For many years, I struggled to get prompt client instructions. As a young man sure of himself, I blamed this on the clients. They were obviously at fault. However, I eventually changed my mind and decided that maybe I was at least partially responsible for this. After trying many ideas, I recently tried a new approach that got me great results, which I want to share here.
Of course, I describe in this post what I did and what worked for me. Your situation/type of clients may differ and some or even all of this article may not apply to you. I have a large base of non-corporate and small business clients and often communicate with non-attorneys and non-agents. My suggestions are mostly for this type of client.
My method is inspired by how the masters of communication do it. Surprisingly, I realized that for my purposes, the real masters are copywriters and on-line marketers. After all, they are expert at convincing people to take action. As an experiment, I tried to apply their techniques to my communications with clients. I did this not with the goal of selling them something that they didn’t need, but with the goal of simply getting them to provide instructions promptly.
In any communication with a client, I have three goals. First, I need to inform the client of facts. Often, there is a deadline involved. There is an action to take, and sometimes there are many options. Second, when there is an action to take, I want the client to give instructions, preferably immediately when they read my letter or email. Finally, since as a patent professionals I deal with legal issues, I need to protect myself from any liability. This is done by having clients acknowledge that they are aware of a deadline and that they understand the consequences of not meeting it.
To achieve these objectives, I need to catch the attention of a busy client. I then need the client to absorb and understand the information I provide. I finally need to get client instructions so that I can do the work or let the application/patent go abandoned. Here are the various principles and techniques I started using to that effect.
I send most communications to clients mainly through email, but these principles would probably work also for paper mail communications. My subject line always starts with the deadline, in all caps. This lets the client know immediately that there is something to do and provides a sense of urgency. This also implies that if nothing is done before the due date, there may be consequences. Then, the header clearly identifies the country and application, followed by more administrative stuff, such as file references. For example, I may write: “DUE DATE JANUARY 31, 2016: Response to examiner report for Canadian patent application 2,000,000 for a garage door opener (Our Ref. 11111-1; Your Ref. N/A).”
I then structure the body of my email as follows: facts, advice/opinion/suggestion and call to action. The first item is standard in our field. We tell the client that we received the office action, state that some/none of the claims are allowable and state the deadline (I often repeat the deadline here). The second section is less used, depending on the firm and client. I will often suggest a course of action, if I can do so in a few minutes, or suggest to the client to tell me if they want me to provide suggestions. Many of my clients are not patent specialists. Providing an opinion will help them in deciding on the action to take. Uncertainty about what to do often leads to procrastination by the client, which I want to avoid. Finally, the call to action is simply a sentence asking for client instructions. I used to finish my client communications with “Please provide instructions at your earliest convenience/by some date”. I found that this was too vague and demanded too much effort to process. When the client is at the end of the email, he is often starting to think about the next thing to do on his agenda. I use much more precise calls to action, such as “Please confirm that you will pay the next maintenance fee” or “Let me know if you want me to prepare a response to the office action”.
I found that by leaving out the additional deadline (the deadline for responding), I get faster responses. It seems that by introducing this “respond by” deadline, I almost suggested that the client should wait until that deadline before responding. In any case, it was almost useless as clients would often miss that deadline and I would have to contact them again anyways. I set internally such a deadline, and will recontact the client if no instructions have been received and we are getting close to the deadline. However, I find that I need to do this much less often when I use the techniques described in this article.
I used to write long letters with long paragraphs and what I thought were elegant sentences. With a lot of my clients, this did not work at all. I now try using short sentences and short common words when possible. When many actions are needed, bullet points or numbered lists are used. For example, I would write in the past for a Canadian patent application:
We need to file the request for examination and pay this year’s maintenance fee by January 31, 2016 in this matter. Since your corresponding US patent has been allowed, we may request accelerated examination under the Patent Prosecution Highway program. This would require that the present application be amended to correspond to the allowed US application and that we file the corresponding form. However, no additional government fee would be due. Please provide instructions at your earliest convenience, but no later than January 15, 2016.
There would also typically be some information about the costs of doing the work, sometimes in a different paragraph.
I would now instead write:
We need to file the request for examination and pay this year’s maintenance fee by January 31, 2016. It is also possible to request an accelerated examination if you want to accept in Canada the claims that we recently got allowed in the US. This would result in getting the first examination report within a few months. Otherwise, you can expect the examination report within 1-2 years. I therefore need to know:
1 – If you want to pay the maintenance fee (my fees/government fee, with amounts in dollars)
2 – If you want to request examination (my fees/government fee, with amounts in dollars)
3 – If you want to accelerate examination (my fees).
If we do not go ahead with 1- and 2-, the application will become abandoned. Item 3- is optional.
I would also often review the allowed claims and tell the client what our chances of getting broader claims in Canada would be, so that they can decide to proceed or not with accelerated examination (ie the PPH).
I also improved the way I start and end each email. If the email is short, I go with a simple “Dear Mr. Smith,” and then go right into the matter at hand. If the email is long, I will often start with “There are a few upcoming deadlines for your patent application. A summary of what I need is found at the end of this email”. This gives the client an option to go straight to the “meat” if they are in a hurry. This works well with long time clients who trust me. I will also end emails in which there is any complexity with “Don’t hesitate to call me if you want to discuss these options”. You may think “of course the client will call if they have a question”, but this is far from automatic. By welcoming the call, you increase the chances that you will not have to chase after the client to get questions and instructions.
I try to personalize each email to the client. It may take a few more minutes than using standard forms and letters, but this differentiates our firm from large firms that use boiler plate reminders. It may be as simple as wishing happy new year, inquiring if their most recent business development idea worked well or stating that you saw them in the press recently. I don’t have any idea if this increases responsiveness as I have been doing this for many years.
Clients often had questions regarding my price quotations in the past, and by that I mean of course asking themselves why patents are so expensive. A well known marketing technique is to address objections before they are formulated. Notably, in recent years, my clients had to deal with the almost doubling of US fees when the micro entity status became available (if they were not eligible for this status) and the abrupt fall of the Canadian dollar in view of foreign currencies. I always separate my fees from government and associate fees, as most of you probably do. If the government fee is large, for example the client may be very surprised that the cost of paying the second US maintenance fee is 4-5 times the cost of paying the first one they paid 4 years ago, I may start with “Unfortunately, the government fees increased sharply since we last paid a maintenance fee in the US and the Canadian dollar has devaluated by 30%. The cost of attending to payment of the second maintenance fee will be XXX$, of which YYY$ represents my fees. YYY is of course only a fraction of the total fee, and close to what I charged the client to do the same work years ago. That way, the client does not think that I am there to gouge him.
Another great marketing technique is to have the client think “past the sale”. For example, if we receive a notice of allowance 2 months after replying to an office action, I will assume that the client will proceed with issuance and write “I suppose that you will pay the issue fee, but please confirm.” The client is then already thinking about issuance and may as well ask you to proceed right now.
These are all things that I have used at some point with my clients, and I often use most of them in a single email. It may be surprising, but this method works very well. I now have almost no need to send additional reminders after the first email for many clients. I have listed below a few ideas that I may try in the future. Let me know in the comments if you have tried them and if they worked or not for you.
- Send reminders of due date in text messages (after getting approval from client to do so).
- Use one of the services that allow confirmation of reception of email by clicking on a link. Then, I know that the client has read the email.
- Offer a discount on my fees if the client responds quickly. I am mainly thinking of things like maintenance fees for which a prompt response reduces the amount of work to do considerably. I prefer the discount idea to the idea of having a surcharge for late instructions. While the end result may be the same in terms of dollars, the discount idea will please clients, while the surcharge one would probably create some animosity. As professionals, we often state in our terms and conditions that urgent matters may incur a surcharge, but I rarely if ever see this enforced.
- Instead of asking for instructions by email, offer two links that the client can click: one that says to proceed, the other one that says to abandon the application. An auto-responder can then send confirmation of which instructions we selected to the client.
- Time emails so that they are on top of their inbox when clients reads them. For example, a service could be used to send already drafted emails at around 5AM so that my emails are among the first ones listed when the clients check their inbox in the morning.
- Have an action item that says “I want to proceed, but remind me this closer to the deadline”. This would probably be a good combination with the discount idea. The client has then clearly the option to pay now, with a discount, or pay later, full price.