The Power of Listening: How Legal Firms Can Benefit

The Power of Listening: How Legal Firms Can Benefit

Research has demonstrated that the best way to earn the trust of clients is to actively listen to their concerns and show real empathy in addressing them.

Bernadette Bennett, business development lead for the legal sector at Moneypenny, offers her advice on how legal professionals can better connect with their clients through active listening, with the help of insights contributed by a number of UK law firms.

Greek philosopher Diogenes famously said: “We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less,” yet still the power of listening seems undervalued in business.

For legal firms, harnessing the power of listening has significant commercial advantage and can yield increases in revenue, particularly in the face of the economic uncertainty of 2020. This year has tested the resilience of legal firms, their people and their clients, and it has started to rewrite the rule-book 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, listening becomes an even more important business discipline.

What is active listening?

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

Fiona Martin, Director and head of employment law at Martin Searle Solicitors, highlighted the challenge for legal firms to online legal resource Law Firm Ambition. She said: “Every lawyer knows that understanding client needs is an essential part of the service. Where lawyers differ is in how they put that into practice. Too often, the process is geared to identifying what legal services can be provided. Instead of really listening to what the client is saying, you’re waiting for them to stop talking so that you can get started.”

There is an acute difference between hearing and listening.

Communication in the legal sector can often be one-way, with firms disseminating information to their clients and prospects. But this is not listening. Actively listening gives clients and prospects the opportunity to communicate with your firm and importantly, be heard.

Listening is an essential part of customer care and research from Lexis Nexis suggests that legal firms still have some way to go. 80% of legal firms think their client service is above average, yet only 40% of clients agree. In addition, 92% of lawyers think they are good at listening, compared with just 67% of clients.

Insights, intelligence and testing 

One of the main benefits of active listening is the opportunity it gives to garner much deeper insights into the factors that affect clients’ purchasing decisions. 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  be used to improve client retention dramatically, enable successful cross- and up-selling and identify where there is an opportunity for new product and service development.

The lockdown experience

As lockdown and isolation continues to challenge our daily lives, listening takes on new meaning and importance.

Right now, we have an even stronger need for connection with others. This was particularly evident in the legal sector at the pandemic’s height – 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 247 service from the legal sector.

Right now, we have an even stronger need for connection with others.

Nitin Khandhia, Managing Director of BTMK Solicitors, was catering for out of hours demand long before the pandemic: “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.”

Lockdown heightened an already strong need for reassurance from clients. In fact, we found it to be the main reason for the 26% increase in legal calls we’ve seen over the last 5 years. As the pandemic continues, we can only expect this need for support, assistance, comfort and the human touch to remain.

The listening armoury – using the right tools 

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

While a combination of client satisfaction surveys and client reviews can go some way to achieve this, these typically take place only once per year and are often weighted towards asking the questions that legal firms think are important, rather than being from the client’s perspective. This can add an element of bias – even if not intentional.

Net promoter scores, which offers a percentage of customers likely to recommend a company, a product, or a service to a friend or colleague, provide a more independent benchmark – but these could be considered one dimensional as they don’t offer the granular detail of one-to-one listening.

Social media is a useful and cost effective tool to engage in and monitor conversations in real time. Alison Lobb, Managing Partner of Morecrofts Solicitors, said: “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.”

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

However, while social media certainly makes two-way conversation (and therefore listening) easier, this channel plays out in real time and in public. It’s not without reputational risk.

One of the most under-utilised tools is a firm’s own website. Many fail to recognise that addressing SEO is a form of listening. There are over 2 million legal-orientated search queries every day in the UK on Google – by paying attention to what’s growing in popularity and what’s declining, 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  chats, it’s possible to build greater client empathy, spot new opportunities and identify communication priorities.

For Amy Seppman, Marketing Director at JCP Solicitors, live chat has helped to inform web design and content strategy. She said: “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 provide a similar opportunity to evaluate the nature of queries, identify commonalities and inform both service and process innovation.

Nitin Khandhia from BTMK Solicitors used live chat and telephone answering transcripts to deliver process innovation in some of their most high volume service areas, such as wills and conveyancing. He said: “ 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.”

JCP Solicitors’ Amy added: “We wanted to manage our inbound queries more efficiently. The immediacy of the live chat channels 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.”

For some legal firms listening to clients is also about face-to-face contact and removing distractions. Rebecca Gwynn, Marketing Manager for Tinsdills, said: “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 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 keep customer experience evolving and improving and to nurture, build and protect brand reputation.

Effective and active listening should be at the heart of all legal practice decision-making. It should inform strategy and steer marketing for it is the key to creating confidence, trust, loyalty and value at a time when clients need it most. Listening can lead to competitive advantage – you just need to make sure you can really hear what’s being said.

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