We all need to communicate effectively to retain clients and grow our market share. Knowing the law is not enough; we must be able to communicate clearly, empathetically, and appropriately. In this article, I present 13 tools to make your client communications stronger.
It’s All in the Delivery
Clients need to know and understand the many facets of your engagement. Managing a client involves a lot more than just giving the correct legal advice. Giving good advice is a prerequisite to keeping your clients happy, but it’s not enough.
I once worked for a deputy general counsel at a Government agency that told me that a member of my staff was not communicating advice correctly. This individual was a great lawyer; one of the best. He provided ethics advice to senior officials. The deputy general counsel told me that she heard complaints that he was verbally stamping things “ethical” or “unethical” with little explanation or advice about alternative options.
She was right. Although his advice was always correct, his delivery of that advice was not well received. I spoke to the employee and we changed the way that we delivered our ethics advice. We decided basically on a 3-step approach: present the issue, discuss our “initial” thoughts about the matter and if our initial advice was that there was a legal concern, present an analysis of any other available options. Although the message was the same, we communicated it differently and it was received better.
Know Your Audience
We must know our audience, their expectations and their culture to effectively communicate. This requires us to research our client’s business and understand their constraints, as well as their goals. In other words, we need to use many of our emotional intelligence skills, including empathy, impulse control and self-regard.
Even before we communicate, it’s important to lay the groundwork:
- Know Your Client’s Business. Study your clients business and check the press for any recent developments. You will look ill-informed if the client just lost a $10 million case handled by another firm and you know nothing about it. Show your client that you are interested in their business beyond your specific engagement. Also, know your competition and why you are better equipped to handle a particular matter.
- Understand Your Client’s Perspective. If your client is anxious or nervous about a project, you must show the same level of concern. This is what empathy is all about; it’s the ability to pick up on another’s perspective and emotional level. See my prior IPWatchdog article 9 Reasons Why Lawyers Need Emotional Intelligence Skills.
13 Tips for Effective Client Communications
Now that we know what needs to be communicated, let’s look at the best means to communicate. As the situation above about ethics advice points out, the delivery makes all the difference. A good delivery will help you to keep and grow your client base. Here are some key methods for effective communication:
- Everything that Comes Up Does Not Have to Come Out. You have heard it before, think before you talk. You should take a second before responding. Be careful with jokes, they are often hard to deliver well. You must be appropriate even if the client acts like you are old friends. Don’t let your guard down. Be courteous and professional. See my prior IPWatchdog article on the importance of impulse control and how to effectively use it.
- It is often said that the sincerest form of flattery is listening to another person. People love to be listened to in an empathetic (understanding) manner. That’s why psychologists are so busy! Don’t talk so much.
- Everyone Gets to Save Face. Even if another person is flat wrong, don’t humiliate them. It will not make you look good. This applies to your colleagues, as well as your clients. If you have a different point of view think about saying something like this “I see your perspective, I had a different thought….” Never say, “with all due respect…,” that is insulting. That’s why U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley recently said, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
- Keep Your Emotions in Check. Don’t get overly emotional about an issue. You will lose your client’s trust and confidence in a nanosecond. If you appear too assertive, you will not seem reasonable. No one should ever cry about a business issue.
- Be Concise and to the Point. Your written and oral communications should be delivered in a way that is easy and quick to digest. Talk and write in bullet points. The client is busy and paying for your time. Don’t spend a lot of time in the minutia.
- Prepare, Prepare, Prepare. Don’t just call the client and start talking about an issue. Take a few minutes and write down a few bullets about the points that you want to convey and the support for your position. This will help you to be more thoughtful and succinct in your communication.
- Be Confident, but Humble. You must instill confidence in your clients or they will not follow your advice or trust you. If you are too confident, you will come across as arrogant or too aggressive. This can be a bit of a tightrope. The key is to be confident, yet humble. See my article 3 Essential Questions for Lawyers to Conquer Their Fears.
- Don’t BS When You Don’t Know. Be honest if you don’t know the answer. No client expects the lawyer to know the immediate answer to every question. You don’t have to say “dah, I don’t know.” A good lawyer will say “that’s an excellent question, here’s my initial thought…but let me button it down and get back to you [tomorrow].” The absolute worst thing is to give the client a definitive answer when you are not certain and then have to retract it later.
- Create Options with Associated Risks. Don’t just give one answer unless it’s crystal clear that it is the only option. Your client needs to know what the various options are for resolving the issue and the risks associated with each of the options. This is the mark of a true counselor/advisor.
- No Surprises. Manage your client’s expectations. Don’t tell the client that the case is a “slam dunk,” if it’s not. Be honest about the prognosis. As they say, it’s best to “under promise and over deliver.” You can still be confident in your abilities without creating expectations that you have no control over. For example, if you are a litigator, you may have a great case, but you cannot control the judge. Very few cases—if any—are a “slam dunk.” It’s good to be an optimist, but be careful not to promise things that you can’t control. Try out the phrase, “it looks very promising.”
- Give an Opinion. Once you have laid out the options, tell the client the option that you recommend and why. I have seen too many lawyers–whether in private practice or in the Government–throw a hot potato at their client leaving it for them to figure out the most appropriate course of action among many. This is a bad approach. Put yourself on the line–give advice. Nothing will make a client feel more frustrated than a lawyer or patent agent who has no ability to handicap the available options and give a recommendation.
- Let Others on Your Team Talk. If others have worked on the project, let them talk. Including associates and other team members on calls or in meetings with clients to discuss a project that they worked on, makes them feel valued. Including members of your team in the conversation also shows your client the strength of your bench and that your team works together well. It also makes you look confident that you can share the stage.
- Sit Up, Look Interested and Don’t Look at Your Phone. I have seen many lawyers at meetings to pitch new business slouch in their chairs, daydream while a colleague is talking or check their email or text messages. I wouldn’t do this. If we want to impress a client or prospective client, we should, at a minimum, look interested and engaged.
Communication is the Key
We must communicate effectively to be helpful. If the client isn’t listening because our delivery is ineffective or off-putting, it doesn’t matter that our legal opinion was brilliant because they will not be listening. Every interaction or communication with a client or colleague counts.
I can help you to hone your communication skills and to deliver effective and succinct presentations. Let’s work together to improve and build on your performance.