Human Nature vs. Client Nurturing: Eight Ways to Enhance Client Feedback Programs with Our Human Imperfections in Mind
With client service being top of mind for most law firms, it begs the question: how well do attorneys really understand their client relationships? Key relationship partners should have an in-depth understanding of their client’s satisfaction, their client’s perception of them and of the firm, and the likelihood of that client sticking around or going elsewhere for legal services.
It may seem intuitive, but it’s easier said than done. Because the delivery of legal services is a tenuous coupling of human nature and technical expertise, the room for error and inconsistency is vast. While law firms can issue policies and client service standards to guide attorneys on how to treat clients, there is no controlling for attorneys’ (or their clients’) varying personalities. And yet, how well personalities mesh – or don’t – is a key factor in the evaluation of client experience.
As humans, we sometimes misinterpret communications, make assumptions, get overly confident (or lack confidence altogether), and can view a situation differently based solely on our innate optimistic or pessimistic tendencies. To layer it on, humans have varying degrees of emotional intelligence, listening ability, and temperaments that range from submissive to confrontational and everything in between. Oh, and let’s not forget self-awareness; sometimes we are blissfully unaware of how our words and actions impact others.
Client feedback programs were created to try to cut through the noise and confusion of this very human behavior in order to arm attorneys and law firms with valuable and previously-unknown insights into their client relationships. But, no matter how hard we work to avoid or eliminate our human tendencies, there’s no way to do it with 100% success. So I believe that it makes more sense to simply understand the human elements at play when gaining and acting on client feedback and fold them into our process.
With our human imperfections in mind, here are eight opportunities to enhance client feedback programs by making it easier for clients to provide authentic feedback, and easier for attorneys to ask for and act on that feedback.
- Understand interview bias in order to avoid it
Client interviews can be a great tool for analyzing the state of client relationships, building good will, and identifying areas for law firms to improve in order to generate or retain client loyalty. However, they can also be flawed due to the fact that, as humans, we are subject to what researchers call “interviewer bias.” Interviewer bias studies have demonstrated that our propensity to listen through our own filtered perceptions, coupled with our desire to fill the silence and to please others, can generate inadequate or misleading feedback. Learning more about what contributes to interviewer bias is the most important first step towards keeping it out of your client interview process.
- Choose your interviewer wisely
It takes a lot to make a great interviewer. Harvard researchers have identified 12 necessary traits for interviewers to possess in order to deliver an effective interview and obtain unbiased information – 12! Not to mention interviewers should exhibit the proper social skills of warmth and attentiveness, and should know when to appropriately inject humor and empathy into the conversation.
Further, interviewers need to have a keen understanding that their role in the client interview process is to seek and understand, not judge, defend or sell.
While it may seem like a lot to ask for in one person, there are undoubtedly professionals that meet these criteria and are fully capable of conducting successful client interviews. Most often, when law firms look in-house to pinpoint an effective interviewer, they need not look much further than their CMO or COO.
- Diminish bias by keeping pre-interview conversations objective
Prior to actually speaking with a client, it is common for interviewers to first have a conversation with the client’s relationship partner in order to glean a general sense of the existing relationship, any cross-selling potential, and potential “land mine” topics. This is standard for many firms – and it also may be harmful.
Given this type of information, interviewers may formulate their own agendas before they meet the client, which automatically subjects the interview to a high level of bias.
While there are certain facts every interviewer needs to be equipped with before interacting with clients, interviewers should consider steering clear of subjective questions with relationship partners during their pre-interviews. The one exception to this is, “Are you aware if this client is upset with you or the Firm, and why?”
(This is also a good place to note that, for a troubled attorney-client dynamic, interviews alone cannot save relationships. Upset clients always deserve honest conversations with their relationship partners or a client service professional to address serious issues head-on.)
- Diversify your feedback program with online surveys
The fact that online surveys are void of human interaction might make them seem counterintuitive as a relationship-building tool. However, used correctly, they can be just as – or even more – effective as traditional, in-person interviews.
Because online surveys are designed to be straightforward, with little to no ambiguity, they are great at reducing the “gray areas” often encountered during their in-person counterparts. Digital, on-demand resources also cater perfectly to busy executives who can respond at their leisure – including while traveling – and to individuals who may feel more comfortable delivering honest (read: critical) feedback from behind the “shield” of their computer screen.
Further, online surveys can allow firms to reach a broader segment of their client base more frequently and with greater efficiency, thereby empowering relationship partners by providing them with a higher volume of data at their fingertips.
- Never miss an opportunity to uncover misalignments
Once you have client data in hand, now it’s time to go back to the relationship partner for the subjective conversation you worked so hard to avoid in #3. Why? Before revealing a client’s feedback to their attorney, it’s important to give that attorney the opportunity to self-assess the relationship in order to uncover misalignments.
The attorney should take the exact same questionnaire that the client completed, answering the same way they think the client responded. The interviewer can then compare the data side-by-side, calling out blind spots and uncovering misperceptions that exist in the relationship. This is never done to guilt or shame the attorney, but to help the attorney grow and, ultimately, retain or expand their entire book of business by becoming more aware of their own service strengths and weaknesses.
In order to gain momentum with this process, you must keep self-assessments confidential and only share with the participating attorney.
- Understand the roadblocks to constructive feedback
If you are reading this article, it means you have some level of interest in lawyers and the legal profession. You’ll be happy to know that numerous academics and even psychologists also find lawyers interesting; so much so that they’ve conducted evaluations and studies over the years to examine what makes lawyers unique. Such studies specifically call out the personality traits lawyers tend to possess that, while helpful in becoming impressive technical experts, may make some lawyers resistant to constructive feedback and implementing change.
For your average professional, receiving constructive feedback is often uncomfortable. For attorneys, it can be downright painful and personally offensive. Because attorneys often exhibit low levels of empathy and resiliency and high levels of skepticism, they may find it hard to openly receive, understand, and act on client feedback.
If you can help your attorneys do anything, help change their mindset regarding constructive feedback. The beauty of receiving such feedback means that the client cared enough to provide it. It also reinforces the fact that we’re only human and none of us is perfect. Finally, it gives your attorneys the ability to generate revenue and further cultivate existing relationships. And, as the studies suggest, if given the choice, attorneys will almost always prefer to focus on existing relationships rather than having to go through the process of initiating and developing new ones. Resolving issues with current clients should truly be the path of least resistance.
- Design follow-up action that doesn’t overwhelm
The process of giving or obtaining feedback can be overwhelming for anyone: it leaves us vulnerable, invites criticism, makes us confront that which we may have been avoiding, and it takes time.
We know clients are busy and demands on attorneys’ time are only growing. Beyond billable work, attorneys are still, by and large, responsible for a plethora of non-billable tasks. When you couple that fact with the uncomfortable nature of the process, it’s all but certain that post-feedback procrastination and missed opportunities will occur; or, worst of all – that no action will be taken in response to the client feedback received.
Because client feedback is an investment of time and resources, it’s imperative to make follow-up recommendations for attorneys that are succinct, achievable, and suitable for the client. When the feedback is positive, next steps are often as simple as expressing gratitude and, in most cases, developing plans to cross-serve the client and expand the relationship.
When the feedback leaves room for improvement, the best way to ensure the appropriate action takes place is for the attorney to have a post-feedback discussion with the client. This, while dreadful for most, is necessary. It gives the attorney the opportunity to thank the client, reiterate the feedback received, and most importantly, seek approval from the client on specific changes or new expectations to which the attorney is committing.
Providing attorneys with a solution to the negative feedback and the resources he or she needs to execute is imperative to ensuring this follow-up step takes place. This could mean drafting communication for your attorney to send to their client, coaching them on how to handle the post-feedback discussion, or perhaps educating them on how their assistant can help them stay organized and on top of case deadlines and client communication needs.
- Finally, always go for “wow.”
In the current legal services market, at a time when firms struggle to differentiate, never miss an opportunity to truly “wow” your clients and stand out from the crowd. This is the premise that should influence how and why you’re seeking out – and acting on – feedback from clients.
Are you building campaigns and experiences surrounding your client feedback programs that make your clients feel special? Are you following up with them in a way that makes them feel heard? (Hint: think about how you ask your clients to participate in your feedback programs, what their experience is like giving feedback, and how you express gratitude for their time investment in the process. I bet there is room to be creative, different, and better than your competition in all of these areas).
As the old adage goes, “To err is human.” This is true. But the second half of this saying, less often repeated is, “to forgive, divine.” While the driving goal of client feedback is to attempt to fix our human errors, and oftentimes, to avoid them in the first place, it’s important to remember that most feedback programs aren’t perfect, and neither are we. But by accounting for our human tendencies, and focusing on continuous process improvement, we’re showing up as the best version of ourselves for our clients – and really, who can ask for more than that?
Jennifer Carro is the Director of Client Experience & Business Strategy for Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, LLC, a corporate law firm in Northeast Ohio. Jen leads the firm’s client service, marketing and business development initiatives by focusing on helping attorneys cultivate relationships, exceed client expectations, and foster a culture of collaboration and service innovation. Jen also serves as chair for the Ohio Local Steering Committee of the Legal Marketing Association, facilitating educational and networking opportunities for the chapter’s 100+ members. She can be reached at [email protected].
About Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs:
Buckingham is a corporate law firm that counsels Middle Market executives and business leaders all over Ohio and beyond. With offices in Canton, Akron, and Cleveland, Buckingham offers clients Business Law Reimagined through sophisticated and practical legal services. Serving the region for over 100 years with nearly 70 attorneys, Buckingham’s mission is to deliver meaningful experiences through the practice of law, exceed expectations in terms of service, counsel and business sense, and to offer continuous value to the industries, communities and clients they serve. See all of our news and updates by visiting our website.