Breakdowns in communication with clients--even small ones--can become a significant impediment to our ability to not only represent our clients, but also run our practice efficiently. Breakdowns can lead to ball-dropping, non-responsiveness, mix-ups, and ultimately frustrated clients and employees.
If you're experiencing breakdowns, rather than immediately turning your attention to what your clients may or may not be doing, take a close look first at the way YOU are communicating. Look at the substance and style of your communication from the perspective of the recipient and evaluate whether YOU are doing everything you can to address the shortcomings.
If you want to be a better communicator, ask these 4 simple questions:
1. Did the person have enough of the right information to take action?
In other words, are you as the communicator providing them with the who, what, where, why and when that they need to take the action that you want them to take? Are you explaining to them what you need, providing examples, due dates, and the preferred format?
Breakdowns of this kind often arise when we're collecting information from clients, like during discovery. If we don't do a good job up front of giving them the information they need to gather documents, respond to our questions, or collect information, then we can expect what they give us to be disorganized and incomplete.
If you need something from them, make the extra effort to give them all the information they need to do it successfully.
2. Was the communication clear enough for them to understand?
Maybe you are giving your client all the right information . . . but are you being CLEAR enough? Are you using words and terminology that your client can understand? Are you burying the lead in a paragraph of other information, or is it crystal clear what you're asking for? When writing emails, check out your headers and your call to action–are these elements clear enough to make them pay attention in the first place?
3. Was the communication delivered in the right way at the right time?
Did you use the right communication medium and did you deliver the communication far enough in advance for them to act on it? Sometimes we choose to use a method of communication that's ideal for US, but that’s not ideal for our clients. If we know our clients don't use email or are bombarded by email, consider picking up the phone. Think about the using the medium that's most likely to get you a response.
Also–and this is a big one–did we give our client enough time to take the action we're asking them to take, or did we fail to plan ahead (click HERE for more on the importance of planning).
4. Was the person properly motivated to respond?
The main question here is: did we provide enough information to motivate the recipient to take the action we want them to take? A lot of times we’re firing off emails asking for things that we need from clients, but we’re not taking the time to explain what’s in it for THEM and WHY they should respond.
Here's the truth: we all prioritize our responses based on what’s in it for US–so if we provide the proper motivation then the level of responsiveness will go up.
For example, explaining to your client not only that you need these documents, but that giving you these documents on time and in a certain format will help you help them solve their problem faster. Motivate them to respond by making an effort to explain WHY.
Interruptions from staff and other team members can break up the flow of your work day and seriously interfere with your ability to get your most important work done.
Experts have estimated that we can spend upwards of 40% of our day dealing with--and getting back on track after--unwanted interruptions.
Most law firm settings do require a certain amount of interruption to move at the speed of your clients and their matters--but that doesn't mean you can't set up some simple rules to reduce at least some of the burden that interruptions are causing you.
If you feel like your office is a revolving door, here are a few ways to address it:
1. Educate your staff on the purpose of establishing new communication routines.
Reducing interruptions starts with educating your team on why you're establishing new communication rules. Make it clear that the goal is to help the office run smoothly by bucketing certain questions and communications together and creating more uninterrupted time for everyone to concentrate on individual work.
2. Create rules and define an "emergency".
Identify rules your team can follow when it comes to communicating with one another. For example, if you want the hours between 10:00am-11:30am and 1:30pm-3:00pm to be uninterrupted work time, create a rule that no one interrupts you unless X, Y, or Z happens. Define what's not important enough for you to be interrupted , and also define circumstances where you do want them to communicate with you immediately--for example, client calls, potential new matters, or emergencies (and define what counts as an emergency).
3. Establish times for questions.
If you're going to have periods with no interruptions, then also establish well-defined periods for questions and work-related discussions. Some attorneys who supervise others hold open "office hours" at specific times throughout the day, others will ask that questions are held until the top of the hour. Experiment to see what works best for you and your team.
4. Define what kinds of issues are good for weekly meetings.
Some questions don't even warrant discussion on a daily basis, and are better suited for weekly meetings with the whole team present. So also make it a point to define the kinds of questions and issues that are better covered at your next staff meeting. For example, breakdowns in processes and firm systems, or matters that relate to the entire office, for example.
5. Work the system.
It will take some time to get the rules in place and train your staff, and you will need to be vigilant about following the system you've set up. But the benefits that are on the other side of working the system are well worth the effort.
George Bernard Shaw cautioned that:
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
How often do we get tripped up in our communication with clients, colleagues or staff because:
We may be communicating this way because we're in a rush or trying to save time. But it turns out that the amount of time we spend clarifying requests or correcting the work of others usually outweighs (significantly) the amount of time it would have taken us to engage in clear and thorough communication in the first place.
Here's a few circumstances where you may be under the illusion that you're communicating properly:
It's natural to want to take communication shortcuts. But rather than blindly firing off directions or requests, consider doing the following:
Here's the takeaway: Spending just a few extra minutes to clearly map out your ask is an INVESTMENT--and the return is a better relationship with your clients and colleagues, and time saved over the long run of a project. See this additional time and effort as the value add that it is.