Getting referrals from neighbors is one of the biggest benefits to NYC shared office space. However, if you fail to give good “customer service” to referral partners you will quickly jeopardize your professional reputation.
An attorney in our Midtown NYC shared office space was speaking to me about referrals between Law Firm Suites clients, and he was quick to let me know that he had a bad experience.
According to this attorney, he felt the “receiving” attorney was too eager and in an effort to be responsive, ended up giving his client bad advice (at least initially). This left the referring attorney unhappy as the incident jeopardized his ongoing relationship with the client.
When you manage the volume of referrals that we see in Law Firm Suites, these types of issues come up from time-to-time. We like to get ahead of the situation before it becomes a problem, but in this instance, the referring attorney, being the true gentleman that he is, refused to identify the receiving attorney.
From experience, this man is the exception; most of his peers would have blabbed about their bad experience to a dozen of their suitemates within the span of a few days.
When it comes to referrals and your reputation for being a good recipient, there is no mercy for those who violate Referral Rules of Etiquette.
This phenomena seems to be supported by empirical data.
According to a survey conducted by Dimensional Research, 100% of survey participants who earned $150,000 per year or more said they commonly share bad customer service interactions with others. Additionally, 58% of all participants said that they are more likely to share bad customer service experiences than they were five years before.
When it comes to referrals, these are the top 5 customer service offenses we see most often:
1. Referring bad cases.
You know the cases we are talking about:
-the ones with legal theory problems;
-where the client fires litigation counsel at the slightest hiccup;
-where the clients are bad payers;
-where clients have a reputation for stiffing their lawyers or are just difficult to deal
-in cases where there just isn’t much value.
Whether you are referring for the first time or are reciprocating from a previous referral, referring a bad case will jeopardize your referral reputation. By referring a bad case, instead of the receiving attorney owing you one, you will owe them.
The recipient may feel compelled to take on the case as a courtesy to you, but they will view the referral as value given to you, not received by them.
2. Always taking and never giving.
Most attorneys refer cases because they expect something in return at some point. For solo attorneys, referrals are currency and giving cases to an attorney who never reciprocates is a waste of valuable resources.
Once you retain a client, you owe a “debt” to the referring attorney. If you want to continue to receive additional business from the referring attorney, you have an obligation to repay your debt, preferably within six months.
Do so by introducing the referring attorney to an opportunity of equal or greater value to the referral they sent you. If you know you will never be in a position to send a reciprocal referral, offer to pay a referral fee if you want more referrals from the referring attorney.
3. Knowing when it is appropriate to ask for a referral fee
Offering to pay a referral fee is one thing, asking for one (ethical issues aside), is quite another. With few exceptions, asking for referral fees from other attorneys is not good form.
This is especially true when asked of attorneys who bill by the hour or at fixed rates based largely on time.
It is human nature. When you work at a lower rate than you think your time is worth, you will either not work as hard, begin to resent the matter, or ultimately give it less of a priority.
You may even begin to resent the referring attorney. Either way, the client suffers, which is bad for the referring attorney’s reputation.
A receiving attorney will feel compelled to reciprocate with a referring attorney, most often in the form of a reciprocal referral of equal or greater value. For most attorneys, the lifetime value of a good client is worth much more than squeezing 25% from a billing attorney.
Plus, once a referral fee is paid, the receiving attorney has no “moral” obligation to reciprocate further. This often hinders the possibility of developing a strong referral relationship, never mind the loss of a return referral.
4. Not responding to referrals immediately
Acknowledge all referrals immediately. Immediately means as soon as you get them. Not in an hour, not before the end of the day, not tomorrow. Right away. Doing anything else is disrespectful to the referring attorney and their client.
This does not mean, however, that you should be quick to deliver some initial advice if there is a chance that you will not be 100% correct. A simple email to acknowledge that you received the referral, and describing your plans for follow up is sufficient.
5. Weak follow-up with the referring attorney
Without revealing client confidences, keep the referring attorney informed about the progress of the case.
This does not need to be detailed correspondence. A simple two line email from time-to-time will suffice.
Steady communication with the referring attorney will demonstrate your competence, and will continue to assuage any fears about making the referral to you. Best of all, it will keep you top of mind for new referral opportunities when they come up.
In Law Firm Suites’ NYC shared office space, the exchange of referrals is a core tenant of our culture. There is an expectation among our attorney clients that they will exchange referrals with their suitemates.
You would think that our clients would all be pros at referrals. Yet, it’s surprising how often nice, smart, capable and well-intentioned attorneys blow it when it comes to referral customer service.
These tips may seem obvious and they are obvious. These are the things that you should not have to tell other professionals. Yet, as we saw in the story above, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.