Empathy MD Simon Bernstein interviewed for Manchester Law Society ‘Messenger’

In a recent article in the Manchester Law Society newsletter ‘The Messenger‘ Bill Kirby, a respected consultant to the sector and managing director of Professional Choice Consultancy, interviewed Empathy Managing Director, Simon Bernstein on the subject of client experience.  here’s an excerpt from the article:

Culture and Accountability

In the last few months we have covered some really critical topics. Much of it focused around client care and experience issues, the capitalising on major investments in image and marketing by capturing and working new business enquiries. We have covered cross selling and client retention. We have considered many performance areas – cash flow, gross profit, control of overheads. There are undoubtedly many processes that can be enhanced with investments in lean and six sigma consultants or in house working groups. Management information can be gathered to tell us where we are but only a small proportion of benefits will be achieved unless in addition firms must accept  that their culture and the culture of all employees needs to change to recognise changing circumstances in the market and client expectations, compliance and financial management.

One cannot be a manager without planning – a fundamental in any mentoring process, this comes from a strategy and objective and a plan with milestones to check progress and alter course.

Within a structure their needs to be accountability for performance – at the very top and then through the structure to department heads and down to individuals and it is only fair for them to be very clear on what is expected of them. It is all very well however the information against targets (billing, time, cash collection, gross profit etc) being reported but all individuals through the structure need to accept their role and accountability taking actions or making recommendations to say this is a blip, a trend up or down and more importantly taking action or making recommendations to correct the negative or accentuate the positive.

There are people in management roles who do not really want to be there. They need to not only willingly step aside for those with the desire to drive forward but also adapt their culture to be supportive of the new managers and everything else that requires a change of attitude.

Communication with clients has to involve everyone – switchboard, reception, anyone walking through reception, anyone asked to take a call from a client, take a message or get something actioned. In too many cases it is left up to others. If we need rules to change attitudes then it needs to be done but wouldn’t it be good if folks do it because they want to.

Even with compliance attitudes can do with some shifting. There are often too many mumbles about file take on – conflict checks, estimates, credit limits, MLO, ID checks, risk assessments, file reviews, re estimates. Compliance is there for a reason, it protects clients as well as the business in which we work and needs to be done willingly and effectively.

Old Stuff

I have reviewed the many times these cultural issues have been considered in this column in one guise or another – the www.optimality.co.uk piece back in September 2011 looking at sales and leadership coaching. Client retention stuff in February 2012

  • Conduct client audits, potentially using a third party to really establish what the client perception of the firm is. Or at least ask them.
  • Train and coach staff on how to speak to a client with telephone and face to face enquiries
  • Make sure telephone answering is prompt and knowledgeable
  • Encourage people to pop in and be well and professionally received
  • Have an effective process in place to manage complaints efficiently and effectively – another KPI?
  • Make everyone in the firm aware of the predicted 800 people who will get to hear of a bad client experience. It is unfair that good experiences get heard of by so few.
  • Establish clearly the role of the client partner and the interface with others that also deal with the client
  • The identification and support of advocates for your business is even more critical – them providing unprovoked references for your business is invaluable – chamber of commerce, Rotary club and other networking events.

 New Perspective

I have taken the opportunity to discuss this with Simon Bernstein, Managing Director of Empathy www.empathy-communications.co.uk, a northwest-based people development company with a reputation for transforming law firms.  Empathy claims to be different from the myriad of other training companies, in that they structure every part of their training and development around the client.  This helps law-firms address the business critical issues of culture and leadership within a totally client-centric training and development strategy.

Simon tells me that the legal sector is not good at looking itself in the mirror. “For example, there is a scarcity of published client satisfaction surveys on law firm websites.  With notable exceptions such as  www.gateleyuk.com   Most firms providing client feedback do so with a press release about their score in the Legal Week industry benchmark.

Simon advises that there are three key issues.

  • “My primary concern is that lawyers are obsessed with not losing fee earning time at any cost and this impacts their ability to manage and value support staff. Investing in skills, behaviours and attitudes among legal firm personnel, whether fee earners or not, should NEVER be relegated to the ‘nice-to-have’.  Every member of the firm needs to ‘get’ the link between culture and client experience.” 
  • “Second, there is NO QUICK FIX to the challenge of delivering excellent client experience.  This requires excellent management skills and, if not already present, cannot be achieved overnight.  Investing in the social and intellectual capital of your people is a continuous process, not a one-off.  This is where the client satisfaction survey is a vital tool; the process of measuring quality of service should be real-time, making anticipating and reacting to the findings a continuous and sustained effort.”
  • “Third, firms need to VERBALISE the ‘ideal client experience’ and balance this against resources and profitability. Unless there is a shared language describing the touch points, milestones and symbols that make up an excellent client experience, how will staff know in which direction they should be heading?  Putting these affirmations at the centre of the learning and development specification will stand the firm in good stead”.  

All of this needs to be backed up with hard business skills – “law firm managers need to sharpen their focus on the business of law.  This is easily overlooked when recruiting new staff or re-energising existing staff. Firms need to be clear on what those skills should be, how they should reflect the corporate culture and, in turn, how this delivers on the client experience. Continuous feedback to and from staff is essential.”

Law firms already fighting on a number of fronts will not necessarily want to hear that investing in such a medium to long term approach is the answer.  Yet firms large and small are seeing the benefits of this client-focused culture and are investing time and energy into it. In the meantime the processes have to work.

Simon uses tools like client journey mapping, client surveys and feedback loops, “Take Bates Wells & Braithwaite for example; Empathy was engaged to develop the business skills of their fee earners, which we’re doing with a mixture of training and coaching. Our approach helped stimulate a wider interest in the benefits of client-centred training and development, which even impacts on how we deliver things like maternity coaching.” 

The Co-Op is laying down the gauntlet with openly having a strategy of building a life time value proposition for clients and client relationships and all firms will have to respond to this and the more demanding client base.

Simon however reminds me that “the bigger picture is achieved with hard work and attention to detail, whether it’s techniques for time management, motivating teams, handling difficult situations or other technical aspects of running a successful law firm.”

Where the work with BWB addresses the wider cultural strategy, Simon advises that “Emapthy’s project-specific work with clients like DLA Piper (business communication skills) and Hill Dickinson (coaching skills) has still been delivered within the same philosophy of building around the client.”

“Law firms across the UK are looking internally to find the answers to the client experience challenge within their ranks.  How, by a culture of committed and skilled staff, they can develop a natural opportunity to grow through reputation. Compared to spending thousands on re-branding and positioning statements that may not have this kind of due diligence, the return on investment is impressive and self-sustaining.”

Culture and having the right business skills to deliver outstanding customer experience are becoming the hot issues for firms looking for a sustainable solution to differentiation. It’s no luxury.

Also in February 2012 I wrote “Establish x% client satisfaction as your number one non-financial KPI; measure it, share feedback and respond to it”

Bill Kirby is a director of Professional Choice Consultancy offering advice to firms from business strategy, planning business development and all things IT including effective use and outsourcing continuity and DR. He can be contacted at billkirby@professionalchoiceconsultancy.com