Who answers the phone in your office? A simple question, but for many law firms across the country, it’s one that doesn’t have an easy answer. Do you have an office assistant? A full-time secretary? An automated call-answering service? How are you tracking and evaluating your firm’s intake success? If your firm doesn’t have a trained in-house team member answering phones and handling potential client intake, you’re probably leaving clients on the table.
We see it all too often. We’re two months into a campaign and a firm is starting to get inquiries; one a week; three a week; then five a day. On paper, everything looks great – traffic is up, phone calls tracked as potential leads are up. We have a strategy meeting where the client is happy that their phone is ringing. But when I ask the important question of how many of these qualified calls turned into signed cases, there’s a pause – “I’m not sure”. “This email contact form fill sounded like a promising case, what happened to that?” The response – “I’m not sure”, or “oh, I forgot to check that email address”, or “Jodie is supposed to get back to everyone”. Often, it is an issue that’s never been identified because that firm has never had the “problem” of dealing with a high volume of calls and emails. Especially true in consumer practices, 2014’s legal consumer is finicky. There’s a multitude of reasons – if they get a bad feeling, they won’t come on. If you don’t get back to them quickly, they move on down the line. Sometimes its as simple as them not being able to hear the person answering the phone. Getting inquiries will shine a blazing floodlight on intake problems. Intake problems that have probably always been hurting the firm.
More and more, as legal marketers, we are finding ourselves coaching our clients in the early stages of a campaign on how to set up, vet, optimize, and track the intake process. All of the great law firm SEO and public relations in the world won’t help you if you’re intake team is dropping the ball. What follows are some of those general tips to help your firm improve its intake. Some of them may sound obvious or strange, but you’d be surprised. We’ve literally tracked tens-of-thousands of potential client leads. These are based on identified trends that we have seen mark improvements for some of our clients.
Tone-of-Voice During a Call Matters
Cheerful but professional – that’s how everyone in your office who answers incoming calls needs to sound. Everyone gets busy through the course of a workday and it can sometimes be difficult to maintain composure with phones ringing at a constant clip. Take a deep, cleansing breath before answering every call. Shrug off the angst from whatever insurance adjuster just gave you a hard time.
Remember: regardless of the law firm, a lead is calling because they have a problem they’re hoping your attorneys can solve. They’re looking for help. They might even be dealing with some emotional distress. Don’t exacerbate their problem by sounding tired or frustrated, because client calls are not an interruption – in fact, they’re the only reason your firm exists. Would you want to hire a law firm whose intake personnel answer every call with an eye-roll and a heaving sigh?
Practice Good Phone Etiquette
Speak clearly, slowly, and with enough volume that the caller can hear every word said. When the first thing a potential lead has to say is, “please speak up,” the conversation is already at a disadvantage. We can’t tell you how many intake phone calls we’ve listened to where the assistant or paralegal simply didn’t speak loud enough for the caller to hear. The lead can’t easily get all the information they need, so the conversation becomes adversarial, and eventually the lead hangs up. Well on their way to never calling you again, they might even leave a bad review on your Google+ page.
Get the Contact Information: Before the conversation goes into details, get the lead’s phone number so you can call them back if you to get disconnected. The last thing you want is for an avoidable dropped call to stand in the way of revenue.
Prize Compassion over Brevity
Potential leads, especially on the plaintiff tort side, often have sweeping tales to tell about their claim. Every detail is important to them, because it’s affecting their lives every day. They go to sleep with it. They wake up with it. Resist the temptation to get them to cut to the bottom line. Listen to them tell their story without interruption. Give them some gentle nudging if they wander off-topic where necessary. Then, give this a try:
- Show Your Empathy: Say, “I’m so sorry that happened to you” – and mean it. You’ll be shocked at how far something so simple can get you with a lead. A single phrase acknowledging their pain earns trust, establishes rapport, and can make signing a lead much easier.
- Ask Follow-Up Questions: When did the incident occur? What harm (injuries, contract broken, property damage, etc.) did the lead suffer as a result? Redirect the conversation to get the details you need to determine the strength of their potential claim.
- Take Detailed Notes: Write down all dates, addresses, available coverage, and other pertinent circumstances. Pay particular attention to the timeline of events and the date of incident as these factor into statutes of limitations. The more information you can bring to your attorneys or legal partners the better.
- Give Real Answers: If the lead wants to know about fees, tell them, when it’s appropriate. If the lawyers make the final call on hourly rates or contingency, say so, and don’t let yourself be pressured into giving further details. Promising a certain rate or fee during intake can cause legal problems down the road, if your firm actually charges a different rate at closing.
Make No Determinations on the First Call
Unless the staff answering your phone are practicing attorneys, they should never give legal advice or make determinations about a case. Do not dismiss any claim during the initial call unless it’s blatantly obvious that the caller has no case. (In most cases, a claimant who ripped his jacket on a doornail and wants to sue the homeowner for negligence has no substantive damages.) Sometimes, callers are unwilling to share all of the details of a case because they are scared or nervous about the case reflecting on them in a certain way.
The point of gathering detailed information from the lead is to bring the data to the attorneys, who then make the final determination to sign the lead or not. If your intake team has done its job correctly, there should be no issue calling the lead back to inform them that the firm can help them and is scheduling a time to bring them into the office to sign. Knowing that a team of legal professionals is round-tabling the client’s situation should make the lead feel secure and respected. They called a lawyer and the law firm is taking their case seriously – the value that sentiment adds goes beyond fee schedules.
Building Value without Lawyering
Callers, leads, and signed clients all have one thing in common: they cannot evaluate the quality of your legal work. They have no legal background for judging the strengths of oral arguments, or written briefs, or responses to interrogatories. All they know is how you, your legal team, and your support staff treat them. Do they feel respected? Do they believe their legal issues are a high priority for you and your team? Are their phone calls returned promptly? Doing these things builds value, even when a lead first calls in with their problem weighing heavily on their minds. So what do you get in return?
- Higher Potential for Referrals: Even if you turn down someone’s claim, treating them with dignity and pointing them in the right direction to get help earns your firm big word-of-mouth points. We’ve seen many instances where a high-value referral came to a firm at the recommendation of a former lead that didn’t sign. Leave every lead – quality or otherwise – with the best impression possible.
- More Cooperative Clients: For many clients, the civil and criminal legal processes are complete unknowns. They aren’t familiar with the timeline of events and have no idea what to expect in terms of resolution. If you’ve answered questions adequately during the intake process, clients will feel more comfortable with your team handling the reins. Clients may even be quicker to respond with requests for things like medical records and insurance documents, which makes your job easier.
- Higher Lead Conversion Rates: Market saturation makes it difficult for attorneys to differentiate themselves from one another even on local optimization levels. Super Lawyers? Join the club. Better Business Bureau? Yawn. Compassion and an earnest desire to do right at all stages of the client experience sets your firm and intake apart from the competition. The dedication will show ROI in improved conversion rate for signed clients.
Have an Organized Closing Handoff/Appointment Procedure
Your intake professional should not be put in a position where they are surprised or scrambling. If an attorney is not available, they should know how to setup a follow up or arrange a consultation. If the person does not want to correspond via phone, there should be a process. If it is a case that the firm typically refers out, the intake professional should have the contact info for the referral point on-hand as well as the follow up process. Think of a choose-your-own-adventure that the intake professional has practiced and knows every possible path. The point is that the person handling intake should have a gameplan for every scenario, and every scenario should end in an attorney talking to that lead.
There’s obviously an upfront cost in hiring or training a dedicated intake staff in terms of training, salary, and benefits. Some firms might see these expenses as barriers to entry, but viewing them that way ignores the obvious revenue generating potential of the team. At its core, these positions are focused on vetting leads and closing sales – they’re selling your law firm’s services and strengths by leveraging their attentive listening skills and powers of persuasion. How much more revenue could a single person trained in lead intake generate for your firm? What’s that worth to you? Imagine that even the cases your firm rejects could ultimately become referral sources for the practice simply because of how your intake staff treated them. We know that it can happen, because it has happened.
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Image via Flickr from Wystan