In pursuit of service excellence – are there holes in your client experience? (First published in Managing for Success)

Nobody goes into work intending to do a bad job or provide poor service. Everyone makes mistakes, technology fails, deadlines are missed and accidents occur from time to time. It is what you do about this that makes the difference. As George Bernard Shaw said “Success does not consist in never making mistakes, but in never making the same one a second time.”

Clients will usually be forgiving for the odd slip up; it is a series of poor service experiences which leads to deep dissatisfaction, a formal complaint or loss of a client.

In the Swiss Cheese Model of accident causation, human systems are likened to numerous slices of Emmental cheese.  Different slices of cheese represent different stages of the client experience; reception, enquiry handling, instruction, meeting, matter handling, completion, billing and follow up. In each slice (department) there may be the occasional hole, representing a weakness in the system at that point but nothing overly bothersome. A system failure arises, such as the loss of a valuable client, when all these holes (weaknesses) align, allowing the hazard to pass through a number of slices unstopped.

In a professional firm, it is often at the points of interface that weaknesses in the system can occur too. For example, two partners in a multi-office law firm had been actively targeting local businesses in order to diversify their client base, which historically comprised mainly private clients. However, the receptionists in other offices had not been made aware of this change in strategy or given training about the expanded range of services. Consequently they were continuing to send business enquiries elsewhere.

It is thirty years since Tom Peters’ first claimed that "It costs five times more to acquire a client than to retain a client".  Whatever the ratio is today, it is simply good management to focus on keeping clients happy, selling more to them and encouraging them to refer their contacts, before marketing to unknown prospects. 

This is particularly so today, when it is a buyers’ market.  Businesses and individuals generally have a wide range of choice about where they can buy legal services and are shopping around for the best value solution to their needs – not necessarily the cheapest!  Whilst clients are looking for value, they also want to feel valued. 

If your law firm wishes to build a strategy based on service excellence, what are the practical steps required to really engender a culture of continuous improvement in service standards?

Firstly, and most importantly, a service excellence strategy must be lead from the very top of the firm with commitment right across the leadership team.  Delegating it as a project to a trainee or member of the marketing team is just a waste of time.  The managing partner will need to ‘walk the talk’ and exceptions should not be made for the high-billing rainmaker who is too set in his or her ways to change!

Step 1 – Setting standards

Standards of service can be identified and measured in the following dimensions:

  • timeliness – was the phone answered within three rings? Was the message returned within 24 hours? Was the transaction completed on time?
  • accuracy – was the client's name spelt correctly? Was the document free of spelling and grammatical errors? Had the lawyer recorded all the information provided correctly? Was the bill in line with the initial price quoted?
  • appropriateness– was the matter handled by an appropriately qualified lawyer? Was the proposed solution appropriate to the client’s needs and situation?

Note that each of the questions posed above may easily be answered with a “yes” or “no” response to indicate whether or not the standard has been met.

In developing your firm’s standards, it is advisable to consult widely and sources of information could include:

  • management
  • employees
  • clients – existing, potential and former
  • referrers and intermediaries
  • regulatory authorities, such as the Legal Services Board, SRA
  • specific quality schemes such as Lexcel or CQS
  • competitors (whose standards you wish to exceed).

Start with a manageable list of standards which everyone can buy into and remember that the list can always be expanded later.

Step 2 – Communication and training

Once the standards have been set and agreed, then the marketing and HR managers need to work together to develop the implementation programme which will comprise four elements:

  • launch programme – a comprehensive programme of initial communications and training for the whole firm;
  • induction process – a compressed version of the launch materials and training for all new joiners thereafter;
  • ongoing visibility and progress reporting – to ensure that the standards remain front of mind and everyone knows how well standards are being met; and
  • provision for remedial coaching where performance of an individual or team is identified as below standard.

Ongoing visibility is key to maintaining momentum and demonstrating to staff that this is a long-term strategic approach, rather than a short term initiative that they will be able to forget about when “the management have their next bright idea!”

Hence, it is key to measure performance continually, publish the results and take action where problems arise.

Step 3 - Measurement

There is a number of measures which a law firm is able to use to monitor performance against its standards.


The two biggest sources of complaints to the Legal Ombudsman relate to family law (18%) and residential conveyancing (17.5%). Given that the ombudsman is now publishing specific information on complaints against particular law firms, then managing partners have a strong incentive to ensure that their firm’s name does not appear on that list.

Many disgruntled clients may not contact the Legal Ombudsman, but they may make their dissatisfaction known in a variety of other ways. Ten years ago, they may have complained directly to a few friends, family and colleagues. Nowadays a complaint distributed via social media such as Facebook or Twitter could reach thousands of people.

Bill Gates said “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”  The number of formal complaints for a firm is a key performance indicator which is easy to measure and evaluate, providing very specific information about areas of weakness which need to be addressed.

Client satisfaction research

Depending on the number of clients, the matter value, budgets and resources, firms can monitor client satisfaction in a number of ways:

  • electronic survey questionnaire - this is undoubtedly the cheapest method and has the advantage that the results are automatically collated and you can monitor average scores over time;
  • postal surveys – these are less easy to ignore and are preferred by certain client groups who are less comfortable with online communications;
  • telephone research – whilst more costly, the advantage here is that an open dialogue can create more of a rapport and a skilled researcher may also be able to identify opportunities to sell additional services; or
  • face-to-face interviews – this is most appropriate for a firm’s key clients and should be undertaken by someone who is not the lead partner to provide the client with an opportunity to be frank about every aspect of their experience. 

With each option, a firm has a choice about whether to manage the process internally or bring in an external consultant to undertake the work. 

For face to face interviews, the costs of an external provider need to be weighed against the fee-earning capabilities of the partner who would have to undertake the activity.  Independent research can sometimes yield information which clients are less inclined to communicate to someone from within the same firm.

Whatever type of research is chosen, the firm should set a target number or rate of responses to be returned.  If one method is not generating many responses, then it may need to be supplemented with another method, such as the telephone calls.

Mystery shopping

Client satisfaction research tells you about the experience of clients who have chosen to use you.  What about the people who made an enquiry and decided to use another firm?

Given how much money is spent on marketing and lead generation it is important to evaluate how good the firm is at converting those enquiries to new business.  Mystery shopping is useful for evaluating the client experience from the initial enquiry, through call handling at reception and into the department, where you can monitor sales skills.

Partners will often say that if they can just get in front of a potential client, then they will come away with an instruction. But, how confident are you that all the enquiries generated by the firm’s marketing effort reach the right person?

Without doubt, the receptionist is the most important person in the initial client experience. Whilst it is important to have a gatekeeper who is good at keeping pesky sales reps away, you do not want client and prospects to get a similar frosty reception.

Firms who have not used mystery shopping before are often surprised at what can be evaluated, for example client views can be measured regarding:

  • friendliness, warmth and empathy;
  • listening and questioning skills;
  • professionalism and perceived expertise;
  • call transfer etiquette;
  • rapport building skills;
  • skills in addressing concerns and doubts;
  • clarity of information regarding fees;
  • ability to explain the value proposition;
  • enthusiasm;
  • quality of follow up;
  • value of business left “on the table”.

One area of weakness that frequently needs addressing is the area of quoting and communication of the value proposition. In divorce cases, a study by BDRD Continental on “Individual consumers legal needs report” showed that 21% of clients had not been given an estimate of costs when consulting a solicitor about a divorce.

Quotes are often just given verbally, and can be quite confusing for someone who is not familiar with buying legal services.  Only a small minority of firms always follow up an enquiry with a detailed, well explained quote.

Mystery shopping measures in detail how well each service standard is being met, and the subsequent analysis provides valuable intelligence to identify specific training needs or areas for improvements in systems and processes.

Step 4 - Refinement

Establishing a service excellence programme and driving it through to fruition should not be underestimated. 

The first year will not be easy and will undoubtedly throw up challenges in measurement and reporting.  A variety of problems will be uncovered, some of which may be addressed quickly and easily, others may be more costly or tricky to resolve. 

The key to success is to welcome all the information provided as a basis for continuous improvement and to maintain commitment. 

For the ambitious and experienced management teams, performance against service standards is tied into remuneration.  However this is probably a step too far when launching a service excellence programme for the first time, and should be considered when the wrinkles have been ironed out.

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