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Experience is everything: Culture, clients, and the impact on legal service delivery

This column is the first in a three-part series aimed at continuing a discussion on how law firms must compete in today’s legal market on client experience: the culmination of a well-defined culture, the right clients, and tailored, efficient legal service delivery. In this segment, we cover culture and its impact on client experience.

I recently heard someone say that our clients aren’t comparing us to our competitors; they are comparing us to their last best experience.

Hobbs

Hobbs

That comment, echoing IBM’s head of global business services, Bridget van Kranlingen, sat with me and has rung in my ears ever since: Their last best experience.

My last best experience was this morning when I placed an order with a purveyor of coffee via my phone while idling in a drop-off line, paid with stored credit in the company’s app, clicked “Directions” on my digital receipt for the quickest route, drove through and grabbed my favorite protein-and-caffeine breakfast, and returned to the highway on my way to work in mere moments. Without appreciating the gravity of this ease, I have subconsciously compared other experiences to that last best experience all day.

You can probably identify a similar, recent occurrence. This is the last best experience at work in our daily lives. And like it or not, it impacts us all.

“As the owner of a service business, I know our clients have access to an ever-larger pool of firms that provide the same technical services as we do,” said Wright Sullivan, founder and owner at A&E Engineering, Inc. “In this climate, creating a firm where every person is obsessed with our clients’ experiences, and not just their technical outcomes, becomes the only way to ensure clients will go out of their way to choose us and we will continue to thrive.”

In any industry—not just the highly competitive, oversaturated legal field—firms must focus on creating the last best experience, at the very least, among their competitors.

Differentiation through client experience is about becoming the measuring stick.

How does a firm do this? Big or small, young or old, you must first figure out ‘who’ your firm is. Next focus on identifying exactly which clients fit the firm (part two of this series), and then create a delightful client experience through legal service delivery (part three).

Let’s start with who you are.

If you haven’t defined your culture, your values, and the vision for the future of your firm, now is the time. The people responsible for providing the best possible experience to your clients would really like to know what bounds they are working toward and what boundaries they are working within. This doesn’t have to be expensive or terribly painful, but it does need to be thoughtful.

“It’s difficult to dedicate time to working ‘on’ your law practice, rather than having a sole focus of working ‘in’ your law practice,” said Camille Stell, president of Lawyers Mutual Consulting and Services. “Providing client service in the form of practicing law is usually a more comfortable role for lawyers. However, disciplining yourself to focus on your practice as a business owner will ultimately allow you to provide even better services to your clients.”

For a solo or very small firm, this might require just an afternoon to gather your people around a table and ask the questions, “How do we want people to describe us?”, “Why are we here?”, and “What do we really care about?” The answers help form your mission and values.

Ask, “What do we want to look like in five years?” This vision for the future should factor in elements like size by headcount, geographic footprint, and services or practice areas. And finally, ask, “What is it that we do beyond providing legal advice?”

For larger firms, this process might require a series of surveys or meetings with small groups, asking similar questions and securing buy-in from all levels of the firm. These answers must be authentic and achievable, but they also can (and should) be aspirational and require your firm to stretch.

This is not an exercise for just lawyers. While the partners of the firm must embrace and subscribe to the firm’s vision and values, excluding the executives, support staff and other administrative professionals may be detrimental to adoption and long-term adhesion.

“Also, why not rely on the expertise of the group?” Stell said. “Your professional staff brings a variety of experience and skills to the table that you may not have.”

Gathering input from everyone across the firm is critical to garner the buy-in needed to achieve your goals. There are a great many consultants and facilitators who can assist with this process if there is not someone in your firm who is comfortable leading such efforts. The ideal outcome is straightforward, succinct and can be summarized in a one-page document.

Keep in mind, this is an iterative process.

Putting your firm’s core values in writing does not mean you can put them on a shelf and steer a clear course to success in the legal industry today. It means that, once written, your vision, values, and mission give you the rubric by which to make both the important and seemingly unimportant decisions. Once communicated, they empower everyone in the firm to step up his or her individual game and contribute to the firm’s pursuit of becoming the last best experience.

In this environment, everyone can operate at his or her highest and best. The firm will work in unity, with purpose. And every few months, the leadership of the firm should be looking at the document and asking, “Are we being true to these values?” and “Do we still subscribe to this vision?” This offers a chance to assess the culture and keep the firm headed in the right direction. You will know that you are on the right track when what’s been written resonates with the people in your organization, feels authentic and makes once-difficult decisions much easier.

These things constitute your ‘who;’ they encapsulate the character of the firm. This personification allows for potential clients to become better acquainted with your firm, at a much faster pace, if well communicated and thriving throughout the firm.

In the next part of this series, we will look at how to identify the clients you pursue, engage with, and endeavor to keep.

Brandi Hobbs is the director of client service and strategy at Poyner Spruill LLP. She works closely with the firm’s management committee, attorneys, and teams to increase efficiency within the firm, get to know the industries they serve, deepen relationships with clients, and get creative about their approaches to all of the above. She is also the leader of the firm’s client service department.

 

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