Austin's angle: front of house
16 Oct 12
Austin Lafferty shines a light an often overlooked cornerstone of the successful practice
In the pecking order of jobs, receptionist is not immediately thought to be up in the top tier. But there is no more crucial role in any law firm than the person or persons who are the first contact with clients and other callers to the office.
First impressions last, as they say. Not only should staff on the front line be courteous and professional-sounding, they should be the intelligence agency for the whole firm. visiting and calling the firm is something that is not routine for most clients, and to be treated calmly and intelligently can make all the difference to the impression taken away (and spoken of to friends and family) by clients.
As they say in our profession, this would be a great job if it weren’t for the clients. But what we as solicitors get is the diluted, filtered and stripped down callers. The reception staff get them PLUS the nutters, the accusers, the bewildered and the incoherent. And all are equal before the law personnel. Indeed it is those who are behaviourally or intellectually challenged that need the most careful handling, and are possibly the more likely to report a snub or uncaring service to the proper authorities and/or the Sunday Mail.
That’s the big picture – value and support your poor bloody infantry, as they can affect your fortunes very much for the better or the worse.
But skill in front desk PR is not always just instinctive. Some staff are brilliant and have the knack of the job with little or no guidance. But it is unsafe to assume that, and thus it is worth training and refreshing procedures, for all sorts of reasons.
Putting diplomacy and image to one side, staff dealing with customers have another function, which is all the more acute, and all the more do-able, in our hi-tech environment.
In my office, our client/case management database can capture and store all sorts of data on clients. Apart from the usual name and address, we can hold email addresses, dates of birth, NINO’s, financial info, will status, employment/business data, and lots more. Staff are tasked to get as much as is appropriate as soon as possible, and follow up as matters progress. Ok, when someone phones for a conveyancing fee quote it is not right to turn the angle-poise into their face and demand to know what is in the uttermost reaches of their soul.
But it is both appropriate and useful to find out such things as whether they already have a solicitor, want legal aid or expect to pay privately, why they have called us/any connection with the firm, and give the solicitor it is being passed to a private idea of any personality traits presenting and worth mentioning.
Indeed data is king. For old clients returning, the reception/admin staff member should update the database and record any new phone numbers, email address or other significant information. What is significant? This is where training and regular refreshing is key – foot-soldiers should not be assumed to be aware of what the fee-earners need to know, and they should be trained not just as to what to do, but why it is important – buy-in on the best interests of the firm makes for better workers and a better firm.
It goes almost without saying that data should be accurately recorded. There is nothing more eye-poppingly frustrating than to try to call back some juicy commercial enquiry only to find the number is unobtainable. Fall-back procedures should include getting email addresses every time, mobile numbers, full addresses with postcodes, connections with existing clients.
Staff should have some techniques drilled into them so far they shout them out in their sleep – read back the number to the caller, spell back names, get the correct spelling of Stewart/Stuart, Thomson/Thompson, Claire/Clare, Stephen/Stephen, and lots, lots more. And of course Laverty/Lafferty… Clients ignore accuracy, but by all that’s holy, they notice inaccuracy, especially with their own data. If we can’t get the client’s name/address right, how can they trust us with their important work? And hey, they’re right.
As with other aspects of the firm, management should take a positive interest and not assume all is well if no-one is shouting at them down the phone. In an otherwise tranquil front office, there may be various problems, and some potential clients you just never hear from again, as they were put off by the reception they got on the phone or in the office.
Indeed to delve right down you should get some mystery shopping done and see what the results are. Regular meetings and a team-playing attitude should be in place. Ok you won’t guarantee to get everyone, but I would rather they are turned down by us, than we are avoided by them.