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Client, or customer?

15 December 08

Thinking of "clients" as "customers" might encourage the type of relationship that secures repeat business

by Stephen Vallance

In the legal profession we pride ourselves on our clear analytical minds and understanding of the English language. We assist clients in identifying facts without emotional bias and we help them understand difficult language. We tell it as it is.

Strange, then, that sometimes we ourselves misconstrue certain words. For example, we call the people who instruct us “clients” and seldom if ever “customers”. We seek the former and are uncomfortable with the latter; but are any of us really aware of the differences?

Wikipedia currently defines “customer” as the buyer or user of the products of an individual or organisation. “The word derives from ‘custom,’ meaning ‘habit’; a customer was someone who frequented a particular shop, who made it a habit to purchase goods of the sort the shop sold there rather than elsewhere, and with whom the shopkeeper had to maintain a relationship to keep his or her ‘custom,’ meaning expected purchases in the future.”

The Oxford English Dictionary however defines “client” as “a person or organization taking advice from a lawyer, accountant, or other professional person”. Much to my own surprise, and I’m sure to the surprise of many, the word refers neither directly nor indirectly to habit or frequency. It is simply a one off instruction, not a relationship.

Contrary to what many firms seem to believe, the fact that someone has used their service – perhaps referred to them for a remortgage transaction, whom they meet once – is no guarantee of future or repeat business. On the other hand “customers”, people who frequent shops and stores, are by implication those who return to that service or supply on a regular basis.

 

Testing the lifeblood

The lifeblood of legal firms is their clients. Indeed many firms are focused on client acquisition and believe that on the satisfactory completion of a single transaction they are assured of their future business. Nothing has been done by them though to ensure or test this.

Many years ago it was explained to me that work carried out unsatisfactorily was unlikely to retain a client. Work carried out satisfactorily may. It is only however where you leave a client with a special “glow and tingle” feeling that future business could be expected. Unless therefore you are carrying out work to a standard beyond a client’s expectations (not what the firm thinks the client wants), it is unlikely that single transactional business will secure client retention. Without meaningful market research, no firms will be able to gauge this. I suspect though that for many reasons, economic not least (exceptional service can be expensive to provide), few firms will meet this criterion.

It could be argued then that clients can be obtained through many avenues, by marketing both directly and indirectly; but it is only customers that are retained.

The issue facing most firms therefore is how to achieve the latter. Like most processes it must be endemic: there isn’t something you can sprinkle on at the end to convert clients magically to customers. The whole process of client interaction has to be examined so that the focus changes from single transactional client relationships to long term, customer-led repeat business.

Good proposition

First, we have to decide who we as a business wish as customers. We can’t be all things to all people, and none of us would wish to. As I’ve stated in previous articles, customers buy two things: people and results. Therefore the “result” you wish to offer (the “proposition”) has to be clearly identified. This will in turn identify your potential customers.

There are certain basic parts to every legal transaction that we as solicitors have to meet. In a conveyance for example the customer requires a good title. The customer assumes that every legal firm will do this, therefore it is a poor proposition to attract business. They do not however understand the difference between a good title and a conveyancing transaction carried out to their satisfaction. To them the issues are not good title but things like acquiring a home at an acceptable price, being kept informed in language they understand, and getting the keys on time. We need therefore to educate customers about our own firms’ significant benefits, the proposition if you like, that they obtain when they instruct us – how our particular firm helps them achieve their result. This is where that “glow and tingle” feeling may be achieved, where perhaps we can go beyond what they expect from their advisers.

The propositions will be as varied as practitioners and their firms. They should however be focused on what the customer requires. It is for example perfectly in order to advertise the cheapest fees: it is a clear proposition and will attract a significant customer base. It has many potential problems that are not the focus of this article. (If you do so advertise, you must clearly define what is and indeed what isn’t covered; and offer some form of resolution if the proposition isn’t met, e.g. “Cheapest fees or we’ll refund the difference”.)

The most obvious challenge with this example is that there can only be one cheapest fee. There are however many other propositions that attract customers: value for money; quick, approachable, local service; and for a select few the top of the range. No one proposition will attract all customers. The secret therefore is to find a proposition that meets both the ethos of the firm and the needs of the customers that it seeks to acquire. Indeed there does not need to be one single proposition. In that event however you need to ensure this does not give a confused message about what you are offering.

It is for another article to look at how one monitors customers’ expectations to ensure they are met. Suffice to say that if your product doesn’t do what it says on the tin, it is unlikely you will get a second chance.

Remember also, just doing what it says on the tin is not a guarantee of future business. After all, the client has simply got what they contracted for. If you go into a store and buy a pint of milk at the advertised price, does that guarantee that store your future business? Without a glow and tingle, repeat business is uncertain. How then do we ensure the habit of use of our services?

That connected feeling

The next step is to create relationships. Remember, people buy people. We might enjoy a particular item, let’s say coffee. There are however a wide range of shops that sell it. Generally if one gets most of our business, it will be due to some form of relationship. This may fall into many categories and no one shop will appeal to everyone. It might be that we like the corner shop because the proprietor greets us by name; or a boutique store with a particular ambience; or we choose the store that’s closest to our home or place of work; or one where we like the smells when we enter. In each case we need to feel some form of personal connection, conscious or unconscious, if we are to shop there regularly.

How therefore as solicitors do we maximise the feeling of connection with customers? Some solicitors are by nature sociable and will engage in conversation with customers as individuals. In this increasingly busy world this has become more and more difficult. It also tends only to be successful with groups similar to the solicitor in age or social background. As I became older I realised that no matter how much I might wish it, my connection at age 45 with a 20-year-old first time buyer would be, at best, limited.

So we have to consider other ways to create this feeling. There are some simple lessons from the coffee shop scenario. People engage many senses when they shop. Ensuring that our offices and reception areas are congruent with the proposition we are attempting to convey is important. If we are your family lawyer, do you feel at home, are you comfortable when you come in? Couches and books may be more appropriate than wooden chairs and old periodicals. Do the offices smell inviting (how many times have I told customers to bake bread or make coffee before prospective purchasers come to view)? These may all seem trivial, but people make connections with people and places using all of their senses. What we are seeking is an environment which reinforces our proposition.

Relationship indicates a frequency of communication and a mutuality of benefit. If a friend never contacts you, or only contacts you when they want something, will you really consider them a friend? Likewise the best relationships with customers involve regular communication and a mutuality of benefits.

Easy to keep in touch

In this IT age communications have never been easier or cheaper. With email, client contact can be virtually free and much of what needs to be done automated. At the most basic level we all have customers’ birthdates. Automatic happy birthday (or Christmas) emails would show the client that you see them not as a single transaction but as part of a relationship. Nothing needs to be sold; indeed this might negate the benefits of the contact. They need to be personalised, however, incorporating some thought as to the customer’s personal circumstances, and congruent with your proposition. “Dear Client” does not fit with the ethos of personal service.

This idea can be easily extended to regular emails or newsletters on matters of interest, on a “one size fits all” basis, or tailored to clients with particular needs or interests. Much will depend on the information that a firm collects on its customers and the sophistication of its IT systems, but even the simplest of information and systems can make a huge difference in engendering a feeling of connection.

Firms may also wish to consider other ways to strengthen these bonds. Are there real benefits that you can provide to existing customers? Maybe these are the people that should be offered the big discounts on fees, not the one-off clients who phone for a quote and will just as likely phone someone else next time. Perhaps for such customers you will offer out-of-hours clinics where only they will have access. Perhaps they could benefit from a real “no win, no fee” offer, or home visits if they are too ill to make it into the office. How about some form of reward system for those kind enough to refer a friend to your excellent services? Again each firm will consider what they are able and willing to offer to clients to show that their custom is both needed and appreciated.

Many of these suggestions are already provided by good practitioners. Often, however, firms assume that their customers know these services are there. What we are proposing is an ongoing series of communications, educating and reminding the customer about the relationship they have with the firm and the benefits to them in continuing it.

There are limits in how far you can cement customer relationships, depending on the services the firm offers. If you are a conveyancing-only firm, the time between transactions will be five years or so. That is a long interval to maintain a relationship over. The question therefore that should be asked is, what other services are my existing customers likely to require on a regular basis? Mortgage advice could be appropriate as many clients will require advice regarding remortgaging in three to five years’ time. Wills and powers of attorney are other possibilities, though again without regular communication and updates these alone will be of little value in retaining many customers.

Every customer needs a tax return. Most will renew their buildings or contents insurance yearly. There is civil court, in particular matrimonial work. Statistically a large percentage of those buying homes will split and advice will be required. Are these services you could provide directly or even indirectly (i.e. could you become a portal to a supplier?), so that regular contact is guaranteed? There is not one simple solution here, but a process of evolving a firm to meet what its customers need, and maintain customers through a frequency or habit of purchasing.

Expectations, and results

No matter what the services might be, remember the “glow and tingle” theory. How can we as solicitors provide something in excess of what the customer expects? One of the simplest ways is to manage expectations. Few customers fully understand the complexity of what we do and the potential for delays and problems. A little time explaining these will help. Working with the customer towards realistic and achievable goals is again something that good practitioners already do. The best practitioners can manage the customer’s expectations of the outcome without them feeling that any reduction is as a result of a lack of ability, commitment or resources on the agent’s part.

In the simplest of terms, always underpromise and overdeliver. (If you say it will be done by Friday, do it by Thursday.) Again each firm, depending on its propositions, will identify how best to achieve this. What is most important however is always to look at it from the customer’s expectations. What is it that they actually want? Where is the extra value, from their perspective? Many of us believe, I think wrongly, that customers feel they are getting better value if we write them longer letters. Most however prefer regular communication, but short letters with simple-to-understand information.

Like most systems, the customer/solicitor relationship should be tested, monitored and adapted according to results. The best people to tell you what services they want and how they want them provided are your customers. Indeed, even that testing is part of the system of communication and interaction that converts clients to customers. The fact that you are engaging with them to check their experience of your firm and to ensure that future services will be better tailored to their needs can only be seen by them as an indication of how important they are to you.

Invariably, no market research will give a unanimous response. People, like agents, are a varied and interesting bunch. Trends however can be identified and, perhaps, other propositions also. As my wife says, no matter what you do in life, some will always love you; some will always hate you; most won’t care either way. Market research is simply a way of testing and adapting your propositions and service provisions to maximise the first group and minimise the second.

Perhaps as a profession we need to change some of our points of reference. Maybe we need to consider whether “clients” really are the future of the profession. Certainly clients without custom of use become a treadmill of continuous client acquisition. Customers however represent future income, give the best possible base for expansion of services and, if properly dealt with, give the best residual value for the sale of the business itself in the future. Maybe the philosopher’s stone of the legal profession is the recipe for converting clients to customers?

 

Stephen Vallance is a former partner in Vallance Kliner & Associates, Glasgow. He is happy to undertake consultancy work. For any queries arising from this article or any issues surrounding practice management, profitability or marketing, contact him at svall45193@aol.com .

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