Stay Close to Clients Despite Social Distancing Five ways to show you care

If you’re working remotely during the Coronavirus pandemic, you might be tempted to hide under the blankets and wait for the situation to resolve. Between the 24/7 news cycle, the scramble to organize immediate work and disperse teams, life feels chaotic.

Don’t forget about your clients in the midst of the chaos. Clients – no matter where they’re located or what their business needs are – need comfort and caring in addition to professional expertise in times of uncertainty.

Five simple actions to take when business is anything but usual:

1. Manage your own state of mind. Fear, anxiety and catastrophic thinking will not help you or your clients. Be good to yourself – take a step back and observe how you’re feeling. Could you reframe the situation from a different perspective? How would someone you admire handle it? Above all, remember that you’re not alone.

2. Practice radical empathy. The people who “get ahead of the situation” aren’t necessarily the smartest or most technologically proficient. They’re the most empathetic. Ask clients “What do you need to get through the next few weeks?” and work at understanding their answers.

This is a time to listen with your ears, your brain and your heart.

3. Be human. Ask your contacts how their families are. Maybe they have aging parents who live alone or they’re suddenly home-schooling children. Maybe their spouse is a health care worker coping with exhaustion. I’m surprised by how many professionals know absolutely nothing about their clients’ personal lives, despite professing to care about them. Client care means more than caring about clients’ legal budgets.

4. Take initiative. My dad was a criminal defence lawyer in a small prairie city. After he’d  visit clients in jail, he’d usually call or visit someone in their family to let them know how the person was doing and to ask how everyone was coping. As a child, I was often beside him when he did this. I witnessed elders sobbing, heard siblings express deep worries and felt gratitude that someone with the power to do something helpful actually followed through. It was a small gesture that made a big impact. If my dad could do it, you can do it.

If you can help, now is the time to do so. Buy grocery gift cards for their staff, purchase something from their business or offer a discount on your services (as I’ve done for my current clients).

5. Follow up. COVID-19 will impact every part of our economic, technological and social infrastructure for a long, long time. I have no scientific backing for this statement; I’m basing it on my observations of the stock market, economic policy and the reduced hours so many businesses are being forced to adopt.

Your clients will need personal and regular communication as they navigate the uncertainty. Brief email bulletins and social media updates convey your efficiency, but a phone call to inquire about someone’s well being will speak volumes about your character.

I wish you, your families and your businesses well as we all face the crisis. Stay calm if you can and stay healthy. If you need help, know that you are welcome to reach out at any time. I’ve always offered phone consultations free of charge; I don’t plan on changing that policy anytime soon.

Show, Don’t Tell Apply an old creative writing tool to new client feedback

If an important client rated her satisfaction with your firm’s service quality as a “five” on a scale from one to seven, would you know how to improve her opinion? Would you be comfortable explaining why it matters?

Presented with this scenario, you might be tempted to do one of two things:

1. Breathe a sigh of relief that they weren’t ranked at four or lower.
2. Say “Hmmm…. interesting.” and file the results, never to be seen or spoken of again.

You have other – and better- options. Most of those options involve using the feedback to improve service delivery in a way that increases your esteem and trustworthy reputation among clients. This, presumably, was the original intent of your feedback request anyway. Right? Right.

Data points can fit neatly into bar-graphs, but they can also be useless when one of your lawyers keeps doing something that irks her client.

The old creative writing maxim “Show, don’t tell” could help you frame client comments in a way that illustrates context and resonates with people inside your firm.

How it works

Say, for example, your client rates her lawyer’s communication efforts as “satisfactory”. Here are a few ways you could aid interpretation and act accordingly:

  • Ask the client to describe the context surrounding her comments. Dig for specifics, if not facts.
    • Why is a certain process working/not working well? How often does it happen? How does it impact on your client, her organization and her objectives?
    • Your report could describe the setting the client works in or the back story – experiences, facts, etc. – that helps readers understand what the client really means.
    • You could also mention secondary characters adjacent or influential to what’s happening or foreshadow a future development, such as your client’s CEO, competition or investors.
  • Identify actions that lawyer needs to update and the effort it would require.
    • The client might say that she’d appreciate a monthly work-in-progress status report that she can use in meetings with stakeholders because she doesn’t have the time or resources to do this on her own.
    • You could help the relationship lead at your firm create the report template. Are you willing to assist with this or find alternate resources? Would the investment result in a closer, more trustworthy relationship with the client? Would it differentiate (and improve) your service model? Could the template be used for other clients?
  • Identify behaviours that the client appreciates or that need to change. Billing procedures, responsiveness and communication often fall into this category.
    • Improving satisfaction might require a change to career-long habits and ingrained or efficient processes. Unfortunately, this means dealing with personalities.
    • The results are often best for your firm, but temporarily painful for your people. A thoughtful change-management strategy would alleviate friction and equip you with firm-sanctioned language that persuades colleagues of the value of the exercise.
  • Include dialogue if you are quoting from an interview. Direct feedback helps readers hear what the client is saying and how she is saying it.
    • Sometimes, what the client doesn’t say is actually more useful. Does she gloss over or refuse to comment on certain aspects of your services? Does her description of “value” align with yours?

Why it matters

Word of mouth referrals from friends, family and professional experts are still viewed as the most trustworthy sources of information and business. But trust in organizations and their leaders fell to record lows in Canada this year and creativity thrives in workplaces where people aren’t afraid to share ideas.

I’m not advising you to extrapolate feedback to the nth degree or make rash assumptions (which would be downright dangerous). But by applying some creativity, your feedback efforts could do more than evaluate satisfaction or lawyer performance – they could spur the type of innovation that distinguishes your services, brings you closer to your clients and keeps your firm in business for a very long time.

How to do a Root Cause Analysis Separating the source from the symptom

“What’s the core issue?” Consultants, coaches and business experts of all types love asking this question at the outset of “helping” conversations. Often, it’s met with a blank stare or the loss of eye contact altogether, as the client shifts uncomfortably in her chair.

What can you do if you’re asked this question, but don’t know the answer? Or you’re scared to articulate an answer that might offend someone or prove unpopular?

Try a root-cause analysis. It’s an iterative exercise originally developed by Toyota to examine the cause and effect of a specific issue.

Benefits

  • Non-threatening: it can be done in the privacy of your cubicle or office or discussed in a group
  • Reveals underlying causes of a problem
  • Efficient: you’ll spend your resources addressing the source of the problem rather than the symptom
  • Uncovers biases and assumptions

How to do a root-cause analysis

There are several popular techniques. My favourite – and the one that works best when facilitating discussions in small groups – is to create a simple two-sided chart and structure a broad conversation.

  1. Draw a vertical line down the middle of a sheet of paper or a whiteboard. Label one side “cause” and the other “effect”
  2. Explain the difference between a cause and an effect: underlying causes can be solved, effects cannot.
  3. Ask everyone in the room to jot down a point of analysis regarding the problem you’re discussing.
  4. Ask each person to share their point with the group. Discuss whether it is a cause or an effect, reach an agreement and write the point down in the appropriate column.
  5. After everyone has had a chance to speak, review the “cause” column.
  6. For each cause, conduct a “5 Why’s” exercise:
    Ask “Why is this happening?”
    Write the answer underneath the cause or adjacent to it
    Ask “Why?” again, in reference to your first answer
    Write the answer down
    Repeat three more times, drilling down for the underlying cause.
  7. Rank the causes in order from most to least important to address

By the end of the discussion, you should have uncovered a pattern or theme that reveals the root cause of your issue. If this is part of a long-term planning project, you can test your theories by hosting similar discussions with others affected, especially clients and employees.

Sample analysis for a professional firm

What is happening? Three associates have left us to join a competitor firm that also serves some of our biggest clients. How will we replace them?

Why is this happening?
They expected to earn more money than the year before, while recording fewer billable hours , but we said “no”.

Why?
Half the files they worked on last year were billed as flat-fee arrangements instead of our regular hourly-fee arrangement. We asked associates to apply legal project management techniques to increase the efficiency of their work. They didn’t track the time spent on the flat-fee work as carefully as they do for hourly-based work because the billing narrative was simplified to reflect the fee.

Why?
The partner in charge of the relationship set some flat fees for one of our major clients based on his own calculations, then handed the work off to the associates.

Why?
The client threatened to move their business to another firm that already offered flat fee arrangements. We couldn’t afford to lose their business.

Why?
The client’s general counsel began updating his department’s protocols for hiring and evaluating outside counsel three years ago; he needed to prove the value of their legal budget to their shareholders and board after several years of rising costs.

The firm’s leadership is reactive. It couldn’t make the connection between market intelligence and it’s long-term strategy. The client’s needs changed years ago, but the firm didn’t take the changes seriously until it was asked to. And, when it did, no one analyzed how the change in fee structures would affect firm systems – finance, associate development or even its reputation platform.

It can be scary to face the reality of a root cause; firm culture, power dynamics and operating systems can be thorny, sensitive issues. That said, if you address the source, you’ll resolve other problems that were lurking in the background (knowledge management, budgets and market positioning come to mind for the sample case above).

The “Five Why’s” is one way to ensure you’re solving the right problem, and framing it in a way that could prevent it from occurring again. As Charles Kettering (holder of 140 U.S. patents) said, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved”.

Learn more: Are you solving the right problem? By Dwayne Spradlin, Harvard Business Review, September 2012.

Afterglow How to make the most of an adventure abroad

Kunene Sunset

Seven of us stood on the mountainside, quietly contemplating a deep red sunset over the vast Namib desert. Not another soul in sight. Not a sound to be heard.

As we slowly turned towards each other, our faces reflected the same feelings: awe, humility and a profound sense of peace.

Adventures abroad tend to put life at home in perspective. Distance brings the sum of life’s minor details into focus, often in unexpected ways.

I thought about this every day last month, while flying in between Namibian eco-lodges, bouncing through stunning national parks in the back of a Land Rover and making new friends, if only by chance.

Now that I’m back in Vancouver, I’ve tried very hard to bring the perspective gained into my daily life, rather than get right back into routine. If you’ve ever wanted to do the same, here are some ways to get started:

  1. Recognize what a gift it is to express yourself outside of work. I barely spoke about my work while I was away. Rather than describe what I do for a living, I talked about who I am and what matters to me.
  2. Meet people where they are. Travel forces you to accept people at face value. The strategic planning and change management work that I do is heavily future-focused; many of my client contacts are anxious about their personal role in it. Accepting them as they are, where they are and without assumptions is an integral part of building trust as projects take shape and teams reconfigure.
  3. If you use a travel journal, don’t put it away when you get home. I’ve kept writing in mine, trying to connect the helpful observations that I made while away with the familiar context of life in Vancouver.
  4. Make adventure a regular part of your life. So often, we return to efficient routines. What’s thrilling about vacations is discovering the unexpected and pushing yourself to keep exploring.
  5. Stay in touch. Have you met interesting people on vacation and exchanged contact information only to let good intentions fall aside? I have. This time I prioritized sending a note to my fellow travellers when I got home. It felt much better than the guilt that comes from not following up.

Namibia was a “bucket list” destination for me. I wanted the profound impact of this journey to amount to more than an Instagram post or a flag on my travel map. Although the temptation to rely on ingrained thought reflexes is still strong,  I’m certain that if I build some new habits, I can realize the full value of my experience. I hope you can do the same with yours.

Sabbaticals for the Self-Employed

Many firms now offer sabbatical programs as a workplace benefit. As long as employees meet defined criteria and plan carefully, they’re able to take a few months off without much risk. But are sabbaticals really feasible for self-employed professionals?

Given that I’m self-employed and that I work alone most of the time, I didn’t think that an extended absence was really an option. A carefully cultivated – or lucky – opportunity could arise at any moment. If I wasn’t around to respond, I could lose the work to another consultant. Not to mention, being self-employed means saving money for vacations and losing productivity time while taking those vacations (with limited amounts of human resources to delegate to while away).

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5 Ways to Make a Fast Decision

Time and money almost always need to be balanced with quality in professional work. When you’re faced with increasing project pressures, the ability to make good decisions quickly becomes especially important.

Decisiveness requires the type of confidence that comes from taking action, rather than accumulating theoretical knowledge. You might not make the best choice. You might even offend. But you’ll move things forward.

  1. Seek disconfirmation of assumptions. Ask “Is this wrong?” instead of “Am I right?”. And get the opinion of someone with relevant experience.
  2. If you’re working in a team, understand your role and the decisions you are expected to make.
  3. Speak up in team meetings. Verbalizing the rationale behind your decision is a quick way to test its plausibility. Staying quiet can lead to delays or cumbersome approval communications.
  4. Challenge yourself to beat constraints by making decisions that will help meet milestones early or within the budget.
  5. Believe in yourself. If you make a mistake, you have a choice to learn from it or dwell on it. Learning leads to agility. Dwelling leads to fragility. Your confidence will grow as you apply your experience to future decisions.

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E-learning for Lawyers, Explained

Online courses, webinars and other digital media open up a wide range of convenient, cost-effective training options for busy professionals. But there are a lot of options. Myriad combinations of technology, platforms, content and classrooms sometimes make the selection of a course as challenging as learning new subject matter.

Holly MacDonald of Spark + Co.

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Good Intentions

By March, those of us with personal practice development goals know what we need to accomplish by year-end (usually). We also know how easily the best of intentions can be set aside during daily work.

There are as many excuses to stop working towards long-term goals as there are distractions. Busy-work makes us feel productive. As Leigh Buchanan points out in a recent article in Inc. magazine, it’s also a trap.

Proven techniques help the dispirited stay on track. Why not try a few?

Prioritize

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Big data, small data

Sole practitioners often struggle to find and interpret meaningful practice data that points business-building efforts in the right direction.

New practice management software with great reporting features helps many lawyers find personalized information in an instant. But old habits – such as not bothering to look at the data on a regular basis or do anything about it – can be difficult to overcome.

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Back to (Business) School

Ah, September. The leaves are falling, the air is crisp and most of us feel motivated to learn something new.

Stanford University offers several online learning options for lawyers and legal professionals* interested in sharpening their business skills, especially in the areas of entrepreneurialism and innovation. The videos and podcasts in their Entrepreneurship Corner are professionally produced, available for view at any time and presented by top faculty from several departments. I’ve especially enjoyed the interviews with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Mitch Kapor who talk about lessons learned, developing “people skills” and learning to be comfortable with business risk. Read more