Focus on Clients: If You Delight Them They Will Stay

my one & only[This is the fourth in a series of posts featuring a conversation with Susan Hackett of Legal Executive Leadership focused on deepening client relationships in meaningful (and profitable) ways.]

Susan Hackett and I discussed in the prior posts in this series the proposition that the richest source of new business is found in referrals from existing clients. But what does that really entail? To dig deeper, we considered the following questions: What can you do to ensure that your current clients are

  1. Absolutely in love with you?
  2. Willing and able to recommend you to their colleagues?


Falling in Love

There are thousands of law firms and millions of lawyers. How can you stand out? What can you do to ensure that your current clients are absolutely in love with you (as opposed to thinking of you merely as a representative of one of 73 firms they work with who are doing just fine, but aren’t really “distinguishable”)? In answer to these questions, Susan offers the following advice:

First off, get over the `quality’ thing. I know you’re a great lawyer.  But let me share with you that I personally know about 5,000 great lawyers who offer their clients high quality services. And I certainly don’t know nearly everyone who’s out there. Quality is the floor; you have to build up from there to be distinguishable.

Second, open yourself to critical assessment of the value of your services and to ideas and practices you could implement to improve your value. When I say `value,’ I’m talking specifically about those things that go beyond the ability to write a great memo/brief or understand and explain complex regulation. I’m talking about whether the result of the service you provide to clients (which is what you’re responsible for providing, not a memo) drives a better outcome for them.  I like to say that most clients don’t think of the problems they have as legal problems; they are business problems. And they want solutions, not just advice. So if you’ve not thought about your value to the client’s business or the practicality of your service, you’re missing the point.  And you’ll be missing the referral.

Third, the very best way to deliver value to each client you serve is simply to ask them what it is that they value, what it is that you’re doing right or could do better, what it is that other lawyers or service providers offer them that makes them pleased with the service, and how it is that you personally could improve.  Ask it in person, ask it in surveys, ask it outside the course of matters, ask it during the matters on which you’re serving. Saying once a year over dinner, `so how are we doing?’ is going to get an answer as specific as `just great.’  Trust me, that’s not the feedback you need.

Sharing the Love

As we discussed in our earlier post, Help Your Clients Make Rain for You, the key to new business generation is ensuring your current clients are willing and able to recommend your services to their colleagues. Perhaps the biggest challenge is in the perception gap between how a law firm views the impact of services rendered and how the client views those same services.  According to Susan, this gap can be significant:

When outside counsel are asked how they think they’re doing in their client relationships, about 85% of them give themselves an A  grade.  When inside counsel are asked whether they would refer their outside counsel to another client, only about 35% of them would.  The fact that a client gives a lawyer or firm business and keeps returning for more services does NOT mean that the client loves that lawyer or firm.  And a B grade in today’s market puts you and your firm on the `danger’ list when it comes to which firms will be asked to leave the preferred provider pool as clients continue to winnow down the number of firms they use.

How can you raise your grade to an A or make sure you’re one of the 35% who is recommended? Susan suggests the following:

Asking for feedback is not the same thing as acting on it.  Too many of us ask for feedback and then we sit back and `admire’ (or ignore) the results. Instead, we need to take actions that allow us to improve from the feedback.  If you receive positive feedback, look for ways to apply the principles underlying your success to other kinds of work. At a minimum, when the evaluations relate to performance, include them in the performance reviews of those involved. After all, if lawyers’ compensation and advancement are only tied to the number of hours they’ve billed, and not to how well they serve clients, we’re all in trouble.

One critical element is to work with your client to develop a relationship of trust and collaboration. Since clients have the option to walk away from their external counsel, the load often falls on law firms to take the lead in establishing a value-based focus that works for both parties. To be successful, both sides must feel that the relationship ensures that all boats rise – that the firm will profit well from serving the client better: lowering or controlling costs, improving results and turn around time, creating new efficiencies, etc. While everyone talks about “partnering” and all this may sound obvious, Susan believes that too many firm/client relationships are defined by a “zero-sum” mentality – any concession to the client is seen as a firm “loss,” and any profitability or increase to the firm is seen as a client “failure” to secure the better deal.  In her view, that’s just bad thinking.

Next in this Focus on Clients series: The Client’s View of Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing

[Photo Credit: Jessica Lucia]

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