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Back when the airline industry was making money, they routinely reinvested in maintaining the look of their planes. The seats, carpet and wall covering in every plane were consistently replaced and kept looking good.

Why were they so particular about the look of their airplanes?

It was good business.

When passengers see stained carpets or frayed fabric on the seat in front of them they immediately begin to question how well the airline maintains the engine. The thought of a poorly maintained engine produces anxiety. If a smooth, pleasant and safe experience is what the airlines are after for their passengers, the perception that the plane is in shoddy repair does not help.

That customers leap to such far-reaching conclusions is not limited to the airline industry. In the absence of any real information about a service or product, consumers will look to the quality of whatever surface features they see. We do this with politicians, too – the less we know about their abilities, the more we vote based on their physical appearance. A worthy candidate suffers if he/she doesn’t look good.

What does all this have to do with the legal profession?

Managing client perceptions is just as important for lawyers. Potential clients are nervous and feel at a distinct disadvantage when seeking legal services. They generally have a problem and want someone they trust to help them. As they sit in the reception area, their eyes wander as they unconsciously form that all-important first impression.

During this initial survey, if the reception area is full of mismatched furniture and a disinterested receptionist sits behind the desk, what kind of an impression do they form about the attorney who works there? Is a worn décor or lack of hospitality a true indication of the firm’s professionalism or concern for clients? No, but it might as well be.

Contrast that experience with one in which a potential client walks into an office, is impressed by the décor and feels warmly welcomed by the staff. Their first impression is a positive one and confers all manner of wonderful attributes on the firm – whether they deserve them or not. Here the power of perception is made to work for you, not against you.

All of this is to say: manage the perceptions of your clients. They are drinking in the look, the feel and the sound of your firm at all times. Your signage, how hard you are to find, what the parking is like, whether or not your website and letterhead match, the sound of the receptionist’s voice when she answers the phone — all must be welcoming and consistently professional in look and feel. According to B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, authors of several best-selling business books, we are in the Experience Economy. Today’s sophisticated consumers seek an elevated experience when they buy goods or services. Starbucks can charge four bucks for their coffee because they deliver it in a more hip environment than the diner on the corner. Dentists have learned to quell the anxiety of their patients by installing massage chairs, earphones and television monitors that run movies, cartoons, whatever the patient wants. Theaters feature superior sound systems and seats that vibrate to the music. Design and technology are being employed at every turn to enhance the customer experience.

Many Atticus graduates have taken this idea to heart and have worked hard to create a better experience for their clients. One firm that specializes in divorce and is set in the deep south, where hospitality is sometimes elevated to an art form, has music piped into the parking lot so clients are surrounded by soothing sounds from the start. Inside, the office is comfortably furnished with upholstered chairs and harmonious colors. This attorney knows his clients are in pain and surrounds them in a relaxing, calm environment. They don’t offer the clients something to drink, they provide the client with a menu and offer them a choice. And his efforts are more than skin-deep. On his staff are individuals who are expert at hand-holding anxious clients. Think this is too much? This is one of the top divorce firms in the state. They must be doing something right.

A PI firm we know has taken a page from retailers and others who use scents for the psychological cues they invoke. Microwave chocolate-chip cookies are made periodically through the day. The comforting, reminds-you-of-home smell of these cookies wafts through the firm and clients clamor to have them. It takes the edge off whatever tragic circumstances they are there to discuss.

What state of mind are your clients in when they come to your office? Rarely are clients in a law office because they want to be. They are usually dealing with a crisis of some kind, or attempting to forestall one in the future. How much better could you make the clients feel just by changing a few elements in your office? What kind of initial impression do you want your firm to make? Do you want to be seen as trustworthy, professional, dependable, stable, reassuring? Then ask yourself if the look and feel of your office sends that message.

If you can’t tell what kind of impression you make, use the “mystery shopper” technique: ask someone your staff doesn’t know, but you trust, to call your office, make an appointment and come sit in the waiting room. When you bring them back to your office, they can tell you how they were greeted on the phone, whether or not they were put on hold, how easy it was to find the office and what it’s like to sit in your reception area. If asked, many of your spouses can tell you the same thing.

You can also take the test below to help you identify problem areas.

Client Reception

  • All clients are greeted warmly and offered a beverage upon coming into our reception area.
  • When meeting a client, the attorney comes to the reception area and escorts them to the conference room or office.
  • New clients are given a tour of the office and introduced to key people on their first visit.
  • The client is introduced to the Designated Hitter upon the first meeting.
  • The clients are given some kind of token gift with the firm’s name on it.

Facility or Office

  • The overall office decor sends the right message to the client in terms of credibility, permanence, and trustworthiness.
  • The reception area chairs are in good condition and comfortable for sitting.
  • There is adequate and easily accessed parking for clients.
  • Any offices that the client sees are neat and orderly.
  • The office decor is matched to the type of client who frequents the firm.

Materials and Signage

  • New clients receive maps or written directions in advance of their first visit.
  • Firm signage is clear and not difficult to follow.
  • New clients are given a “Welcome” package of information to familiarize them with the firm.
  • Firm letterhead or logo is well-designed and consistent on all materials.
  • The firm website has a look and feel similar to the rest of the firm materials, without being a duplication of the firm brochure.

Telephone System

  • Clients are greeted warmly by a real human being when they call.
  • The voice mail system is adequate to the clients’ needs and always presents the option to speak to a real person.
  • Attorneys never take a call when meeting with a client unless it is an emergency.
  • All staff monitor their voice mail frequently.
  • Telephone calls are returned the same day, or within several hours.
Atticus, Inc.

This article was written by an Atticus staff member.

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