not just hearing what’s said, but truly absorbing the feedback so client comments can be communicated back to the organization and individual service providers to reinforce best practices and adjust as needed.
Our team provides business development and marketing consulting services in the legal space, and make no mistake, lawyers are among the most adverse to constructive criticism. Here, I share a story about a recent experience and the impact that client feedback had on a law firm.
I had just finished my fifth client satisfaction interview of the day on behalf of a boutique law firm. I stared in disbelief at my notes: five client interviews, five consistent stories, five clients who had declared “I’ll be with this firm for life.”
These five respondents weren’t “cherry picked.” We simply selected participants who would provide honest, 360-degree feedback on the firm’s performance, quality, value, personnel, relationship building, and more. True to the spirit of the exercise, we didn’t want just the good stuff.
But the takeaways – regardless of size, scope, matter, or case – were the same. Our client had the secret sauce for not only satisfying their clients but also for turning them into fiercely loyal and elated ones.
These rave reviews reflected the client’s brand and raison d’etre to be “a different kind of firm.” Sure, many law firms have similar intentions, something many firms say, but in this case, the participants’ comments echoed and amplified the brand platform our client espoused. In fact, the mere act of talking to the firm’s clients underscored it:
“I was actually really surprised when I was asked for feedback because this firm works with us in ways no other law firm has in the past. We really feel like they are an extension of us – or we’re an extension of them. We’re just a complete team. I couldn’t come up with a complaint if I tried. But the fact they want to do even better, well, that’s just beyond comprehension.”
For this law firm, the execution of a client interview program reinforced its brand and provided evidence to naysayers and supporters alike of the continuing need for business development strategies that would bring even more clients into this happy tent. However, we did also hear about a few losses and some missteps, but we learned why those setbacks didn’t kill the relationship.
We also learned how to leverage our client’s authentic calling card to chart a course for future client development, associate training, and promotion of the firm’s signature client service standards.
The Bad and the Ugly (With a Very Good Ending)
Too often, law firms are reluctant to consider - let alone implement - client interview initiatives. Too often we hear, “What if the comments are bad?” or “clients don’t want to be bothered” or “how can we be sure the feedback will be genuine?” We’ve seen many partner’s faces go ashen when we suggest querying a few general counsel or c-level executives.
That hesitation is fair and understandable. It does feel risky to put yourself out there and let clients riff on you.
But consider the alternative. What if you don’t engage your clients – and you don’t hear anything negative – and the client walks away before you can fix it?
We saw precisely this scenario play out in another satisfaction program. We interviewed ten clients, nine of which were satisfied and truly valued the firm’s work product, professionalism, and overall counsel. But there was one client that wasn’t even close to happy. That client told another story entirely – with the potential for a very unhappy ending.
This was the firm’s biggest client, and the loss of its business would have rocked the firm’s financial foundation like an earthquake. Going in, we anticipated another pleased and loyal client.
The interview was scheduled to last 30 minutes. Instead, for two hours the key contact and four other executives roared their profound dissatisfaction with the law firm. Suffice it to say, it was not for the faint of heart.
This company spent millions of dollars annually with the firm, but so profound was their disappointment that they were already halfway out the door and interviewing competitors. The firm was blindsided.
At the close of the interview, we asked if there was anything our client could do to salvage this significant relationship. Admittedly, we were afraid – very afraid – of the answer. The response:
"To be honest, we were taken aback by the interview request. In a good way. That they wanted to make a good faith effort to talk to us. We’ve been complaining for so long and nothing has changed. But this feels like a real first step toward repair…just by having us talk to you. If you share our challenges, and they make a real effort to fix them, not with words but with actions, we would be more than willing to stick with them."
Our client took the feedback to heart, heeded the advice, and the company continued to be a VIP. Had the firm not taken the necessary hard steps to institute a client feedback program, this relationship would not have been saved. No firm should ever consider an interview program if it isn’t willing to listen, learn, and act on bad news.
To be clear, most law firm clients we interview are generally satisfied with their relationships. Not ecstatic, perhaps a little underwhelmed, but not unhappy enough to leave… yet. These lukewarm clients offer constructive and useful suggestions. Their feedback can strengthen and make the client-counsel relationship competitor-proof, not just preserving it but breaking it open for new and more opportunities.
More than once, we’ve had a managing partner tell us that client interviews were the best thing the firm ever undertook, and with good reason. In the decade we’ve performed this service for our clients, we’ve not only saved potential lost fees, as described above, but we’ve also uncovered millions of dollars of additional revenue that could be captured with the right strategy.
Even when the findings are ugly, properly crafted, and deftly conducted - client feedback campaigns:
- Strengthen existing relationships, making them competitor-proof.
- Save potential lost revenue.
- Identify pathways to new work.
- Reinforce – or inform – a brand from a client’s perspective.
- Provide roadmaps for business development success based on an ability to articulate a firm’s value in the client’s eyes.
While interviews can strike fear into even the most battle-tested attorney, the benefits to be sown are beyond measure. I’ll close with the words we’ve heard from hundreds of GCs:
“I wish every law firm would do this.”
Martha Cusick is a law firm consultant with Rain BDM. If you would like to contact Martha, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.`
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