Bernadette Bennett, head of legal sector at Moneypenny, gives her top tips for firms on the power of a good first impression

In legal services, the power of first impressions are well known – but not always well actioned.

In a crowded marketplace rich with choice for consumers, legal firms must put their best foot forward – whether that’s via their social media responses, web presence or how initial telephone enquiries are handled. All of these things give clues as to what to expect of a legal services provider – they reveal whether a firm is responsive, courteous, efficient and empathetic. Quite simply, first impressions disclose whether clients are valued and hint at the quality of service on offer.

The phone is king

The phone is still a vital means of communication for legal clients so it’s a crucial consideration when addressing first impressions. Bernadette Bennett, head of the legal sector at Moneypenny, handles more than two million legal calls and live chats for more than 1,000 legal firms each year. She believes firms need to recognise it’s all about ‘horses for courses’.

She says: “When it comes to client care you need to play people to their strengths. For example, solicitors should not be answering calls. That’s partly because unnecessary interruptions aren’t good for case efficiency, but also because they’re generally not trained in client care and their skills are better spent on providing legal advice and services.”

Instead, Bernadette advocates for appropriate resource and a call management strategy to protect solicitors’ productivity and wellbeing as well as the client experience. Bernadette says: “The optimum solution is to have dedicated resource for all call handling – be that in-house or via an outsourced partner. Developing a call management strategy is integral to this as it provides clarity about roles, responsibilities and the level of care you want to offer.”

For Bell Lamb and Joynson Solicitors (BLJ), which has offices in Runcorn, Warrington and Liverpool, positive first impressions require client empathy, especially over the phone and via live chat. BLJ’s managing partner Mike Leeman says: “Solicitors offer a service that clients don’t really want to buy. They’re often experiencing difficult times, so it makes legal services a distress sale. We need to show we’re by their side and there to help which requires being friendly and responsive, really listening to requirements and showing genuine understanding of their circumstances. Recognising this and acting on it has given us a real point of difference.”

What clients want

Clare Fanner from the Law Firm Marketing Club (LFMC), agrees that understanding clients’ feelings is crucial to first impressions – a fact that was proved in her research paper What Clients Want, which showed that 74% of UK legal clients have a negative emotion at the start of their legal matter.

She says: “These people could be angry, sad, scared or anxious, so firms need to be ready to deal with these emotions and reassure people appropriately. If their response falls short, potential new clients will simply go elsewhere, and probably talk negatively about your firm as they go.”

For Paul Sams, partner at Dutton Gregory Solicitors, which has offices in London, Dorset and Hampshire, you can only create a positive first impression if you understand the wider consumer trends shaping client behaviour. Paul says: “As consumers we’ve all got used to getting everything now. You can order a bike pump on Amazon and it’s with you the next day. When businesses tell you it will be longer than that – the wait seems unreasonable because we’ve come to expect super rapid service. This impacts legal services hugely as clients have high expectations. They expect communication to be easy and delivery to be fast. We have to be able to respond, particularly when it comes to that first point of contact.”

Dealing with emotional clients is not without its challenges though, especially with regard to conveyancing. Paul says: “We’ve had clients shouting down the phone because they were worried about completing before the stamp duty deadline or because they expect absolute immediacy. If our legal team had to be on the frontline handling this increase in emotionally-charged calls, it would have hindered our efficiency and damaged employee wellbeing. The support of Moneypenny as our outsourced partner has been crucial in helping to navigate these challenges and ensuring that even when we’re busy – the first impression of our business is professional, friendly and efficient.”

The challenges of a ‘now’ mentality

There is no doubt that this desire for immediacy presents challenges for service delivery – particularly for conveyancing which has experienced unprecedented demand over the last 18 months.

Mike Leeman says: “The phone has been our busiest channel during this time so it’s the place where first impressions really count and it’s where we’ve really leaned on full outsourced switchboard support. Anxious clients tend to call more and need more reassurance which can put our teams under tremendous pressure. Knowing that all calls are answered professionally and in person, even when our team is busy, helps everyone.”

One of BLJ’s approaches has to been to have one central new business team which progresses all new enquiries– before secured work is passed to the right legal department. Mike adds: “This works for us because we know that once that initial call or live chat has taken place, it can be passed to one team who’ll progress it to the next stage. This makes us much more efficient, able to nurture and progress leads much more quickly to meet clients’ ‘now’ expectations and avoids calling on fee earners until they’re really needed.”

Outsourcing first impressions and meeting shifting needs

Where firms don’t have adequate inhouse support to manage their incoming calls, overflow or fully outsourced support can be a welcome solution. Moneypenny’s Bernadette Bennett says: “Consistent periods of high demand can make it difficult to ensure a consistently positive client experience. Outsourcing alleviates some of the frustrations and missed opportunities that come from solicitors being expected to chip in with the phones when the switchboard team is busy, calls going to voicemail (which is sure fire way to lose the work) and poor message taking.”

It can also be helpful to empower frontline responders to make initial conversations more productive. Bernadette adds: “It’s important to understand the nature of calls or live chats so you can be ready to meet their needs. A significant proportion of people will want quotes, updates and appointments, plus there’ll be contact from third parties such as surveyors, lenders, estate agents and other legal professionals. If call handlers have access to the answers to frequently asked questions, know where to signpost people, can book appointments straight into diaries or have a quotes calculator to hand – they can give clients what they want quickly and without the need for call backs.”

LFMC’s Clare Fanner is keen to stress that understanding needs is a continual process. Her latest research, What Clients Want in 2021, shows client needs are changing rapidly. She says: “Law firms need to be in regular dialogue with clients to know how their needs are changing – if they don’t know, first impressions will fall short.

“Key strategic areas for law firms to focus on include having a strategy to meet the needs of younger generations (whose expectations are very different to their older counterparts), improving accessibility as 9-5 hours and paper-heavy reliant practices aren’t good enough; and having a strong online presence with good quality information and pricing.”

Digital matters

First impressions are increasingly determined by the quality of the digital experience and it’s why BLJ’s Mike has added managed live chat to the website. He says: “We may be a 200 year old firm but we’ve been quick to embrace technology because we know it improves the customer experience and makes us accessible 24 / 7, which is becoming very important. This, combined with using WhatsApp chat for existing clients, shows we prioritise accessibility and our clients really value this.”

As we move into 2022, Bernadette is keen to leave legal firms with one key piece of advice. She says: “With family, conveyancing and private client law having been so busy over the last 18 months, the next few weeks provide the perfect time to take stock. I’d encourage firms to consider whether first impressions are winning or losing business. And can they say with certainty that recent clients would recommend them to others or use them again? If there’s any hesitation, it’s time to take a fresh look at the customer experience.”

Practical steps to guarentee positive first impressions

Bernadette Bennett shares her top tips to ensure positive first impressions.

Put yourselves in the shoes of the client

Think about what causes irritation to you as a customer and what would impress you. Review your own internal procedures and client touch points to see how you fair. If possible, have your firm mystery shopped or use client feedback so that you know where to improve.

Make call handling a strategic consideration 

All too often answering the phone is treated as something that just happens, rather than a business critical activity that can determine first impression, reputation and new business. By putting the right resource in place, whether that’s in house or with the help of an outsourced provider, you will minimise disruption for your team and improve call handling efficiency.

Manage expectations 

Part of ensuring positive impressions is being clear, honest and up front about what clients can expect. Establish whether call backs are really necessary and if so when they’ll be made (such as within 24 hours). If live chat can’t provide an immediate answer, when will someone get in touch and how? Put firm-wide standards in place and communicate them well.

Think digital 

The nation has spent more time online over the last year so digital channels should be maximised. Making websites more informative and interactive can add tremendous value – not just to the client experience but internal processes too. The addition of quote calculators, portals to upload information for new instructions and live chat to answer FAQs and queries in real time, all help to handle queries without the need for a call. A live chat operator can manage three chats in the time it would take to manage one call.

Take a look at your ‘calls to action’

Ensure that the channels you’re directly people to, whether a phone number or a managed live chat – offer a good experience. Are they available 24 / 7 and can people access the information they need easily?

Don’t procrastinate about new tech 

We’re still hearing from legal firms whose outdated legacy phone systems can’t keep pace with agile working, or who are hindered by paper-heavy processes. Consider where technology could streamline processes to improve client care and profitability.