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Client Service? Or Lip Service?

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Conservative?  Us?
Conservative? Us?

Lawyers — probably the most risk-averse group of human beings on the planet by training, vocation, and personality — are starting to embrace social media and web marketing principles.  There are some rather interesting lessons from that world for realestistas.

For example, this article from Lawyers USA (h/t What About Clients?) titled, “Are you overlooking your best marketing tool?”:

Many law firms are missing a marketing tool that is right in front of them: their own staff.

While all law firms believe the mantra that every staff member is an ambassador for the firm, few make it an explicit element of firm culture.

In fact, your staff is already marketing all day long – they just need to be reminded of it.

“If you really believe, as I do, that everybody is marketing from the moment they wake up to the moment they sleep – meaning that you are persuading someone as to the validity and worthiness of your idea, whether the idea is ‘Hire me,’ or the idea is selling your story to a judge or jury –then everything that involves your people and you is marketing,” said Edward Poll, founder of LawBiz Management Co. in Venice, Calif.

But lawyers and law firm management have not successfully transmitted this message, said Tom Kane, principal of Kane Consulting Inc. in Sarasota, Fla. and author of www.legalmarketingblog.com.

“Everyone needs to understand and buy into the idea that they have a significant impact on the firm’s brand,” he said.

For small firms, whose clients more often visit the office in person, it’s even more critical that everyone from the receptionist to the paralegals to the people in the copy room know that they represent the firm. [Emphasis added.]

This brings together two separate, but related, strands of something I’ve been talking about on this blog for a while.  One is the notion of a integrated real estate brokerage modeled after law firms.  The other is the idea that a broker’s brand is in the hands of the weakest, least competent agent.  Every broker, indeed every company, talks a whole lot about customer service.  You can’t read a corporate mission statement these days without hearing about how they’ll be focused on providing excellent customer service.

And yet… how many companies actually go beyond pretty words on the corporate website, or lofty phrases of the mission statement, and do something about service?  The reason, as the author of What About Clients blog points out, is that customer service is hard to do:

Client service is very hard, and most businesses don’t even know it. So they don’t build it, they don’t work hard at keeping and improving it, and they don’t enforce it.

The author is Dan Hull, a partner at a law firm in Pittsburgh, who is quoted in and written about in the article above.  I think his suggestions are something brokers might consider.  I think they can be summarized as Train, Evaluate, and Enforce.

Train

The first suggestion is to make client service an official policy of the firm, and to let your people know what is expected of them.  And if you’re training everyone to be client-centric, then you may as well let it influence your hiring decisions as well:

“Teach your staff that they are marketing the firm. Give them instructions on how to answer the phone and interact with people and the standards of care you would like to see,” said Poll.

This message should come across as early as the hiring process.

When Dan Hull, a partner with Hull McGuire PC in Pittsburgh, interviews potential employees, he introduces “The 12 Rules of Client Service,” a 30-page book of required reading created by his firm that includes such items as Rule #6: “When you work, you are marketing” and Rule #9: “Be there for clients – 24/7.”

Evaluate

Training, of course, merely sets the table; to implement it, you have to evaluate the impact and create a system of incentives and disincentives.

Employees at his firm know they will be evaluated based on their customer service skills and are encouraged to evaluate the partners on the same.

Presumably, at Hull’s firm, annual bonuses, perhaps even raises and promotions, are based at least in part on how the employee has carried out client services.

Metrics FTW!
Metrics FTW!

A lot of policies fail in implementation because there is no evaluation, no metrics.  No matter how great the idea, no matter how thorough the buy-in from people, if you can’t measure how someone is executing on the idea, then success is highly unlikely.

Furthermore, talking about evaluation and metrics forces you to get real.  “We’re client focused!” is easy to chant.  But it’s meaningless.  “We have 95% client satisfaction rating” is harder as a slogan, but it’s meaningful.  “I return all client emails/phone calls within 5 minutes” is pretty uninspiring, but it’s something that really can be measured for an individual.  And talking about metrics and evaluation forces the idea-guys to boil down the ideas to specific actions.

Enforce

Perhaps the most illuminating suggestion, Hull is absolutely clear and absolutely unforgiving when it comes to enforcing client service:

He bluntly tells everyone in the firm the rules are not a gimmick and anyone who doesn’t buy into them will be fired.

“The only way you can get fired in my firm is to make a joke about client services. We are dead serious about it,” said Hull, author of the blog www.whatboutclients.com.

And he has followed through on that promise, such as when he fired an employee on the spot for refusing to take a phone call from a client over a weekend when both partners were out of town.

For what it’s worth, without enforcement, it isn’t client service; it’s lip service.

It’s all just pretty words, and useless metrics, unless there’s actual enforcement.  Now, “enforcement” has a strong punitive connotation, but it really needs to be both positive incentive and negative punishment.

If an employee is doing great, performing awesome client service, then he needs to be rewarded — and the rest of the firm told how, why, and how much that reward is being given.

Of course, in contrast, if someone isn’t following the firm policy on client service, then that person needs to be punished, even terminated.  Lack of enforcement simply means that the organization understands that all the “client service” hoopla is just hype.

Medium, Meet Message

Due to some recent conversations on the topic of social media, the idea of client service really strikes me with some force.  Social media, after all, is still a channel for communication.  It does not, by itself, bring a message forward at all.

And amidst the buzzwords, the strategeries and tactics for using social media, doesn’t it sometimes feel like we’re all learning how to speak in all directions without thinking of what to say?

So here’s a thought: client service is the message.

Whether you use social media, Web 2.0, Web 1.0, telephone, U.S. Postal Service, or stone tablets, the message remains the same: client service.  Whatever that might mean, however you might measure it, and however you go about the business, at the end of the day, doesn’t the practice of real estate services come down to providing some sort of client service?  And beyond the whole small-is-beautiful or bigger-the-better, isn’t the determining factor for victory superior client service?

So ask yourself this: Is your company, your business, about client service?  Or lip service?

-rsh

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Rob Hahn
Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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