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Free and Open Access: Key To Building And Maintaining Client Relationships

by Trey Ryder

As technology increases, our ability to make meaningful connections with people often decreases. Yet we still yearn to connect with other people. For example:

I don’t have a relationship with the dealership that services my car. My relationship is with the service manager.

I don’t have a relationship with the store where I buy computers. My relationship is with the computer consultant I have grown to trust.

This brings up the latest fad, “branding,” where marketers try to make the law firm’s name stand for something. Law firm branding works on the assumption that prospects will remember the firm and the firm will attract clients because of its “brand recognition.” Many law firms now spend a fortune trying to get prospects to recognize their brand.

When I walk down the grocery store aisle, I see many brands of cereal. What makes these brands memorable? Decades of advertising that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. I remember these brands because they are the only connection I will ever have with the cereal’s manufacturer.

The problem is, brand recognition is a very low standard. It assumes that prospects know nothing about the company. Therefore, if the company does its branding well, prospects will recognize the company’s brand name. This is another way of saying that anything is better than nothing.

Branding works when prospects have no other connection with a company. But inherent in that statement is branding’s fatal flaw because law firms are not made up of cereal boxes. Law firms are made up of people, which gave rise to

Ryder’s Rule for Law Firm Branding: Law firms that successfully build brand recognition will consistently lose clients to law firms that successfully build relationships.

This is because people want to connect with people. People connect with brands only when they cannot connect with anything else.

One key to building relationships is access. Both prospects and clients want open and unrestricted access to you. Every time you redirect their call to an associate or paralegal -- no matter how much sense this makes to you -- you risk that the caller will feel slighted. From your perspective, redirecting the phone call to the person working on your client’s matter increases your efficiency and makes better use of your time. But from your client’s point of view, you just gave him the cold shoulder. And you suffer as a result. Because in spite of each step you have taken to move your client relationship forward, when you don’t accept your client’s call, your relationship falls backward three steps.

Here’s how you and your firm can gain a major competitive advantage:

If your duties include bringing in new clients -- and maintaining relationships with current clients -- make sure you make yourself available. You can do this by offering two types of access: actual access and the appearance of access.

ACTUAL ACCESS... is when prospects and clients interact with you one on one. Actual access puts you in the strongest position with clients. You offer clients actual access when you...

-- Accept their phone calls. If you need to redirect the call, first accept the call, greet your client, then explain why you’d like to redirect the call and ask your client’s permission. In this way, you speak with your client, which pleases him and makes him feel important. Then, by asking permission to redirect his call, you help your client feel that he controls the call’s outcome. In this way, your client doesn’t feel ignored. To the contrary, your client agreed to your transferring his call.

-- Respond to prospects’ and clients’ e-mails. E-mail has so many benefits. It’s quick and efficient, yet it allows you to respond when you have time. This gives your client access to you without interrupting what you’re doing. A sentence or two from you -- a quick acknowledgment of a message or a brief thank you -- goes a long way to further your relationship.

While the few words you type may not say or mean much to you, from your client’s point of view, you took a moment to acknowledge him or something he did. He’s pleased because he had access to you -- and because you made him feel important by typing a quick e-mail that took you less than a minute to write.

-- Lunch with clients to discuss current or future projects. A private meeting away from the office creates a personal bond between you and your client. Your client values this time alone with you, rather than meeting in your office where the surroundings emphasize that your focus is business and the client may feel less like the center of attention.

-- Meet with clients and prospects in your office. Spend a few moments alone with your client or prospect in a closed-door meeting. Update him about his case, ask for more information, or suggest ways he can get the best result from working with you and your firm. The content of what you discuss is not as important as your willingness to spend time alone with your client or prospect.

-- Stay actively involved in your client’s case. Even if another lawyer is doing most of the work, the appearance that you’re involved, if only to supervise, makes your client feel better. By knowing that you are keeping a close eye on his legal affairs, your client feels more comfortable.

The more clients meet with you, shake your hand, and see you involved with their legal matters, the better they like it. On the other hand, the more you separate yourself from your clients’ affairs and turn matters over to other lawyers, the sooner you can expect to see your clients’ loyalty evaporate. Then your clients become easy targets for competing lawyers who claim to offer the close, personal attention your clients want and deserve.

You can support your client’s sense of relationship with you even if he doesn’t require actual access. You do this by working with clients in a non-individual yet personal way.

THE APPEARANCE OF ACCESS... is when prospects and clients see you -- and perhaps interact with you -- although not one on one. To supplement times when you offer actual access, you create the appearance of access when you...

  • Send a fact kit that contains an original cover letter signed by you.

  • Present seminars where you’re the speaker, whether in person, by telephone
  • or on the internet.
  • Deliver CLE programs to other lawyers, sponsored by your state or local bar.
  • Send clients and prospects your educational newsletters that contain your
  • photograph and biography.
  • Send clients, prospects and referral sources your e-mail alert.
  • Generate articles about you or your law firm in newspapers and magazines.
  • Write an ongoing column in your local newspaper.
  • Appear as a guest on radio and TV talk shows.
  • Speak with an anchor or reporter on the radio and TV news.
  • Host your own call-in radio talk show.
  • Air radio and TV commercials in which you are the speaker.
  • Sponsor a web site that contains your photograph and biographical information.

Everybody wants to be seen as an individual. And every individual wants to feel that he or she is important. The more access you give prospects and clients, the more new clients you’ll attract -- and the more new and current clients you’ll keep.

But wait, you say, this takes a lot of time. Yes, providing access to prospects and clients can consume much of your day. But excellent marketing requires a significant investment of time. If you have something more important to do than attract new clients and maintain relationships, then ask another lawyer to assume the rainmaker role.

If, however, you decide to remain the rainmaker, then do your best to give prospects and clients direct and immediate access to you. Because when they learn that you take a personal role in their problems and their success, you profit from a major competitive advantage that few other lawyers can or will match.