In the final part of her series on practical solutions to common office problems, Fiona Westwood says we must be proactive and look beyond the detail to the end results
We all know that clients seem increasingly difficult to please. They phone us constantly and demand attention at all hours of the day (and in some cases, night). As a result, many of us think that we have lost control of our working lives. Yet, the theme of this article is that we have to strive to do even more. To compete in today’s consumer orientated market, we need to deliver, at a minimum, high quality professional services. What clients truly want is for their professionals to be proactive and think beyond the matter in hand – to look at achieving end results rather than the details of the process of getting there.
We have considered elements of this in earlier articles in this series, for example, that, when winning new work or cross selling our services, we need to listen to our clients to find out what is important to them and what they value. This article takes these points a stage further and argues that to regain client loyalty and be valued (and rewarded) for what we do, we need to provide proactive solutions.
1 Find out what clients actually want to achieve
Most clients want their professionals to take their problems away and fix them, not to bother them with the details of what is involved and most importantly, to progress matters with good speed. Many clients have little perception of, or indeed interest in, the technical details of what we do. Instead, they are forced to take a leap of faith and trust us with something which is very important to them.
This means that once we have established what each client wants, we should be able to get on with what we do without spending too much time explaining technical issues. Yes, I accept that in some cases we need to educate our clients about what is actually achievable for them and yes, sometimes we need the passage of time to allow clients to come to terms with the reality of their situation. However, in most other cases, clients simply want us to get on and do it.
Clients also need to be educated in what we expect from them. We do expect them to be up front and honest with us and not abuse our time or our support staff. Giving them indications of timescales and when we need them to provide information or funds allows them to prepare accordingly. Clients, like most people, hate surprises! As a result, talking about money up front is vital.
2 Agree with clients up front timescales, costs and levels of service
Clients want us to advise them in direct and simple terms what is achievable, how long it will take and how much it will cost. If what they want is too time consuming or expensive, they want to know this upfront so that they can adjust their choice or choose an alternative. They want the benefit of our expertise and advice to decide on options. Once they have been guided through this and made their choice, they are happy to let us get on and implement it. If matters go off course, they expect to be informed in good time to be able to adjust that choice. Over and above that, they want us to keep the end result of what they are trying to achieve in mind.
They want us to be “sympathetic” to their situation, not just provide surgically precise information, to show them that we care about what we do in general and what we are doing for them in particular. This once again highlights the importance of accessibility. Clients continue to complain about poor communications. With due respect to our professional brethren, some still use long-winded and legalistic jargon. Similarly, the tone of correspondence and e-mails can sound arrogant.
When clients talk about accessibility, they mean having direct contact with someone who has up-to-date information about their file and can progress matters. I hear regularly of clients phoning in day after day without the courtesy of a return call. We seem to forget that in most cases, the matter is very important to our clients. Many still feel intimidated about phoning their solicitor. They may well wait beside the phone for us to call them back, thinking that they will be phoned back in 10 minutes. Yet, some professionals I talk to think that to phone people back within 10 days is acceptable. No wonder clients become agitated.
They also want matters to be resolved with all possible speed – so that they can get their keys, money or simply get on with their lives. No one enjoys visiting the doctor, dentist or lawyer. They provide services that we would prefer not to use and prolonging the agony serves no one.
3 Develop trust
We all want to work with clients who trust us to get on with the job and who are loyal to our firms and us. Some of you will be saying that that is all in the past, and that I am being naive to think that such a relationship is possible. However, if we treat clients as though we do not trust them i.e. covering our backs with detailed letters and defensive language, they will respond in kind. All of us recognise the difference between working with clients who trust us and those who do not. Ironically if we concentrate on developing a trusting relationship, we will become what our clients are asking of us i.e. the proactive professional who thinks about what each client wants to achieve and gives their work priority. As a result, we need to be selective in who we decide to act for.
4 Concentrate on delivering results not processes
Many of us still have not accepted the impact of IT on the way that we work. It provides huge potential to remove the drudgery of routine checking of documents for example. It allows us to standardise a lot of what we do and, at the same time, tailor the services to individual clients. In other words, it allows us to drive down the cost of producing the work and concentrate on the elements that the clients value i.e. direct contact with their professional advisor.
Some firms, however, have forgotten the nature of the services clients want us to provide. Clients want us to provide support rather than paperwork. Routinising what we do is fine if we remember that we still act for people not just file numbers. Buying a house is regarded as generating almost as high stress levels as a divorce. I know it often appears that all conveyancing clients are agitated – but in fact they are!
IT also provides the opportunity to progress work faster as less time is needed on drafting and checking. The quicker we can progress the file to a successful conclusion, the quicker we will get paid and the happier our clients will be. As a result, we need to change where we spend our time, moving from routine document producing to adding value to the client relationship – using our skills and experience to devise an effective solution to his or her problems.
Not all clients value the same thing – some will want us for our detailed and intricate specialist advice, others for our pragmatic problem solving approach. That is what makes what we do exciting and challenging. We need to be chameleons, matching clients with particular types of people within our firms to deliver what each client wants. Overall, we need to do more for clients, rather than less.
5 Release time to do more with and for clients
For those of us with too much to do already, this must seem like an insane suggestion. However, it is what clients want from us. Establishing what the client wants to achieve at the outset will allow us to ensure that we can deliver that or tell the client at the beginning that it is not possible. This should then allow us to get on with the job with less interruptions and time-consuming back covering. This should free up our time to be more proactive.
Being proactive means having time to think – time to sit back and look at what can be achieved. Most of us spend too much time doing and not enough time thinking. We also spend too much time waiting for other people to respond to us – “administering litigation” as one surveyor who had waited four years for a spurious indemnity claim to be settled commented to me recently. Rather than writing letters and relying on the court process, we should spend our time face to face with clients and the other side. Discussing and identifying options allows us to show clients that we care about resolving the situation.
Over and above that, we need to think of ways of providing quicker and/or better solutions. Many of us have got into the habit of processing work in an established way. Some of us now feel that adjusting leases has to take at least six months, that divorce files will take over a year to complete. We should use our skills to devise alternative options. When we do that, we build a reputation for delivering good results. It also allows us to concentrate on what we enjoy doing. We studied law because we enjoyed the process of analysis and debate, and because we wanted to help people. Too many of us have lost the energy to do this. Regaining control will reward both our clients and us.
How to do it?
- Spend time with clients up front – find out what they value and truly want to achieve
- Develop trusting relationships
- Routinise as much as possible to release time to be proactive
- Do not lose sight of what the client wants to achieve
- Think about results not the process
- Spend time on what clients value and where they can directly see that value
- Get clients involved – give them responsibilities as well – treat them as adults not children
- Get time to think – we should be in control, not the other way around
- Become proactive rather than reactive
Fiona Westwood runs her own management and training consultancy specialising in working with the professional sector. A solicitor with 20 years’ experience of private practice, she established Westwood Associates in 1994. For more information see her web site, www.westwood-associates.com
In this issue
- Judicial appointments system still opaque
- Lay input fundamental to judicial appointments
- Simplifying the maintenance formula
- Time to reinvent the law degree?
- Defining distance contracts 2002 (3) 34
- London still the holy grail for Scots firms
- Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal
- Website reviews
- Achieving client Nirvana
- Restriction of liberty orders
- Diligence on the dependence under threat?
- Where there’s a will there’s a right way
- Second(ed) thoughts on way to Brussels
- Book reviews