Today we have a column by my partner in Adam Smith, Esq., Janet Stanton.
Before joining Adam Smith, Esq., Janet had years of experience leading highly profitable teams of professionals at a global communications agency for clients such as Pfizer and the US Department of Defense. For the last several years of her tenure at that agency, she ran the largest single business unit, generating $25-million in annual revenue. Immediately before joining Adam Smith, Esq,, she was Director, Client Relationship Program at Orrick, which she joined as the firm expanded a pilot initiative into a firm-wide priority.
A Vassar College graduate, Janet is based in New York City.
At the foundation of effective client relationship programs at law firms is a fundamental conundrum – which may help explain why Law Land is behind other high-end professional service industries in embracing client relationship efforts.
It goes something like this – first, lawyers, as a rule, tend to avoid asking questions they don’t already know the answers to. Pair this proclivity with perhaps the most essential component of nurturing long-term, mutually satisfying relationships – that is – asking clients questions. Questions about their business, their industry, their competition, what keeps them up at night – and the really scary question – “How are we doing?”
Get over it.
You simply cannot build trust nor be able to provide the added-value services that will distinguish your firm from your competition unless you understand your client’s business needs, what he or she values, worries about or must anticipate, etc., etc. And, that scary part again – what is his or her view of your firm’s performance and contribution. You must ask to find out these things.
The flip side of asking is assuming. Adopting unspoken assumptions inevitably leads to much more random results and inefficiencies of execution – as effort is often wasted on activities that are neither needed nor valued. Further, on a personal level, acting on assumptions can be confusing, off-putting or downright insulting to your clients; antithetical to building strong relationships and being viewed as a welcome advisor.
The power of asking was demonstrated in a completely different environment than the legal profession. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Phred Dvorak described how Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center was able to dramatically improve care to patients receiving chemotherapy by better understanding the real concerns of their patients.
Sloan Kettering had assumed patients disliked long waits to receive treatment and had undertaken changes to mitigate waiting times, including making staffing changes and resource re-allocations. At the suggestion of a board member, they hired IDEO, Inc., a design firm based in Palo Alto. IDEO is known as one of the most innovative industrial design firms, and has worked with Apple, Mattel and Procter & Gamble, among many others.
I like the point about “you can hire someone to ask for you.” I’ve struggled to get meaningful feedback from clients; this article and other recent material on the same subject show I must just not be doing it right. So I can either try to learn more to do it better, or hire the expertise – and I think a third party asking probably has a lot of advantages.
Hi Bob –
You raise an interesting point; lawyers seem to think they are or should be good at everything. When something is outside your core competency – hire (or “rent”) someone with that capability. That’s what other types of companies do.
I think lawyers are scared that asking a question shows they are do not understand a client’s business; meaning the client instantly thinks ‘this guy doesnt have any idea’. Hence achieving the exact opposite to what is intended.
Sometimes the question is fine – the client doesnt know the answer or doesnt expect you to know. Sometimes the client does expect you to know.
I’m not just talking technical language or subject specific knowledge (eg acronyms or whatever); even general business arrangements or processes or policies can be something you are expected to know before you get the business (but, of course, can’t know until you get the business….).
Hi Chris –
Thanks for your note. I think clients would expect their lawyers to be very familiar with publicly available information or what might be unearthed by some basic business/market/industry intelligence gathering. Outside counsel would not be expected to know specifics of an issue – or the client’s desired outcome on a matter. Too often lawyers assume what the client’s goals are – which can be really dangerous to the relationship.