The increasing competition in the legal industry highlights the importance of differentiation and adding value beyond the work product. Face-to-face interactions with clients are a critical component in differentiation because they provide the opportunity to understand better the nuances of clients’ businesses, develop deeper relationships, and drive productive collaboration.
Under this guiding principle, Baker Donelson spent the past five years emphasizing the important role client visits play in providing exceptional client service. In response to the realities of the legal industry, including changing market dynamics and increased competition, the firm was determined to put a more singular focus on in-person client interactions.
Toward that end, in 2016, Baker Donelson launched a Client Visit Initiative that leveraged training, software, and gamification and resulted in visits to more than 2,650 clients. The in-person interactions afforded the attorneys a deeper understanding of the clients’ goals and personal interests. They also provided opportunities to enhance service delivery based on the feedback the clients shared. Firms of any size can apply the fundamentals of this Client Visit Initiative to enhance the value they provide to clients.
The key driver for the client visit initiative was for attorneys to increase the number of meaningful face-to-face interactions with clients outside the course of normal business. That focused the firm’s efforts in three areas: 1) increasing the frequency of client visits; 2) improving the quality of those interactions; and 3) tracking the visits to better support follow up.
Increase the frequency of client visits. When attorneys spoke about the frequency of their in-person interactions with clients, many referenced depositions, trials or closings. By defining a visit through the lens of the client — a meaningful face-to-face interaction outside the course of normal business — the attorneys reevaluate the frequency and the client’s perception of their in-person visits.
Improve the quality of these interactions. The firm emphasized that the purpose of the visits is to gain a deep understanding and appreciation for clients’ goals, communication preferences and unmet needs. In advance of the visits, the firm’s business development team provided attorneys with succinct research dossiers and a handful of open-ended questions, and coached them to listen for opportunities where the firm could add value. The preparation bolstered the attorneys’ confidence, provided greater comfort to ask probing questions and allowed them to actively listen to clients’ responses.
Create a clear and trackable lead measure. Many are familiar with the well-known concept, “What gets measured, gets done.” While some argue its origin and relevancy, Baker Donelson applied the principle that consistent measuring and reporting improves focus and execution for this initiative. Tracking client visits allowed the firm to:
- Ensure attorneys extended the conversation during the visit through to specific and valuable follow-up;
- Provide targeted support of attorneys’ efforts to grow client relationships;
- Improve internal collaboration by connecting subject matter experts across practice groups and offices;
- Identify industry trends and proactively contact other clients in those industries to inquire about the trending needs;
- Tie these activities to firm performance; and
- Cement the importance of client visits in firm’s culture.
Baker Donelson launched the initiative in three phases. Starting in January 2016 with a single department as a pilot group, the first phase took six weeks from conception to launch. To ensure attorney engagement, the firm developed a competition among the department’s practice groups and provided fun prizes as incentives. A simple form on the firm’s intranet where attorneys or their assistants could log visits, which then fed a comprehensive database of client visits, provided a tracking system that was reliable, easy to access, and user-friendly. The department chair set an initial goal of 1,000 client visits, which equals about six visits per attorney over 12 months. The communication plan utilized the department chair’s existing weekly email to keep the initiative top of mind and drive competition.
Attorneys responded enthusiastically by logging visits immediately. The weekly email updates included a resource document with tips to prepare for visits, a chart depicting each practice group’s progress and notes highlighting individual attorneys who collaborated on visits to provide exceptional value to clients.
The practice group leaders drove competition by commenting regularly on their group’s standing. Six months into the pilot program, the department chair declared a “Client Visit Day,” which resulted in 83 client visits. At year’s end, the department members’ client visits totaled 1,270. The stories attorneys shared about what happened during their visits sustained momentum — many found that when they visited their clients’ offices, they took the opportunity to address their clients’ questions in real time and identify unmet needs, which led ultimately to new engagements.
Given the pilot program’s success, Baker Donelson replicated the initiative across all departments. The firm’s top leaders launched the program, noting the significance of the initiative and the importance of logging client visits to ensure supported follow up. With the positive feedback, they continued to provide regular updates through email and during meetings on the number and quality of visits.
Once the initiative expanded to the entire firm, attorneys provided helpful feedback that highlighted the need for additional resources. Attorneys requested “on-the-go” access to resources to support client interactions in real time.
Over the course of five months, the firm created an iOS app that houses important firm information, including example questions to ask clients, answers to common client questions, and sample pricing proposals. The app’s features allow attorneys to log client visits and submit their corresponding expense reports to achieve greater efficiencies.
In April 2017, Baker Donelson launched the app firm wide with a brief instructional video and user guide. The attorneys welcomed the efficiencies afforded by the app and the firm’s leaders encouraged its use in their communications about the initiative.
Starting Your Own Initiative
Firms looking to engage their attorneys in similar client-facing initiatives should consider incorporating the following elements in their strategies:
- Keep the voice of the client in the room as you create, plan, launch and refine the initiative.
- Identify the goal, possible obstacles and ways to address them.
- Work with firm leaders to ensure they value the goal, agree with the approach, and are willing to serve as champions.
- Look for ways to tap into attorneys’ inherent competitive drive to motivate and engage them.
- Leverage in-house resources to track, measure and report on the progress and success of the initiative.
- Communicate on the progress towards the goal at regular intervals to keep it top-of-mind with participants and to emphasize the importance of reaching the goal.
- Seek feedback from the participants about ways to improve the initiative and continue to refine your approach.
***** Brook Redmond is the Director of Business Development at Baker Donelson who works with and coaches attorneys to increase business-development acumen. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ali Ferro is a Business Development Manager at Baker Donelson where she facilitates business-development training programs. She may be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.