Making the Most of Law Firm Client Surveys

Client surveys have become increasingly popular among law firms. And with good reason. Properly designed, client surveys can help the firm in meeting their strategic business and marketing objectives by evaluating a variety of critical issues. 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?

Altman Weil Pensa completed an 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 75% of respondents believe that satisfaction surveys are "critical" or "important" for an ongoing relationship.
  • More than 85% 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.
  • Forty 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, 40% thought surveys were an appropriate forum to "identify areas of future legal need."
  • Of the 60% of respondents, who have been surveyed by their law firms, 48% received written questionnaires, 34% 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.

 

Benefits

Although many counsel have not yet been surveyed by their law firms, the practice is growing in stature among law departments, the bar and allied professional organizations. Because clients are vitally interested in the services their law firm provides, response rates to surveys are consistently high. Moreover, client surveys are relatively easy to administer and tabulate. As a result, the cost of monitoring client satisfaction through a survey is exceptionally low. This is especially true when measured against the enormous benefits of improving client relations and increasing revenue from the firm's current client base. 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.

Added Value

However, Altman Weil Pensa'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. Update and upgrade the firm's client database. 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. Enriched with additional client information, the marketing data base can help improve regular communications with clients, simplify cross-selling and provide the impetus for attorney memberships in important organizations with client representation.

2. Help market new services. 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 or other marketing vehicles. It is critical, then, to list services already provided and those that may be provided in the future under a "would consider using" category.

3. Provide a vehicle for face-to-face communications. Altman Weil Pensa'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.

4. Initiate ongoing evaluation of the firm's quality and service delivery. 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.

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.

Survey Techniques

Although many survey techniques are available, most firms use written surveys to evaluate clients' level of satisfaction, identify additional services that clients might expect from the firm, recognize potential cross-selling opportunities, assess partner capabilities and maximize referral sources. And with good reason: written surveys are easily administered, inexpensive, quickly tabulated, reliable and provide valid results. With written client surveys, response rates are usually quite high; 30 to 50 percent returns are common for well-designed survey instruments. What's more, written surveys provide milestones for the firm that allows progress to be measured two or three years later.

While the written survey offers significant benefits, other survey methods offer the firm an opportunity to assess opinions face-to-face with influentials inside or outside the firm. These allow the firm to:

  • Meet directly with key sources, allowing the firm's attorneys to interact with respondents and underscore the importance of the relationship;
  • Ask probing or follow-up questions that may be especially important to the firm and the respondent; and
  • Test hypotheses or "what if's..." in a controlled environment.

 

Personal surveys are especially useful for understanding how decisions are made by clients, and who makes them within their organizations; finding new geographic markets, practice areas or industry categories; or pinpointing competitors' strengths and weaknesses. Key issues that are often best evaluated by personal surveys include:

  • How satisfied are clients with the firm--and with other firms?
  • What factors trigger referrals to the firm? Who makes the decision?
  • How important are conflict of interest issues, geographic considerations, specialized practice area expertise, familiarity with local jurisdiction and customs, record of success and prominence in the field, rates and billing procedures, personal chemistry and/or reputation of individual attorney, historical relationships and lowest-cost provider in terms of client selection, retention and growth?
  • What role does a law firm's marketing effort play in the client's selection of an outside firm? Or do clients only switch when they perceive a change in the firm's overall quality?
  • What is the "image" of the firm?
  • How important is quality in the hiring and retention of a law firm?
  • Are there practice areas that are likely to grow due to increased need for the firm services? Are there areas that are likely to shrink?

 

Personal surveys, which typically have a smaller survey base, are frequently less quantifiable than written surveys. In other words, they are statistically less significant, harder to "prove" and more difficult to repeat. These can be vitally important factors when considering the design and application of a survey for attorneys, who are often skeptical of anything less than hard data and facts. However, if the firm wants to measure the subjective or future reasons why clients hire and fire, why attorneys thrive or fail, or why markets open or close, a personal survey can be the more productive choice.

Methodologies

Various methodologies are employed to find answers to these and other questions. Once the firm has completed the objectives of the survey and how the data is to be used, one or more of the following techniques may be used, often in combination with a written survey:

Focus Groups: Originally developed to test the market acceptance of consumer products or marketing campaigns still in the developmental stage, focus groups are rapidly finding acceptance among law firms. Typically, focus groups consist of a panel of six to twelve clients, potential clients or attorneys who share a common interest. The reasons for the meeting are revealed to the group; however, the issues to be discussed and tested may or may not be specifically identified until the end of the session. Focus groups usually last from one to two hours, depending upon the productivity of the group and the ambitiousness of the agenda.

Focus groups are often held in a facility built for the purpose, especially if the sponsoring law firm prefers to remain anonymous. A two-way mirror allows attorneys to view the session without being observed themselves, and video and audio recording equipment is frequently employed. Attorneys always play an active part of the process by developing objectives, observing participants' reactions to issues and acting upon recommendations.

A moderator skilled in leading group discussions works from an agenda that allows him or her to identify issues and to propose resolutions. Ideally, the group will attain consensus in many areas, but the moderator should be allowed to explore additional avenues for consideration by the firm. Although attorneys are often excellent presenters, it takes a skilled, experienced moderator to direct discussions away from the self-appointed spokespersons in the group, to touch upon all the issues and to hear from all the participants. In addition, moderators can be expected to provide a candid, objective written report summarizing their findings and comparing results to similar studies.

Focus groups are relatively inexpensive. Costs include the facility, meal(s), taping, an honorarium for participants, and consulting fees for the moderator. Focus groups are also fast. New markets, services, clients or other ideas can be tested within weeks of the development stage.

Client Panels: More and more law firms are inviting clients to personally participate in the development of the firm's strategic and marketing plans. Clients are often asked to be present at firm retreats or seminars, adding their voice to the proceedings and becoming actively involved in question and answer sessions. In these situations, teams of attorneys are asked to face panels of real or prospective clients, to compete for new business or to discuss what makes up quality service to retain business. In addition, firms have recently begun to hold "reverse seminars," asking clients to have their key personnel hold seminars for the firm, usually in the firm's offices.

Several firms have employed an interactive computer client panel technique. This process allows them to ask identical questions among clients and attorneys, which are immediately tabulated by the computer. Client and attorney responses are then video-projected onto a large screen, showing similarities -- or differences -- in opinion. The results are often revealing, and the presence of clients allows for probing questions among clients.

Client panels can be even more timely and inexpensive than focus groups. However, the firm needs to guard against potential conflicts that may exist among clients. Again, a skilled moderator working with a prepared agenda should be used to focus discussions and provide a report on the proceedings.

Personal Interviews: For years, firms have interviewed their clients on an irregular basis. Many are now meeting with clients at least yearly to measure current satisfaction and inclination to use the firm for additional services. Interviews usually last one hour or more and are conducted in the clients' office. Firms also conduct personal interviews of referral sources, potential clients and the firm's own partners and associates.

To allow comparisons, personal interviews should be conducted after the respondent submits a written survey to the firm, or the interviewer should follow a prepared script. Many firms use one partner to interview the clients of another partner to gather more candid comments. Consultants and trained interviewers bring more candor and objectivity into the interviewing and reporting process, but with the potential tradeoff of familiarizing clients with members of the firm. Some firms use a mix of consultants and partners to conduct personal interviews.

Whether insiders or outsiders are used, respondents should be assured of complete confidentiality, with the opportunity to waive confidentiality if they wish. Our studies show that approximately half of all respondents waive confidentiality, which allows the firm to follow-up directly with clients to resolve issues and develop opportunities.

Summary

Client surveys are a significant research tool, with several distinct advantages: they are usually fast and inexpensive, and provide the opportunity to hear from clients, prospects, referral sources and new markets on a face-to-face basis. In addition, they can show a willingness to be innovative -- an important consideration among clients and attorneys alike.

For the firm that is prepared to act upon the information that it receives, the survey is one of the most powerful weapons available in the client retention battle.