Inside Experts: The Importance of Customer Service for In-House Legal Departments

In-house legal departments-- just like their law firm cousins-- can benefit from focusing on customer service and actively 'soliciting' business from their in-house clients. It is always surprising to me, when I speak to my colleagues in the profession, the sheer number of in-house attorneys that don't see themselves as "service providers" to their 'customers'. For many attorneys it appears that the move from the law firm to the in-house role shifted their mindset away from focusing on delivering customer service. Some may even view the customer service concept as degrading to the legal function. They argue that they are integrated with the business operations, not merely providing 'service' to it. It is true that in-house attorneys are connected to the operations of the business in a way that outside firms rarely manage to achieve. However, legal counsel is by its nature a service-oriented activity regardless of how integrated it may be with the business. Fully embracing the mindset of service provider imposes an important shift towards better customer service. One easy way to help change the mindset is to refer to and always consider your in-house clients as your 'customers.'

You can put more focus on customer service by developing an initiative around it. An outline to create a customer service initiative (whether for departments or individuals) is as follows:

1) Self-assess the services you currently provide

2) Solicit feedback from your customer

3) Create a vision

4) Develop an action plan to achieve your vision

5) Continue to assess

Self-assess the Services You Currently Provide

Understanding the services you provide and how well you provide them is the essential first step in thinking about your customer service initiative. You need to ask some questions: "What services are we providing?" "How effectively are we providing these services?" "Is our department adding value and seeking feedback from our customers on the services we are providing?" "What services are we best at?" "What services need improvement?" "What is our purpose in the organization?" The answers to these questions will help clarify for you the services being provided and where there may be gaps. I did this exercise with all of the attorneys and paralegal staff in my department. We put similar questions on flip charts and came up with the answers. As a result, we identified areas where we were doing well and areas that needed more attention. For example, we determined that we needed to do more formal training programs for our customers and built that into our customer services initiative.

Solicit Feedback from Your Customers

I am reminded of an anonymous quote: "Customer complaints are the schoolbooks from which we learn." As important as it is to do the self-assessment, it's equally important to solicit feedback from your customers as your customers may have needs you are not aware of or false perceptions about the services being provided. There are many ways to solicit feedback. For example, you may set up meetings with key customers and interview them from a questionnaire you've developed. If you do these interviews yourself you run the risk of not getting the truly open and direct feedback you need. It's better to have a third party, such as a consultant, do this for you. Focus groups of key customers work well too. There are also tools to do conduct on-line surveys. I recently developed one of these with the assistance of the Human Resources Department and had over 90 percent participation and great feedback. Most customers will be eager to provide feedback to you. It's important to reach out to them and get it.

Create a Vision

The next two steps, Create a Vision & Develop an Action Plan, are interdependent. If you take action without clarifying your vision of where you want to go, you may be surprised where you end up. A well-thought out vision is critical. Typically a department vision is created and everyone will align with that vision. However, individuals may create a vision for their own work. A vision should be aspirational and, more important, achievable. If you or the department don't believe the vision can be achieved, no one will align to it. The vision answers the 'what' and 'why' and the action plan the 'how.' The vision may address quality of the services that you provide, how you want to interact with customers or how you want to be viewed within the organization. The vision should address the feedback learned from your customers.

Develop an Action Plan to Achieve the Vision

Once you've developed the vision to enhance the customer service, you need to create an action plan to achieve it. The action plan should be specific, but modifiable. Action plans for customer service may include new ways to interact with customers, new training programs and communications, establishment of new guidance's and performance metrics, etc.

An example of an action plan I created with my team was called the "Key Relationship Program." This program required all attorneys and paralegal staff to identify and conduct regular meetings with 3-4 key customers with whom they interact routinely. The meetings were designed to get feedback on: 1) how the customer felt about the services being provided by the legal department, 2) what else could the department be doing to support their needs as 'customers' and 3) which services being provided were efficient and responsive to their needs and which were not. The meetings also allowed us to give our customers updates on new initiatives commenced in the legal department, changes in structure, etc. There was some hesitation by the attorneys and paralegal staff initially in setting up these meetings. Some asked, "If we don't have specific projects to talk about, what are we going to talk about?" "What if the customer doesn't want to meet with us?" "You really want us to proactively set up meetings in the customers' offices?" Even though there was initial anxiety, the program was extremely positive and particularly helpful for the attorneys and paralegal staff in developing a stronger understanding of their customer's needs and how we can better serve them. Through this program we obtained great feedback from our customers on what was working well and where improvement was needed. We made appropriate changes based on the feedback.

Continue to Assess

The final step is to continue to gather feedback and assess the services being provided. Make changes to the action plan as necessary and continue to move towards your vision. For the Key Relationship Program referenced above, I set up debrief meetings with each of the attorneys and paralegal staff to hear first-hand what customers were telling them and what actions should be done in response. I also wanted to ensure that everyone was actively participating in the meetings with their customers. During one of these debrief meetings, a paralegal told me that this program was just 'common sense.' I said, 'I agree it makes sense but if it's so common, why isn't everyone doing it?"

Building relationships and taking care of your customers is not only good business it will improve the quality of life in your workplace and contribute to the wellbeing and success of your organization.

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