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.
We experience breakdowns in our communications with clients for lots of reasons, but here are three of the big ones: (1) we don't give them enough of the right information, (2) we don't tell them what they can expect from us, and (3) we don't explain what we expect from them as clients.
Take for example a contract or a motion you’ve prepared. If you send that document to your client with a simple cover email that says “Please review and let me know if you approve or have any questions”, then guess what? You’re either going to get a lot of questions, or worse have a client who doesn't understand what you sent them and stays silent.
If you want to improve your client service and set expectations, create and send a 1-2 page “Guide” or “FAQ” sheet along with key documents they need to review, requests for information, or in advance of important events.
Here's another example: if you represent clients who have never been to court before, why not send them a guide (or better yet, a short video) that explains (1) when and where to meet you the day of the hearing, (2) what to expect at the hearing, (3) what to wear to court, and (3) a description of all the other people who will be there (court reporter, clerk, bailiff, etc.).
The purpose of these 1-page sheets is to lay some foundation and guide them through the process.
Some sentences you might include in a guide like this are:
You can create a 1-2 page resource like this for just about anything you send regularly to a client:
Remember: Keep them short and simple, no lawyer speak, and think about it from the perspective of the client.
How often do you find that your progress on a case has stalled or that you're in danger of missing a deadline because your client won't respond? Every attorney has experienced the frustration of waiting on clients to collect documents, approve a draft, or track down the information you need to move a matter forward.
While some of this is a client issue, often times this problem can be traced directly back to an attorney communication issue--one that can be prevented.
Consider building some of the following into your calendar and your communications with clients:
Explain What’s In It For Them, and why the delay is preventing you from moving forward with the divorce, estate plan, lawsuit, or insurance recovery that's keeping them up at night.
Not only will these practices be helpful in moving your case forward, they'll help set expectations and improve your client's experience.