Don’t Try This At Home
How to Conduct Client Surveys, How Not to Conduct Client Surveys
by Dr. Mark Greene
There are two big problems. Solving one often causes the other.
We discussed the first problem in the last Sugarcrest Report. It’s the resistance among law firms to researching client opinion and client satisfaction levels. This resistance is usually intensified by the timidity of individual partners who, being only human, are not especially keen on participating in discussions that might highlight their own shortcomings.
Once managing partners and practice group leaders understand the transcendent value of client research – how it solves festering, often relationship-threatening problems and, at least as important, how it unearths rich new business development opportunities with existing clients – the problem can get solved. Now they see the need to go forward. Now they’re even getting excited about it.
It’s at this point that the second problem arises, and it’s often disastrous. Having collectively agreed to interview core clients, eager to impress and perhaps even resolved to learn, the law firm proceeds to do it all wrong. They use inappropriate research gathering methods. They don’t know what questions to ask. They fail to develop useful information. Sometimes they don’t get much information at all. And, they don’t respond properly to the information that they do get.
In the process, they cause more harm than good.
The Autodidactic Mistake
The idea of client research seems so simple. Partners figure all they have to do is talk to their clients. As adults, they figure to have a sensible chat with their clients and respond with alacrity to reasonable suggestions. Or, they’ll develop a panoply of written documents – questionnaires the clients have filled out – which they may even put in notebooks to look pretty on the shelf.
Such thinking ignores the complexity of firm/client relationships. It forgets that there are many dimensions to relationships in the professional services, and that there is both an art and a science involved in identifying the pivotal areas where clients’ real concerns lie.
It also does not take into account the business development purposes of client research. An affable chat with an associate general counsel at an old client won’t likely reveal what are often the many areas where the firm can expand the engagement. Such thinking produces feel-good pap with no appreciable long-term benefits.
The ‘Corporate’ Mistake
Many law firms make another kind of mistake that is really much worse – because it produces a result that can actually undermine the relationship.
Browbeaten by sundry consultants over the years, law firms are now obsessed with running themselves “like a business.” Of course they should run themselves like a business, but what kind of business? Professional services are all about relationships. Each relationship is a separate business proposition, with unique dynamics and individualized service requirements.
In a very real sense, market segmentation boils down to, “What should I do to best serve this client?”
But, having been lectured to emulate well-run businesses, law firms look to their own clients for market research and customer research models. Firms see that their clients formally research their own customers. So they decide to simply go and do likewise.
The problem is, most corporations are not in the relationship business. And those that are can seldom financially justify customizing their service for individual clients. For most, a worthwhile market segment must include tens of thousands of potential buyers.
Market Research for Legal Services Is Client-Specific
Even for corporations (e.g., GE Medical Systems) that have individual customers worth millions of dollars, the cost of customizing products for each one is still prohibitive. Providers of corporate legal services are in a different situation. Buyers need and expect services tailored to their needs – and, in fact, the financial model of the legal industry can support this customization.
The client survey findings of most value to law firms, prima facie, are those that are therefore client-specific – those, in other words, that point out actions to be taken to correct problems and seize opportunities to develop business. We refer to these as “tactical” findings.
At the same time, the more general findings may be of most long-term value to a firm. As we suggested in our last article, a large enough sample of individual client opinions should affect firm-wide policies and practices, and spur firm-wide initiatives designed to improve overall service delivery. We refer to these as “strategic” findings. These are what we usually mean when we talk about “market research.”
The Tailored Approach
With this critical distinction between two fundamental types of market research (tactical and strategic) in mind, how should law firms then go about finding out what their clients want in terms of service, what they think is most important in managing the relationship, and what additional services they may be ready to buy?
At every stage of this game, from the planning process to how the information is finally packaged, there are essential steps and commonplace missteps. The essential steps help expand relationships. The commonplace missteps help destroy them.
Step: Hire someone who does this for a living.
Misstep: Do it yourself.
Market research is a profession. A professional interviewer knows how to scientifically administer a questionnaire so that the results can be tabulated into statistically meaningful general conclusions (i.e., the strategic findings discussed above). A rambling discussion guided only generally by a questionnaire won’t get it done.
Context Changes Meaning
Those who have conducted hundreds or even thousands of corporate client interviews are able to put your findings in context. For instance, almost all clients complain about cost – it’s their job to lobby for lower fees. Yet experience provides the benchmark data necessary to judge when the cost of service is really an issue. In our concluding article, to appear in next Sugarcrest Report, we will likewise see important distinctions between what your partners think is important and what your clients think is important. Amateur research doesn’t draw such correlations, except accidentally.
What Market Researchers Know
Furthermore, the market research professional knows how to both confine and expand the interview to achieve results. In particular…
- They know when to shut up.
A conscientious partner, or even a conscientious member of the marketing staff, will be eager to offer solutions to the client’s problems during the interview, and to correct apparent misunderstandings related to the firm’s performance. They should be eager. But the survey interview is not the time for rebuttal. Such defensiveness inhibits the client from further disclosure. The time to solve the client’s problems and answer questions is in a follow-up meeting. (More on that later.)
- They know when to talk.
The best interviewers maintain a disciplined and tight-lipped approach, yet still know how and when to probe for more about what’s really troubling a client. For example, an answer like “the firm is hard to do business with” is not very helpful. Professional probing can determine that the real issue might actually be very specific. Maybe what’s really on the client’s mind is that they’ve been asked to pre-process certain litigation documents in a way they find burdensome.
- They actually get the truth.
The fact is, clients will tell things to a third party that they will not tell a representative of your firm – not the responsible partner, not the managing partner, not a lawyer uninvolved with the client, and not a representative from your marketing department. In 19 years of conducting these surveys, we have not been able to really come up with a rational explanation of why this is the case. Clients know that we also represent the law firm, and that their individual results will be shared with you. Yet something about this third-party process creates a comfort zone and loosens the floodgates, time and time again.
Finally, there are a few compelling logistical reasons why firms cannot do this research themselves. Professionals are naturally available to conduct the interview at the convenience of the client. It’s their job. We reschedule our law firm interviews an average of five times each!
Your clients are busy people. They have a tough time being available at a prearranged time for what they may perceive to be lower priority than, say, their own customer relations issues. Professional interviewers are always available, including evenings or on weekends. Your own people cannot be so flexible.
Step: Hire someone who has done this for other law firms – the more, the merrier!
Misstep: Hire someone with deep experience in consumer research.
Here is where, in their great need to feel “business-like,” law firms stumble badly. Market researchers who have produced great results for Coke or Pepsi will usually produce little or nothing of value for you. Their work may even encourage you to overlook the vital concerns of a vital minority of your clients.
Clients are usually demanding that you understand their industries for much of the legal work you’ll be doing, whether it’s financial services or automobiles or energy. You have the same right to demand that those who are performing crucial services on your behalf understand the legal profession in all its glorious idiosyncrasy.
Step: Initially identify a few select clients to survey.
Misstep: Include hundreds of clients in your initial survey.
Here we have another example of why bad market research is worse than no market research at all.
If you survey too many clients, you will not be able to respond fully to most of the client-specific complaints that you unearth, and you will certainly not be able to carefully identify or pursue the new business opportunities that such dialogue should reveal. Large corporate law firms have made this mistake hundreds of times. At best it results in triage. You’re stuck trying to decide which individual problems and opportunities to follow up on, and which to ignore. It’s a daunting situation that often results in no client-by-client follow-up whatsoever.
In the meantime, you’ve raised expectations among hundreds of clients that something useful will result because of the time they invested answering your questions. Imagine that! You’ve just made an implicit promise to many of your best clients. Now, you haven’t got the time to possibly make good on that promise.
The firm itself must choose the clients to be surveyed. No matter how large your firm, experience has taught us that your first wave of interviews should be limited to around a dozen important clients. The criteria for inclusion vary from firm to firm, but we generally recommend that the first wave include the clients of whichever lawyers are most excited about this opportunity and likeliest to enthusiastically follow up with those interviewed. It might be an industry team, a practice group, or an office that is eager to better serve its clients.
The long-term success of the program depends on the success of this first round, so it must be a success. By identifying lawyers most likely to follow up, and picking their clients as the interview subjects, you go a long way toward ensuring good initial results.
Step: Do preliminary research on what kind of questions to ask.
Misstep: Ask questions that you figure would be important to any client.
The action point here is to set up focus groups that are conducted by the research firm doing the actual formal client interviews. Have a sample of eight to 12 clients participate in each focus group.
Based on the focus group discussions, the session moderator develops the specific questions that will be posed during the formal interview itself. Most of the questions you ask are the same that should be asked in all corporate law firm client surveys. However, the ones that can make the most difference are the ones uniquely relevant to your firm and your target markets.
We have conducted over a hundred focus groups with corporate counsel, and we have found that no two law firms have exactly the same target markets (by industry, size of company, company culture, etc.) or offer the same services (by practice area, sophistication of work, bundle of services, value proposition, etc.). As such, no two firms are dealing with exactly the same drivers of client satisfaction and loyalty. To be optimally effective, your questionnaire must include the “standard” questions as well as those required by your unique markets and offerings.
With these focus groups– technically referred to as “exploratory, qualitative research” – we identify the questions that should be included in your survey, which are technically referred to as “conclusive, quantitative research.” Only through these in-depth brainstorming sessions with numerous clients can we be sure to ask the right questions on behalf of your firm. If we don’t ask the right questions, no amount of analysis can lead us to the right conclusions.
It is not an imposition on clients to ask them to participate in a twofold process, one in-person session to determine what they want to be asked about, and a second telephone interview to do the actual Q&A. Remember, most of your clients will have enthusiastically bought in on the whole research process. While the fact that you embarked on this research sends a positive message to clients, the focus groups provide them assurance that you are doing it right.
Your partners will be watching the focus groups from behind a mirror. Usually, they are astonished by much of what they hear.
Focus group material in tow, the market researcher then writes the questionnaire.
Step: The researcher calls the client on the telephone and schedules a convenient time to conduct the interviews.
Misstep: You take the questionnaire developed during the focus group and you mail it to the clients.
Misstep: Your managing partner visits each client for an in-person interview.
There’s no question about it. Telephone interviews are the best way, and usually the only way, to accomplish your goals. Compared to mail surveys…
- Clients are invariably more relaxed and expansive when interviewed by telephone. Mail surveys do not make clients feel special. As such, they have no relationship-building impact and thus defeat a prime purpose of the survey. The same goes for e-mail and Web-based surveys.
- You can usually get at least an 80 percent response rate by using the telephone. Mail surveys typically produce a 10 to 25 percent response rate. Low response rates are the result of participation by only your happiest and unhappiest clients, making it impossible to reach statistically meaningful conclusions about your total client population.
- Telephone interviews yield information that most closely reflects what clients actually think. There are always subtle gradations implicit in their expressed attitudes. The interviewer knows to probe a little further, often eliciting a parenthetical comment, or additional explication, that puts the response in the clearest possible perspective.
- Mail surveys are finally incomplete because they’re so cumbersome. Clients might have something very important to say that can’t really be said in less than 500 words. You’re asking them to do a lot of writing (or with e-mail or Web surveys, typing). You’ve no right, really, to ask them for that, and they won’t usually do it in any event. It’s much easier to put their feet up on the desk and talk with an interviewer.
At the same time, telephone surveys have all the advantages of in-person surveys without the salient disadvantages. Like in-person surveys, they make the client feel important. Like in-person surveys, they can disclose a full gamut of client opinion and business development opportunity.
But, unlike in-person surveys, they are convenient and pressure-free. There is the rare occasion when an in-person survey is both necessary and fruitful, but, as we’ve mentioned, interviews typically have to be rescheduled several times at the convenience of your client. This is not practical when the interviewer must hop on a plane to conduct the interview. You can reschedule telephone conversations as often as necessary.
Bad-case scenario: the clients agree to participate in an in-person survey that turns out to be rushed. They really wish the interview wasn’t even happening. Worst-case scenario: The client sends the interviewer away and never reschedules.
The first rule of all client research must be: Whatever you do, do no harm.
Now It’s Your Turn
For each interview conducted, the interviewer will prepare a report including anecdotal comments made by the client along with commentary on how the problems and opportunities should be handled. Once a statistically meaningful number of interviews have been conducted, the researcher should also provide empirically supported conclusions based on coherent metrics developed from the interviews. The metrics will underscore:
- What’s most important to the clients surveyed;
- What’s at stake for the law firm; and
- What changes in how the firm does business should be considered to correct problems and to take advantage of opportunities.
Client surveys should never be one-offs. To the contrary, the completion of the research for each client is a cue to begin another interview process with that client. However, we strongly recommend that no client be re-interviewed within 12 months. Clients should have time to feel the benefit of participating in the first interview before we ask them to invest more time with us. We use the word “feel” advisedly, for the benefits need to be concrete and palpable.
As future interviews are conducted, you will be able to track progress in client perceptions corresponding to changes made by the firm. During the follow-up, the market researcher’s role is generally limited. Remedying client dissatisfactions is the business of the client teams. Developing new business based on leads suggested by the research is likewise the business of the client teams, perhaps in collaboration with a sales consultant. (In the legal industry, market research professionals often work in tandem with sales consultants, as the one’s expertise begins where the other’s ends.)
The Pay-off: Research Becomes Action
It is the sacred responsibility of firm management to guarantee that the relevant client team or practice group develop and implement action plans in response to all client surveys.
At the conclusion of each round of interviews, ask the lawyers involved what they’ve learned in terms of problems and opportunities. Insist that lawyers articulate the specific steps that must be taken to either correct a persistent problem or increase their share of the client’s business. For example, has the research revealed that the client regards location, and immediate accessibility to lawyers, as an enormous premium?
If so, an action plan may include consideration of a satellite office close to the client’s suburban office. Alternatively, the action plan may enumerate steps to take to provide the felt benefits of such proximity without your having to lease office space and relocate lawyers. An experienced research firm will help in the development of the action plans, and may even offer “best practice” advice on how to ensure that lawyers really do make the time to implement the action items.
One item that should almost always be at the top of the action plan is a face-to-face meeting with the client to discuss the problems and opportunities uncovered. It is essential that these meetings not be defensive or confrontational, whatever topics are on the agenda. (The research firm or sales consultant can also help in the development of the agenda for these meetings.)
Of course, there should be later follow-up to make sure that the client received all the initial response that was promised.
Of all marketing investments you can make, client research is almost certainly the one with the most clearly demonstrable return-on-investment (ROI). Once the follow-up actions have been completed, ask the lawyers to assign rough dollar amounts to the end results. It will become immediately apparent that client surveys, properly implemented and with appropriate follow-up, provide a clear multiple ROI. In turn, the experience demystifies the survey research process and encourages a new openness to investments in other types of market research.
In our final installment, we’ll take a look at examples of survey findings in greater depth to illustrate just how pointed the information can and ought to be – pointed enough, it should be reemphasized, to always stimulate the client teams to action.
There is no better step in marketing professional services than to do client research and generate a service plan based on the findings. There is no worse misstep than to do the research and disappoint client expectations by doing nothing else.
Mark T. Greene, Ph.D., , is Managing Director of The Brand Research Company, which focuses on providing all types of market research for professional service firms. Dr. Greene has been conducting research for law firms worldwide since 1984. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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