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Legal Practice Management

Raising uncomfortable topics during client interviews

Janine Heim  Research Manager / Thomson Reuters

Janine Heim  Research Manager / Thomson Reuters

How can you bring up uncomfortable topics during client interviews in a way that will actually strengthen your relationships and add to your perceived value?

By actively collecting client feedback, your law firm can establish a window to manage and improve client experience and satisfaction. Alongside these benefits, receiving feedback from clients enhances your working relationships and provides your firm with key actions to maintain and expand existing relationships.

With these advantages, one might think conducting client feedback interviews would be enthusiastically embraced; however, there is often some hesitancy around conducting these interviews, especially coming from prospective interviewers. This hesitancy is often focused on having to raise uncomfortable topics with the client that could lead to criticism of the firm or individual lawyers. When receiving criticism, it is easy to feel defensive or insecure and many firm leaders ultimately do not want to put themselves into a situation where they will be confronted with this.

While understandable, avoiding uncomfortable topics will ultimately inhibit the growth of your firm. The ability to learn from critical feedback comes from a growth mindset and the related openness to learn from mistakes that in turn, allows for an understanding that nothing is perfect, and that everything can be improved on in some way.

There are tools and techniques that you can use to make it easier to approach uncomfortable topics with clients, which then will give you the confidence and ease that removes the uncomfortable label and makes these topics just another discussion point during the client interview.

Legal spend & pricing

One of the uncomfortable topics most frequently raised by interviewers are individual client’s satisfaction with their firm’s pricing process and the allocation of the client’s legal spend towards their firms. This does not have to be an uncomfortable question if you handle it correctly. Because the client almost always mirrors the way the interviewer approaches this topic, it’s wise to consider how these topics are brought up. If the interviewer asks this about pricing hesitantly or in a roundabout way, for example, the client will pick up on this and be cautious with their answer or decline to answer. Instead, interviewers should be direct, but use a tentative tone of voice that conveys the idea that this is just another question, and the firm is genuinely interested in the answer.

Interviewers should also try to focus the conversation on exploring underlying issues rather than just focusing on general value-for-money questions. For example, asking such open-ended questions as “What is your experience of our billing process?” or “How do our fees and our approach to pricing compare to other firms?” may be helpful. If the firm only receives a small portion of a client’s legal spend, you should ask what the firm could do to receive more.

Importantly, do not try to fix any issues that emerge, but rather collect as many details as possible around the client’s experience, expectations, and preferred way of handling pricing.

Competitor insights

Asking about competitors is another topic that interviewers view with a certain amount of trepidation; however, your clients are almost certainly expecting you to ask about the competition. And with client feedback programs becoming increasingly common, it is likely the competition has been asking about you as well.

If clients do not want to name names, the interviewer can ask what the best firms in this space do or have done to win the client’s business. This allows you to obtain comparative data that may provide insights into what other firms might be doing better than your firm, as well as what your firm is doing better than the competition. Keep an open mind to what clients suggest to you as this is valuable information upon which you can build — and both you and your customers will reap the benefits from this approach. Indeed, comparative data is some of the most useful information on which your firm can identify key areas of focus and build needed improvements.

Unfamiliar ground

Further, raising topics with which the interviewer may feel less familiarity than the client also can be challenging. For example, environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) issues, the firm’s diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) initiatives, or highly technical topics outside someone’s area of expertise are not only potentially unfamiliar ground to many interviewers, but these are also topics where interviewers fear they might leave a bad impression if they do not display in-depth knowledge. However, interviewers need to understand that it is not their job to do the talking and impress the client. Interviewers are supposed to listen, rather than talk.

Indeed, there is an 80/20 rule that interviewers should adhere to — they should only talk 20% of the time and the client should talk the other 80%. Remember, this is the client’s opportunity to share. Ideally, your firm’s interviewers will have covered certain unfamiliar ground during briefing sessions with the usual client manager, but they will not be expected to be asking clever questions and demonstrating astute insights.

Instead, they should ask the client for their perceptions, definitions, and opinions about these topics. “Has your client partner ever spoken to you about these areas?” and “How can law firms better partner with your business to help you achieve your goals in this area?” are questions on which interviewers should focus rather than worrying about having to come up with highly technical questions in order to demonstrate knowledge.

Handling critical feedback

Finally, there is one aspect all these topics have in common: They all hold the potential to elicit critical feedback, which most interviewers would rather avoid. However, critical feedback is essential to your business’s growth and offers the basis for adapting your business to better cater to your clients. As such, a growth mindset to approach this feedback is essential.

Interviewers can position themselves as a neutral third-party that makes the client trust them with critical feedback without introducing tension into this situation. Interviewers should not feel defensive, and while they might not be an actual third-party researcher, they are here as an intermediary between clients and their usual contact to collect this feedback.

Regardless of the issues the client brings up, interviewers should not apologize or accept responsibility. While they should be empathetic to the client’s complaints, again, they should not try to solve problems on the spot or suggest solutions right away. Doing so threatens an interviewer’s neutral stance in this conversation and will make the client feel like he or she has to be more careful with the information shared.

In any situation, the best way to gain the most valuable information from critical feedback is to probe for more details and suggestions from the client as to what a good resolution would look like. This will be incredibly valuable information to bring back to the team and to build on in order to improve your service. A successful interview will produce information that enables your firm to grow and learn from both its successes as well as its mistakes.

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