OSB Professional Liability Fund

Five Tips for Keeping Clients Happier with Communication

hands on phone
May 17, 2019
by Sheila Blackford

Unhappy clients are not the clients you want to have. They complain to you, to your staff, to their neighbors, to their friends, and they complain to the Oregon State Bar. One thing that makes clients unhappy is being ignored. Their emails go unanswered. There is no callback. If a receptionist is answering the phone, the receptionist becomes less sympathetic to the complaining client out of embarrassment or frustration. The lawyer’s spouse is less sympathetic to the complaining lawyer and wishes the lawyer would just call those clients back. Now the lawyer has unhappy clients, unhappy staff, and an unhappy spouse. By this time, the lawyer’s heart is racing at the thought of a Bar complaint and begins to nervously scan the mail for any envelopes from the Bar marked “personal and confidential” in red.

One of the most frequent complaints by clients to the OSB’s Client Assistance Office (CAO) year after year is about the lawyer’s poor or lack of communication. We talk about having a client-focused law practice, but what does that mean when it comes to client communication? Oregon Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4 addresses communication. RPC 1.4(a) states that a lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information. To understand this from a client’s point of view, it would be wise to remember that a prospective client doesn’t consult a lawyer because he or she is having a good day. Their day is far from good and, frequently, their bad days have been numerous before contacting a lawyer. It should come as no surprise that the top four practice areas representing 60.8% of all complaints to the CAO in 2018 were criminal law, family law, civil law, and personal injury. These are high-stress problems for clients who are already frustrated, scared, consumed with worry, and very unhappy. With this in mind, consider these five tips for keeping clients happier with improved communication.

Tip One: Communicate clear expectations at the front end of your representation.
A big temptation in attracting clients is feeling the competitive urge to promise the moon. Over-promising good results sets a client up for disappointment and feelings of betrayal. “You promised I had a good case!”  The tip here is to be honest in explaining the prospective results—good and bad—and give a realistic appraisal of the time and scope of the matter—no surprises. How often will you communicate case status to your client? How much do you anticipate the reasonable amount for fees and costs? The old adage “under promise and over deliver” is still a wise one.

Tip Two: Return client phone calls and emails within a reasonable amount of time. You may hope to get back to your client before the end of the day or within 24 hours. However, within 48 hours is still reasonable. Consider enlisting the aid of your legal assistant to call your client back to convey your inability to respond immediately and to arrange a time that you will contact them. Enter that time as an appointment on your calendar and keep it.

Tip Three: Leave clear, informative messages. Simply stating, “Alfred Attorney, returning your call” is not likely to be appreciated. Do you know what the client is calling about? Ask your client to relay clear, informative messages as well. “It’s me, Calvin, call me back,” doesn’t give the lawyer enough information to prepare an adequate response. 

Tip Four: Use the best method of communication for the message. Texts are typically brief and not the best method for conveying detailed messages. “I’m 10 minutes away” is an appropriate use of text, compared with “R U still there?” Emails are easily misunderstood. Blame this on reading them in a hurry or not scrolling down to read the entire message. Tone is usually unclear, except that the universal ALL CAPS!! is accurately read as shouting. If you must send an email, stop to ask yourself whether your client will misunderstand the message. Use bullet points. Specify the requested action in the subject line. “SIGN AND RETURN” or “CONFIRMING APPOINTMENT” or “RE COURT ATTIRE” let the client know that it is an email to read thoroughly.

Tip Four: Communicate status updates on a consistent basis. A good way to keep the client informed is to use Status Update forms. You just want to convey a simple message regarding the status of the case: “Waiting for medical records from Dr. Delay.” Clients always appreciate knowing what is or isn’t going on with their case. To a client, cases should move quickly like on TV and in the movies. If the client doesn’t hear from you, the client may begin to think that their attorney has forgotten about them. After giving the attorney a hefty retainer, a client could begin to wonder if the attorney has just ripped them off. Assure clients that their matter is being treated with the respectful attention it deserves. 

Tip Five: The Golden Rule isn’t enough. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you leaves an important person out of the action−the client. The client-focused version of the Golden Rule is “do unto others as they would have you do.” What does the client really need in this situation? Reassurance? Give them the honest truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is to give or receive. At the end of the day, the client appreciates hearing the bad news instead of being ignored or lied to by the lawyer.

Keeping clients happy is easier with good client communication. The five tips may give you a good place to start improving your own communication with clients. Communication is an area where effort pays off. Invest the time to adequately communicate with clients.