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El Rincón de Hildebrandt

5 de Mayo de 2008

Exceptional client, by Perri Pepper Gavulic

Ante la adopción de una estrategia exitosa de la América corporativa, los bufetes de abogados son conocedores de que adquirir un compromiso de servicio al cliente es posiblemente el factor distintivo y sostenible más importante en un mercado cambiante y lleno de gente. Cada vez más, los abogados se están preparando en los elementos de servicio al cliente, la satisfacción del cliente se determina de manera cualitativa y cuantitativa. Pero las empresas están adquiriendo el desarrollo de una cultura de servicio en toda la organización, incluyendo la participación del personal de apoyo.

Firms who engage in satisfaction assessments with their clients hear it regularly—clients will praise the secretary who went out of his or her way to get an answer to a question, laud a receptionist who always recognizes the client's voice, and express appreciation for a billing clerk who worked hard to correct an error. Likewise, these assessments uncover the dissatisfaction of clients who have had less than pleasant experiences - complaints about the lack of "going the extra mile," comments on sloppy correspondence, irritation with employees who go by the book without considering the client's special needs or circumstances. Individually, any of these examples may not cause a client to change firms, but collectively, the overall impression of the service they receive could send them packing.

The trends of the legal industry today are creating a tough and challenging law firm climate, so it is a perfect time to turn to successful initiatives from outside the legal community to see what lessons can be learned. For example, those who have ever been a guest at a Ritz Carlton hotel are not surprised that this hotel has won the coveted and prestigious Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award two times. Exceptional service, known as "The Ritz Carlton Mystique," is their standard, and it's what keeps their customers coming back repeatedly. A look at some of the twenty points in their "Credo" shows the factors that distinguish them and offers valuable lessons for forward-thinking law firms, too:

  • "The Credo is the principal belief of our Company. It must be known, owned and energized by all."
  • "The Three Steps of Service are the foundation of Ritz-Carlton hospitality. These steps must be used in every interaction to ensure satisfaction, retention and loyalty."
  • "It is the responsibility of each employee to create a work environment of teamwork and lateral service so that the needs of our guests and each other are met."
  • "Each employee is empowered. For example, when a guest has a problem or needs something special you should break away from your regular duties, address and resolve the issue." (Source: Ritz Carlton web site, http://www.ritzcarlton.com)

How can law firms ensure that they are developing a service culture that will keep their clients happy and well served? By institutionalizing the process. Many firms have some measures in place, but few firms have a well-defined, formally structured, ongoing program. Companies and firms that are successful at the process of institutionalizing a service culture engage in many similar activities, including the following: they develop written guidelines and protocols; they brand the service program (e.g., give it a name and an identity); they communicate the fundamentals and importance of the program at every level and every opportunity; they find quantifiable ways to measure results; they conduct ongoing assessments; and they continuously seek to develop program enhancements.

There are many factors that could be included in a staff service program, several of which are explained here.

Employee Involvement: One of the hallmarks of the Ritz Carlton program is the expectation that all employees be involved in enhancing service, finding new ways to deliver exceptional service and participating in the ongoing improvement of the program. This type of involvement is an accepted part of the culture—a norm. For law firms who are not quite at this level, consider other, more tangible ways to foster employee involvement such as a contest, incentives, awards, etc. One such contest run by a corporation encouraged employees to submit within a specific time frame at least one idea to improve service in the firm. Prizes (non-monetary in this case worked just as well) were awarded. The company conducted the contest with a lot of fanfare, including signage, giveaway items to tie in the theme, internal publicity and coordinated promotional materials.

Client Service Standards: To help employees understand what level of service excellence the firm is striving towards, develop written client service standards. These standards could include things such as acceptable procedures for returning phone calls, protocols for replying to requests, frequency of communications with clients, billing procedures, etc. Many firms have standards in place, but they are not regularly shared with staff or clients. To make them a normal part of the firm's culture, communicate them far and wide—post them on bulletin boards, include them in employee manuals, and post them on the web site or Intranet.

Training: Training is a critical component of implementing a successful staff initiative. Just developing a service mentality is not enough. Firms must help employees understand how these concepts translate into action on the job. There is a multitude of ways to accomplish this type of training. Here are a few examples: during orientation, through an ongoing series of "Lunch and Learn" sessions, in booklets and pamphlets, by bringing in guest speakers from companies who have successful programs, during retreats, etc. The possibilities are endless, and firms should hold the variety of training forums frequently. When conducting training, some of the methods that have proved to work best include imparting success stories, role playing various scenarios, using visioning techniques, and listening to actual clients.

Client Service Teams: Many law firms are now adopting the model of "Client Service Teams" to better work with clients. But how many of these teams include non-lawyer support staff? Consider including anyone who has any contact with a client on the team. Invite them to meetings in which the client relationship is being discussed. Ask them for input - they will most certainly bring unique and valuable insight to the table.

Rewards and Recognition: Reinforce the culture and service concept often by using rewards and recognition. An interesting feature of the Ritz Carlton's program is that monetary or other tangible awards are not offered to employees who go the extra mile, because they are just doing what is expected of them as employees of the chain. However, regular recognition and "atta boys" are given, particularly during weekly "lineups," a process in which everyone in a specific hotel gathers for information and updates.

Empowerment: Empower employees to take responsibility for client service. Don't make someone ask permission first before going the extra mile. If something is handled poorly, investigate the motive first—if what was done was the only or best way to handle a situation to keep a client happy, then deal with the consequences and don't reprimand the staff member. Reinforce the intentions and successful results. Engage in behaviors that will cause staff to want to take responsibility and initiative.

Quantify and Evaluate: Find ways to quantify the impact of staff participation in service—measure things such as the number of times a particular employee had a positive experience with a client or note how few complaints were received. Evaluate the success of efforts by asking clients for their feedback. This can be done through written surveys or face-to-face interviews. Ask specific questions that will allow an assessment of success or areas for improvement.

Become a Student: The best way to help staff do a better job at client service is to learn lessons from other firms and industries who are successful in this area and then impart that knowledge to them. Advise all to keep their eyes and ears open, and when something makes sense, think about how to translate that to the law firm environment. For example, the Ritz Carlton includes "Guest Preference Tabs" as a part of each employee's uniform. It provides an easy mechanism for the employee to note and record guest preferences in their computer system, which is then used to enhance service on the guest's next visit. A recent guest requested an "egg crate" to soften her mattress, and on a next visit to a different Ritz Carlton, had an egg crate ready and waiting without having to repeat the request. How could this translate to a law firm? Give each employee a pre-printed pad on which they could note client's preferences, and then have these entered into the firm's central database. Then, whoever works with this client in the future can receive a briefing on preferences such as whether the client would rather leave voice mail messages or speak with a "live" person. Other companies noted for providing innovative and excellent client service include Arthur Andersen, Saturn Corporation, Microsoft and amazon.com, to name a few. These companies are not shy about blowing their own horns, and one can learn a lot about their customer service programs by simple visits to their web sites.

Don't forget the internal clients either. Law firm staff supports the efforts of the owners—the attorneys—so developing institutionalized internal programs and standards has great benefit as well. It always helps when people have clear expectations and ground rules for working together. Applying the fundamentals of an external client-focused program to an internally focused service initiative will strengthen the firm at a very critical and fundamental level.

The benefits of an institutionalized client service program are far-reaching and impact clients, staff, and attorneys - everyone involved in the process of delivering or receiving legal services. Besides the obvious, staff who are asked to do more than just "show up" at work every day achieve greater job satisfaction and stability, as well as personal growth and satisfaction.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But then, so does losing ten pounds—we're told to just eat right and exercise. However, just knowing the right things to do doesn't mean we put them into practice. In this busy world, there is competition for our time, resources and creative energy. Client service programs must compete with skills training, merger madness, a technology onslaught, skyrocketing salaries and the myriad other things keeping the days full and management committee meetings lively. But remember, without clients law firms wouldn't exist. So, doesn't it make sense to put client service initiatives at the top of the priority list? It will surely keep those firms that do ahead of the rest.

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