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Gathering and leveraging client feedback: How law firms are using client training programs, interviews, surveys, and matter debriefs to surface BD opportunities and address service gaps

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Until recently, most law firms took an unstructured approach to soliciting client feedback. Perhaps they made efforts to collaborate with clients to co-author articles, or occasionally invited clients to participate in client training programs to bring them into the professional development process. Some firms dabbled in simple client satisfaction surveys mailed out as inserts in invoice envelopes (but without any closed-loop process to collect and tabulate the responses). Without the vision, resources, and technology required to uplevel these programs, it was impossible to do more.

In today’s competitive market, forward-looking firms are gathering critical client feedback through increasingly sophisticated client training programs, augmenting their client listening activities with formalized client surveys, interviews, and matter debriefs. Each of these client listening techniques serves a specific purpose in surfacing important feedback, and firms that are actively soliciting and acting on this information are building stronger client relationships and achieving better retention.

Developing a high-impact client training program

The most valuable client training programs center on sharing valuable insights on topics of interest to various client groups. Typically, these sessions take place in either a seminar or webinar format, and in some instances, in person. Designed to showcase the firm’s range of expertise and provide value-add education, client training programs forge tighter client-firm relationships.

To maximize value, curriculum topics should be highly relevant, timely, and useful. Although courses that cover industry fundamentals and trends serve an important purpose, clients especially appreciate courses that help them understand and address acute problems; for example, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act is about to become law. Clients will need to understand the implications and requirements for their businesses and the specific steps required to maintain compliance.

Although inviting clients to participate in a client training program serves an important relationship-building purpose, the format of the interaction can keep the nature of the communication at surface level. So, while valuable for offering educational benefits to clients, training programs are best augmented with additional market-research techniques. To discover additional client insights, firms are also including client surveys and client interviews.

Conducting client training, surveys, and interviews

Client surveys involve collecting quantitative data at scale anonymously, which can not only illuminate trends, opportunities, and service gaps on a macro level, but also provide the opportunity to reengage with past and inactive clients. Because survey responses are anonymous, you’ll likely get honest client feedback on overall satisfaction. Client survey data collection works best when administered at scale to ensure the reliability of the data analysis supporting the survey findings.

By contrast, client interviews are typically conducted face-to-face or over video or phone with client stakeholders. They should involve both the relationship lawyer and a representative from the business development team. During these sessions, interviewers might uncover service gaps or relationship issues — and they might also learn about dormant opportunities to expand existing relationships and increase new business. To establish a convivial tone, intersperse soft leading questions throughout the discussion to balance out the more direct queries required to get the information you need.

Although the tone of the interview should be friendly and positive, you need to ask the tough questions. Ultimately, your goal should be improving your service levels in a way that’s meaningful to your client, which involves identifying areas of improvement and building an action plan against that goal.

Conducting mid-matter debriefs to keep client teams on track

Traditionally, firms have conducted end-of-matter debriefs to review what went right and what went wrong during an engagement. With many large firms now investing significantly in legal project management, innovation, and technology platforms, they’re finding new opportunities to generate matter-based insights — giving them broadly applicable knowledge to improve productivity, engagement, collaboration, and client value. As a best practice, your representatives should arrive fully prepared, having researched the client internally and externally. The analysis should include a review of recent news, awards, internal communications, and noteworthy engagements.

Although end-of-matter debriefs serve a valuable purpose for firms and their clients alike, many are experiencing significant success with mid-matter debriefs, largely because they’re conducted in the moment when everything is fresh. Because client representatives are engaged in your everyday working relationship, they’ll likely to be willing to share actionable feedback that your matter team can apply immediately.

During this review, firm representatives can solicit client feedback on a range of concerns: How much confidence does the client have in the matter timeline? How well are the junior associates working with client representatives? Does the client team need a specialist?

With clients becoming increasingly cost-conscious, matter team leaders can advise them on better ways to manage budgets and value-engineer their legal spend for maximum impact. Ultimately, clients want clarity around how they benefit from greater transparency, stronger relationships, and closer collaboration with their legal service providers. When they believe interests are mutually aligned, they feel supported and confident that their matters will be completed on-time and within budget.

Incentivizing lawyers to support client feedback programs

Unlike professionals in the corporate sector, most lawyers in law firms don’t have a business-development mindset. Many firms operate using a decentralized structure, with various practice groups operating autonomously. Because practice groups aren’t typically incentivized to participate in client feedback programs, most are uninterested in investing administrative time into an activity that may introduce reputational risk — from their perspective, there’s no upside.

Additionally, because lawyers are individually responsible for providing their services, many are reluctant to invite or accept criticism that could feel personal or negatively affect their careers.

Firms that successfully win over their lawyers and convince them to participate position the exercise as an opportunity rather than an obligation. Some use positive reinforcement, rewarding teams that participate in client interviews with public accolades. Others offer financial rewards to teams that agree to participate (but don’t punish or call out teams that don’t). They also restrict access to client interview data to a very small group of client team representatives, who anonymize the data before communicating it up the chain of command. — ensuring that critical client feedback can’t be used for punitive purposes.

Incorporating Net Promotor Scores (NPS) helps ensure an objective assessment of the health of a client relationship. Leveraging technology, you can augment your analysis of your interview data with a systematic engagement score to quantify the strength of that client relationship.

With increased competition for talent and rapidly shifting client expectations, the legal industry must adapt to the times. Partners across firms are increasingly getting the message: Your firm is a business and therefore must operate like one. Client service and satisfaction are critical to retention, so it’s more important than ever to solicit, analyze, report, and act on client feedback.

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