Client Conversations: How to Strengthen Relationships and Gain New Business

men meeting.jpgLawyers are always interested in getting more work and better work from their existing clients. If you ask a lawyer what his or her client really wants, the lawyer is likely to say “good legal work.” If you ask the client, you’ll get a far different answer. The client’s answer is what counts.

“To get more and better business from their clients, lawyers and law firms need to have ‘the conversation’ to find out what clients expect from the relationship,” said Nat Slavin, founder and partner at Wicker Park Group, which focuses on law firm client feedback interviews, client growth programs, and training and development. Slavin is the former publisher of Inside Counsel and a former president of LMA.

“Only about 10-15 percent of law firms are actually having these essential conversations with their clients. It is important to understand that these are not traditional ‘sales calls’ in which a lawyer’s primary concern is asking for new business — nor are they point-by-point surveys. They are structured, customized conversations in which a representative of the law firm skillfully probes to discover client needs, preferences and  opinions,” said Slavin. “Without directly asking for it, these conversations almost always generate new business.”

The Association of Corporate Counsel’s Value Challenge developed a “meet, talk, act” approach to effective client conversations: Meet with a  client face-to-face, talk to the client about problems and needs, and act by coming up with and implementing concrete ways to solve problems and meet needs.


What Clients Really Want

A client who has hired a lawyer as outside counsel assumes that the lawyer is qualified to do good legal work; otherwise, the lawyer would not have made the cut in the first place. Quoting a client, Slavin said: “Smart is what gets you in the door. How you manage the relationship is what keeps you inside.” The relationship is what builds loyalty.

“We have conducted more than 1,000 client interviews,” Slavin said. “As a result, I have a pretty good sense of what clients want. They want lawyers who can fix their problems. They want lawyers who can make their lives easier. They want lawyers with whom they can have a close and enjoyable personal relationship.”

In 2011, the AC conducted a survey of chief legal officers and general counsel. Forty-two percent came from private companies, 34 percent from public companies, and the rest from non-profits, subsidiaries of foreign companies, LLCs and other organizations.

Survey respondents look for good value for the money they spend, reasonable cost, transparency between the lawyer and the client, and understanding of issues facing the client and its industry.

The most pressing issues expressed by these CLOs are:

  • Keeping apprised of company issues with potential legal implications;
  • Reducing outside legal costs;
  • Dealing with too much work and too few resources;
  • Staying on top of developments in the law;
  • Communicating changes in the law to management; and
  • Demonstrating the value of the legal department to management.

The biggest challenges faced by CLOs include regulation/legislation, general economic outlook, growth, globalization, competition/maintaining market share, controlling risk, being sole risk manager, increasing litigation, lack of funding, health care reform, compliance, internal actions
with legal implications, quality of law firms, being spread too thin, need for a strategic business partner, and training and motivating a law department as well as the company’s executives.

Meeting Client Needs

Obviously, there are many ways in which a lawyer and law firm can address these concerns and make life easier for the CLOs with whom they work. The purpose of a client conversation is to uncover these concerns and come up with practical solutions that address them.

Communication between inside and outside counsel is a hot button for many CLOs. “One of the most common complaints we hear from clients is about unclear emails,” Slavin said. “Be specific in the message line. Keep the message succinct, with the main point upfront. After a chain of three emails, pick up the phone and speak with the client. Do not send an email at 2 a.m. It just makes the client nervous. Write it at 2 a.m., if you must, but send it in the morning.”

If your client prefers to communicate in person or by phone instead of email, respect those preferences. Make sure that a real, informed person answers your phone and that messages do not go to voicemail or to an uninformed switchboard.

“Cost of legal services is also obviously a big problem for CLOs,” Slavin said. “Prior to the recession and current economic pressures, in-house counsel was comfortable sending work to outside counsel. With current cost pressures, legal departments are forced to handle more of this work in-house. Competition for ‘outside’ work and pressure to control cost is extreme. When a client gets a series of monthly bills for $20,000, and the outside lawyer says that the next month will be more, and the bill shows up at $65,000, that is a massive failure to manage the client’s expectations and an equally massive disconnect in understanding the client’s budget. Without exception, CLOs hate surprises.”

Another common complaint is bills with small increments, like 30 or 40 minutes a day listed over several days for the same project. Clients want lawyers to be focused in their use of time. Understanding the preferences of individual clients is also essential. “I spoke with one new corporate  counsel who had been invited out by a client for an evening of steak, scotch and cigars,” said Slavin. “This approach had apparently worked well
with her predecessor. However, she was a vegetarian with a husband and a three-year-old waiting at home. She just wanted to be able to spend more time with her family! This was not the best way to build a relationship with her.”

Case Study: Leonard, Street and Deinard

Leonard, Street and Deinard is among Minnesota’s largest law firms, with 200 attorneys. Wicker Park Group worked with it on a highly successful “client conversation” program to retain and expand quality business. They developed tools and trained the firm’s trainers.

Forty-seven of the firm’s attorneys accepted an invitation to participate in the program. “A firm should start the program using the attorneys who are the most interested,” Slavin said. “In any group, there are 10 percent early adopters, 10 percent absolute naysayers, and 80 percent who will  wait and see. Positive results from a pilot project can be used to persuade the reluctant.”

Each attorney was asked to identify three to five high-value clients to visit face-toface within a 60-day timeframe, schedule the visit, prepare for the meeting, rehearse for the meeting, meet with the client, report the outcome of the meeting and follow up with the client. The lawyer making the appointment should be someone neutral, not the relationship lead.

The firm’s marketing department supported the volunteer attorneys with each step of the process.

“Support included creation of talking points to use in scheduling a conversation; development of best practices for conducting the conversation (including role play, practice dialogue and listening skills); and collection of primary (existing), secondary (competitive intelligence) and relationship (who knows whom) research to thoroughly educate the lawyer prior to the conversation,” said Slavin.

Support also included development of a tool for recording and reporting results of the conversations as well as a method of rewarding and recognizing successful efforts.

Conversations Lead to New Business

Each of the 47 lawyers was given a list of five customized questions around which to structure the conversation. The conversation should be all  about the client and not all about the law firm.

After 60 days, more than 100 client conversations had been completed, generating useful qualitative and quantitative data. The results were  shared with 17 client teams. The firm achieved 13 additional matters in the same practice area, 15 cross-selling opportunities and one significant  new business opportunity.

Based on feedback from clients, the law firm was able to:

  1. Engage in a training program with the client that enhanced visibility.
  2. Encourage the client to use the firm’s litigation management extranet in order to manage legal costs from multiple law firms.
  3. Help the client re-scope a fixed-fee arrangement in order to improve realization.
  4. Help the client draft an article for the AC on partnering on pro bono opportunities.
  5. Leverage client conversation into a plant tour, a meeting with the founders and a request for proposal for a broad range of legal services.

By developing a packaged training program and toolkit to prepare each attorney for the challenge, encouraging participation, and tracking feedback and results, attorneys at this firm gained great insights into their clients’ businesses, expanded contracts within the clients’ organizations, built goodwill and better relationships, and improved internal communication among lawyers and practice groups.

This article was originally featured in the July/August 2013 issue of Strategies.

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Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer at Constant Content Blog who works closely with lawyers, law firms, legal consultants and legal organizations.  She can be reached at 303/399-5041 or jeraasch@msn.com.

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