What does it mean to be client focused?
As most of us are aware, many of the complaints levied against professionals focus on poor communications. Historically, some of us have been inaccessible hiding behind intimidating receptionists and support staff, engaged in meetings with clients, often closing the office for lunch. More recently, as the law became more complex, we specialised, sending clients to other partners within our firms depending on the nature of their problem.
Nowadays, clients are much more demanding. With an overall reduction in client loyalty, we have to work harder at keeping the clients that we have. They expect to have access to us at all times of the day (and increasingly at night). They are much less likely to accept what we say without question, which means that we have to spend longer with them, often for less return.
In addition, as everyday life becomes even more complicated, clients have no real perception of or interest in the content of the service they are buying. They are forced to cling to the intangible aspects of their buying decision - their confidence in our knowledge and reliability.
Develop and sustain trust
The essence of being client focused is therefore the ability to develop and sustain trust. Once this has been established, the client relationship is much easier to manage. At the outset, therefore, we need to explain to the client the issues that will need to be handled, and the anticipated timescales and costs (I will develop this in more detail in the next article in the series). It is important to be up front with the client and deal with any unrealistic expectations that he/she has about what can in fact be achieved.
On the basis that we cannot be accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, we need to explain to the client who will deal with any questions in our absence. If at all possible, introduce that person to the client, emphasising that this is a person who we trust to deal with the client as we would do ourselves. The client must not feel that he/she is being fobbed off with second best.
The next vital element is to make the client feel that we are “responsive” to him/her i.e. taking time at the outset to listen to him/her. Not only does it make good sense to get as much information as possible at this stage, from the marketing point of view, it is important to give the client information about the firm and all the services that it offers. It is also the opportunity to explain that you cannot be available all of the time and illustrate that by not taking interruptions when the client is with you!
Having built up this working relationship, clients are more likely to leave us alone to get on with the matter. However we often need to be more proactive - to notice when the file has gone quiet or slowed down - and take the initiative and phone the client (even when there is nothing to say!).
Check what the clients want from you
We also need to check what clients want from us. We cannot assume that we know what they want - we need to ask them what services they want and how they want them to be delivered. This may require us to restructure our firms to match. For example, whilst department structures might suit us and our areas of expertise and feeing policies, clients may have problems having to talk to a number of lawyers within the firm and receiving fee notes charged on a different basis. Clients may prefer one point of contact and one rate of charge. Others may be happy to use different levels of personnel for different work.
So far I have illustrated how to better manage the client. Now we need to consider how we can better manage ourselves. How can we reconcile this client emphasis with having some control over our working day?
Effective time management
Most time management training focuses on processes (the need to be more organised) and assertiveness (the need to be more selfish and learn to say “no”). Too many lawyers are high achievers and feed on the adrenaline rush that working to deadlines brings. We tend to over commit, often imposing unrealistic deadlines on ourselves. The result of all of this can be too much work, tiredness and dissatisfied clients.
It is impossible to manage our day without being interrupted. Many of us agree that we would have no problem managing our time if it wasn’t for our clients! However, without clients we would have no businesses. Against that, we often have to complete difficult and complex work, often with a high risk and value. We need to be able to concentrate and get it right. We cannot do this if we are being constantly interrupted and tired. We need to take back some control over our working day. We will never achieve perfection, but if we make an attempt to manage what we do most of the time, we will succeed.
Plan your work and know yourself!
First of all, we need to work out when we are most productive. Some of us are “larks”, some “owls”. Please notice when you are at your best and selfishly hoard that time. Do not waste it on routine tasks.
Look at your normal working day/week and mark in the time that you have no control over. Court practitioners have the least control over their working weeks. Court time (including any potential overruns) should be blocked off with receptionists and support staff given clear instructions about when you will be available to see clients and return calls. If you have to hang around in court, invest in a laptop computer and do some report writing or feeing when you are waiting.
If you have a number of people working for you, look at how much they hijack your time. It may be easier to have morning discussions at or after mail opening, rather than have people popping in and out all day. Alternatively, tell people that you will take no interruptions between 8.30 and 10.30 to tackle the minimum you need to get through that day. Batch client meetings, say in the afternoon, rather than have your whole day fragmented.
Some people are better at managing time and themselves than others. If you are one of those people who have no awareness of time, then accept that you need help. Work with someone who is good at planning and allow that person to organise you.
Don’t over commit and learn to delegate!
Learn to watch yourself and any tendency to over commit. Ask clients the latest that they want the information, rather than assume that they want it tomorrow. Be careful to identify what the client sees as important. Speed of response is not the only value that they place on their professional relationships - they may want a quality of response as well.
Delegation is a skill that some people find difficult. We come up with numerous reasons why we “can’t delegate”. Typical examples of reasons for not delegating range from: I can do it better than anyone else, it’s easier and quicker to do it myself, the staff are already overloaded, the staff can’t be trusted to work on their own, we are seriously understaffed and the staff won’t like it if I expect too much of them.
Effective management of people requires the ability to plan, to organise, to monitor and to motivate. Effective delegation requires all of these elements. Most people want to do an interesting job, to take on more responsibility and variety on the understanding that they are allowed to learn. This inevitably means that this will take more time in the short term, but it will pay dividends to both parties and the client service in the long term.
At first glance, delegation is only an option for us as we become more senior in our firms. This is not always the case - every firm has areas where people are willing to take on more work. In addition, younger professionals often work for more than one partner or associate. This can place conflicting demands on their time and priorities. One of the key skills required here is the need to communicate these conflicts and ask for guidance as to which is to have priority.
Watch how you spend your time
IT has become an invaluable tool to help us deliver excellent client services cost effectively. The cost of IT has reduced considerably with much of the software user friendly to even the most technophobic of us. Effective use can help us spend our time better, but it needs the discipline (as with delegation) to take time in the short term to save time overall.
Another area which requires attention is the time we spend in meetings. Meetings can be one of the main hijackers of time in any working week. Too often we develop “meeting inertia” where we have no expectation of meetings achieving or resolving anything. We need to be clear about why we are attending the meeting and what is its purpose; ensure that information is presented in advance and that communication is clear and direct. Check every meeting you spend time in to ensure that the right people are there to make decisions, that people are clear about the purpose of the meeting and its duration and anticipated outcomes.
Being client focused is essential in today’s professional environment. It is equally important that we manage our time to ensure that we deliver high quality services as cost effectively as possible. In addition, we need to achieve a balance between our professional and personal lives.
It is possible to combine all of these. First of all, we need to build a relationship with our clients which they feel is responsive to their needs. We need to establish the services they expect from us and how these are delivered. We need to agree how their work will be handled and who they can deal with when we are not available.
We need to look at our workloads and time management. We need to look at what we are doing and (with the benefit of IT) how we are doing it. We need to learn to not over commit and take time to develop other people and systems to help us. We need to play to our strengths, know when we are most productive and jealously guard that time. At all times, we need to focus on what we enjoy doing and re-allocate what we do not.
Fiona Westwood is a solicitor who specialises in providing management and training consultancy services to the professions. More information about her and her firm can be found on her web site www.westwood-associates.com or telephone 0141 339 0240.
In this issue
- President's report
- Preparing for the Human Rights Act
- Lockerbie trial: telling it like it is
- Jumping the gun
- Too many chiefs and not enough Indians?
- Assessing your risk awareness
- Interview: Graham Johnston
- Civil law update of recent decisions
- Managing clients and time
- EU funding opportunities for solicitors
- For whom the doorbell tolls