September 7, 2012
My professional mentor had a definite skew to his understanding of the world. He had a very successful practice and I don’t think he truly understood why. He could not pass a week without mentioning that “insurance is the lubrication that makes all commerce run smoothly – or at all.” You can guess which side of the insurance bar he represented. My mentor thought his personality, command of the courtroom, and understanding of the law contributed to his success and missed the impact his loyal client based had.
Thousands of customer conversations have reinforced these conclusions – client loyalty is a contributory driver of successful legal practices.
Understanding some of the factors behind client loyalty can at least guide the growth of an existing practice or structure of a start-up. Who does not want repeat business, referrals, and quality reviews posted to professional networks? These are commodities that cannot be purchased, sold, or easily transferred but must be earned through attention to detail and continuous diligence. For me two intangibles continually surface that drive client loyalty:
- 1) Transparent and accurate billing
- 2) Predictable and timely responses.
Transparent and accurate billing go so far in earning client trust and the subsequent loyalty that they should be mandatory law school courses. Getting clients to pay is a frequent complaint that I hear from many small/solo law firms. The reasons for non-payment often tie back to unwillingness to pay and disputes over transparency and accuracy. Legal mechanisms exist to cope with an unwillingness to pay but it seems that the costly transparency disputes are more difficult to address.
Fortunately there are mechanisms to cope with these disputes as well. Many firms use multiple layers of review and others rely on technology to increase billing transparency and accuracy. The most successful leverage both.
I observed this first hand in working for my mentor. He utilized a standardized paper time keeping process in tandem with an electronic tracking and workflow monitoring application. These dual methods of tracking billable time were collected by his assistant and reconciled monthly and before invoices were sent. Efficiency is obviously lost but the underlying principle is solid – rely on technology and/or multiple redundancies to ensure accurate and transparent billing.
Technology to increase billing transparency and accuracy has accelerated in recent years to provide small/solo law firms with multiple effective and cost efficient options.
Run a search for ‘legal billing software reviews’ in your favorite web browser and you will see what I mean.
Likewise don’t squander precious client loyalty, repeat business, and referrals with untimely and unpredictable responses. Investing in email and phone systems to stay ahead of client questions and concerns can make a difference. My mentor was not organized but he was an ‘early adopter’ of technology before I fully understood the meaning behind that buzz phrase. He bought early smart phones and paid for the service to make up for his busy schedule and lack of organization. It worked for him. His purchases were mostly fueled by vanity but maybe he knew at some level these types of investments were keeping him in touch with his most important asset – his clients.
Protect the loyalty of your clients like you would a valuable asset by focusing on billing and responsiveness as starting point and expand from there. Learn from your colleagues, read professional commentary, and forge your own path toward client loyalty. Regardless, do not underestimate the contribution of a loyal client base but instead consider it a part of your practice strategy.