Establishing Office Practices for Client Communication
We’re all guilty of occasionally screening our phone calls. This is totally normal and acceptable when it’s your mother-in-law, but when you or your staff start screening client calls, it is time to set some parameters for client communication in the office. To tackle this topic, think about the grade school problem-solving technique 5W1H: who, what, where, when, why and how.
Establish who is going to be the point person for client communication in your office. If you are a solo practitioner who has not yet hired support staff, then you can go ahead appoint yourself to this position.
If you only have one employee, then it seems natural that they would fall into this role. However, you must consider whether or not they are well-suited for such a task. A great “gatekeeper” is one thing, but you don’t want your staff to be off-putting to clients. In some instances, it may be better for this type of employee to carry on doing what they do best and to leave the client communication to you. Client communication can sometimes be time consuming, disruptive to your work day or not something that you wholly enjoy. However, if you are direct but polite with clients, you can painlessly answer questions or update them on the status of their case.
In a slightly larger office, you might already have a case manager or client services representative who is up to speed on the status of your clients’ cases. If you hired someone as a case manager or client services representative, then they signed on to assist with client communications and are an asset to you in doing so. Tap into the strengths of these employees to keep the communication channels open, as this will result in informed clients who are satisfied with you and the progress that you have made on their case.
What do you hope to achieve in establishing office practices for client communication? Clients who are satisfied with the outcome of their cases, win or lose? A less hectic office environment where roles are clearly defined? The answers to these questions vary depending on your own personal strengths and weaknesses. Having an overarching philosophy, however, will ensure consistency in the way clients perceive you and your office.
Consider whether you want to establish hardline rules about the timeframe in which you address clients’ needs. Will you be sure to return calls within 24 hours? Send out documents within three business days? The ultimate goal to work toward is you and/or your staff consistently following these practices.
Perhaps it would be better to take more of a triage approach and put out fires as they arise. If you are triaging, make sure those clients who have non-emergent needs don’t slip through the cracks. A simple way to do this is to set aside some time each day to return non-emergent phone calls. For example, make a point of tackling these communications after a short break, such as lunch, before you dive back into whatever you were working on before.
You’re probably thinking “from my office, where else?” But what about after business hours? If a staff member is primarily handling client communication, will they be responsible for responding to calls or emails that come in after business hours? This depends primarily on your practice areas, but it is definitely something you want to consider and discuss with your client communications personnel. If you are solo, make sure that you communicate with your clients the way that you intend to address their needs after office hours.
North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct 1.4 states that a lawyer shall keep clients reasonably informed about the status of matters and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information. RPC 1.4(a)(3), (4) (emphasis added). This is not only good business practice; you are also ethically bound to ensure that your clients stay informed. Ensuring that your office policies are a means to achieve this end will ensure compliance with your ethical obligations to your clients.
Finally, how will you communicate with clients? Consider how your practice area best lends itself to being responsive to your clients’ needs. What format will your communications take? The simple answer to this is that, no matter your practice area, you will likely be using phone, email, letters or some combination of the three. That’s OK; just strive for consistency in your client communications practices. For example, will you always send out an engagement letter by postal mail or are you a paperless office? Perhaps as a matter of convenience you are most easily accessible by email, so will you copy a staff member on client communications as well? Will your point person be responsible for responding to all phone calls and emails? By laying out a clear policy, it is more likely that clients’ needs will be promptly addressed instead of first having a discussion within your office about who is going to what.
Another important consideration is whether you connect with clients by social media. If so, will you be updating them or responding to requests submitted by way of messages on Facebook, Twitter or through your office website? This should be clearly outlined both internally and with clients.
In conclusion, establishing client communication practices within your office may take a little time to formulate, but they are relatively quick and inexpensive to implement. Implementing these practices can increase productivity internally and ensure client satisfaction, which is good for you and your practice.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h