The Client Experience
Receiving exceptional service is always a memorable experience. It can make a person feel valued. And news of exceptional service spreads fast. It’s talked about to friends and family and even eulogized to strangers. It can transcend the ordinary and take on an almost mythical form. This is especially true when ordinary things are done in extraordinary ways.
Years ago, I had to fly to Bangkok on a business trip. After a long, trying taxi ride in rush-hour traffic, I finally checked into my hotel, tired and hungry. I dropped my luggage in the room and went down-stairs to get some dinner. An hour later, when I returned, I found my luggage neatly unpacked–shirts folded, pants hung up, ties carefully dispersed along the racks. Almost immediately, I began to relax. I involuntarily breathed a sigh of relief.
Then I looked into the bathroom and saw something I’ll never forget. The items from my overnight kit had been neatly arranged by the sink,?and someone had actually cleaned my hairbrush. All of the hair strands had been removed and the bristles were glistening. But the coup de grace was this: Resting in the center of the bristles was a beautiful white petal.
After more than ten years, I can still see this image. This one experience–this unexpected gesture that went beyond exceptional service–left me with a whole new understanding of what it means to put a client first.
When I returned home and people asked about Thailand, I invariably told them about that small white petal on my hairbrush. Today, when I think of great hotels, I think of the Hotel Oriental. It is the standard by which I judge all other hotels.
In the universe of companies, only a few consistently reach extraordinary levels of service. Studies have shown that companies that do reach such levels share certain fundamental values and organizational traits.
Marketing a Service
There is a fundamental distinction between marketing a product and marketing a service. Products are tangible. They either work as represented or they don’t. Products can be returned or exchanged. We can touch and feel a product before we decide to buy it; rarely is this the case with a service.
Services are meant to be experienced, not ordered from catalogs. Serv-ices are profoundly personal in nature and our response to them is often emotionally driven. A service relation-ship, especially a professional service relationship, challenges the provider to be an expert in serving people.
Think about the ways buyers perceive “value” generally. When we buy products, we rely mostly on objective criteria. For products like shampoo and stereos, determining objective value is fairly simple. A large bottle of shampoo delivers more product than a small one, so we are justified in paying more for the large one. A stereo system that has more features is said to contain more value than one that has fewer features. Product features, quality and quantity are all critical factors in the determination of value. Service, however, is far more nebulous–and is therefore much more challenging to define and measure.
Service Is a Process, Not an End
One reason service is so difficult to measure is because it’s so subjective. It is experiential–we can feel it and see it, but defining it is another matter. Perhaps it’s a little like what the Supreme Court wrote about pornography: It may be hard to define, but we know it when we see it.
Truly great firms–those with legendary status–are always striving to reach greater levels of service for their clients. Fundamental to such firms is the understanding that service is a never-ending process driven by a specific mind-set. These firms know that while they must always try to reach higher levels of service, they can never assume they have achieved the highest level. There is always a higher level to strive for, and standing still squelches the pursuit of excellence. Either a firm continues to reach for higher service levels or it has abandoned the pursuit. There is no middle ground.
Most firms revolve around the desires and needs of their partners. For service-driven firms, just the opposite is true–not because these firms have partners who enjoy a higher sense of purpose, but because they have a higher sense of business smarts. For them, everything revolves around the client. And as you might expect, the benefits have a way of coming back to the partners. Consistently delivering increasingly higher levels of service to clients builds the types of returns that keep a firm thriving.
There is no quick and easy recipe for becoming a service-driven firm. There is no secret formula for meeting–and exceeding–your clients’ needs. But one of the best ways to find out how your firm can provide exceptional service for your clients is, strangely enough, one of the most frequently ignored: listening to what your clients need–being client-centric instead of firm-centric.
You may be convinced that your best clients have been attracted by the stature of your firm–by its size or its range of specialties. But the truth is that it’s not what you think you’re offering that counts, but rather what the clients are experiencing that matters most.
The Emotional Side
Providing a renowned level of service to clients requires paying attention and being sensitive to the emotional side of legal trouble.
Lawyers who pay attention to clients’ subjective experiences are able to expand the scope of legal and practical options available to their clients, which can result in the lawyers becoming better problem solvers.
Old marketing models were based on a number of false assumptions about what influences people’s decisions. Now that we know more about how the mind works, we have a unique opportunity to apply this knowledge to the goal of meeting our clients’ real needs as opposed to the needs we merely assume they have.
In our legal training, we are taught the paramount importance of words and logic. Even in the emotional setting of trial, most skilled attorneys–while highly attuned to the emotional reactions of juries–ultimately almost always rely on the persuasive power of logic, words and reason to win their cases.
Today, neuroscience is providing important insights into the ways people interpret information and the degree to which “thinking” is used to influence our decisions. Lawyers’ emphasis on words is based largely on the false assumption that most of our thinking takes place in our conscious minds. In fact, recent brain science research reveals that just the opposite is true: As much as 95 percent of our thinking actually takes place at the subconscious level.
Our memories, associations and emotions occur just below the surface of our awareness. In response to stimuli, our minds go busily to work at a staggering speed, networking, sharing, distributing, connecting, shuffling and reshuffling memories, images and thoughts before the first words of reaction ever leave our lips. Ironically, the words we speak are literally an afterthought.
How can this knowledge be applied to the way we communicate and deal with our clients? We would like to assume that clients, for the most part, make decisions deliberately and rationally. That is, that they consciously contemplate the relative merits of a choice, assign a value to each criterion and then convert this information into what we call a judgment. We’d certainly like to assume that’s how we make decisions ourselves! But the fact is, most decisions are made at the intuitive, emotional level.
Whether responding to an argument in the courtroom or to a firm’s marketing campaign, even the most intelligent people process their decisions below the surface of their conscious mind. In reality, words and logic have more to do with justifying a decision than forming the basis of one.
Consider how clients choose law firms. They may think they were led by logic–going with “a big firm” or choosing on the basis of a lawyer’s “professional demeanor,” but they are actually using their intuition to make a highly subjective -decision.
When attorneys learn to think emotionally, they will find new ways to communicate with their clients at the decision-making level. Therefore, providing a renowned level of service to clients means expanding the quality of personal attention given to the emotional side of problem solving. Lawyers who pay attention to clients’ subjective experiences are able to offer a wide scope of practical and legal options for their clients to consider.
“We see the same problems over and over again,” a partner in a small Cleveland practice explained. “When we know our clients are going through a painful time in their life, our job is often to help them connect the dots at a personal level. This requires us to think emotionally–to become more empathetic–so that we can get inside the minds of our clients. But the truth is, even in the context of law, a client’s decision process is driven more strongly by emotion than by any other single factor.”
Emotion is a stronger influence on the decision-making process, but words are not even a close second, although it’s a common assumption that we think in words.
While words play a central role in communicating thoughts, we rarely use them to think. Using words is just too slow, and language does not contain enough bandwidth to accommodate the complexity of our think-ing processes. Feelings can be both instantaneous and complex in ways that words cannot be.
The law firm that recognizes the important role emotions play in its clients’ decision-making process and adjusts its service accordingly will find new opportunities to provide clients with increasingly higher levels of service.
Professional service marketing is both knowledge intensive and relation-ship intensive. For law firms in particular, knowledge-sharing and relationship-building are two essential elements of providing quality legal counsel, and they need to work together. Developing client relationships comes from sharing knowledge in ways that build confidence and trust.
Unfortunately, many lawyers are reluctant to share their knowledge with clients. Some would rather create a shroud of mystery around their work, forcing clients to view them as indispensable–an especially effective technique for a lawyer who has already been successful in solving a prior legal problem for a client. However, this approach almost always results in clients feeling insecure and vulnerable, and it does not lead to the type of trust or loyalty that, in the long run, makes clients return.
Marketing is an empathetic process. It requires that lawyers step back and become observers in the lawyer-client relationship. In doing so, we must detach ourselves from our own views and old ways of thinking. For most of us, this requires a shift in perspective.
Neuroscientists tell us that our minds thrive on exploring new ways of thinking–seeing relationships between things we previously thought were unrelated and finding commonality between different disciplines such as language and the arts or science and philosophy.
The same can be said of the kind of shift in thinking required to connect emotions with marketing and marketing with identity. These new combinations are powerful and effective, but part of the challenge in us-ing them is to first get our minds around them.
The entire range of our thinking, the depth of our very perception, is said to shift when we challenge ourselves to understand the totality of something rather than just our narrow part of it.
Thinking is our forte as lawyers. But true mental strength depends on our willingness to understand different types of thinking on being able to shift and widen our perspectives and consider new approaches to problem solving.
Challenging our minds means breaking through the linear and narrow confines of our own categorical logic. We need to look beyond the world of opposites–things that are either true or false but never both. In short, we need to stop and take a fresh look at what we do and why we do it. If we hope to provide the kind of high-level service that will set us apart from our competition and create a new magnitude of client satisfaction, we need to see clients’ needs in ways we haven’t seen before.
This, of course, requires that we develop new ways of thinking. It means leaving our mental comfort zone–not a pleasant proposition for lawyers who have spent years learning how to think in that zone. Yet leaving it is essential if we are committed to the full range of the market-ing process.
Service Based on Character
Action that comes from one’s character is perceived as authentic and therefore predictable. Ideally, clients will come to know their lawyers as people who can be counted on under almost any circumstances. Lawyers who can be counted on to be responsible, attentive, caring, sensible, hon-est, hardworking and trustworthy will attract new clients and keep existing ones.
Developing a law firm based on these types of inspired values is what drives firm growth and fosters prosperity. However, character cannot be imposed from the outside. It must originate from the core of the firm’s leadership and grow outward. That’s why relationship building is so important to our work.
Many law firms balk at investing in education and personal development. Mentoring is too often limited to developing technical skills such as research and drafting. Developing lawyers’ communication and character-building skills has been devalued, and this reflects the degree of resignation and cynicism existing in our profession today. Ironically, the same firms that don’t value personal development wonder why they’re experiencing a staggering drop in client satisfaction.
The Trust Factor
Do clients see you as someone they trust? As someone who is honest with them and acts with integrity? Are you seen as someone who truly cares about their welfare?
What we do for our clients reveals not only our immediate intentions, but also our character.
Clients measure our service first and foremost–but not completely–by our actions. If our actions are perceived to arise naturally from our character, then we are perceived as sincere and trustworthy. If not, which all too often is the case, we can appear calculating and manipulative.
Clients trust their lawyers if they believe in the truth of the lawyers’ character. For lawyers to learn to serve from their character takes time, effort and a commitment to individual development. Despite popular opinion, character can be developed and learned, especially if it is en-forced by the firm’s culture and leadership. Thus, the term character building.
For most firms, however, developing communication skills in their lawyers is simply not a priority. In fact, some firms believe that it’s not necessary if they simply hire quality people.
“When we recruit, we look for young people who have a strong sense of purpose,” said a partner at an East Coast firm. “To our firm, this means maturity, manners and common sense. Sure, we want the brightest minds, but we refuse to compromise on character. We won’t give an of-fer unless we believe in our gut that person can truly grow into being a partner.”
Lawyers who are truly valued by their clients develop client relation-ships that grow into alliances. At the other end of the spectrum are lawyers who view their job as opening and closing files. They exist in a virtual dead zone–a place where the personal side of the client’s experience is not relevant, the client having been reduced to just another “fact” in a set of issues belonging to a file making up a unit of revenue.
Somewhere along the line, these lawyers have come to believe that as long as there is sufficient revenue flow, fixing and changing the exterior problems (applying the hammer) will be sufficient to keep declining service in check. In the meantime, the partners keep partnering and hope that no one notices that they don’t have a clue about where the firm is going or how it will end up.
Without a moral center, there can be no group intention or direction. Instead, there is just the “organization” operating on cruise control, applying superficial fixes to problematic contact points where service and performance have fallen to unacceptable levels.
Consider what it means to be accountable to your clients. When clients put their trust in you, what does that mean specifically–to you and to your firm?
Accountability can be viewed as the process by which a firm either succeeds or fails to make and keep its promises. What types of promises? The types that come from the firm’s inspired values–those that originate from the moral center of the firm–the “V” spot.
One partner had a very clear sense of what his firm promises: “Our clients count on us to be dependable, honest and totally committed to their interests all the time, every time.”
Take the time to identify just three character traits that clients can count on your firm to deliver. As an experiment, list these traits on paper and ask a few other people at your firm to come up with their own list. You’ll be surprised at how the responses will vary from person to person.
Consider this: If a firm can’t agree on what its clients should expect, chances are, neither can its clients. This is exactly why a firm must define for itself what it means to be in the service of its clients. Only with a clear understanding of its inspired values can a firm hope to provide clients with a consistent experience of exceptional service that they will long remember.