While many law firms offer ongoing training opportunities for attorneys and support staff to fine tune their legal skills, very few take the time to teach the fine points of what might be the most important skill of all — client service. Although professional development is critical to the success of any law firm, the failure to provide adequate client service will inevitably result in the loss of business, and in the worst-case scenario can even lead to sanctions. Further, is a violation of the American Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Responsibility if an attorney fails to communicate with a client in a timely and effective fashion.
Relationship Building is the Key
Despite the fact that law firms now have powerful communications tools at their disposal, many fall short in the art of relationship building. Unfortunately, this fundamental aspect of client service is often put on the back burner. In the deadline driven world of motions, hearings, and trial preparation, lawyers and support staff are prone to cut corners in building a strong foundation of trust with their clients. If you fail to provide regular email updates, neglect to promptly return phone calls, and overlook the personal touches of sending cards to acknowledge personal milestones and professional accomplishments, you risk letting your clients fall through the cracks. And when push comes to shove, a neglected client is not a client who would readily refer others to your law firm and may be tempted to look elsewhere for their legal needs in the future.
The Importance of Communication, Even when the Client has a Complaint
It is tempting to ignore the phone calls and emails of a client who complains that you’re not providing adequate service. No one enjoys engaging in difficult conversations. Unfortunately, by turning your back on a dissatisfied client, you risk creating an intractable situation that could have been resolved if you’d taken the time to listen to the client’s concerns. In fact, if you keep the lines of communication open, you might have the opportunity to learn more about your clients’ needs so you can more effectively address their concerns.
How to Build Better Relationships with Clients through Communication
Following are some tips on how you can enhance your client communications skills to provide better service:
- Let your clients know up-front what your policies are regarding telephone and email communications. If you have specific hours during which you will respond to calls, assure them that you will abide by these guidelines. Be aware that if you give your client your cell phone number, you must respond to their calls regardless of when they occur.
- Set deadlines for client work to be performed and inform your clients of these deadlines. Let them know if unforeseen circumstances prevent you from adhering to any specific timetables.
- Return phone calls as promptly as possible.
- Listen to your voicemail regularly.
- Answer client email within a reasonable time period.
- Advise clients of your vacation schedules and assure them that you will return their calls and emails once you return. It is helpful to set up an automatic “out of the office,” email reply that includes an alternative email contact from your firm during emergent situations.
- To get ahead of complaint-prone clients, use your case management software as a tool of documentation. All messages your staff takes from any client should be posted in their case. All staff should type notes in the client file when they attempt to contact them or leave them a message. If your software has a bi-directional interface with Outlook or another email service, you can post your email responses directly in the client file, too. Having that thorough documentation will help in the future if the client feels that you haven’t been diligent in communication.
- Use your case management software to generate mailing labels for birthday and holiday cards.
- A good case management system will also allow you to easily collect email addresses for export to mass emails platforms like Constant Contact and MailChimp.