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The key to generating clients and maintaining them is to provide exceptional client service. In the legal field that includes, of course, solving issues creatively and efficiently. But, just as important, exceptional service requires that one become an expert in the client, including deeply understanding the client’s challenges (professional and personal), aspirations, and needs. If a client or prospective client feels that you get her and her legal and other problems and goals, she is more likely to hire and keep you.

To get there you must ask thoughtful questions and be a good listener. The client or prospective client generally wants to talk. You can encourage open dialogue by providing the signal that it is helpful to go deep so that you may provide the best advice.  Ask questions that make it easy for your client to start talking. The more they talk, the more you’ll learn. The more you know about them, the easier it will be for you to provide strong counsel. The goal is to understand your client so deeply that you will be able to articulate the client’s challenges and needs just as well (or with even more clarity) than the client can.

Here are five specific suggestions for becoming an expert in the client:

  • Help make the client feel comfortable sharing

Show the client that she is the center of your world. Hang on her every word. Ask thought provoking questions and follow-up questions. Reiterate what she says to confirm your understanding. Make it clear that you aren’t preoccupied with other thoughts or client matters and you are not rushing off to work on some other matter.

  • Use a personal approach that fits your and your client’s personality

The process of getting to know a client or prospective client may be a challenge for people who don’t come to it naturally, because it can appear clumsy or intrusive if insincere. So, proceed as comfortable for you and the client. The best opportunities to get to know someone might be on safe subjects such as work-related and professional matters.

But the more productive area is likely in sincere interests: causes, hobbies, reading subjects, schools, family, sports, food, etc. These areas may have to be approached tentatively and, depending on the client, might best be achieved over time or in situations where some time is spent together.

As a tool to help you become more comfortable in this area, consider the Mackay 66, a 66-question client profile. The questions are not difficult but having them in your arsenal may help you connect more easily with your clients.  Notice that the questions do not focus on work but rather on family, hobbies, life outside the office, accomplishments, motivations, etc. These personal questions will likely overlap with some of the questions in number three immediately below.

  • Dig deep and start from beginning on client challenges

Part of becoming an expert in the client is becoming an expert in the client’s challenges. Why is the issue presented a problem? How long has it been a problem? In what specific ways does the problem limit your client, his colleagues, and the company? Why is it crucial to eliminate the problem? How does the current situation (dealing with the problem) make your client feel? What would their life look like without this problem? And what would the company’s situation look like without this problem? What are the obstacles between where the client is and where he wants to be? What has he tried to solve the problem?

  • Have the long view and keep your eye on ball

In the short term, the goal is to know the client well enough to best serve their needs. So, the best focus might be on a bonded relationship that serves the client, and sustains the business relationship.  And, of course, at bottom you need to successfully deliver solutions to the clients’ problems.

In the long term, becoming an expert in the client may prove very efficient. This approach may be the difference between spending an inordinate amount of time developing clients versus maintaining a substantial clientele.

  • Befriend the clients’ support staff (both in-house and outside advisors)

Make friends with the support staff of the client — its employees, management, outside service professionals (including accountants, other counsel, investment advisors, etc.), and you will be able to learn a lot of the details that go into knowing the client. As examples, you may be able to learn about client quirks and preferences, the history of the client and its major players, and all kinds of factual information that may be relevant to current legal issues.

Approach these relationships in the same way you approach getting to know your client. And navigate some potential roadblocks such as being viewed with suspicion and perhaps some jealousy by understanding their roles, challenges, and needs. Look for ways to help the supporting cast and make them look good while seeking the best result for the client. Working together will make it easier to reach your common objective – to provide exceptional service to the client.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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