Keeping the Customer Satisfied
By Jim Calloway
Yes, I know our profession has clients and not customers, but bear with me.
“A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all,” according to business book author Michael LeBoeuf. Customer (or client) satisfaction has long been an aspect of business management. Many business empires have been built on good to average products or services combined with excellent customer satisfaction models.
I recall the first time I heard the phrase, but it didn’t have much to do with business principles. The song “Keep the Customer Satisfied” by Paul Simon was on the 1970 Simon and Garfunkel album Bridge Over Troubled Water.
With consumer products, the satisfaction or lack of satisfaction is generally directly tied to the quality of the product with any associated customer services sometimes adding (or subtracting) value.
With services, particularly professional services, in some situations the method of service delivery has as much to do with satisfaction as the actual service itself. This is particularly true with legal services. With medical services, a sick patient can become well or a broken bone will heal. With legal services, successful delivery of the services is often couched in terms that were previously not familiar to the client like decrees, court orders, injunctions, closings and the like. Even with a phrase that is familiar to most, like “last will and testament,” few people besides lawyers have ever considered what a “testament” might be.
Of necessity, the lawyer often has the role of helping define the problem, outlining a possible solution or approach and then delivering the appropriate legal services. The client must rely on the lawyer and trust the lawyer’s judgment. Maintaining a relationship of trust is very important.
Both legal professionals and medical professionals now deal with different consumer expectations today. Let’s look at something as simple as an office visit.
Decades ago, it was common to arrive at the doctor’s office at the appointed time to find a waiting room full of patients. One might wait a long time before getting to see the doctor. This state of affairs was passively accepted by patients. Doctors, after all, were very important people.
Lawyers sometimes had full waiting rooms and extended waits, but that was more common for the lawyers serving individual clients than for the large law firms serving corporate America. Bankers and corporate officers, after all, were very important people.
Today, when one arrives for a doctor’s appointment one rarely experiences a long wait. Many patients would walk out before they would wait an extended period for a doctor and might even decide to change doctors if they were treated that way. Today we are all busy people with a lot of items on our personal schedules.
For today’s lawyers, there is another risk besides simply losing the client if they were offended by the lawyer’s tardiness. The client might not terminate the lawyer in the middle of a representation, but the client may perceive the waiting time as disrespectful, which could damage the client’s trust in the lawyer. Since the lawyer and client often have many decisions to make during the course of representation, this lack of trust may have many negative consequences.
We have often heard that failure to return client phone calls is the number one complaint that is made about lawyers. Communication is addressed in Rule 1.4 Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct. Comment 4 was amended by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2016 to expand the reference that phone calls should be promptly returned or acknowledged with other forms of communication. Comment 4 now provides:
 A lawyer’s regular communication with clients will minimize the occasions on which a client will need to request information concerning the representation. When a client makes a reasonable request for information, however, paragraph (a)(4) requires prompt compliance with the request, or if a prompt response is not feasible, that the lawyer, or a member of the lawyer’s staff, acknowledge receipt of the request and advise the client when a response may be expected. A lawyer should promptly respond to or acknowledge client communications.
There can be a major difference in perception between the lawyer and client on this simple situation. The consumer client is used to friends and family promptly returning personal phone calls while a lawyer may have court hearings, depositions or deadlines on other matters that keep a lawyer from returning calls as promptly as the lawyer might like. This is one reason why having a policy about how promptly phone calls are returned and to explain to a new client why this is a particular challenge for lawyers and set the client’s expectations that a non emergency call will be returned within a certain time frame. That is also the time to explain that some of the many communication channels are not appropriate and some “inboxes” may not be regularly monitored by the firm. Just because a new client was attracted to the firm by its Facebook page does not mean they should communicate to the law firm via Facebook Messenger.
As I have mentioned before, client portals should be explained to the client as a 24-hour client service that allows the client to review documents at their convenience and leave secure messages, but giving the client handouts during or after office visits is another important service satisfaction plan.
Perhaps the most important thing about client satisfaction is to remember that the client’s perception of legal representation service quality may differ from yours. You cannot really judge what it is like to be a client. This is why obtaining some form of post-representation feedback is very important.
Today, many law firms use an online tool to survey clients like Survey Monkey, which has affordable pricing. Couch any survey questions to obtain feedback. Don’t just ask, “Did we do anything wrong?” People may be too polite or uncomfortable to say. Ask, “What is one thing we could have done better?”
Corporate America invests heavily in obtaining customer feedback. How many times have you been handed a receipt and been told there is a link on the receipt where you can be entered to win a free gift card? Law firms and lawyers should seek feedback as well.
Successful law firms want to have “clients for life” who return for future services and refer others, so it is more important than ever to “keep the customer satisfied.”
Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program Director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 1-800-522-8065 or jimC(at)OKbar.org. It's a free member benefit!
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal
-- April, 2018 -- Vol. 89, No. 10