How to Get the Most from Law Firm Client Surveys

OK. Your firm’s finished its client survey. The results are in, the skeptics are mollified and the practice managers are ready to follow up. What’s next?

Client surveys have become increasingly popular among law firms. And with good reason. Properly designed, client surveys can help the firm in:

  • Evaluating clients' level of satisfaction with the firm to prevent potential erosion or loss of business to competitors
  • Identifying additional services -- including non-legal services -- that clients might expect from the firm
  • Recognizing potential cross-selling opportunities
  • Pinpointing geographic markets or industry categories that are currently not being serviced by the firm
  • Understanding how clients make decisions, and who makes them within their organizations
  • Finding out competitors' strengths and weaknesses

 

Client surveys can help law firms meet their strategic business and marketing objectives by evaluating these critical issues, among others. For most firms, information from clients can provide the platform for a formal strategic planning or business development program.

Importance of Client Survey

Although the benefits of conducting a client survey may be clear to the firm, how important are these surveys to clients?

In February 1998, Altman Weil completed its fourth biannual opinion study among corporate counsel to answer this question. The study was designed to address law firms' increasing interest in improving relationships with their clients. The results of the study, conducted among Fortune 500 corporate counsel with a 20% response rate, showed that:

  • Over 78% of respondents believe that satisfaction surveys are "critical" or "important" for an ongoing relationship.
  • More than 90% of respondents said that private law firms should conduct formal surveys regularly to assess their clients' satisfaction. Only 8% thought firms should not conduct such surveys.
  • Thirty-five percent of counsel have never been surveyed by their outside firms.
  • Over half of counsel feel that client satisfaction surveys should be conducted annually or more often. Thirty-six percent (36%) felt they should be conducted every two years.
  • Most corporate counsel feel that surveys provide the opportunity to: "point out problems to the firm," "candidly discuss fees, costs or other concerns," "identify new ways (staffing, alternative billing, etc.) that the firm can work with (the client)," and "reinforce firm strengths." In addition, many thought surveys were an appropriate forum to "identify areas of future legal need."
  • Of the 65% of respondents, who have been surveyed by their law firms, 52% received written questionnaires, 32% were interviewed by telephone and 16% were interviewed in person. Written and telephone surveys were most often conducted by outside consultants; personal interviews were usually conducted by responsible partners and/or outside consultants and, less frequently, by the practice group leader or marketing director.

 

Many firms have found that a client survey can pay for itself just by retaining or enhancing one client relationship. In fact, unlike most other strategic or marketing vehicles, there is virtually no downside risk to the client survey, as long as the firm responds quickly to issues that clients raise. But make no mistake: conducting a client survey and not following up is worse than not conducting the survey at all. By mailing, telephoning or meeting with clients to gather their opinions, your firm has made a promise to clients to enhance its level of service delivery. Clients to who the firm has not responded will wonder why they went through the effort—and may vote with their feet, eventually giving their business to a more responsive firm.

Getting the Most from Your Survey

Altman Weil's experience has shown that some firms have not maximized the value of their client survey. Much more than just a research instrument, a client survey can:

1. Broaden the firm’s reach. Client surveys can help update the firm’s database and mailing list. Mailings to client decision-makers require participation from responsible attorneys to make the list current--and this can be the basis for a marketing database if the firm doesn’t have one already. Enriched with additional client information, the marketing database can help improve regular communications with clients, simplify cross selling and provide the impetus for attorney memberships in important organizations with client representation.

To get the most from the survey, match the firm’s marketing and/or financial database, mailing list and list of respondents to assure that you have heard from all clients who know the firm and can provide valid opinions. Call non-respondents back and ask them to respond, furnishing a second survey instrument if necessary. Ask clients to waive the confidentiality of the survey if the haven’t done so already. Most will if asked, especially if they are told that the firm will respond directly to issues the client may have raised in their survey. Make sure that billing attorneys -- those with client responsibility -- follow up to client problems and opportunities by meeting directly with those clients who waived confidentiality. Create a monitoring system for this: some attorneys will follow-up diligently, others won’t and will need practice manager or management committee oversight.

2. Six words: follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. In the classic 1940s film on advertising, The Hucksters, Sidney Greenstreet lectured Clark Gable on the best way for Adolphe Menjou’s agency to sell soap to consumers: "You’ve got to irritate them, irritate them, irritate them." While clients don’t consider surveys an irritation -- in fact, response rates keep going up -- they will if the firm doesn’t follow-up.

Conducting the survey is just the beginning. Clients want to know that their opinions have been noted -- and that requires follow-up. Altman Weil's client surveys include an option for the respondent to waive confidentiality upon completion of the instrument. This encourages attorneys to meet with their clients in-person to review potential opportunities and problem areas. To give clients this option, the firm needs to let clients send their surveys to a neutral third party for tabulation. This can be a consultant, research house or the firm’s accountants. Without this option, response rates will be lower and the opportunities to learn more from the survey will be reduced.

3. Really cross-sell the firm. We all know that cross selling is difficult at best. Lawyers don’t know their partners or their practices, the firm has compensation disincentives to cross selling, clients are already happy with their other firms—the list goes on. But mailed client surveys can change cross selling from guesswork to specifics. Just by listing the firm's practices in the survey, clients are exposed to the entire array of services available from the firm. In fact, clients are often more aware of services through a survey than through brochures, a website or other marketing vehicles.

Make sure your survey lists the firm’s practice areas -- but resist the temptation to list every type of matter the firm can handle. Fifteen practices is just about the maximum list before the respondent’s attention begins to wander and response rates decline. Then ask which practices the client already uses your firm (you may not know this -- or clients may have interesting perceptions), uses other firms or could use your firm but currently isn’t. PS: Don’t ask which practices clients could use if the firm offered them. Hypotheticals are best left for a focus group situation.

When the survey results are tabulated, prepare a matrix showing the responses of all clients who waived confidentiality. Review the list with the firm’s practice group leaders and marketing partner. Give each billing attorney the matrix, which should contain a column for follow-up interview and another column for action taken. Once again, this will need oversight by practice managers and/or firm management to assure the necessary steps are taken.

4. Slice and dice. Client surveys are typically tabulated to show averages and ranges. Some surveys, if conducted by a consultant or outside research firm with experience in law firm client surveys, can compare averages to a set of benchmarks, examining how your firm performed against others. For example, it might be useful to know that 65% of clients were completely satisfied with your firm -- in fact, many of the firm’s attorneys would be quite pleased with this result -- but benchmarking could show that your firm is performing at 10% less than the average and that strategies need to be developed immediately to address the situation.

Your firm should also consider the value of cross-tabulations, which are means of examining the tabulated data by various categories. Cross tabulations can be done by client size or type of business, by fee contribution over a period of time and/or by geography. When cross-tabs are done by client size, attorneys are often surprised to learn that larger clients are more fee-sensitive than smaller clients are, simply because larger clients often have more choices and have more exposure to alternative billing.

If tabulations are conducted with correct client codes from the firm database, cross-tabs should be relatively simple, inexpensive and fast. It’s easier to set categories up front than later. Make sure that you know which cross-tabs the firm would value before the mailing list is completed.

Some cross-tab categories can be dangerous. If the firm’s attorneys would like to review client satisfaction with specific practice groups or offices, your radar should be set to red alert. Clients will never be equally satisfied with an M&A and a bankruptcy practice, for example, and few clients are ever completely satisfied with a family practice. These differences are usually accommodated by the firm on a regular basis, but can be misinterpreted when seen in stark data comparisons. It’s also difficult to compare a full-service headquarters office with a three-lawyer outpost. A more valuable form of statistical analysis, using chi-square methodology, can be performed to identify "drivers" of satisfaction by practice and/or office, rather than comparisons among these groups. In every case, however, you must have "cells" with sufficient numbers of respondents to generate valid data.

5. Ask again. Client opinions are not "frozen in time." For maximum value, client surveys should be repeated every two to three years to measure clients' perceptions of the firm and its progress. However, the firm can conduct face-to-face "spot checks" of its quality annually or at any time it thinks appropriate. Many firms have also begun to use brief end-of matter surveys, asking five to ten check-block questions that can be rapidly tabulated by client size, type of matter, geography, practice, office or time of year. Response rates to these surveys are generally very high and they can provide ongoing, immediate diagnostic value.

Since you asked, you might as well get the most from your survey. It’s one thing to have data sitting on a shelf and quite another to wring every last bit of value from the survey. Through proper design and follow-up, and with little additional effort, the client survey can bring additional value to the law firm and to the clients it serves.