No road back in satisfying client expectations
Helen Hamilton-Shaw considers how we can best improve client care and satisfaction
According to Forrester’s Predictions 2022, the pandemic has reshaped consumer expectations forever, with data showing there is no road back, as customers are unwilling to give up what works for them. They no longer want to jump through the old hoops, having become used to simpler, often virtual, options.
That same research shows consumers are placing greater weight on the trust and reputation of the companies they buy from and will seek out brands that align with their personal values.
To compete, firms must ensure high quality, consistent experiences for clients across all channels and at every stage of the journey. This has never been more important, nor perhaps so challenging, as we embrace new ways of working and adjust to a post-pandemic world. Alongside this, we are facing skill shortages and other economic and societal pressures.
It may be a challenge, but a proactive approach can generate valuable results, demonstrated by the performance of the UK’s most client-centric organisations. At a recent virtual network meeting for our leadership forum we invited Jo Causon to join us. She heads up the Institute of Customer Service and reported on their latest research. This shows organisations with long term commitment to consistently high performance in customer satisfaction, with truly engaged employees going the extra mile with clients, are achieving a ten per cent uplift on profitability when compared to others in their sector.
A client-centric focus is not about a feel-good exercise, it’s a crucial route for businesses to differentiate themselves: when your clients have a seamless experience, feel listened to, understood, supported and leave ready to act as an ambassador to recommend your services to others, then you have hit the CX jackpot. Echoing the advertising line from M&S, “this is not just client service, this is a client-centric holistic experience…”
These ambitions have been in the sights of our SME law firm members for the past decade, through our audited Mark of Excellence, part of our mandatory ISO9001 LawNet Quality Standard. Since 2013, we have completed some 90,000 client satisfaction surveys and more than 6,000 customer experience (CX) reviews, where independent researchers pose as potential clients. Firms receive one-to-one feedback and in-house training to help them respond to findings and develop sector-leading experiences.
Our evidence shows this approach generates significant performance improvements, with client satisfaction in our member firms standing at 97 per cent in 2021, compared with the sector overall, where 84 per cent of consumers are satisfied according to the Legal Services Consumer Panel. And we see the greatest performance improvements when firms are listening to clients at every stage and learning from them.
Seek insights, not validation
Clients can help you understand what they like about working with you and what areas need to improve, but only if you ask the right questions. Too often, organisations select data they already have and continue to measure against that, rather than finding out what's important to their customers and measuring that. Securing insights involves learning to listen, not just to confirm.
Like left brain-right brain thinking, the client experience will include both tangible and emotional experiences. We need to benchmark and measure customer satisfaction around the tangible service elements, such as how easy it was to do business with you, whether your website was easy to navigate, or how quickly were emails answered. But as well as these transactional elements, we need to know about the emotional connection made with clients. Asking how they feel about the firm, whether they feel connected, and whether they discern a genuine customer ethos is equally important.
Staff can play an important role here, as they are the ones interacting with clients and may be the first to see where problems are and come up with solutions. As one of our member firms explains: “We involve staff at all stages of the process and ask them to think about how their role may impact clients at a personal level. We also encourage them to think of examples where they experienced great service, how it felt and what it was about the interaction that made them feel that way. For most people it will be that they were made to feel special, and we ask them to think about how we might translate that into the experiences we give our clients.”
We see the value of such insights, particularly when benchmarked with peers, as happens with our Excellence Mark programme. Researchers acting as potential clients test how firms perform across a range of channels, from walk-in, online and telephone enquiries, through to performance at external events or website live chat. Their findings are given against the network-wide benchmark, as is the end-of-matter client satisfaction process, which is conducted through an independent portal, which generates statistical data for firms.
It may be tough reading the granular detail of such scrutiny, but we see our firms using the one-to-one feedback and in-house training to help them respond to findings and develop sector-leading experiences. The online client reviews, survey feedback, CX researcher reports and audio recordings combine to create a picture of the different stages of the client journey, helping firms to understand the client perspective and identify areas for improvement. Whether these are in pursuit of firm-wide changes or to identify individual skills development needs, it’s about helping everyone to deliver excellent experience.
Deliver responsive experiences
This style of ongoing review of the client experience is vital. All reports are that consumers are becoming less satisfied as the impact of the pandemic wears on. They are seeking greater flexibility from providers, and much greater innovation.
This reflects two conflicting expectations. For many, the view is that ‘we are back to normal’ and hence service should be back to pre-pandemic levels; equally, many are resistant to reverting to any previous arrangements if they are less accommodating than alternatives offered during lockdown.
It means business needs to be more responsive than ever and goes to the heart of future business strategy. The potential success or failure of hybrid working will depend to a large part on whether it suits the client: it’s not just about whether it suits the business or the staff.
So, now is the time to think about the lessons that we've learned and the most important things to take forward.
In common with many business sectors, we saw our member firms take a massive leap forward in the adoption of apps and technology in response to lockdown restrictions. Now, as society emerges and evolves from those restrictions, a priority for our member firms is finding the right balance between digital and personal in their delivery and communication.
Mapping the client journey and identifying which bits will be effective done digitally and which aspects would be better in person is not a single size fits all exercise, nor a one-off activity. Trialling and modifying where necessary is vital, as is being able to deliver in different ways to different clients. Providing the channel of choice is the mantra for today.
The ICS research has shown that some customers are becoming less tolerant of people working in less-than-ideal situations – whether it’s a dog barking in the background or a poor connection – so it’s worth finding out how your customers feel, so you have evidence-based insights to develop the business around their needs. Your customers don't just compare you with another firm, they compare you with their favourite brands.
And, as a participant at our leadership forum confirmed, that can be tough: “When instant response expectations shaped by brands such as Amazon spill over into their interactions with us, that creates huge pressure.”
Managing expectations and having clear timelines for deliverables can help avoid such pressures and frustrations – and, as another firm highlighted, it is important to find other ways to demonstrate the value of engaging the firm: “If they’re comparing us to their last digital experience, and we do not respond in the same way as Amazon, then they may feel disappointed by that. However, if we differentiate ourselves by bespoke service, to me that is the premise of our client experience.”
One area that our firms agree can benefit from the personal touch is in dealing with complaints. As one participant shared: “In my experience, it's important to avoid being faceless when handling complaints. Pick up the phone and really try to understand what's gone on and the client’s viewpoint.”
Build trust through consistency, transparency and clear purpose
Attention to environmental and social governance is becoming ever more critical, with consumers saying that want to buy from brands with matching values and who use their business platform to make a positive contribution to society (Forrester). Doing the right thing has never been more important: we must have a clear purpose and actively demonstrate how we are fulfilling it on an ongoing basis, with all parts of the business and delivery in alignment.
Does your firm regularly ask itself questions such as who are we here to serve, what drives us and is everybody in the organisation connected to that purpose? Is the purpose clearly defined, simple to understand and evident in all aspect of the business, from job descriptions to resource usage, client onboarding to financial management?
It’s not just the client who cares about reputation and purpose. Employees say they want honesty, leadership by example and trustworthiness. And, of course, what happens internally has a direct impact on the external experience, and vice versa. Investment, or conversely under-investment, in the employee experience will directly impact on your client experience.
Employees are the face of the firm, interacting with clients on a day-to-day basis, and can be the most important ambassador you have, but they need to be developed and supported to demonstrate the right mindset and knowledge.
Trust and reputation have reportedly become even more important to consumers during the pandemic. This is reflected in our own surveying, which has shown consistently that recommendation or previous contact are the most persuasive factors in appointing a firm.
In reputational management, transparency is key. The biggest drivers of mistrust in organisations (Institute of Customer Service) are hidden fees or costs, inconsistent charging across products or services, and any manipulation of online reviews, which are an increasingly important barometer of reputation.
Forrester’s surveying backs this up, saying 69 per cent of European adults want companies to be more transparent about their business practices. Doing so can also empower employees, equipping them with clear messaging to impart to the client.
Investing time in trust and reputation can drive overall satisfaction, as demonstrated in figures from the ICS. This shows that organisations who consistently secure top satisfaction ratings from clients, a 9 or 10 out of 10, also report a 50 per cent higher trust rating and a 50 per cent higher reputational rating, yet few organisations have adequate measurements in place for these markers.
The ICS research also shows that while consumers are looking for value for money, only a very small percentage are focused wholly on price. Again, this reflects our own findings, which showed just 4 per cent of clients buying from LawNet member firms said cost was a major factor.
Rather, an excellent client experience is valued more highly than ever. Before the pandemic, around 26 per cent would say they were prepared to pay substantially more for a premium service, where now that has jumped to 32 per cent (ICS).
Making the shift from thinking about client service in terms of a simple end-of-client-matter survey to overseeing and surveying the overall client experience demands a quantum shift in thinking: it is like going from couch to 5K.
Making the further transition to an approach founded on client-centricity, where the client is at the heart of all the strategic decisions you make as a business, and the client journey consistently delivers on expectations, is the equivalent of taking on a triathlon. As with all distance events, no one can run the race without working up to it.
Achieving a client-focused approach with excellent outcomes became significantly harder when faced with the upheaval caused by the pandemic. The challenge of long-term change, including the shift to hybrid working, means we are unlikely to see things become any easier in the near future. But, as the statistics show, investing time and effort can deliver huge and positive returns. Identifying where your firm stands, and where you can make incremental change is key.
Helen Hamilton-Shaw, member engagement & strategy director with LawNet, designed the network’s award-winning Mark of Excellence in client care: lawnet.co.uk