Posted by Dave Seager, consulting adviser to Legal Futures Associate SIFA Professional
Calling a customer a client does not make them one, even if you consider them to be. Only the individual or individuals can truly decide whether they consider themselves a client of your legal practice.
However, the regularity with which a customer buys a service from you is likely to be the determining factor.
Buying a service on a one-off transactional basis would certainly make someone a customer, whereas buying services or seeking advice on an ongoing or regular basis might suggest that someone has evolved into a client.
I guess the question a business must ask itself, and be honest in answering, is this: if someone has bought a legal service or taken legal advice from your firm, are you confident they would return if they needed a different legal service or advice in the future?
If the answer is yes, then you may have a client. If the answer is no, then perhaps you only have a customer.
In a truly competitive legal services market, where solicitors are having to compete with multiple other legal service providers and continual new entrants, who often offer legal services combined with other complimentary services, regular client contact becomes crucial.
This, almost certainly begins with your website, making sure you have embraced and gone far beyond the requirements of the transparency rules in portraying your services (not just the compulsory ones) in a clear, confident light.
Going beyond should involve personalisation, by adding academic and individualised information about the key people in your firm who will be delivering the services – the team, not just the lead solicitor. Individual details and a face on a webpage help personalise the customer experience from the very beginning and this is a good first step into making that customer a potential client.
From this promising start, knowing as a customer with whom I will be dealing, what their responsibilities are and that it will be the same person or persons throughout the process, is the next stage in my journey from customer to client.
Since 2019, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has placed huge emphasis on concise, jargon-free client-care letters and this is another opportunity to reinforce the message that you want them as a client.
Indeed, in its guidance on client-care letters, the SRA outlines what it believes are the main business benefits of quality client-care letters; retaining clients is front and centre.
A clear and honest website, which begins to personalise the process and following this up with a concise, easy-to-understand client-care letter, will hopefully win the customer’s business. But what will be the key to ensuring the customer stays with you as a client?
Perhaps a crucial aspect can be addressed within the culture of your business to increase the chances of a client relationship evolving: first, a clear demonstration that you are interested in all the individual’s affairs and not just the immediate legal matter at hand; and second, you must communicate regularly and effectively with them.
Showing you have a holistic interest in the customer is important, and proper fact-finding will assist you. Might they need complimentary legal services that your firm can also offer or perhaps other ancillary advice you can facilitate by a referral to thoroughly researched partners, such as financial planning or accountancy professionals?
By facilitating the referral to a trusted partner, you are treating them as a client, not a customer, and they will appreciate the distinction.
If, having identified a need for complementary advice, you fail to make the referral, it could easily be deemed that you are not acting in their best interests. This in turn, might jeopardise them becoming a future permanent client.
Developing your knowledge of the client will assist you with effective and ongoing communication. It will ensure that you send them appropriate newsletters or information and working with trusted referral partners can help in this arena too.
Material available from the financial planning partners you have identified, for example, can offer you information on financial planning opportunities linked to your work in areas such as estate planning, divorce or trustee investment.
If you have not finalised your third-party referees for linked financial planning, then you might find the perfect partner, who will understand you and your requirements, here on the SIFA Professional Directory.
It is time to ask honestly, as a solicitor’s business, whether you really have a client bank or a collection of files on one-time customers.
If the answer is the latter, then now is the time to act and there is no doubt that quality financial planning partners can help you change that customer into a client, particularly as the nature of such evolving planning needs regular mutual client contact.