As a lawyer or law firm, you may have recently experienced a conversation with one or more of your clients that included being, in your opinion, treated like a vendor. This is never the position you want to be in with your client, and your client probably wants more from the relationship as well. But in the era of legal procurement processes, RFPs, and alternative fee arrangements, it is just the new reality, right? Wrong!
You can change this dynamic, but it takes commitment and preparation.
The client-relationship meeting
You talk to your clients all the time. You discuss deadlines, billing, staffing, the time it will take, and current status. And then what happens? The work is completed and you move on to the next thing … and forget about that one. It’s done. And that is exactly how a vendor works.
To be more than a vendor, you need to continue the relationship with the client. One good way to extend the relationship beyond the vendor status is to orchestrate a client-relationship meeting at least once a year. A client-relationship meeting has an agenda that includes:
• reviewing the work that has been done over the last 12 to 18 months;
• discussing adjustments and areas of improvement; and
• looking ahead.
The agenda is simple — just three things. But you need to prepare for this meeting and have a well-thought-out guide to manage the discussion.
Come prepared with a list of matters you would like to review. If you have done a lot of work for the client, you might want to group the matters into types or by specific projects. The things you want to point out in this review are how you brought value to the client. Show how you stayed within the budget, the good outcomes you achieved, the deadlines that you agreed upon and kept, and how you helped the client achieve his or her goals.
If you provided additional services and did not bill the client, you will want to point these out as well. These things include training, work that was outside the original scope that you just did anyway, or perhaps even adjusting fees because you could do the work more economically than you originally thought.
Adjustments and improvements
Now that you have gone over all the work, begin a discussion about what you and the client feel went well and where things could have gone better. It never hurts to start this by pointing out an area where you feel things could have been done differently for a better outcome. Let the client talk as well. It should be a dialogue about how you improve your relationship and understanding of one another so you can work even better together in the future.
Improvements can include things such as better staffing, more client involvement, better communication and status reporting, or other value-adds that the client would like to see. There always has to be room for improvement.
Once you’ve identified these areas, make a commitment to take action.
Now is the time to talk about what lies ahead. You have already committed to make improvements based upon the earlier discussion. What is on your client’s list for the coming year? What are his or her top challenges? What are some key initiatives that the company is working on? How can you help with these things even if legal work is not required? Having these discussions and offering to help in ways that don’t include billing for legal services is way beyond what a vendor does. You are now becoming a business partner. You are discovering how you can help personally, professionally and institutionally.
Once you have completed this discussion, ask how frequently your client would like to have this type of meeting. Should you get back together quarterly to go over status and progress? Or is annually enough for such a review? This is also a perfect time to talk about any follow-up items that came out of the first two agenda items. When will you have something back to the client in terms of your action steps?
Being more than a vendor is an earned privilege, not a right. It will take time and commitment on your part.
Finding a new vendor is easy. Finding a person you can trust and rely upon to help you succeed is much more difficult. Don’t be a vendor.•
Dona Stohler of S2 Law Firm Strategies provides consulting services on business development and marketing for law firms. Stohler has more than a decade of experience in the legal services industry and is the past chair of the U.S. Law Firm Group marketing committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through www.S2lawfirmstrategies.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.