Two events recently highlighted the decline for customer service and relationships in the services industry–and particularly in mine, which is legal services.  First, I was having lunch with one of my outside counsel.  He was picking my brain as to why I retain certain law firms, and the effect of billing rates on who I retain.  That got my mind jogging on a number of topics regarding my selection of outside counsel–and how billing rates are only one aspect of who I choose.  See more below.

Second, I was at a hospital trying to get lab work done.  The lab sign said they closed at 4:45pm.  My watch and the main hospital clock said 4:43, but the door was locked anyways.  I knocked and two individuals opened it.  I was promptly told the lab was closed because it was past 4:45.  When I pointed out that it wasn’t yet 4:45 at the time of our discussion, they pointed to their own wall clock, which was set nearly 10 minutes ahead.  I needed this work done, but the clerk calmly said he had a lot to do before closing and couldn’t help me.  I was given his manager’s phone number if I wanted to complain about it.  He wasn’t disrespectful, but he obviously didn’t care.

The second incident crystallized some thoughts I had during that lunch.  There is a lost art to building relationships, offering great service, and seeing yourself as a “partner” to your business clients–and it’s being lost in the law firm world much more quickly than it should–something I lamented to my outside counsel.  Let me illustrate:

1)   I am pitched for business on a regular basis by various law firms.  I get treated to nice lunches and dinners.  I am invited to law firm events.  The people that I remember are with partners who take the time to understand my company and my legal needs before our first meeting.  They research in advance and have actionable suggestions–and mix that in with the talk about sports, the weather, family life, and other mundane topics.  What does that make me think?  That sort of preparation is the sort I can expect when they service my legal needs.

2)  These partners don’t always get my business…  at that particular moment.    I just don’t have a need for their services  yet.  But later–sometimes months, and in some cases, years–I have a need that arises.  Who comes to mind?   The ones who impressed me at some point.

3)  But even more importantly, it’s not just the ones who impressed me–they are smart, diligent, and hard working for sure.  It’s the ones who impressed me and continued to contact me even when I didn’t send them business at first.  These partners figured out that building relationships was the most important thing.  There are too many people who have stopped because I didn’t exhibit ROI, and as a result, they didn’t stay on top of mind.  Steve Wilson at Osborne Clark comes to mind as a positive example.  He was someone I had known for a long time but it took 4 years for me to have some matters for him.  That didn’t stop him from consistently reaching out and trying to understand my legal concerns in the EU repeatedly.

4)  Even after they earned my business, my firms continue to work hard, be extra responsive, and go the extra mile.  (or when they didn’t, they admitted it and made it right)  I’ve had to hold some firms accountable for excessive bills, unauthorized work, and the like.  Some respond well, and others not so well.  Earlier this year, I had a firm doing some paperwork on a transaction that I had no expertise in.  The senior lawyer handling it made a number of mistakes, and didn’t fix them even when pointed out.  My in-house corporate counsel fixed them instead.  When I brought this up with the partner, there was instant acknowledgement and she made it right on the bill.  Later, that partner followed up with the write off and wanted to know if the transaction went smoothly.  I’ve continued to send her my work.  (When partners and firms respond negatively and vehemently protest, it doesn’t take much imagination to think that I start shopping for replacements…)

The problem is that I don’t see enough great client development.  I was at the ACC Annual Meeting in Boston last week and only met a couple of firms that showed me any real great client development care.  (I am not a client yet, but you can bet it’s on my mind.)  While it’s sad, I believe this is a lost art in my generation.  The few outside attorneys who have figured this out will have my business for life because great service and relationships are everything.  The rest, I hope you’re reading this article and learning from it.

And that gentleman who calmly told me he couldn’t get me registered for lab work because he had other closing work to do…  suffice to say, I don’t forget that either.  The only thing more powerful in the memory than great customer service is bad customer service.