Larry Cattle looks at the value of small insights gained from research with your potential and current clients, and how it can make a big difference to client attraction and retention

In any market where there is a potential consumer, providers compete to be the supplier of choice. In order to compete, suppliers need to offer a good reason to be selected, and must communicate that message to the right person, at the right time, in the right way.

The winners in this competitive market will be those that are the smartest users of nuanced insights

However, in law firms, where the product is intangible and the importance of relationships very high, there is a unique set of factors at play that need to be understood.

We only need to reflect on how new business is won or lost. Whether we are trying to win business via a structured procurement process, through an intermediary, or directly with the potential client, a wide variety of influences have a bearing on the outcome, win or lose. Firms which have taken the time to find out what the final decision rested on will know that they have often won or lost by the very finest of margins. These very small differences have always fascinated me.

Consider this: once you’ve won that business, do you know what the factors are that influence a client to either stay with you or leave?

Thin-slicing: quick judgements form first impressions

I came across an article recently (featured in The Guardian back in 2009) which discussed the work of psychiatrists who have examined the way we make quick judgements and arrive at first impressions when we meet new people. The ideas may go some way toward explaining in a more scientific way how clients select lawyers.

The article explained that a psychologist collected a series of videotaped job interviews to test whether it was possible to guess the outcome simply from observing the interaction between the interviewer and interviewee. ‘She found that an observer could predict whether or not the interviewee would be offered the job from watching just the first 15 seconds of the tape: the handshake, the ‘hello’, and very little else. What happened in those few, brief moments was enough to determine the candidate’s future.’

‘First impressions are the fundamental drivers of our relationships,’ says Professor Frank Bernieri of Oregon State University, who supervised the study. ‘In a sense, it’s a little like the principle of chaos theory, where the initial conditions can have a profound impact on the eventual outcome. A first impression is your initial condition for analysing another human being.’

Bernieri calls this theory ‘thin-slicing’: he believes we make a reasonably accurate assessment of a person from observing just a few seconds, or a ‘thin slice’, of their behaviour. The theory is that from the evidence gleaned in just a few moments of interaction, we decide whether we like another person. In those moments, we form impressions of what they are like and whether they’re friend or foe. He commented: ‘If you’ve ever changed seats on a train or crossed the road to avoid someone because there was something “not quite right about them”, you’ve used your ability to thin-slice. We thin-slice people in all kinds of situations… speed-dating is another example of thin-slicing in action.’

I found myself thinking that there are strong parallels between this and the way potential clients assess law firms and make decisions about whether to use them or not, particularly in relation to medium-sized and small firms.

Mystery shopping

Mystery shopping is one way you can get some thin-sliced insights about your firm. It’s not very established in the legal sector, but it should be, as it underlines the importance of first impressions very strongly. In one mystery shopping exercise, my client was a medium-sized firm with a strong SME and private client base. I was given access to all of their practice areas and service lines, as well as all the main local competitors, using telephone, face-to-face and email approaches to make enquiries. The findings from these experiences were fascinating.

My client’s solicitors did create a good first impression overall, and carried out their work very professionally, although there were some helpful lessons to learn about communication. However, a number of the competitor firms in the region created very memorable first impressions for all the wrong reasons! My ‘thin-slicing’ experience of approaching lawyers picked up a wide variety of negative interactions.

When enquiring as a small business owner at one firm, I didn’t get a response for two working days – and because that crossed a weekend, it was four days in total. I was left with no answers to questions, and a strong feeling that my business wasn’t important to them.

Enquiring as a private client needing some help on powers of attorney, I was frustrated by the absence of anyone to speak to about my enquiry on the day I called, and no follow-up suggestions from the person who took the call.

A house purchase enquiry was handled very badly by a junior solicitor. This was compounded by a senior solicitor electing to speak to me by phone in reception rather than come to see me.

  • In a number of firms, I was met with a lack of interest in my circumstances.
  • In one firm, I had to abandon my enquiry altogether as there was no customer care instinct at all.
  • In two firms, the reception areas were most unwelcoming, needing major refurbishment.

I was struck by how powerful those first impressions were and how significant an effect they had on my attitude to the firms. In a world where ‘people buy people’, it’s so important to create very good first impressions. Thin slices were illuminating here.

If you’re considering using mystery shopping, there are a few things you should be aware of. Mystery shopping:

  • is very good in relation to small businesses and private clients, but less relevant for larger business clients
  • enables measurement and assessment of the actual prospective client experience, even though the case is fictitious
  • enables comparisons to be made between practice areas to enable improvements and greater consistency
  • allows comparisons to be made between the featured firm and their competitors
  • gives a better understanding of the different communication channels – face to face, phone, email
  • is measurable over time to track improvements.

Small fragments

The thin-slicing research is all about first impressions – just like mystery shopping. But once you have developed a relationship – with a client or a referrer – similarly small concerns or issues can be enough for you to lose them. I have often noticed that within existing relationships, the smallest fragments of interaction can have a powerful effect – either positively or negatively – and can sometimes change perceptions or influence decisions in a significant way.

Once you’ve done mystery shopping to understand what makes a client choose not to start a relationship with you, you need to conduct other research to understand why someone might end an existing relationship.

Client feedback

Finding out what clients think of their law firm through a client feedback programme is a very powerful exercise, generating a wide range of benefits. In an exercise of this kind, I tend to rank the findings as small, medium and large, both for simplicity, and to enable me to make an important point: it is extremely rare to uncover a ‘large’ or significant finding. This is because a programme of this kind is normally carried out with a firm’s most valued clients – those that already represent a fairly significant revenue stream or have good potential to do so in the future – and as such, they are generally very happy with the service they get, so significant negatives are rarely uncovered. You’re far more likely to get a range of smaller insights – but addressing these can make a big difference. Consider the example below.

Client A was very happy with the service their law firm was providing, and they had been very loyal. However, it became clear that their loyalty was beginning to be shaken slightly. First, they mentioned a few relatively small to medium-sized grumbles about matters such as not having received a small training exercise that had been promised and not being made aware of a change in personnel in the legal team (both of these matters were found to be misunderstandings when investigated). Second, they had become more aware of what other firms could offer – competitors had been more actively trying to get their foot in the door. None of these matters were in themselves terminal, but when they are all added up, they can create a high-risk situation.

As a consequence of this interview, the key points were swiftly fed back to the lead partner, and the issues speedily and effectively addressed, resulting in a much happier client a few weeks later, and a strengthened relationship. Had the feedback interview not been carried out, this situation might not have been averted. The small insights generated by this exercise were extremely valuable.

Small fragments can help you to address change proactively as well as reactively. In another feedback interview, a team member from Client B let slip that she thought the fee levels the firm was charging were surprisingly low, and the value of the services to them was high. This enabled the firm to consider a review of fee arrangements at the appropriate time, from a much more informed position.

In addition to client feedback interviews, you should consider their quantitative cousin: client feedback surveys. Both provide very valuable insights.

Client feedback surveys:

  • can include many clients
  • enable comparison between types of clients, and point to trends over time
  • are limited in terms of the number and depth of questioning, because the time to complete needs to be short to gain sufficient responses.

Client feedback interviews:

  • create better conditions for longer
  • and more in-depth interaction than surveys (especially if the interviews are face to face)
  • are normally carried out by an independent / objective interviewer, so the client is more willing to share more observations that they might not disclose if meeting with their lead lawyer.

Referrer relationships

Although feedback from clients is used much more these days, very few firms apply this thinking to their referral contacts. This is in spite of the fact that for many law firms, referral sources are a very significant route to winning more clients and business. Referral sources should be treated just like clients and nurtured accordingly, and it follows that we should make every effort to listen to their needs, concerns, issues and priorities.

In some cases, the amount of contact you have with a referrer may be superficial and simple, with contact being a simple email forwarding details of a colleague and a suggestion to make contact. But do you know why that referrer referred you – and how to make sure they keep doing so? Peeling back the layers reveals a wide variety of important aspects of the relationship, from how they view your firm compared to other referrers, through to what they care about most from their referrer. For example, some professionals assume that reciprocity is the number one priority, but that is not always the case; some just want to be confident that their client is being looked after well, just like they do.

In a feedback programme that I conducted among lawyers, accountants and wealth managers recently, with a specific focus on referrals, a wide variety of valuable insights came to light at various levels, from the strategic to the operational, including the following.

  • Each had a different view of the importance of referrals.
  • Some businesses put significantly more time and effort into maintaining referral relationships than other.
  • Some firms felt they were giving more business than they were getting back.
  • Some professionals were disappointed by the level of activity from their counterparts in other firms.

All held the view that carrying out this exercise was a good thing and likely to help improve relationships further.

Referrer feedback programmes:

  • elevate the strategic importance of referrers in the business
  • make the interviewed referrer feel valued
  • are rare, so there is an opportunity to seize the high ground.


Law firms operate in a world in which potential clients form impressions based on very limited information, and often make their minds up quickly. When prospects become clients, we have to protect and develop that relationship more carefully than ever, as loyalty is not what it once was. We also need to be more mindful of the importance of referrers in our business mix, as they can feel neglected and undervalued. Gathering insights provides the kind of information needed to improve a firm’s performance.

The winners in this competitive market will be those that are the smartest users of nuanced insights – whether in thin slices or small fragments.