Effective management of client expectations ensures happier clients

May 15, 2013

NetworkingLast week, I described two different categories of methods for getting your information out to potential clients: referral and non-referral.

“Non-referral” is when a client finds your information on his or her own through some publicly accessible medium (Internet, phonebook, advertisement, etc).

“Referral” is just that: someone with whom you’ve had previous dealings gives your name out to the prospective client.

Last week covered “non-referral” client generation in more detail, and, as promised, I will get into “referrals” this week.

One of the easiest ways to get referrals is through your past and current clients.  They have their own networks of friends and family, many of whom will likely have similar legal needs as your original client.

And your client will happily give your name out to anyone he or she comes in contact with – as long as he or she is satisfied with your work.

It’s important to be aware, though, that no matter how well you perform in your client’s case, the outcome can still be quite unfavorable.  Even in the face of an adverse decision or outcome for your client, it’s possible for the client to come away from the experience with a positive impression of the job that you’ve done.

A big part of this is managing your client’s expectations.

Unfortunately, this is actually more difficult than it seems, especially to newer attorneys.  Here’s why.

Newer attorneys often lack the experience in the courtroom or in litigation in general to be able to give their client a clear impression of what to expect.  Actually, even experienced attorneys that appear before a new judge or a new opposing counsel don’t always know what to expect, so you can imagine how difficult it could be for newer attorneys.

Luckily, even if you don’t know what to expect, there are still several easy pointers for properly setting client expectations.

First, no matter how good you believe your argument to be, do not give estimates of your chance of success to your client.  Just don’t do it.

Your clients will, of course, ask for the chances.  You must fight every urge to give an answer.

Why?  Because how things will turn out is anyone’s guess.  I have been surprised at the outcome of a court ruling more often than not (for better and for worse).

The last thing you want is for your client to get his or her hopes up, only for them to be dashed when you get the order or judgment back.  The first thing that your client will do after this is look for someone to blame – and you, as the attorney, are first on the list.

Instead of giving any predictions – positive or negative – you must put forth your best possible arguments and make your case as best you can.  Then you can tell your client that you’ve done as much, and all that you can do is to hope that the judge sees things the way that you do.

You may also – indeed, should – provide you client with the conceivable possible outcomes, so that he or she isn’t shocked when the order comes back.

Even if you plan/hope on negotiating to a settlement and avoiding the courtroom altogether, it’s just as important to avoid giving your client predictions on the case because doing so usually interferes with settlement efforts.

The principal reason for this is that very few ever walk away from settlement 100% happy.  If you client believes that he or she may fare better in court, no genuine efforts toward settlement will be made, and even if a settlement is reached, if the client decides later that he or she is unhappy with it, you will receive the blame for agreeing to the settlement when the client believes you could have fared better in court.

In short, no matter how the case turns out, you want to leave your client with the impression that you did everything possible for the case.

This becomes extremely difficult to achieve if your client was expecting a positive result and the opposite happens.  Moreover, if you provide your client with any predictions, you will, more likely than not, look somewhat foolish when the order comes back and doesn’t resemble your predictions in the least.

Even if the result was better than expected, the fact that you put a prediction out there and it proved to be incorrect reflects a lack of legal experience or understanding to a lot of clients, and they will be hesitant to refer you to their friends and family.

On the other hand, if the message you’re giving your client is that “we did everything we could,” your client will likely come away with a positive experience regardless of how terrible the result.

Of course, there’s another part to this equation – damage control – but we’ll get into that in detail next week.

Damage control comes after the bad news.  Setting expectations, however, comes before, and is instrumental in determining whether your clients will actively refer you to others.