Can Excellent Client Service Be Taught?

A brief article in the July 2006 Inc. magazine caught my eye. The piece was about customer service in restaurants, but the lesson applies to law firms, too. A reader asked whether great customer service can be taught. The answer, by Danny Meyer, CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group, a company which includes the Gramercy Tavern among its holdings, makes a distinction between customer service and hospitality, and claims that the latter cannot be taught.

Meyer says that in the restaurant business, customer service is, “getting the right food to the right person at the right time.” In the legal world, that translates to performing the work competently and on time for the client. In short, it’s what I call technical skill.

Hospitality, on the other hand, is defined by Meyer as, “the degree to which your customers feel that your staff is on their side.” To Meyer, this includes such intangibles as remembering repeat customers, listening, making eye contact, and handling mistakes well.

When I talk about providing excellent client service, I’m talking about what Meyer calls hospitality. That’s the real essence of client experience. It’s what will make the difference between a good law firm and a great law firm. In the legal world, there’s nothing the client wants more than to feel that his lawyer, and indeed the entire firm, is on his side.

The ‘hospitality mentality’ needs to be present throughout your firm in order to provide your clients with a good client experience. Your receptionist should take care to remember long-standing and repeat clients. Professional staff must be mindful of listening to the client’s needs and concerns, rather than merely barging in with the lawyer’s solution to what the lawyer perceives the client’s problem to be. Clients must be treated courteously and professionally at all times. They should always be made to feel that everyone in the firm, regardless of position and familiarity with that particular client, is there to serve the client – as indeed they are. For a truly spectacular client experience, everyone within the firm must be willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for a client, and to do the unexpected.

Sound easy? It may be, but time and time again I’ve observed law firm personnel, whether staff or attorneys, ignore clients sitting in the waiting room, brush off a client’ s call without attempting to help because they aren’t familiar with the client’s problem or because the person whose ‘job’ it is isn’t currently available. Client service is the job of every individual employed by the law firm.

For employees who aren’t providing the proper level of hospitality, Meyer recommends telling the employee precisely where he’s going wrong and giving him a fixed amount of time to make specified improvements. For law firms, that means feedback of a less than traditional nature. And that feedback can’t wait until an annual performance review – your relationships with your clients are too important for that. Feedback needn’t be formal, but it must be provided at all levels on an ongoing basis. This feedback should be made in conjunction with client review sessions or client satisfaction programs.

Hospitality, or an outstanding client experience, is often a product of the firm’s culture and environment as a whole. As Meyer cautions, “hospitality starts with employees treating one another with respect and trust. If that’s missing with your staff, it will be missing with guests.” Wondering whether your clients are being treated the way you want them to be? Look first at how your partners, associates and staff treat one another – if your internal culture, atmosphere and communication are poor, chances are the client experience with your firm may not be as positive as you’d like it to be.

Meyer contends that the key to hospitality is hiring the right people, because hospitality cannot be taught. Although I don’t necessarily agree completely, I do agree that a firm can’t provide its clients with a truly great client experience without the right people. Meyer says he looks for five key traits when interviewing prospective candidates to work in his business: friendliness, curiosity, a good work ethic, empathy and self awareness. What do you think are the key traits a legal employer seeking to increase the quality of client experience with her firm should look for?

This article originally appeared on my blog, and prompted a number of comments. To see the post and the comments, go to:

For more about how your firm can incorporate client service into its cultures, see these articles and blog posts: Considering Client Service as Part of Employment Reviews, Exceeding Clients’ Expectations, How Client Dissatisfaction Can Hurt You, Do You Know What Your Clients Really Want? and Rules for Client Service.

If you’d like to read more about client feedback programs, you can check out these articles and blog posts: Do You Know if Your Clients are Satisfied?, Tips For Obtaining Client Feedback, What to do With Client Feedback and More on Client Surveys and Client Satisfaction.

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Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

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