Getting work done and generating billable hours are always two primary areas of focus for lawyers in law firms. And if you are in-house, there is a never-ending stream of work that needs to be done and deadlines that need to be met. So how can you possibly have the time to step back and think like a client?
I’m suggesting that if you do this, the work will be easier and more enjoyable and your clients or internal customers will be happier. Take at least the next few minutes to review the suggestions below and see if you can work this into your evaluation of the next matter or project you take on.
Did you know that people have to hear things five to seven times before they begin to internalize what they are being told? When you are the person doing the communicating, you begin to wonder if you are being annoying. But you aren’t. You are doing a good job of making sure the client is actually internalizing what you are saying.
Say it. Say it again and again. Write it in an email a few times, and then review it one more time. This level of redundancy should include understanding the scope of what you are being asked to do, the anticipated outcome of your work, the expected timeline and what success looks like. More on these topics below.
Face-to-face communication is the best method of communicating for things that require action or are critical in terms of the client’s understanding. Let the person ask questions and have a discussion about the key aspects of the problem you are trying to solve or the work you are doing for them.
What do you need?
Gain a clear understanding of what the client is expecting. Here is where thinking like a client can help. Have you ever been in a situation where you were working with a service provider and you were sure they understood what you told them, but when they finished their work it wasn’t at all what you had in mind? This is awkward for everyone.
Put yourself in your client’s position and ask or confirm every aspect of the work to make sure you both are visualizing the same things. Or ask your client questions like, “If I were you, what would happen if we didn’t fix this?” This will allow you to see their level of risk and how much they truly understand about the consequences of failing to address the issue.
Chances are, what you view as the problem may be slightly or totally different than the client’s view. You will need to communicate effectively to reach a consensus on what it is the client wants and needs.
What is the timeframe?
Sometimes there is a real deadline and sometimes there is not. Making sure both you and the client agree on that is important. Everyone wants to know when something will be done, or at least a good estimate. Put yourself in the client’s position. Maybe they don’t want to spend any more money on legal services this quarter, so pushing it out a bit is fine. If you hurry to get it done, you may think you are doing great, but the client may be worried about paying the bill right away.
Or maybe the client has a meeting coming up, and even though the “real” deadline is not for a few weeks, the client really needs a good idea of how things are going to go sooner than that. What can you do to adjust the process so that the client has what he or she needs?
Speak their language
To think like a client in terms of what words you use, remember conversations you have had with either health care professionals or information technology professionals. Excuse me, what is my hyperspace interface? Now you see the dilemma.
Go over what you need to tell the client. Do your conversation and key points include words that are not going to be familiar to them? Can you use other words or terms? You are going to be telling them some of these things five to seven times, so making sure what you are saying is clear is critical. Otherwise you will just frustrate them five to seven times by telling them something they don’t understand.
People can learn new words and terms, so it is OK to use words if there are no substitutes. Just make sure you completely explain what the new words mean, and remind them frequently.
Contemplate the irritation
Is a client asking you something that you feel like you have explained at least five to seven times before? Is the person bugging you about a deadline that you already feel you have agreed upon? Is the client just plain and simple acting surprised about how long things are taking when you know you have gone over and over the steps that will be needed?
These situations all indicate that you have missed the mark with your communication with the client. You can be quick to jump to the conclusion that the client is dense or not listening to what you are saying, but a better approach is to take that step back and uncover where things went awry. You likely are not going to change the client, so what do you need to do differently?
Revisit what you have done and identify what might help. Does the client need some time to meet with you and discuss this again? Are there terms or steps that need to be broken down for a better understanding? Did you interpret a deadline differently than the client? Is the client distracted with other aspects of the situation that need to be resolved before he or she can focus on the next steps?
This may all seem like pretty obvious advice. But, we all struggle with trying to get as much done as possible and still keep our customers happy. Sometimes it is a big benefit – to your stress level and the client’s – to take a breather and examine if you are treating the client the way you would like to be treated. Every person is different and every case is different. Finding how to work together takes commitment and some time. It will never hurt to think like a client and over-communicate. •
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. Opinions expressed are those of the author.