No matter what, manage expectations

Nothing is more critical to the success of your relationship with clients than managing expectations,  because expectations are enormously important to how people feel and behave. Among other things, as three recent articles explain, they relate closely to:

Price: Robert Ambrogi at Legal Blog Watch reports on a study that shows people enjoy wine more when they believe it to be more expensive, and that they find energy drinks less useful when they’re provided at a discount.

Performance: The Economist relates that athletes given morphine two days in a row and a placebo on the third day feel the same painkiller effect all three days.

Information: Guy Kawasaki links to a study that says the more information consumers have about a product, the less they enjoy it, because they’re less able to use their imaginations and engage in wishful thinking about a product’s effect.

Expectations correlate directly with satisfaction — it’s human nature to be happy relative to the degree of happiness anticipated. That’s how significant are your earliest dealings with a client, including numerous encounters before the client actually calls or shows up at your office. Here are just some of the ways clients’ expectations are shaped:

1. Your web profile: Obviously, this includes your web page,  especially your photo, biography, list of achievements, community work and personal data. But more broadly, it includes everything about you that comes up in a Google search, including where you show up on the Net, who’s talking about you, and what they’re saying. Steve Matthews has written a great article on this subject that will appear in the March 2008 issue of National.

2.  Your office quarters: Bob Ambrogi relates the story of a client who was impressed with opposing counsel just on the basis of that lawyer’s upscale offices. You don’t need to break the bank for a marble-and-glass reception area, but understand that everything about your surroundings — the receptionist, the decor, the reading materials, the length of time you make the client wait, the tidiness of your office, the state of your desk, the wall hangings, how you’re dressed — all of it shapes your client’s expectations before you say a word. What expectations are your offices setting for your clients?

3. Your first meeting: You need your client to leave this meeting feeling the three R’s: reassured, realistic and ready. They need reassurance that you understand their situation and that they understand exactly what you plan to do; realistic about what can and can’t be achieved, how long it will likely take and how much it will probably cost; and ready to move forward with whatever tasks or information you need them to work on. What you say is important, but how you say it is even more so: your demeanour, your body language, your eye contact, your active listening, and your self-confidence. They dictate what a client will expect from you going forward.

4. Your communications: Your detailed engagement letter is the central expectation document of your relationship with the client — it’s the template to which your client will refer constantly. Your client needs to know in advance how long it will take you to return his calls and his e-mails — and you need to stick to it. Don’t be later than you said you would — and don’t be earlier, either, because that’s going to create a new set of expectations to which you’ll need to adhere from that point onwards. Don’t surprise your client, pleasantly or otherwise.

5. Your fees: The maxim “underpromise and overdeliver” applies most of all to legal fees, one of the top areas of misaligned expectations between lawyer and client. Whatever price range you offer your client, verbally or in writing, the client will only remember the low end. Err on the side of overestimation, and stifle that worming fear that the client will walk out; if he does, he was probably a higher default risk anyway. The more uncertainty in what the matter will cost, the higher you need to pitch your estimate. Do not apologize for the cost of your expertise.

It almost goes without saying, of course, that you need to deliver on these expectations — the most carefully crafted sense of what a client should receive is useless if the lawyer doesn’t follow up. But it’s critical that the client start out with clear expectations of what your relationship will be like. Fulfilled expectations are the foundation of trust, and trust turns one client relationship into many.

A parting thought: for all that first impressions are important, Seth Godin reminds us not to overlook the last impression, the one that clients leave with. Follow up every closed file with a call or letter thanking the client for his business and asking if he was satisfied; chances are, the mere fact of asking about satisfaction will raise it.