Client interviews: do-it-yourself or get outside help?

Client interviews: do-it-yourself or get outside help?

I participated earlier today in a discussion group on LinkedIn about client surveys.  This posting provides a few additional comments and observations that would have made my comment on LinkedIn too long.

The question concerned whether a law firm should do its own client satisfaction interviews or whether the firm should hire an outside service, like Walker Clark, LLC.

Client interviews are a low cost tool, which, if done well, can provide a big return in terms of strategic information about client expectations and perceived competitive advantages for your firm. They can also generate new work from existing clients.

They have some advantages over the more frequently used client survey:

  • They can probe issues in much greater depth and detail than a survey.
  • They can collect client-specific information that the firm can use to develop new business with that client, as well as to improve its competitive advantages in the legal market.

The answer to the question Which method is better? is firm-specific and usually based on practical, rather than strategic, factors.

Do it yourself

I slightly prefer having partners in the firm conduct the interviews using a consistent agenda of questions.  This is usually my starting position when advising one of our clients how to manage an interview project. Walker Clark sometimes provides coaching on interview techniques. We also can help the firm to develop the agenda and to analyze the results.

Face-to-face or voice-to-voice interviews between partners and clients have at least two advantages:

  • They are usually more efficient, because the partner usually has a more comprehensive and in-depth knowledge of the client than an outside consultant would bring to the interview. (By contrast, when we conduct the interviews, we need to devote a significant part of the time learning about the lawyer-client relationship from the client's perspective. This happens even with the extensive background research and preparation that we bring to each interview.)
  • They are a great marketing technique. Clients usually are impressed that a partner in the firm is taking the time to have the interview. (Important safety tip: Make sure that the client isn't billed for the time!)

The principal concerns that our law firm clients have mentioned about self-administered interviews are:

  • Some clients might not be candid. This is a valid concern in some cases; but our experience overall has been that this phenomenon is not as common as some law firm partners assume.  If it does arise, the firm can conduct the other interviews themselves, but refer to "problem clients" to us for interviews that probe the reasons for the clients' dissatisfaction.
  • Some partners might unintentionally exaggerate positive feedback and minimize negative comments from clients. This is a natural tendency in everyone; and it can result in an unintentional filtering of the feedback. This can be overcome by a little intellectual discipline, remembering that the object of the exercise is to collect data, not to praise or castigate partners. It can also be overcome by remembering that all feedback - whether positive or negative - is "good" feedback, because it provides information that the firm can use to improve.

Third-party interviews

Notwithstanding my comments above, in a slight majority of the instances in which our client law firms conduct client interviews, they ask us to do them. The major advantages of third-party interviews are:

  • The can usually be completed more quickly and efficiently. It is often difficult for a group of law firm partners to find the time to do a significant number of client interviews in a relatively short period of time.
  • Consistency in information collection and analysis can be more easily managed by an outside interviewer or team of interviewers.
  • Obstacles such as time zones and foreign languages are more easily overcome.  Even though English is the international business language and most business clients speak it well, some clients can express themselves more completely and precisely in their first language.
  • Third-party interviews sometimes can be more effective for "problem clients." Clients who have already complained about the service quality or substantive results that they have received from a law firm usually will respond better to an outside interviewer who is knowledgeable about the firm and the practice area(s) involved.
  • The marketing benefits to the firm can be even greater. Although the positive marketing impact of direct contact is not present, some clients will be even more impressed when a law firm has hired an external advisor to conduct the interviews and report the results.

Which is better?

Usually the choice depends on practical issues, such as partner availability, location of clients, and whether the firm has identified any particular client-service issues that need to be explored candidly and in depth.

Each method can produce accurate and reliable results, as well as significant marketing and client relations benefits.  Whichever method your firm selects, it can produce a large return on a relatively small investment. Do not allow practical issues to deter you from using this valuable strategic tool.

Read more on the Walker Clark Worldview Blog.