Client Relationships ~ You Have to See the BIGGER PICTURE

I met yesterday with a friend who is legal director for a large company in the South West. Previously, he was a corporate partner, and was massively focused on winning work and gave everything to the job.

He shared with me a number of rather depressing stories of (un-named) firms that had missed the mark when it came to:

(a) client service;

(b) understanding non-verbal cues; and

(c) seeing the BIGGER PICTURE.

The underlying theme, and one that I found summed up the legal profession, was the obsession (perhaps it would be more apt to call it an addiction) with hourly billing. To say that each firm appeared intent on adopting a blinkered approach would be a massive understatement. In fairness to the said firms, perhaps my friend had not been as clear with his verbal cues as to what (a) he expected of them and (b) what he thought was valuable, intrinsically or otherwise. That said there was clearly a chasm of expectation.

Of course, I am not the first, and I won’t be the last, to bemoan the fixation with hourly billing. And whilst it is easy for those standing outside practice to knock great lumps out of the profession, I can understand, having left practice only last year, why it is that firms find it hard to wean themselves off of this self-perpetuating modus operandi.

It is so easy to keep ploughing a furrow where the path is so well worn that to think outside the box would be heresy. But in adopting this mentality, certainly as regards commercial work, it misses the fundamental point that clients don’t work or perceive of things in (remotely) the same way.

The fifth habit in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is – Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. I have the book and audio version, and it takes up a considerable part of the programme.

It occurred to me driving back that this empathetic way of dealing with people was apposite to this issue. I won’t go into the minutia of the book but I would encourage all lawyers to go and read (or re-read) this chapter.

This part of the book, though, does stand out:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.”

It is important that your start listening to what clients actually want. They don’t like hourly billing, and the firm that seizes the initiative will have a significant competitive advantage. And even if you tell me that you work on fixed fees, we all know that your paradigm is the hourly model i.e. what you might have charged had you charged per hour.

Just imagine a scenario where you asked the client how much they thought the job was worth? You dare not I suspect for fear that they would undervalue what is involved. But I think that belittles the client. My experience is that most commercial clients have a fairly good feel for the value of the service, even if their paradigm is not the same as yours. Don’t forget you are not the only type of supplier they deal with. And for them some jobs carry greater risk and they understand that you will need to work harder for your reward.

The other point which came out of the discussion was the fact that law firms only see their one small part of the transaction and not the bigger picture. This is not the old chestnut of cross-selling but rather getting to know the client’s business as well as them. Apart from anything else it will show that you care, rather than just seeing the client as another trophy to win.

You will know by now that one of my mantra’s is MBWA. I am thinking of changing this to MBWA[EveryDayLeadsToProfit] but may be that is just one or two letters too far. The thing is wandering about means more than being predictable. It means being intensely curious. It means loving the client’s business almost as much as them. It means believing with your heart that you can help them in good times and in bad. It means championing them in the same way that you expect them to spread the Gospel of your firm’s ethos. It doesn’t mean saying one thing to the client and something completely different about them behind their back.

You may think I have lost the proverbial but you need to be constantly asking the question: “Are acting for the right clients?” Do they fit your values and that of the firm? Yes, you might have billed £100,000 in the last year but does the fit/cultural link feel right? I can think of more than one client where you just knew the relationship wouldn’t last, and that does more damage over the long haul than being focused on billing.

Perhaps I have already said too much but this issue is another one on your every expanding list to take seriously. I know you have a slew of regulatory and market issues coming at you one after another and that is why this part of what you are doing has to count for more than the turnover.

Seeing the BIGGER PICTURE is never going to be easy when you have an FD breathing down your neck for fees. I don’t have all the answers to that repressive approach but one thing I do know is that short term gains are just that. They take you down a blind alley. Ultimately, you are far better off having less clients, serving them to the very best of your ability and making a reasonable return rather than looking constantly for clients that you can bill more and more.

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