The perils of client interviews

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Via Larry Bodine comes this Legal Intelligencer article about law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, which has hired a 30-year veteran journalist to be a full-time client interviewer, asking clients about their needs, perspectives and complaints about the firm’s services. It’s a good, innovative idea, not least because it involves a tactic that too few law firms embrace: bringing in professionals from other fields. In particular, firms could benefit by adding more media expertise to their marketing and client relations departments, including print, TV, and especially online and new media. But that’s a story for another day.

What really struck me when reading this article was the question: what is the firm actually going to do with the information gathered through the interview process? The client has given up time and energy to speak frankly and at length about its relationship with the firm — what is the firm doing to respond? This is an especially important question in light of studies that show clients who fill out surveys or otherwise reply to feedback requests have heightened expectations of future interactions with the firm: having been asked for their thoughts, they expect those thoughts to have an impact or be implemented in some way.

Ballard Spahr will shortly have reams of data from their top 300 clients (aside: “top 300″ clients? I don’t think so. Do you have 300 best friends?), all of which will dutifully be circulated to the management team and to the key contact lawyers for each client. That’s the easy and fun part — everyone likes to learn what other people think about them, especially when it’s good. But what actions is the firm prepared to actually take based upon that data, especially when it’s not so good? Is anybody going to prioritize and follow up on the implementation of client suggestions, in particular the difficult or challenging ones, in the midst of the constant fire-dousing and unrelenting billing pressures of your average law firm?

Any firm that makes a point of collecting client data is also going to have to appoint a senior lawyer to ensure that at least some of what clients are asking for actually gets done. This lawyer would be charged with reporting to the management team what actions have been taken to follow through on what the client talked about in the three, six and 12 months following any given feedback session. Call it a Director of Feedback Compliance, or the Advocatus Clienti I wrote about a while ago, but this enforcement position is critical if busy, independent-minded lawyers are going to take seriously the obligation to digest and implement the results of client interviews.

Law firms put a fair bit of pressure on their marketing professionals to show ROI on marketing; I’d be more interested in knowing the ROI on client communications. Interviewing clients is a great idea, but unless the suggestions they make are fulfilled with real change in how the firm and its lawyers operate, it’s not only a waste of time and money, it’s also raising client expectations that will never be met, which will only cause bigger problems down the line.

Frankly, I’d appoint the Compliance Director first and hire the interviewer later — create the structure for feedback follow-through first, then collect the feedback. Real change only happens when serious enforcement measures are attached to it.

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