Recently, I spoke with author and customer service consultant Micah Solomon for an article he was writing for Forbes. As we compared how law firms approach “client service” to the approaches of other industries, I found myself pondering the possibility of whether law firms could one day become the gold standard for exceptional client service.

While client service has been a buzzword in the legal industry for more than a decade, progress in the area has been slow to come. Many law firms now seek client feedback, either through a formal program of visits or informally as attorneys interact with clients. There are even law firms that act upon the feedback received. However, creating a culture in which exceptional client service is valued on par with quality legal work and billable time requires a greater shift in culture.

Change is never easy, and usually is best undertaken incrementally. Here are five ways law firms can start to place real, tangible value on providing excellent client service.

Involve everyone: The words and actions of firm leadership must make it clear that everyone is a part of the client experience – attorneys and staff alike. Providing client service training for the staff while not requiring the same commitment from the attorneys will not impart sincerity to the effort. In fact, years of conducting feedback sessions with the clients of law firms have shown me that service issues raised rarely lie with staff.

Set minimum expectations: While it is not likely that attorneys will accept hard and fast guidelines on how to conduct their practices and interact with clients, it is reasonable to expect them to adhere to minimal requirements of client service. Firms already prep lawyers to meet minimum standards in areas such as timekeeping and billing, so the concept is not foreign. Through a meaningful and collaborative discussion, develop a few client service standards. This might include such basics as the procedures to be followed when a client is left waiting in the reception area or how voicemail messages will be updated when attorneys are out of the office.

Reward the behavior you seek: Devoting time to discussions about good client service is an excellent way to keep the topic in the forefront, but until compensation is affected negatively for failures in client service and positively for meeting the firm’s standards, the culture-shift needle will not move.

Give clients multiple ways to provide feedback: Regardless of whether your law firm has committed or will commit to an ongoing formal feedback program, provide a variety of opportunities for clients to give their feedback, and let them know you value their input. Consider setting up an email address or a toll-free phone number where clients may leave confidential messages. Devote a portion of every newsletter to inviting clients to provide feedback of any type, and provide instructions for doing so. Include this same information with the final bill for each closed matter. Of course, it will be critical to act on feedback received.

Make a public commitment: What better way to establish accountability for law firms that have decided to make client service a strategic differentiator than to put their commitment in the public arena? Consider devoting a section of your website to outlining your client service commitment and, if appropriate, sharing some of the results.

There can be no question that, in the current competitive, shrinking legal market, those firms that place real value on an exceptional client experience are going to positively differentiate themselves. I look forward to seeing how far law firms are willing to go to establish such a standard. 

Will we ever see a law firm equivalent to Ritz Carlton or Disney? Leave a comment or contact Terry M. Isner at tisner@jaffepr.com.