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  The Strategic Client Survey

Author: Patricia Byrne Inside Counsel, February 2000, pg. 5

Over the past decade much has been written about the importance of the client satisfaction survey to a law firm's continued relationship with its clients. Used properly, the client satisfaction survey can point out problems and strengths of the firm, identify new ways the firm can work with the client and identify areas of future legal need. The client survey has become one mechanism to assist a firm in creating and communicating to its clients its value over other firms in an increasingly competitive market for legal services.

Corporate law departments are not immune to the pressures of competition from external suppliers of legal services. During the '90s in both the public and private sectors, the need for legal services has grown while funding for such services has decreased. Law departments must do more with less. The result has been increased pressure on law departments to demonstrate the value they create for their organization. Depending on the nature of the organization, outcomes of such value analyses range from complete outsourcing of the legal service function, to partial outsourcing (sometimes done within the context of a competitive tendering process open to both law departments and external firms), to the repatriation of all legal services to the law department (complete "in-sourcing"). Under these circumstances, it is crucial that General Counsel have a clear understanding of how the law department contributes to the value of the organization.

Client satisfaction is one element of value. Client satisfaction surveys can assist a law department in measuring the nature and the degree of value it contributes to the organization, and to identify other ways in which it can add value. Apart from being a research tool, client surveys are a technique to educate internal clients of the ways in which the law department furthers the overall goals of the organization. The use of a client survey is therefore as strategic as it is operational (i.e. used for performance evaluation and management of individual staff members).

Using the Survey Process Strategically

The focus should be on "the survey process" and not just "the survey", the latter implying the written questionnaire. Effective strategic surveys are not confined within the four corners of the document. Here are some tips to assist you in making your client survey more strategic:

  • Consider your survey as marketing in addition to being a way to gather information. A questionnaire should contain, or be accompanied by a statement to clients of your ongoing commitment to improving the quality and value of your services to them and to furthering the overall goals of the organization. Let them know you will be giving them feedback on survey results-- and deliver on this promise! Nothing undermines the strategic value of a survey so much as failure to follow through.

  • Before you draft the survey questionnaire, bring together a focus group comprised of members of three to four client departments, or at least ask each representative for his/her input on what they would like to be asked. This helps to achieve "buy-in" from your clients in the survey process, and increases the likelihood of a meaningful response rate. As well, it assists when drafting the survey instrument by concentrating on aspects of service which are most relevant to your clients.

  • Understand the objectives you want to achieve in conducting the survey. A written questionnaire is the most effective tool for collecting primary data (i.e. rate of use of your department's services, types of services used, types of services desired). If, however you want qualitative, more subjective information on client satisfaction or attitudes with respect to involving law department members in non-traditional activities or decisions, personal contact with your clients is the best way to obtain this. In this case, a written questionnaire is just the starting point and should be followed-up by telephone or face-to-face meetings to obtain the most meaningful--and actionable--information on selected issues.

  • Pay careful attention to the wording and sequencing of questions. Use direct, unbiased wording. Create interest in the leadoff question. Save difficult or personal questions for the end. Organize questions logically and vary the question format-- yes/no, Likert scale, open-ended questions calling for an essay-type response (effective for gauging how people think rather than measuring how many people think in a certain way).

  • Finally, ensure that your questionnaire addresses the principal drivers of client satisfaction: time, quality (of the advice and of the relationship) and price (of particular importance to organizations using charge-backs). Focus on the attribute(s) that clients in various departments value most and weight your questions accordingly. By selecting questions relating to objectives and measures across these three drivers, General Counsel can direct their departments to delivering superior value to clients.

A law department that is prepared to initiate and act on the information that it receives from conducting an effective client survey possesses a powerful tool to enhance its position and value to its organization.

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