By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director
Maya Angelou was the source of a lot of wisdom over the course of her amazing life and career, exemplified by one of her most famous quotes: I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. These words should be a guiding principle for all of us connected to law and the legal profession as we strive to improve access to justice in an age of increasingly rapid technological change.
Perception Is Reality
We’ve all heard that phrase, and when it comes to how people view lawyers and the legal system, it’s critical to keep in mind. Because fairly or unfairly, our profession has not been known as a beacon of good customer service over the years. While many lawyers and firms lead by example in prioritizing great client service, that remains far from the overall perception of the legal profession. And that reality has significant implications in the quest to ensure that the justice system is fair and accessible to everyone in our community.
Not long ago, lawyers and law firms were effectively the only option for people and businesses to get help with their legal problems. As a result, delivering great customer service might have seemed more of an option back in those days, and like business skills more generally, it certainly was not stressed in most legal education and training.
In today’s age when chatbots and online DIY options are getting better every day and increasingly are available to people and organizations in need of legal help, it is a different story.
We’re Not the Only Game in Town
In some instances, these self-help options can offer effective solutions for people to address or resolve their legal problems on their own. In other situations, these tools may be a good solution when combined with targeted advice and assistance from a lawyer or other legal professional. For many cases though, representation by a good lawyer is crucial to successfully resolving the problem at hand due to the client’s circumstances, the complexity of the matter, the issues at stake, and/or the power dynamics involved.
How we help clients sort out these growing options to find the best solution for their individual situation holds the key to the future of our profession and access to justice more broadly. While there are many ways lawyers and firms will need to adjust their practices to succeed in this new climate, prioritizing great customer service is going to be an integral part of doing that effectively.
Because if clients don’t feel like we provided them with a valuable service and made their lives better, it doesn’t much matter whether our legal work made a difference.
Lessons from Other Industries
While there are some unique aspects to customer service in the legal setting, many of the principles of good service are the same as in other business and service contexts.
Taxis: The way the taxi industry was disrupted in recent years by the arrival of Uber and Lyft is an instructive example. When people think of great customer service, few would have associated that with getting a cab, as not long ago the experience of getting somewhere in a cab was fraught with obstacles and very little sense of control. Sometimes finding a cab at all was a challenge, and if you had to call the central dispatch to order one, there was no telling what kind of response you might get and when or if you might see a cab. If you could find a cab, the condition of the cab was often a crapshoot, as was the ultimate price of your journey. And if you asked about paying by credit card, that request was often met with outright hostility and was not always even possible.
Fast forward to today, and Uber and Lyft have used technology, savvy marketing, and basic principles of good customer service to completely change the transportation landscape. They created an app that gives people a sense of control in their transportation destiny: they can easily order their ride, know when it will arrive, know what kind of car it will be (with some assurance it is in good condition), and have an advance sense of the total cost. They also made it easy to pay for it via credit card, with some accountability if things do not go right.
I do not mean to suggest these companies always get customer service right or can’t be criticized in other aspects of their business, but overall there is a sense they care about what their customers think and are responding to what those customers find most valuable. After getting over the shock of the disruption, the taxi industry is taking notice and changing its ways, but not before sustaining huge and possibly permanent losses. It’s now the norm that you can pay by credit card in a cab, drivers tend to be more responsive and have cleaner and more comfortable vehicles, and there is now even a cab-hailing app.
Retail: The retail industry is another industry facing a seismic shake-up. Now that we all can order just about anything online and on-demand, retailers have to consider what makes their stores uniquely valuable to customers. In other words, what can they deliver in the store that can’t be matched online?
In the retail context, much more priority is now placed on the customer experience. When someone is looking for the particular product or service, how easy is it to find the store, its hours, contact information and what to expect when someone searches online? Assuming they take the next step and come to the store, how does someone feel when they come in? Is it welcoming, clean, easy to navigate, and well-lit? Is a friendly face there to greet them and find out what brings them in to the store and how they can help? Is it easy to compare prices? And if they have questions, is it easy for them to get answers from an approachable and knowledgeable store representative?
Some retailers Starbucks being a great example have long been out in front of this trend and continue to thrive in the new landscape by relentlessly focusing on creating a great customer experience and constantly innovating and adapting. For others though, they either are still trying to adjust or have already lost the battle.
What Will Be Our Profession’s Response?
I don’t mean to suggest for one second that the legal profession is the equivalent of the taxi or retail industries. But the trends disrupting these industries and the critical importance of great customer service in successfully adapting to those trends have many parallels to law and legal services. And if we think we are immune to these trends, we are likely to soon find ourselves in a similar position to the taxi or retail sectors: scrambling to catch up and possibly sustaining permanent damage by the delay, with grave consequences for access to justice.
To be successful, one of the most fundamental things we can do as a profession is to prioritize great customer service, both individually and collectively. And a great place to start in that quest is to always keep that Maya Angelou quote in mind: how do we make our clients and potential clients feel when they consult us and use our services?
There are a number of good consultants and resources on customer service, and I could not and am not going to try to do justice to all of their wisdom here. I will just share what I think are three central points every lawyer, law firm, or legal aid organization should consider:
- Look at your practice through the eyes of your clients, from the time they are potential clients looking for legal help, to the time they become clients, to the conclusion of the representation. I recommend the recent article, Mapping Your Client’s Journey, as some great food for thought on this score.
- Find out what your clients value most, and focus on delivering it. Check out an article on the Attorney at Work Blog featuring Nat Slavin of the Wicker Park Group and the recommendations he shared in a great speech at last year’s College of Law Practice Management Futures Conference.
- Consider how you can give your clients or potential clients options and a sense of control, particularly when it comes to pricing and the scope your services. Yet another reason to ditch the billable hour if you have not already!
Delivering great customer service alone will not be enough for lawyers and firms to succeed in this new era of technological transformation. But we have little chance of success without making it a centerpiece of our profession.