The ABA Journal recently published an article on a lawyer’s suspension for inadequately responding to client communications. The lawyer in question was responding to their client’s Facebook messages with one sentence phrase of “relax” and “this is complicated” to client inquiries about their personal injury suit. Complicated cases or problems deserve more than just a one sentence answer, and social media or even email wasn’t going to be adequate for making the client feel better about how the case was going. This is such a common issue within the legal profession (and frankly I’ve seen it in all professions, so I am not trying to pick on lawyers) that bar associations have long, lengthy ethics seminars on client communication to avoid bar complaints.
Managing the client communication expectation is a tightrope – you don’t want to be constantly at the beck and call of clients and the age of the internet has made us all a little ADHD. We fire off an email or a Facebook message and expect an instant response. We check our emails constantly and then complain when someone doesn’t answer us immediately. We have become a nation of toddlers – expecting our needs of communication to be met right away.
On the converse side of the communication spectrum, there are those who would rather work in radio silence. I have seen instances where emails, letters, and phone calls go unanswered because the answer may be unpleasant, uncomfortable or complicated. For example, a professional’s rate may need to go up and rather than communicate that to the client – the rate is simply raised on the next bill and hope they don’t notice. Communication about rates and costs are not unexpected, but be prepared to make the case for raising rates long before the rate change happens. The client who discovers the rate change without the justification feels burned and resentful.
Conversations about complicated matters or rate changes should always be by phone to allow each party to explain their side and for the other party to listen. Follow up with an email or a letter to reiterate your point.
The professional’s reputation is enhanced when difficult conversations are approached directly and if you can, with some notice. Let your client know when you will be away from your computer for a long period of time, or you need more time to meet their deadline. Give your client time to adjust their budget when you need to raise rates and justify the rate increase. Let your client know if you can’t meet their expectations or if you need to hand them over to a different professional to help them with their business pain.
Over communicate vs. under communicate with your clients and respect the relationship as a partnership. Good and clear client communications will only enhance your professional reputation and thus increase your market share.