Bernadette Bennett looks at client listening - what it is, why it matters, how to do it, and why it matters even more in lockdown

Communication in the legal sector can often be one way, with firms disseminating information to their clients and prospects. But sharing information is not listening. Research from LexisNexis highlights the challenge that listening presents for legal firms: 80% of legal firms think their client service is above average, yet only 40% of clients agree; and 92% of lawyers think they are good at listening, compared with just 67% of clients.

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For legal firms, the simple act of listening has significant commercial advantage and can yield increases in revenue, particularly in such a challenging year – yet it is still an undervalued skill in business.

2020 has tested the resilience of legal firms, their people and their clients, and it has started to rewrite the rulebook of business. It is also changing our notion of when and where work needs to happen, which in turn has shifted clients’ expectations of their professional partners. Against this backdrop, the power of listening should not be underestimated.

What is client listening?

There is an acute difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is a physiological act. Listening requires a conscious decision to listen and understand what someone is saying. Active listening typically takes this one step further, to include giving the person speaking verbal and non-verbal signs of listening. This can involve some of the more obvious visual clues such as smiling, nodding and making eye contact, but also extends to asking questions, demonstrating empathy and clarifying the information that’s being delivered.

Why is client listening important?

Client listening helps law firms really understand clients’ wants and needs. It can help with everything from creating detailed records about existing clients, to accurately mapping target client personas for marketing and lead generation. These insights have tremendous value – they can improve client retention dramatically and enable successful cross- and up-selling. Plus, with greater client intelligence comes the ability to test the market quickly and check brand sentiment, too.

As social distancing continues to challenge our daily lives, listening takes on greater importance. We have an even stronger need for connection with others, to be understood and to feel supported. This was particularly evident at the pandemic’s height – our in-house call data showed that legal call durations increased by 25%, as clients shared their worries and simply sought out human contact. Live chat became more popular too, as people reached out for legal help and support outside of traditional hours – quickening the pace of demand for 24-7 service from the legal sector.

BTMK Solicitors, which has offices in Southend-on-Sea, Leigh-on-Sea, Rayleigh and London, had been catering for out-of-hours demand long before the pandemic. Nitin Khandhia, managing director, says: “We live in a highly connected world, so we have to be responsive when people need us and able to handle enquiries as and when they come in. We were receiving a significant number of enquiries between 8pm and 6am each day, and use telephone answering and live chat as a way to reassure them that their enquiry will be handled quickly. It’s not limited to the more consumer aspects of law either – we see commercial clients facing the same time pressures and reaching out in the evenings and early mornings, too.”

What tools can you use for client listening?

While client satisfaction surveys and client reviews can help, these are typically annual activities, and are often more weighted to asking the questions that the firm thinks are important, rather than covering what the client thinks is important. Net promoter scores, which capture the likelihood of recommendations, provide a more independent benchmark by which to monitor customer care, and review websites offer an independent rating of firms. However, these still don’t offer the granular detail of one-to-one listening.

Active listening requires a blend of communications tools and an appetite to engage in meaningful conversation.

Social media

Social media is a cost-effective tool to listen to and engage in conversations in real time. Alison Lobb, managing partner of Morecrofts Solicitors, which has six offices across Merseyside, says: “Social media has become a strong indicator of the needs of potential clients. Engagement on certain posts show which areas of law are peaking at certain times – some are more predictable, such as divorce in January, but some can catch us at more surprising times – such as conveyancing during a pandemic.

“Being able to engage with clients on these platforms ensures we are communicating with them in the way they are comfortable with – for example, some may wish to converse on instant messenger before giving out direct telephone numbers and email addresses. Others will speak to us via a WhatsApp messaging service we provide. The main benefit of listening to a client in their preferred way is the leads it brings in the future.”

Your firm’s website

One of the most under-utilised tools is a firm’s own website, and many fail to recognise search engine optimisation (SEO) as a form of listening. According to LexisNexis, there are over two million legal-orientated search queries every day in the UK on Google – by paying attention to those terms, what’s growing and declining in popularity, firms can take cues from their audience. The addition of live chat builds on this further. By monitoring queries, identifying key words and checking the sentiment of those chats, it’s possible to build greater client empathy, spot new opportunities, and identify communication priorities.

Amy Seppman, marketing director at JCP Solicitors, which has nine offices and operates across south and west Wales, says that live chat has helped to inform web design and content strategy at the firm. “By looking at live chat transcripts, we could quickly identify where prospects and clients needed most help. It highlighted information on the website that just wasn’t easy enough to find, and also the sorts of issues and questions that we should be adding to our blog.”

Telephone answering services

These provide a similar opportunity to evaluate the nature of queries, identify commonalities and inform product and service development. Khandhia used live chat and telephone answering transcripts to deliver process innovation in some of BTMK’s highest volume service areas, such as wills and conveyancing. “Listening to clients and evaluating both call and chat transcripts revealed a high volume of queries about how to pay for disbursements and search fees up front. We could see there was a bottleneck and it was causing frustration – so we put a quick payment portal in place. By listening and responding, we were able to deliver important process innovation for clients.”

Seppman adds: “We wanted to manage our inbound queries more efficiently. The immediacy of live chat means we can quickly ascertain enquirers’ needs and identify whether we can help, before leads are passed to solicitors. This also benefits the enquirer by not wasting their time waiting for a call back when we are unable to assist. By doing this, we can ensure that our solicitors’ energies and productivities are focused in the right place – whilst delivering excellent client care, which starts at the point of enquiry.”

Face to face

For some legal firms, listening is also about face-to-face contact. Rebecca Gwynn, marketing manager for Tinsdills, which has four offices serving Staffordshire and Cheshire, says: “When we took the decision to focus our front of house staff solely on meeting and greeting clients rather than answering calls, it allowed us to be more present for clients waiting for their appointments and walk-in enquiries. Without the distraction of ringing phones, our team can chat with clients, put them at ease and build rapport, all of which are a really important part of really listening and showing ourselves as a people-orientated firm.”

Authentic relationships drive revenue and growth

Listening empowers legal firms to learn from their clients, and provides the foundations on which to build meaningful relationships. More authentic two-way conversation is essential in order to maintain and improve customer experience, and to nurture, build and protect brand reputation.

Listening can lead to competitive advantage: you just need to make sure you can really hear what’s being said.