John Davies, award-winning senior corporate partner at Thrings, on why some clients prefer a relaxed approach…
1) Lawyers need to learn how to talk to clients
Over the years I’ve deliberately taken a different approach to building my profile, including writing my own column – Is It Me?
I noticed when writing articles or doing talks or seminars that people were most engaged when I moved away from strict legal issues and sprinkled an often dry subject with some humour (a tricky one – it doesn’t always work).
The problem we face is that lawyers worry. We’re a suited and booted profession. We’re expected to be serious. But it’s important to show the world that we’re also human and we enjoy engaging with people, sharing warmth and often a joke. We shouldn’t be aloof by putting up barriers.
If you engage with someone on any level then you’ve succeeded. Once that engagement is in place, and that relationship begins to build, the law will inevitably kick in. But to have a hook that is unusual, humorous or irreverent can be a great way to start that process off.
It’s had an interesting effect. I’ve received more feedback from this approach than anything else I’ve done in the public sphere. It’s the thing that gets most likes, views and shares on social media. But it’s also had a positive impact with my peer group and my network. I think professionals are quite pleased and relieved to see someone out there doing something different. Plus it’s a talking point. If you go to a networking event, or meet a potential prospect for the first time, they may well have seen my blog. It gets us off to a warm and friendly start.
Can I say that Is it Me? has won me a client? No. I doubt my content or my dodgy wit will win me work on its own. But can I say it’s put me in a position to speak to a new prospect? Absolutely. It’s opened a door or two. And that’s the trick.
2) We all need to understand what client service really means
Big question isn’t it? If we could all nail that one we’d be doing very well! My Client Partner of the Year Award [The Lawyer, 2014] was great. It was kind of my client to write the recommendation he did and I thoroughly enjoyed my investment in his business. And that’s important. It was an investment. It’s only by committing serious time and energy that you can even begin to understand a client, their business and the type of service they want.
Lawyers are getting much better at understanding that. We’re less likely to impose a service or a service-level on a client, or make assumptions about the direction in which they want to travel.
Client service is about empathy, understanding and relationship. And it can be quite nuanced – it’s a delicate art. It can’t all be about financials and billable hours. You have to encourage your people to invest the right amount of time with their clients or potential clients. If you get that right then the rest will follow.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that we’re in partnership with our clients. I try never to tell clients what to do but I work hard at giving them guidance and opinion around what they are trying to achieve. Let’s face it – they’re the business owners and they know more about their business than I ever will. All I can do is add a different perspective mixed with technical expertise. Get that right and client service becomes valuable to the client and enjoyable for you. Because you feel like you’re part of their business. It has to be a two-way relationship and I’m always learning – my clients are brilliant, diverse and clever – it’s great to learn from them too.
3) ‘Trusted adviser’ is a personal thing.
Trusted adviser is a phrase that’s used an awful lot. I think it is valid expression but firms need to realise that it’s a personal thing and not a catch-all term. It starts with a platform and develops from the very first meeting with a client and the way that relationship grows.
Professionals need to earn the right to have their opinions taken seriously. That takes work. That takes understanding. And it’s based on a foundation of honesty. There will be occasions when you have to deliver a message your client doesn’t want to hear. There’ll also be occasions when you disagree with your client. You might be right or wrong but you have to be honest. Integrity is at the very heart of a ‘trusted adviser’ relationship and that’s got to be both ways.
And then you have to maintain it via regular, valuable touch points that reinforce the good experience. If you can still have that contact with your clients even when there’s nothing legal going on it shows interest in them and their business.
That might be a business or a legal connection, or it might be the emotional and personal connection; a witty LinkedIn post; a funny faux-rant in an article. There just needs to be a connection. In the end, you may not leave them laughing but you can never leave them cold.
John Davies is senior corporate partner at Thrings and in 2014 was named Client Partner of the Year by The Lawyer.