Posted by Andy Cullwick, Head of Marketing at Legal Futures Associate First4Lawyers 
On 18 September we headed to the annual PI Futures conference in Liverpool, where we launched our fourth annual white paper Converting Clients – Calls, Clicks and Cash .
At the conference, and for my third year, I also had the pleasure of running an afternoon panel session on ‘Understanding customers’.
In this article, I talk about my own personal experience of receiving great customer service and look at the lessons that law firms can learn from looking to another sector for tips. I also draw upon our recent research  that shows where law firms have made improvements and where they now need to focus their efforts if they are to succeed in converting even more enquiries into clients.
So, why do we need to offer great customer service?
Customer service dovetails into driving leads into your business and converting those leads into new clients.
But let me ask you, have you ever set out to offer bad customer service? I’m pretty sure you don’t have it in your vision and values to treat your customers badly. And I’m confident you don’t have it in your strategy to try and annoy them as much as possible.
So, you may well be asking yourself what you need to know about customer service that you don’t already know. And, most likely, you believe that you’re doing it really well.
The reality is that although some firms do offer great customer service, there are just as many, if not more, that are not doing as well.
We have recently completed research  which shows some really interesting statistics, which I will come back to a bit later. But first I’m going to talk to you about estate agents.
Why estate agents? Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, whenever you are looking to improve the way you do things, it’s always good practice to look outside of your industry to draw on what others are doing. Secondly, it’s something that is quite personal to me at the moment, as I’m in the process of buying a new house.
I’ve had some interesting experiences on my home buying journey – some good, some bad and some indifferent. I’m going to focus on the positive by talking about one of the experiences that I had that I consider to be brilliant. I found that Ryder & Dutton, the estate agents, had a great way of dealing with clients.
A personal experience
My experience started with an initial online enquiry for a property that I wanted to view. Within 15 minutes, a representative from Ryder & Dutton contacted me, had taken some basic details and started the process.
They took an interest in me and what I was looking for. They weren’t trying to sell me financial services or asking me if I had a property to sell. They really tried to understand what it was I was looking for – number of bedrooms, price bracket etc – and within a 10-15 minute conversation they had highlighted to me not only the property that I had initially enquired about, but also four or five others that I would potentially be interested in.
Within a matter of minutes I had received an email with the details of these properties, and then within a couple of hours I had actually been successful in arranging a number of viewings for the following Saturday.
The good customer service continued from there: the negotiator who showed me around the properties had extensive knowledge of each of them, almost as if he himself had lived in them for the past 20 years. He pointed out not only the strengths, but the weaknesses and the opportunities too.
He was providing answers to my questions before I even had the chance to ask them and the detail of knowledge he displayed was impressive and went way beyond my expectations.
Whilst viewing the last property, he also advised that someone was potentially going to put in an offer on that property the same day. Later, out of hours on a Saturday afternoon, I did not expect to hear anything from them by way of follow-up, yet I received a phone call from their centralised team in Manchester asking how I’d got on viewing the properties.
At this point they advised me that someone had indeed put an offer in on the last property I had viewed and that, if I was interested, I had until Monday morning to submit an offer of my own. They went one step further, advising that they were open on a Sunday if I wanted to speak to someone about it the following day.
Every time I called them back, they didn’t need to ask me who I was – they automatically knew my mobile phone number as it was stored in the system and it didn’t matter which member of the team I was speaking to, they knew everything about every interaction they had had with me. It was a really customer centric experience.
What can law firms learn from this?
How many law firms are treating their customers in the same way? This is where I want to try and talk a bit more about our mystery shopping that we have recently done.
We conducted mystery shopping across 50 firms across the personal injury sector – submitting an online enquiry and a telephone enquiry to see how well firms handled those enquiries. We were trying to really understand how the firms were dealing with customer experience, the knowledge of the staff they were involved with, how well engaged they were, and how they went about closing the deal.
The really encouraging thing that came out of the research was that four out of every five of our mystery shoppers felt that their overall treatment was both warm and engaging. In addition, there were virtually no complaints about having to wade through legal jargon and technical language.
Dealing with the initial enquiry
How well did firms deal with the initial enquiry? Whilst I’ve just been talking about estate agents, who were ‘open for business’ all the time, I got really frustrated about the number of law firms that weren’t effective at being able to deal with enquiries out of office hours and weren’t utilising technology. And I’m talking about simple things here, such as email and SMS to increase the speed at which they were responding to enquiries.
What we found in terms of how law firms were handling enquiries was a bit of a mixed bag. Some 8% of enquiries submitted weren’t followed up at all. So that’s almost 10% of all the business that is presented to law firms that is just being ignored.
We found that was an even higher percentage across website enquiries – 16% were ignored. Law firms spend thousands of pounds creating websites to drive and generate business, but if they’re ignoring enquiries at the first point of contact, it is just money down the drain. What a terrible waste!
Encouragingly though, we found two-thirds of people had their call answered within three rings, which is a very high standard. When I was ringing some estate agents to try and book viewings, I would sometimes get into a ‘ping pong’ battle – leaving a message, having a message left for me. I rang one estate agent (who I will not name) a dozen times and not once got put through to an answering machine. In this day and age, why does it take so long to be able to get in touch with someone?
So people were picking up the phone in law firms, which is a good start, but we found a quarter of them didn’t engage by offering their name, 16% didn’t ask the caller for their name, and a quarter didn’t tell the potential client who they were about to be passed on to when their call was transferred. This is a vital part of the start of your relationship with the potential client. It really sets the tone of what you are like as a law firm.
The other area that stood out was the slowness of response. A fifth of people who phoned to try and speak to someone because they had a personal injury that they wanted help with, didn’t have their call returned within 24 hours and that rose to 30% for online enquiries.
You can guarantee then that that person has gone cold and walked away elsewhere, resulting in even more lost business.
Next in the mystery shopping research , we looked at knowledge – this was one area that particularly grated on me when in the process of buying a new house.
They insist that you go on a couple of viewings with negotiators and yet most of the time the negotiators that turned up didn’t know anything about anything, even when asked a simple question.
What I really liked about Ryder & Dutton was that the negotiator knew everything about the properties. He was telling me things that hadn’t even occurred to me to ask about. In other examples with other estate agents, I’d ask a simple question, for example “Would the shed come in with the property?”, only to be told they did not know and that I would need to call on Monday to speak to the office. Incidentally, when I called, they did not know either and needed to ask the vendor.
Do people inside your businesses, at every customer touch point, have the answers to help the client with their questions? Can they make the right decisions there and then?
Encouragingly, two out of three people got through to a fee-earner or appropriate expert straight away when making their enquiry. However, 30% of the people that were helped couldn’t get a decision there and then from the law firm as to whether they had a case or not.
This could be down to processes within individual organisations, where a case manager reviews and assesses them later on, but the feedback from our mystery shoppers was that this wasn’t explained to them, which left them feeling rather frustrated, resulting in then feeling like the firm didn’t value them as a customer.
Engagement and empathy
This brings me onto engagement and empathy. At your firm, do you focus on building a relationship with potential clients? Do you aim to build rapport and trust with them? Are you listening to your clients in terms of what they want and what they need?
Historically, when we look back at other customer service reports that have been published across the industry, we see that lawyers aren’t particularly good at showing empathy at times. “Oh you’ve broken your leg, that’s marvellous” isn’t exactly what a client wants to hear. They want to understand that you’re going to look after them.
However, our research  shows that we’ve seen a real change in the landscape – lawyers are much more engaged and are much more empathetic with customers. This is the polar opposite of what I saw of the estate agents who treat you like another ingredient in a sausage factory, totally focusing on selling the likes of financial services to you.
Even when I made it very clear that I had my finances in place, these add-on services were still being pushed onto me and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. I don’t go down to my bank and expect to see the latest houses for sale, and I don’t expect my estate agent to deal with my finances.
Closing the deal
As part of our research , all mystery shoppers were briefed not to commit to a decision because we wanted to see how well law firms responded to them. We wanted to see what law firms would do in terms of phoning potential clients back, and how they would approach the client and try to win their business.
Well, 80% of law firms didn’t follow-up clients after they initially spoke to them about their claim. In addition, over half of the law firms that spoke to customers didn’t try to sell their firm or any of the benefits of why the potential client should choose their firm. This means business is just walking out the door.
So, what’s the difference?
Two or three years ago, research suggested that law firms were showing very little empathy and very little sales skills when it came to customer service and converting clients.
From my own personal experience, it seems that estate agents are demonstrating strong sales skills but little empathy.
So, what can we learn from this and how can law firms improve? Our research  shows that law firms have made big improvements in terms of showing potential clients empathy but that they need to be demonstrating a bit more of a ‘sales’ mentality, perhaps not to the degree that estate agents are, but certainly firms should be talking to potential clients about the benefits of choosing their firm and following-up initial enquiries.
What does this mean for you and your law firm? It means you need to be absolutely sure that you are picking up that phone and answering that email like you really want that business.
Many firms believe they are offering good customer service, but what are they basing this on? When was the last time you reviewed your customer service strategy? When was the last time you stress-tested it?
Things change – the time to review your customer service practises is now. Our recommendations from this research are as follows:
- Do an internal audit of your customer service processes;
- Identify four or five areas for improvement;
- Create an action plan and get your teams involved in implementing the plan; and
- Review on a regular basis.
So, at the start I asked the question ‘why do we need to offer great customer service?’ The reality is that if you’re buying a house, it comes down to the property in question. It doesn’t actually matter how good or bad the customer service is, if they have the house you want, that’s what matters.
In fact, the house that I have bought was from the estate agent who provided particularly bad customer service. Maybe this means there’s no benefit to offering great customer service.
However, should I come to sell my house in the future, I know now which estate agent I will definitely not be using and which estate agent I will.
In our industry, we too provide a service and it’s becoming increasingly competitive. Differentiating your firm by offering exceptional customer service will give you a competitive advantage.
Again, I ask you, do you put customers first? How ready are you for your customers? Are you flexible? Are you adapting to individual needs? More importantly, are you selling yourself? Are you ready for that enquiry?
Staggeringly, when we crunch the numbers and look at all the enquiries, discounting the firms that didn’t call back, as well as the firms that didn’t then try and sell themselves when the mystery shopper said that they weren’t interested, 98% of enquiries that were generated as part of this exercise were ignored.
If law firms can afford to operate on only 2% of the business enquiries they receive, they’re doing very well, but I don’t believe this to be true. When it comes to down to it, great customer service is nothing if you’re not able to close the deal.