Making the Most of Law Firm Client Surveys

There is good reason why client surveys have become increasingly popular among law firms. Properly designed, client surveys can help a firm meet 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.

Of course, the impact and success of a client survey depend on how well it is done. An ineffective client satisfaction survey is, at best, just another ignored email. At worst, it can add to the negative experience of a dissatisfied client.

This article discusses the dos and don'ts of client satisfaction surveys and why it is beneficial to take the time to do it right.

The Importance of Client Surveys for Law Firms

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

The data shows that clients do want a voice to improve their experience with your law firm:

  • Since 2020, nearly half of all businesses have said that customer experience, rather than price or quality, was their first priority. This is because customer experience is the most likely indicator of repeat clients or a referral. Put simply, clients want a good experience, and directly asking them about it is the surest way to know where you can improve.
  • Most clients won't bother to proactively reach out with a complaint or suggestion for improvement (up to 96% of customers don't take the time). A survey gives them the opportunity to provide feedback without them needing to spend a lot of time or effort to do so.
  • Customer reviews really do matter. According to Zendesk, up to 90% of potential customers said they look to online reviews and information to influence their buying decisions. With customer satisfaction surveys, you are able to seamlessly get reviews, positive testimonials, and "5-star" service reviews for people browsing online.

However, over-surveying your clients is also a problem. The ideal survey occurs while the client's experience is still fresh, but complete (don't send one early) and takes very little time to complete (3-5 minutes). Like everything, a survey is a continuation of the client's customer experience. So it should be as easy and painless as possible.

Benefits of Client Surveys

Law firms have an edge in getting survey responses because clients are vitally interested in the services their law firm provides. Response rates to law firm 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 your 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 and you respect their time and privacy.

Added Value

Despite its low cost, some firms have not maximized the value of their client survey. Much more than just a research instrument, a client survey can:

  • 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 database can help improve regular communications with clients, simplify cross-selling and provide the impetus for attorney memberships in important organizations with client representation. Note that privacy is important to clients, however, so this should be done carefully to respect the privacy rights of your clients.
  • 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. In a survey, you can list services already provided and those that may be provided in the future under a "would consider using" category.
  • Provide a vehicle for face-to-face communications. You may want to include an option for the respondent to waive confidentiality upon completion of the instrument if they want to reach out to you directly.
  • 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, or after the completion of any legal matter, 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. Written surveys are easily administered, inexpensive, quickly tabulated, reliable, and provide valid results. 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. 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. 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 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, particularly 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 them 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.

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.

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