The journey (client experience) is as important as the destination (client success)
In a previous article, I wrote about the importance of putting client success at the forefront of a meaningful key client program. Building on this, leading firms are also focusing on how they bring a client to that successful outcome, and the experience the client enjoys (or doesn’t) in the process.
Firms that align their internal process with client expectations, and work to ensure seamless transitions between different departments, create better client experiences, more consistently. It is this overall client experience that differentiates the leaders from everyone else.
Achieving a great client experience involves a more detailed understanding of the various stages of the relationship, both from the firm’s perspective – sometimes referred to as the Client Matter Lifecycle (CML) – and the client’s experience or journey. However, tensions between the firm and client can sometimes arise, impacting the quality of that journey. For example:
Common client firm tensions that can impact client experience
- Transition – When the matter is transitioning between departments within the firm, and the flow of information between the two internal teams is impeded
- Misalignment – If the firm’s internal matter process is not aligned with the client’s expectations
Below, I examine four areas of the firm and client relationship that can have a material impact on the overall client experience, and that firms are well-served to optimise.
Different starting points lead to different client experiences or journeys
For most firms, the client matter lifecycle starts with the opening of a matter. But for the client, the journey typically starts well before that.
Clients experience a spectrum of legal issues, ranging from everyday business challenges to more complex, individual events (internal and external) that require extra support. Before a General Counsel seeks external advice, they will typically have gone through a myriad business discussions, including considering what to handle in-house and what to outsource. It’s usually the more complex matters on which external counsel is sought, and the everyday issues that are handled in-house.
More innovative firms understand this dynamic and position themselves to help General Counsel strengthen the ability of their in-house teams to be self-supporting, while providing more substantive advice when the complex challenges arise. In most firms, business development teams will be heavily involved during these early stages of client development, but quite often this is seen as a completely separate process rather than the first stage of the client matter lifecycle.
By treating business development as the start of the lifecycle, firms (and their clients) can benefit from having a better understanding of when to proactively develop or reactively cover the client as events unfold. The firm will also be able to put this in the broader commercial context in which the client is seeking legal advice. This leads to a more seamless experience for the client, moving between day-to-day relations with the firm and having better support on more complex matters.
Why opening a client matter is more than a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise
Once instructed by a new client, the process of on-boarding and opening the relevant matter is often viewed as little more than necessary administration. Although issues such as conflict and anti-money laundering checks are critical from a risk management perspective, they are often of little interest to the wider firm.
3 reasons why client on-boarding is vital
- Data mining: When done properly, data collected during the client on-boarding and matter opening process is incredibly rich and should be used elsewhere to benefit the firm and the client. Examples range from a simple thing like not having to ask your client for the same information twice (cited by some General Counsel as a regular annoyance), to having a more holistic view of the client’s business activities, or informing how the firm can better support the client in other areas such as whitespace analysis.
- First impressions: The on-boarding process is quite often the client’s first transactional experience with firm, and how that process runs can have a disproportionate effect on the ongoing relationship. Delays in being able to clear conflicts, for example, and a lack of communication as to why work has not yet commenced are never a good start to the relationship and are sometimes used by the client as ammunition for fee negotiations later on.
- Scope agreement: Making sure that the matter has been properly scoped, correctly resourced, and efficiently priced is critical for the ongoing relationship, and the opening of the matter is where such details are documented. Transparency and clarity at this early stage about how the firm will deliver the agreed-upon outcomes, and their cost (and benefit) help avoid possible tensions later in the journey.
The secret to great client service is communication
Calling it a ‘secret’ may be overstating things, yet it’s surprising how many General Counsel list communication as the number one challenge they face when dealing with law firms. Interestingly, it is not always a lack of communication at issue, rather a multitude of uninformative touch points interpreted as an attempt to justify a substantial fee.
A simple but effective approach to counter this is for the firm to walk in their client’s shoes and provide only meaningful updates, including a timely explanation of when nothing appears to have progressed. This will more often than not help avoid instances of over or under-communicating, and lead to a smoother journey for both parties.
Building a client relationship is a marathon, not a sprint
The majority of firms have strategic plans to build key client relationships that will generate, in some cases, as much as 80% of the firm’s total revenue. However, those very same firms quite often have an internal client matter lifecycle process that finishes when the matter is successfully (or otherwise) concluded for the client.
At this stage, some firms now pass the baton back to the business development team as part of a separate process to gather client feedback and extract key learnings for future pitches. Unfortunately, few firms see the client matter lifecycle as a continuous process that if done well, will exponentially increase returns for them and their clients.
The conclusion of a matter, whether it has been successful or not, should be seen by the firm as an opportunity to deepen the client relationship and commence the next matter lifecycle from a better starting point. Leading firms schedule face-to-face meetings after the matter has concluded, with members of the delivery and business development teams attending. They use these opportunities to:
Benefits of a retrospective face-to-face meeting with a client and firm
- Gather meaningful feedback for further internal review and action
- Probe about the client’s world and proactively approach them about other areas of business where the firm may add value
- Invite their client to events of interest or learning and development sessions that can help up-skill the client’s in-house legal team
People and approach are your only true firm differentiators
As we start year 2020, clients have more options than ever before when choosing external legal services support. Within any given practice area, there will be a number of competing law firms that will likely provide a similar final outcome for the client at a comparable price level.
The client experience is therefore paramount. Ultimately, it’s your people and how they approach client service that create that experience – and it happens across every touchpoint on the client journey.
Understanding that it’s about the journey, and not the destination is the best step you can take toward the creation of sustained success for your clients and the firm. I encourage you to learn more about improving your client’s journey through Intapp’s OnePlace for Leaders and Partners solution that equips your firm with intelligence from activities across the entire client lifecycle, from sourcing through origination and execution.
Practice Group Lead, Leaders & Partners Practice
A former lawyer with leading international law firms, Guy Adams has 20 years of experience in the legal industry. Having spent a number of years working with firms on their strategic planning and lateral hire programs, Guy now advises the leadership teams of some of the world’s most successful firms on the people, processes, and technology that will best help them to deliver sustainable growth strategies.