How to Properly Shorten Client Meetings That Drag On
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
In my last post, I wrote about how to recognize bad clients before you make the mistake of taking on the representation. Among the responses I received, there was a request to discuss how to deal with basically good clients with a few unappealing behaviors. These are clients you want to keep, but you just wish that it was a little easier to deal with them in some respect. In this post I’ll make some suggestions on how to wrap up meetings with clients who take up too much of your time.
As a good lawyer, I’m sure you have genuine concern for your clients and make time to answer their questions. However, some clients take up an inordinate amount of time in conversation that doesn’t advance the ball. If you work on a flat fee basis and have other business you could be working on, you may sense your profits draining away as the minutes tick by. Even if you bill on an hourly rate, you don’t want your fees to mount up without a concordant measure of productivity and value. If you deal with a lot of elderly or retired clients, some may seize on your meeting as an opportunity to have some social interaction that is lacking in their lives. If you handle divorce or personal injury cases, your client may be seeking some sympathy for their situation. In the corporate world, if you deal with middle managers or third or fourth tier executives, some of them may prolong the meeting with you as an escape from the daily grind. Others do so because they feel more important when they meet with lawyers.
Ideas for Handling Clients That Dawdle
1. Remember this is a service business. First, make sure you aren’t just feeling impatient because you’re treading on familiar ground and 10 steps ahead of your client. Clients may need to ask the same questions several times in different ways, as they juggle unfamiliar vocabulary and complicated concepts. (Just remember how you felt when your doctor or dentist asked you to choose among several different courses of treatment.) Your legal services involve more than document production. The hand-holding you provide may keep you from being replaced by Legal Zoom in the way that TurboTax usurped the business of many tax preparation services. Clients appreciate a lawyer who demonstrates patience and respect for them as they deal with a situation that feels foreign and daunting. Your compassion may also be rewarded later by referrals to other clients.
2. Specify a start and stop time for appointments. If you use Outlook or some other calendaring software, you can send an email appointment invitation or reminder to the client with an indication of the duration. Train your assistant to make appointments by saying, “Okay, Ms. Jones, your appointment is next Tuesday from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.,” instead of leaving it open-ended. If the client gets a specified stop time, she will be more prepared to wrap up in that time frame, and will probably expect that your time is committed to someone else at 11:00 a.m.
3. Streamline your own processes. You can help move the meeting along by documenting common instructions, answers to frequent questions, and an agenda for the meeting. Put FAQs on your website. Send them out in advance of an appointment, and have your assistant offer a copy of them to clients when they arrive at your office. You won’t have to spend as much time on the same old questions. An agenda can help you keep the clients on track, while putting them more at ease by helping them know what to expect.
4. Give clients a handout to take home. Before clients leave your office, provide them with a checklist or explanation of the steps they will be responsible for taking and documents they need to send to you. You might have a standard list prepared, with their relevant items marked. Knowing that they can peruse the FAQs and checklist later may provide clients with the security they need to wrap up the meeting more quickly. Some will feel a need to leave so they can get into action on their part of the matter.
5. Make your assistant an integral part of the client service team. Introduce your assistant or paralegal to your clients at the first meeting. Let them know that this is a respected and valuable member of your legal team, who will be able to shepherd them through much of the process. When it comes time to wrap up the meeting, you can say, “The next step is to get a few more things we need from you. Would you be kind enough to follow me to Allen, so he can work with you on that?” This allows you to escape by handing the client off to someone else.
6. Book a succeeding appointment. If a particular client tends to repeatedly drag out meetings, consider booking the next client appointment to begin around the time you expect to be able to complete your business. Have your assistant courteously inform the dawdling client before the start of the meeting that you will need to wrap up promptly due to another appointment. Your assistant might say something like, “Mr. Client, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time, but I wanted to let you know that Ms. Attorney has her next appointment at 11:00am. I’m just giving you a heads up, in case you want to prioritize your most important discussions for the beginning of your meeting.” Alternatively, you could ask your assistant to briefly and apologetically interrupt your meeting with the dawdler to remind you that your next appointment starts in 10 minutes, and to knock on your door again in 10 minutes.
7. Set a timer alert. If you are a solo-solo, without an assistant on hand to rescue you, set an alarm on your computer or smartphone to go off 10 to 15 minutes before the expected end of your meeting. When it goes off, you can snooze it and say, “That’s just a reminder that we need to wrap up in the next 5 minutes or so.” You can then ask if there are any final questions, and begin to stack your papers, close your folder, etc. If the snooze alarm goes off again before your client begins to exit, stand up and tell the client how helpful they have been. Then open the door for them to depart.
Please share what has worked for you, in the comments. If you experiment with any of these tips, we would love to hear about that, too.