The 2 Critical Questions that Lead to Continuous Improvement

by Timothy B. Corcoran on December 17, 2012

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If you want to improve your law practice, your business, your customer service posture, then you need to ask two simple questions, and ask them regularly: What are we doing well and what can we improve?

I believe in reducing complex ideas into bite size morsels that can be more easily consumed.  When I deliver workshops to law firm partners on Legal Project Management, purists in the audience will sometimes quibble with my casual use of Lean Six Sigma terminology. Circular File Others will want to deconstruct some of the financial calculations I use when demonstrating the inherent profit potential of Alternative Fee Arrangements.  But in doing so they miss the forest for the trees.  It’s fine to debate the details once you’ve mastered the larger concepts.  The same philosophy applies when it comes to using client feedback to improve your business.

I recently engaged in a vigorous discussion with a consultant whose academic credentials in statistics and market research far exceed my own.  She produces exhaustive reports on brand familiarity, relative market position and statistically precise indexes of client satisfaction.  But, she laments, her clients — which like my practice include both law firms and service providers catering to law firms — generally ignore her studies, filing them away in the proverbial circular file rather than formulating an action plan.  My diagnosis was simple, and it reflects my own approach to assessing client satisfaction and continuous improvement:  reduce the complexity and focus on gathering actionable information.

There’s a time and a place for complexity and nuance, but it always follows acceptance of core concepts.  If you don’t know explicitly what your clients value about your service and if you don’t know explicitly what they wish you would do better, then all the charts and graphs and analysis are just so much statistical noise.  Here’s an example of my annoying habit of reducing complex concepts into simple ideas:  sustainable profitability comes from client satisfaction; client satisfaction comes from continuous improvement; continuous improvement happens when we regularly ask our clients what we do well and what we can improve.  It’s that simple.

When I present these questions, there is always someone who will suggest alternative wording, or suggest two or three additional questions to add color or depth to the findings.  Sometimes this works.  More often than not, it just complicates things.  It sometimes seems as if we create complexity where simplicity is needed, because complexity pays better, or provides job security.  But there is no better job security than channeling the voice of the customer, and this isn’t hard to do.

What are we doing well?  Let’s not assume that everything — heck, anything — we’re doing is worth continuing.  It’s critical to know explicitly and specifically what clients value, why they value it, and that they want us to continue doing it.  Here are actual excerpts from client feedback sessions I’ve conducted, or feedback my clients have compiled.  The consistent theme of each is that no one knew the high value the clients placed on the specific action or service, and in some cases we had been debating whether to stop the practice.

“We appreciate the monthly one-page project summary reflecting progress against the original budget and timetable.  We may have never mentioned it, but we distribute that report to key executives and they love how we demonstrate that the law department operates like other business functions.”  (Deputy GC responsible for Litigation to outside counsel retained for a single high stakes matter)

“I like the detailed time entries on the invoice. I have to carve out time every month to make phone calls to my outside counsel to ask for clarification on the invoices, but with your firm I rarely need to.”  (Chief Legal Officer for a small manufacturing company)

“No other vendor salesperson stays involved during the configuration and implementation phase, but [our salesperson] stayed in touch all the way through rollout to ensure we got everything we needed.”  (Law firm CIO to a legal technology vendor)

What can we improve?  This is specifically worded to acknowledge that there is always something we can do better.  Many of the law firm partners I work with are hesitant to hold annual client satisfaction reviews, let alone end-of-matter reviews, because they cringe at the thought of inviting criticism, or worse the thought of that criticism being shared with a colleague such as a Managing Partner instead of them.  Or perhaps worst of all, they loathe even the idea of sharing a client’s criticism with their implicated colleagues.  The question worded in this way reduces that emotional baggage, because it’s clear our intent isn’t placing blame or avoiding responsibility.  Our goal is simply to identify specific actions that we can improve.  More examples:

“I don’t enjoy having to wait an indefinite period for a call back.  Sometimes I get the sense that you won’t call until you have an answer.  It’s okay if you need time, if it’s urgent I’ll say so in my voice mail or email.  But it would be better for me if you acknowledged receipt of my call or email and let me know when you can get back to me.  I’d much rather know that you’re in court and can get back to me next Monday than wonder all weekend if you even got my call.  In fairness, if it’s urgent and you can’t get to it right away, I may need to call in someone else.  But I will always find another opportunity for those who are good at managing my expectations.  (Associate GC for a clothing manufacturer to a law firm that has received very little work even after a lengthy process to reach the preferred panel list)

“I enjoy attending your dinners at [a major conference] because you invite others that I want to see.  But I am uncomfortable with the invitations to ball games and other events.  It’s not that I dislike one on one time, I’m happy to meet over lunch, but we have a policy against accepting gifts and attending a sporting event in your suite doesn’t feel right to me.”  (Executive Director for a mid-size law firm to major legal services vendor)

It may come as a surprise to learn that many clients, possibly most clients, don’t relish the thought of giving criticism any more than those on the receiving end like hearing it.  The questions as posed above help avoid the emotional baggage and put the focus where it belongs.  Let’s discuss those things we do right and that you believe we should continue, and let’s discuss those things that from your perspective we can do better.  Once you master this approach, there’s a lot more to help you hone in on specific industries or market segments or to help synthesize and prioritize a high volume of disparate feedback.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Start simply and grow from there.

 

Timothy B. Corcoran delivers keynote presentations and conducts workshops to help lawyers, in-house counsel and legal service providers profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, click here or contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Timothy B. Corcoran December 18, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Thanks for the input, Jayne! My point remains that if you start with the detailed questions, you won’t gather as much information. The two questions I pose are excellent at starting a dialog, and you can take the conversation anywhere based on the feedback you obtain. If we start with, for example, the question “How well are we meeting your needs in segment X?” then we will likely need to ask the same question for segment Y and Z and M and Q and K. Now we have an interrogation rather than a dialog. Plus we’ve put boundaries around the feedback and we’re likely to miss something. It’s not uncommon to gather exhaustive information and still miss something crucial, because we didn’t think to ask it. On the other hand, if we start with the two questions I pose above, the client dictates the scope and direction of the feedback and we elicit the most important things on their mind first. From there we can and should dig deeper into specific areas, using more specific lines of inquiry, at that time or at a later time.

Jayne December 18, 2012 at 11:40 am

Before you gather the data, make sure you are asking the right question. Not all questions are equal, nor actionable. Further, the broader the question, the less likely you will find truly actionable data. Instead of “What can we improve?” try, “How well are we meeting your needs in segment X?” Also, from a strategic planning angle, narrower, future oriented questions work better than status questions. Instead of asking, “Has our market share increased? ask, “Are we consistently increasing our market share?” or “To what extent are we responding to the most exciting opportunities that the market is offering?” “To what extent are we enhancing our international reputation?” Then you can respond to the attributes of the top performing data.

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