What Clients Want

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

20140407 What Clients WantIn 2000 Mel Gibson starred in a movie called “What Women Want” in which a freak accident caused his character, Nick Marshall, to suddenly have the ability to hear women’s unspoken thoughts. He initially found it to be a very disconcerting experience, because (1) he discovered that he had some erroneous assumptions, and (2) women’s impressions of him were not very flattering. In fact, many of them thought he was a jerk. It turned out that what they said to him and what they actually thought did not exactly coincide.

Eventually, however, Nick realized that he could use his new abilities to do research that would allow him to understand women better. He began to modify his own assumptions, expectations, perceptions and behaviors, based on his research. His interactions became more effective and enjoyable. He became more successful in his career.

Our clients don’t always tell us what they are thinking, either. Do you ever wish you understood what your clients really want? Do you wonder what they think of you? Do you sometimes assume that, as the lawyer, you know what’s best for them? Clients may vary quite broadly in terms of their expectations, beliefs and desired outcomes, even for similar cases or transactions. So it is understandable that occasionally clients may seem inscrutable to us.

Questions to Ask Your Clients

 If you want clients to be happy with your services, but unlike Nick Marshall, you can’t read their minds, try asking them what they want. You probably already have a few standard questions that help you to do your job. Here are a few that can help you to know more about what your clients think that job is.

  1. What outcomes are you trying to achieve?
  2. Which of those outcomes are “Must Haves” and which are “Nice to Haves”?
  3. What are your biggest concerns?
  4. How do you prefer that we communicate with you?
  5. How often would you want to hear from us?
  6. What questions or concerns do you have about how this process will work?
  7. What are your assumptions about how we will work together?
  8. Is there anything you want from me that we haven’t discussed?

What All Clients Want

Despite their many differences, there are a few things that almost all clients want, and here are some tips on how to give them what they want.

They want to be heard. Listen to them without interrupting. Be patient and let them tell you their story, even though you’ve dealt with situations like this a hundred times, and you know what is coming next. You may be anxious to impress them with your knowledge, but your efforts to do so may undermine your relationship with them. It’s ordinary and familiar to you, but it may be the most important event in their life. Feeling heard is so important that one client in Texas was disappointed when his attorney won the case on summary judgment. That stunning victory kept the client from getting to tell his side of the story.

They want to be understood. Paraphrase the salient points you hear, reflecting back to your client what you heard. Ask whether you have understood correctly. Then ask if there is more you should know. If you really want them to feel understood, include feelings you heard or observed. For example:

“It sounds like you’re mad because he didn’t…”
“I’m gathering that you’re worried that they might…”
“The betrayal is painful to experience.”
“You’re anticipating an exciting opportunity if you can make this deal.”
“It must have been scary to go through that.”

They want a solution to their problem or help in achieving their goal. They may already have a strategy in mind for getting what they want. Sometimes their underlying goal is to regain their dignity or avoid losing face. Some clients will state their goal in terms of their strategy, instead of the actual outcome desired, making the questions described above even more important. Since they lack your experience and expertise, their strategy may be flawed, unethical or even illegal. If you understand the real outcomes they want and the reasons for them, you can craft better solutions. You can avoid alienating your client when you tell them you won’t be adopting their strategy.

They want to trust you. They need you and depend on you. If they seem wary or suspicious, that means there is more to learn about their fears or beliefs. By asking questions that ferret out their assumptions and expectations, you can make sure both of you are on the same page. That will help avoid some circumstances that might erode their trust in you. Communicate with them regularly about their matter, to bolster and maintain their trust.

They want to feel respected and appreciated. Everyone deserves respect as a human being, even those who lack social skills, commit crimes, or make dumb mistakes. If you and your staff treat them respectfully, in addition to being happier clients, they are more likely to behave respectfully toward you. Be sure that you and your staff demonstrate appreciation for their business in ways they can understand, through your communications, your actions, your punctuality, and the care that you give to their legal matters.

Remember that clients are the sin qua non of your law practice. It’s worth the investment of your time and effort to uncover what they want, and to adapt your own assumptions, expectations and behaviors accordingly. If any of you readers have additional tips on how to discern what clients want, or have made some surprising or amusing discoveries, I invite you to share them in the comments below.


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