Article By Attorney Ken Harrell
When I was a young lawyer at the corporate law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley, and Scarborough, one of the first things my first boss told me was “never leave your office until all of your pink slips are gone.” Some of you much younger than me are scratching your head wondering what “pink slips” are. I started practicing law in 1988. Email was in existence then but it was just starting to be used – and it was largely ignored by many of the older lawyers at Nelson, Mullins (some of whom had started practicing law in the 1940’s). Today, there are countless ways to capture a caller’s message. When someone leaves a voice mail message for me (whether it’s on my work phone or on my cell phone), an email is automatically transcribed and sent to me with the text of the message. That didn’t happen in 1988. Instead, if I didn’t answer my phone when a call came in, the call rolled over to a legal secretary and she (it was always a “she” in 1988) would get the caller’s name and number, and briefly summarize the message, on a small pink slip. If you were out of the office for most of the day for a trial or depositions, you would come back to a stack of pink slips. My boss was a big believer that we should clear out the pink slips daily – even if that just meant leaving a responsive message, which often happened since most of my insurance company clients cleared out at 5 p.m. every day. One lesson I took from that advice has been borne out over the years. Among all the traits that clients want from their lawyers, responsiveness is near the top of the list. In the 1990’s, I spent several years serving on the South Carolina Bar’s fee dispute resolution board. Almost invariably, when a client challenged a lawyer’s legal fee, one of their biggest beefs with their lawyer was that he or she was always slow to respond to messages left for them – and it often took several calls to get a response.
When I made the decision to join the Joye Law Firm in late 1993, one of the habits I brought with me was to try to return all of my client’s calls on the same day they left a message. (While I’m referring to “calls” here, the same thing applies to emails and texts from clients – something many of our younger clients prefer over telephone calls.) Over time, it’s become much easier to actually contact my clients after working hours. Virtually everyone keeps their cell phone on them at all times and unlike my corporate clients in the past, my individual clients have no problem with getting a call in the evening. In fact, many of them prefer it because they often can’t take calls while they are working. My belief in the importance of responsiveness led us to incorporate this into our non-negotiables for client service. One of the pledges we make to all of our clients is that their calls will be returned within one business day. This means that a message left Monday through Thursday should be responded to no later than the next day and one left on Friday is to be responded to no later than Monday. Most of our lawyers have no problem adhering to this standard. When we miss the mark on client service, our clients are instructed to call me. Fortunately, I don’t get a lot of these calls.
Why Responsiveness is So Important When Dealing With Clients
Two years ago, I had a frustrating experience dealing with an auto body shop which reinforced why it is so important that we timely return calls, even if we don’t have anything new or significant to report to our client. In 2017, I seemingly had a magnet on my BMW (four accidents that year, only one of which was my fault.) Trying to get my car repaired after the fourth of these accidents almost pushed me over the edge. I had dealt with the large corporate body shop affiliated with my car dealer before due to the previous accidents and my dissatisfaction had led me to vow that I would never return to them. A friend referred me to a smaller body shop. After getting a repair estimate from State Farm, I took my car in and was told, “we’ll call you after we get with State Farm on the repairs as they have grossly under-estimated the repair cost.” Well duh – that’s what insurance companies do. Over the ensuing three weeks, I called this body shop five times to see when I should bring my car in to get started. Each time, I was assured it “should be soon and we’ll call you.” Finally, three weeks to the day after I first went in, their office manager told me, “we’re just so busy this summer, we’re not going to be able to work your car in.” Now granted, that’s their prerogative but it would have been nice of them to tell me that at the outset.
Now what happens next is on me in part because I went back to the big body shop despite knowing their customer service was shoddy. Frustrated with the small shop, I said the heck with it and called “Big Corporate” Collision as the one thing I will give them credit for is that the quality of their repairs had always been stellar (and lord knows I’d had plenty of opportunities to judge that). I dropped my car off for what was projected to be a $3,000 repair job. After two weeks, I called (as I’d heard nothing since dropping my car off) and I was directed to Vince (I’m using their real first names here). Vince told me that the repairs were being made and my car should be ready “early next week”. I didn’t mind the rental car I was in but my car was a really nice car and I spend a lot of time on the road so I wanted my car back. The following week, I called Vince once every day of the week starting on Monday to see if my car was ready to be picked up. I left the same simple message – “Vince, this is Kenny Harrell. I’m just checking to see when my car repairs will be done so I can make arrangements to pick it up. Please call me on my cell number.” I received zero response to my calls on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (and I’m certain of that because I can look at my cell phone and see the calls made and received, just as 99% of our clients can do!) On Thursday, I called the general number and said, “Vince is not returning my calls and I’m not getting off of the phone until someone gives me an update on my car.” 10 minutes later, Vince comes on. Here’s his update, “State Farm wanted us to repair your car without putting a new door on and we decided we couldn’t do that. We’ve ordered the new door and we’re just waiting on it to come in so we can get the job done.” I don’t think Vince was 100% sure what was going on with my car as all of these details were being relayed to him from someone in the background. I asked him, “when do you now estimate that my car will be done?” More mumbling in the background. Vince – “it should definitely be by the end of next week but we’re hoping for the middle of next week.” I then asked him, “Vince, I’ve been leaving a message for you every day this week – have you been receiving my messages?” Here is his verbatim response – “yes, sorry about that – I got them but I knew you wouldn’t be happy with this taking longer than what we told you so I didn’t want to call you and tell you that.” Sweet Jesus! My verbatim response – “Vince, I don’t know a damn thing about doing bodywork on a damaged car. It is what it is so I have to trust y’all on that. What I do know something about is customer service and I can assure you that every customer you have just wants you to be responsive and honest. You may want to try that approach.”
Not Returning Calls is Even Worse
Now let’s fast forward to the end of the following week. I had made calls starting on Wednesday of that week to Vince. Again, zero response. On Friday, I was livid. I called and again expressed my frustration about Vince’s non-responsiveness, at which point the young lady told me that Vince had been terminated (good riddance) and Josh was now over-seeing my repairs. I asked for Josh’s direct number. I then proceeded to call Josh and leave a message – something I repeated on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the following week. Zero responses! By Friday of the following week, I was livid. It had been two months since my accident and five weeks since I dropped the car off at the collision center. I got in my rental and drove to Big Corporate body shop on Savannah Highway. Again, the young lady behind the desk was nice enough. I explained to her what was going on and asked her if Josh was on the premises. She told me he was. I then told her, “I’m not leaving these premises until Josh comes out and speaks with me. If he doesn’t come out by the end of the day, y’all better be prepared to lock me in the building because I’ll still be here.” She said she’d page Josh. About 15 minutes later, Josh came sauntering in doing a little “too cool for school” dance. The young lady started by saying, “Mr. Harrell…”, at which point Josh dismissively waved his hand at her. Her response, “no, Mr. Harrell is here – he’s sitting right there.” I wish I had a picture of Josh’s face when he turned around and saw me. I’m generally a nice guy but as my friends and family will tell you, you don’t want to have my fuse go off. Josh started shucking and jiving and I abruptly cut him off. I can’t repeat what I said verbatim but suffice it to say that Josh had no doubts about what I thought of the collision shop and him. Apparently, the job which had been ignored for five weeks suddenly became do-able as I picked up my repaired car the following Tuesday.
There are a few points to be taken from this for all of us in the service industry. First, client service in so many industries (including law firms) is often flat-out atrocious. Second, it’s a reminder that the one thing we can always be for our clients is responsive. We can’t always give them the answer they want (and sometimes we’ll be waiting on an answer due to something outside of our control) but just being consistently responsive will leave a good impression the vast majority of the time. Third, whenever you have bad news to tell a client, don’t put it off. The sooner you break the bad news to the client in a straight-forward way, the better. Fourth, you are periodically proactively calling your clients with updates (instead of just responding to their inquiries) leaves a memorable good impression. Fifth (and I find this to be encouraging for my law firm), because client service is so atrociously bad in many instances today, it presents a real opportunity for us to distinguish ourselves just by taking pride in what we do.”