It’s often the little things that matter. A few years ago, I lost a client who, on the way out, gave me valuable information through a complaint she registered with one of my team members. “He wasn’t listening to me,” she said, “and always seemed so rushed. I know that I’m not his wealthiest client, but I didn’t feel valued.”
Running a successful estate planning practice requires one to juggle a mind-numbing number of tasks. Dozens of client files need attention, direction and delegation. While client emails are received instantaneously, the ability to consider the questions asked, research available answers and respond to them is not. Administrative responsibilities collide with billable tasks, and then there is always one’s personal life that gets in the way, as our spouses and children rightfully demand a preferred spot in the pecking order. This is not to mention our own desire to take the personal time necessary to exercise, eat right and clear one’s mind.
The Law is a Jealous Mistress
When I was a young attorney, the senior partner of my firm gave me sage advice as he departed for retirement: “The law is a jealous mistress,” he warned. “Don’t let her take you away from everything that is most important in life.”
Therefore, it’s only natural to have many things on your mind when meeting with a client, especially when you’ve dealt with her situation a hundred times before. The temptation is to cut her off mid-sentence, solve the problem and move on. But that’s not providing the uniquely positive client experience that differentiates you and your firm from a simple transaction that the client could easily get elsewhere, including on the Internet.
Be in the Present
So how do you clear your mind and focus on what your client is saying, no matter how mundane you believe her problem to be? Remember that your client doesn’t have years of estate planning experience, otherwise she wouldn’t need you. Everything is new to her, and honestly, quite scary. She doesn’t want to be in your office getting charged large sums of money in the first place. Your goal is to make her experience as pleasant as possible.
First, be in the moment. Focus on what your client is saying, and follow her comments up with active listening responses. Tell her what you hear her saying in her own words.
Resist the Temptation to Jump to the Solution
Second, resist the temptation to finish her sentences for her and jump to the obvious conclusions you might see. Everyone likes to be heard, and most everyone has experienced the frustration of having a sentence finished, often with words that they didn’t intend to say. Obviously this is something to avoid when attempting to provide a first class client experience.
Explain Things Simply
The last time I was in with my doctor, we discussed my cholesterol test. He talked about HDLs and LDLs and how you want one to be large molecules while the other should be small molecules. I left his office holding a prescription and scratching my head. I’m a smart guy, but I never attended medical school and have a hard time following what most would consider basic medical advice. Physicians use a different vocabulary don’t they?
The same applies to those of us in the legal, tax and financial world. When I was younger I thought that I had to show off my knowledge and skill, so my vocabulary came right out of my law school text books. Your clients are smart people, as they wouldn’t have accumulated an estate worth planning for had they not had a high level of intelligence. But they’re not estate planning lawyers. That’s why they need you.
You provide the highest level of leadership, relationship and capability when you speak to your clients in words that they understand. If you start to get that glassy-eyed look across the conference room table, that’s your cue to rephrase your questions or answers into more common language. And for God’s sake, don’t ever cite statutory code sections!
Wrapping Up the Conversation
Finally, I’ve found a seven-word question that leaves the best impression with clients at the end of a meeting. When we’re concluding whatever it is that we’ve discussed, I always ask, “Have I answered all of your questions?”
This simple statement works to both put clients at ease, and also makes them feel that they’ve had the opportunity to ask anything that was on their mind. If another meeting is in order, I might add, “We’ll have another opportunity to chat at our next meeting, but I didn’t want you to leave here feeling that something’s been left unsaid.”
These simple phrases go a long way towards transforming a transaction into a relationship. People who trust and rely on one another make sure that everyone has had the opportunity to be heard. Don’t discount these relatively simple questions and statements and the effect that they’ll have on your client meetings.
In fact, I recommend using these questions and statements with your team members, colleagues and family as well. It’s a shame, but it’s true that in our hurried world taking the time to listen distinguishes you from many.