Law firms learn what their clients expect and how they perceive the quality of service by asking them. With this knowledge, firms can build or maintain a reputation for excellence and keep a competitive advantage.
There's a lot of information available on how to develop and conduct client surveys. However, less is available on how the data collected can be elicited and acted upon. To gather useful information, firm management must determine what it wants to learn from a survey; what it will do with the information; and what it will communicate to clients following its completion.
Obtaining Client Feedback
Depending on the objective, firms have many options to find out what clients want and how they view the quality of service. A firm can gather opinions from a certain group (major or key clients), clients within a particular industry, or from a random sample drawn from its entire client base.
A telephone survey from a random sample of the clients, and interviews with key clients allow administrative control that enables interviewers to follow up on unclear responses. Firms can also oversample client segments to ensure sufficient data is obtained from them.
Clients' perceptions of quality service are shaped by their interactions with firm members and staff. Data obtained can reveal the level of importance clients attach to specific attributes when working with a law firm; how respondents rate the firm's performance in each area; and their concerns/reasons for satisfaction.
Drawing from clients' responses to closed-ended questions, ratings and examples they offer, firms can identify where improvements need to be developed. For example, the following is one line of questioning:
Using a scale of zero to 10 (10 is excellent and 0 is poor), how would you rate the firm in terms of [list service attribute categories below]?
Poor Excellent DK/NS
A. [attribute] 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
B. [attribute] 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
C. [attribute] 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
How, specifically, could the firm improve its service to you?
Specific aspects of service that please clients can be discussed to ensure consistent attention is given to maintaining those practices.
When asked about weaknesses, client concerns frequently center on communication practices. Many respondents give specific examples of how to improve rapport by discussing staffing, discussing fee arrangements and bills, and providing timely access to lawyers.
What Surveys Can Reveal
Firms can obtain important data by asking how they can improve service to the client. Even clients who rate the firm as excellent often readily offer suggestions for improvement.
Perceptions concerning fees and billing practices can be elicited through a combination of questions. The best responses can be gleaned from questions like: "In thinking about the cost of legal services provided by the firm, do you consider them to be ...?" [followed by four possible responses in multiple choice format]. Clients may give specific criticisms and suggestions for improvements about fees and billing practices. For example, one client may respond, "Please look at your fee structure for hearings, compared with preparation for the hearing and returning phone calls. We want to discuss a sliding scale based on importance of work in order to reduce fees for some tasks that are too high."
Surveys can show where particular attitudes about service vary markedly among various types and sizes of client organizations. They can also reveal how views differ by the length of time the client has been with the lawyer and firm. Find these statistics by conducting a "cross-tabulation analysis"; that is, compare answers given by similar respondents.
For example, the survey can draw attention to different perceptions held by people who have used the firm less than two years and those who have a longer relationship with the firm. Often new clients will suggest communication practices that would enhance their comfort level and understanding of fee arrangements and billing practices.
The firm also can ask how likely the client is to use the firm in the future, considering any future needs, and, for which types of legal services. For clients who respond that they are hesitant to use the firm in the future, follow-up questions would shed light on their reasoning. Ask questions in which respondents rate the practice areas they have used most.
Using Information Gleaned from the Survey
Survey findings can guide the firm team to procedures that directly impact clients, either adding value or creating problems in service delivery.
Upon selecting the procedures to study, the survey team can diagram the steps already in place and assess the benefits and costs to the client and the firm. If the procedure is adversely affecting the client's experience, the team can begin determining what types of adjustments should be made. Or, if the process has been producing added value, the team can develop options for incorporating the value-added components into other processes.
Mistakes To Avoid
Firms often want to include too many questions in surveys. Mailed questionnaires that take no longer than 10 minutes to complete, and telephone surveys limited to 10 to 12 minutes elicit the best response.
Another stumbling block firms face frequently is that their objectives are too broad. Some, for example, initially desire to obtain data that can be used to evaluate performance of individual attorneys in addition to learning about client perceptions and expectations.
Some surveys fail to include information about a respondent's profile. These data are valuable in determining where and to what extent similar and divergent attitudes and expectations exist among categories of clients. Other identifying data can be confirmed by the respondent (i.e., position/title, length of time the person and company have used the firm's services).
Some firms devote insufficient attention to clarifying and refining objectives for the survey. Clarifying the purpose narrows the sample field for the survey, hones the questions, and ensures the survey method used supports the need. For example, one segment of the client base might need to be oversampled because, without oversampling, the number of respondents who represent a group of similar clients might be too limited to give accurate and usable figures.
At this stage it is also necessary to evaluate the firm's capabilities for generating a usable list of clients for the sampling. The appropriate contact person at each client organization must be identified. Keep in mind this person is often someone other than the one to whom bills are sent.
Corporate and Government Legal Departments
Law departments also survey the perceptions and anticipated needs of their internal clients. They complete these surveys to:
- Make informed strategic planning decisions.
- Formulate and implement policies, procedures and programs designed to correct weaknesses in service and to maintain and build successful communication practices.
- Anticipate shifting needs for and uses of outside counsel.
- Identify primary reasons non-clients cite for not using the legal department.
- Identify emerging and future opportunities that will allow the legal department to respond effectively.
- Refer to survey findings in legal department communications to other departments of the company.
- Demonstrate interest in meeting client needs.
The client base survey is frequently coupled with individual interviews of key clients and interviews of legal department lawyers and staff.
The client service survey can go a long way to help firms determine how to differentiate their service from competitors. The injection of client feedback coupled with internal scrutiny is the first step toward a meaningful process for building and maintaining service that clients find valuable.