These days, it seems that everyone is looking for a quick fix to everything. How do I get clients fast? How can I do business development without being directly involved myself? How can I skip ahead to the final steps?
Unfortunately, as with anything worthwhile, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
If you want to have successful client relationships, and professional relationships in general, it’s necessary to start with the basics. The good news is that there are two easy fixes you can implement today that will improve your image, raise the caliber of your relationships, and aid in your business development efforts. I know that sounds too good to be true, and as if I’m some sort of snake oil salesman, but I promise, it’s true.
Easy Fix One: Responsiveness
Okay, so this one may sound easier than it is in practice, but I promise you, it’s not that complicated.
I know lawyers are busy. I know that their time, literally, is money.
But it boggles my mind when I see an email go to a lawyer, wanting to send them a referral, and the attorney doesn’t respond to them.
In this day and age, more and more, emails are getting lost. That’s a fact of life. But if you become known for your responsiveness, people will give you the benefit of the doubt and either re-send the email or pick up the phone to find out what the issue is. Instead, when you’re known for being a bit hit or miss with answering emails, they simply assume that you’re non-responsive and can’t be bothered to commit to them and/or their client. That’s not the message you want to send, purposefully or not.
I hear regularly from lawyers that they would like to develop new business, bring in new clients, do more work, and if that’s the case, how are you “too busy” to respond to emails?
This extends past the initial request, and into client management as well. While each client is different, it is essential that you get to know how your client needs you to communicate with them, and how frequently. Typically, if a client sends you a question or request, a simple reply with “On it.” will suffice – you’re not taking too much time to reply, but your client feels a) heard, b) cared for, and c) reassured that you’re taking care of them as a priority.
We all have smart phones, and we’re all connected all of the time, for better or for worse. Because of that, responsiveness has come to equal “I care about you and your business.”
On the flip side, a lack of responsiveness says that we DON’T care.
We all get a ton of emails, and we are ALL busy. Over my career in the legal industry, I can tell you that the most successful lawyers I know, the very busiest lawyers I know, are also the most responsive ones. They always read and respond to my emails within 24 hours. These are the lawyers who travel the most, work with the most clients, manage their firms, and by all lawyer standards for success are successful are also emailing me back and emailing me back quickly – I have to imagine that that’s the case for their clients as well.
So it IS possible to be busy, successful AND responsive. Give it a shot today. To recap, responsiveness in emailing means:
- If someone sends you a new matter or referral question, respond to that email within 24 hours, even if just to say you’ve received it. Traveling or busy with another matter? Have your assistant email back with a time frame for your response. If you don’t have an assistant, you should be making use of your out of office response – I’m amazed by the lawyers who I know to be out of their office, but don’t have an out of office up to manage expectations.
- If you don’t have an answer for someone, but it’s time to update them, or they’ve sent you an email looking for information, replying with “I don’t know,” or “I don’t have that information yet,” is perfectly suitable and FAR superior to not responding at all.
- In that vein, when you have bad news, a lack of communication is a far worse response than delivering the bad news. Clients and all of your professional relationships will agree. We would much rather hear “no” than nothing.
- If you have an assistant, deputize them to respond to client and other emails. Obviously, they can’t provide legal advice or be involved with privileged communications, but they can at least acknowledge receipt of other emails and offer a time frame for which you will reply.
When you become known as a lawyer who is responsive, clients are confident that you will prioritize their work and meet their demands efficiently, and referral sources are comfortable sending their clients to you. It doesn’t take much time, but it’s a HUGE change and sends exactly the right message in your personal relationships. Responsiveness says that you care, and non-responsiveness says that you don’t. Which will you choose?
Easy Fix Two: Managing Expectations
This fix tends to go hand in hand with the first one, and that’s managing expectations. It starts with understanding each client that you’re working with, and what they expect from you. That sounds like a no-brainer, but despite this, clients still, time and time again, report that one of their largest concerns with their lawyers is a lack of understanding of their business and their key drivers.
How do I do this? Well, it’s all about my commitments:
- When I tell someone I’ll get them something by the end of the day, and it looks like that won’t happen, I’ll shoot them a quick email to let them know that it’s not going to arrive, and when they can expect it.
- When I receive something that I need to review, I give the other person an approximate time frame for when they’ll get my feedback – that time frame will depend on how busy I am that day, how pressing the project is, and what might be in the pipleline. Then I work to meet or exceed that deadline.
- Regular and honest communication is key. I will be honest if I’m swamped and something isn’t on my priority list about when I’ll realistically be able to handle it.
- With very few exceptions (like travel interruptions), I will always get back to my clients within 24 hours and drop whatever else I’m doing to assist them. Without my lawyers, I have no job, so they are always my number one priority. The running joke in the ILN is that between our Executive Director and me, one of us is pretty much awake, and with an international member base, that can be very useful!
- If I get a question and the answer is going to be “no,” first, I’ll try to identify whether there is someone else that can assist them, or answer the question (or if I can find out the answer for them). If the answer will still be “no,” I’m upfront and honest with the person about it. This goes back to the responsiveness issue we discussed above. I’d rather not waste the other person’s time with wondering whether I’ll respond or not, with them having to write me an email or call me, etc. Not everyone will be happy to hear “no,” but being honest will bring you far more goodwill than avoiding the issue will. I will add the caveat that over the last few years, as I’ve gotten busier, if it’s clear that the person hasn’t done their homework when contacting me, and doesn’t know the bare minimum about my business, and it’s a cold call, I may ignore the email (especially if it’s addressed generically and not personally). I used to respond to everything, but over time, that becomes impractical. I hate to advocate for that, but when someone DOES take the time to understand me and my business, I will absolutely give them my time.
When we get mired down in the day-to-day minutiae of our work, it can be easy to forget that these common courtesies are essential to good relationship building and client management – and that they’re easy to build back in to make our reputations stand out.