Client Expectations and Satisfaction Surveys

by Marianne Richmond on November 23, 2005

This post is about customer experience, this time from the vantage point of a client satisfaction survey…specifically law firms client satisfaction surveys.

Rees Morrison of Law Department Management asked the question,
"Does asking clients to assess the department raise their expectations
for the future?" His answer was "Yes." He went on to say that customer
satisfaction surveys may raise the bar for performance expectations for
the future. Further he writes,

Social science researchers recognize that when you ask people about
a feeling – “How satisfied are you with the responsiveness of the law
department?” or “To what degree do you feel the law department meets
your needs for professional development?” –respondents over-rate their
feelings. In large measure, the respondents never give a moment’s
thought to the question, and when they do focus on it, they inflate or
distort their views, thus the focusing illusion.

To the extent this distortion operates, it undermines the validity
of client satisfaction surveys, employee morale surveys and value
questionnaires and other instruments that collect feelings and

Is Mr. Morrison suggesting that attorneys shouldn’t ask their
clients for feedback for fear that they may have to live up to their
client’s expectations?  Or that by asking for feedback it might be
implied that attorneys upon receiving feedback might feel obligated to
improve their performance? Surely not.

But, a client satisfaction survey is market research. As such, the design of the research question is critical to the value of the information that is received as a result of asking the questions. I believe this is very analogous to for instance the questions asked in a cross examination. The meaning of the words in a satisfaction survey has to be exactly what the operational definition of the words specifies.

Ask a question about responsiveness and unless you have defined responsiveness, or operationalized it, to mean something specific to the client, such as returned phone calls, then collecting "feelings" will be useless information because you will not know how to improve responsiveness….or as Mr. Morrison notes, the validity will be undermined. Set up your client relationship with specific satisfaction promises, perform to those promises, measure the specifics of the performance by a survey and then you will understand the meaning of the feeling of responsiveness.

Remember Humpty Dumpty from Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland? He tell’s Alice that, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean…nothing more nor less." Alice asks him, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." Humpty says, "The question is, which is to be the master, that’s all." Master the operational definition of what you are measuring and the precision of the survey will increase its value. To carry the Humpty Dumpty analogy a bit further, if you and your client do not have the same understanding of responsiveness for example, then expectations will never be met and if your survey attempts to assess the situation based upon ambiguous words then…"all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put Humpty back together again."

Client experience is a marketing issue. Measuring it is market research.  The client experience is really the operationalizing of your marketing.  Operationalization means specifying the exact operations that defines the marketing promise. A client satisfaction survey is research. If your marketing states that you "use technology to be a better lawyer" your clients should be able to experience tangible evidence of the technology.

If a satisfacion survey is used to evaluate how well the firm met a client’s needs in terms of technology, the client and attorney should have all ready agreed on the technology to be used on their case, e.g. to exchange cell phone numbers, be updated via Basecamp, and have a Power Point Presentation presented at the trial. Then a client can be truly asked about and assessed for "satisifaction". The latter is best practices for research design.The design of research is critical to its value. Ask the wrong question
and you will get the wrong answer….and you may never know why you lost you client.

Don’t blame your client for "over rating" their feelings. Establish
specific functional elements that will result in positive or negative
feelings and then assess those. Instead of asking, "to what degree do
you feel the law department  meets your needs for professional
development" begin your relationship with the client by:

  1. Determining their needs.
  2. Agreeing on how those needs will be met.
  3. Set measurement standards.
  4. Then assess satisfaction by surveying performance versus those standards.
  5. Meet their needs and their hearts and minds will follow…as will high ratings onsurveys.


The Greatest American Lawyer, an attorney genuinely concerned with providing excellent customer service, recently posted that he was sending out his first client survey and posed some interesting questions regarding client surveys in general.

  • Will client’s respond at all; if so will they provide constructive criticism that can really help improve service.
  • Will the survey serve a marketing function….a reminder to clients.
  • Will the survey produce surprises…provide feedback regarding issues we were not aware of or mistakes that we didn’t know we made.

It will be interesting to hear the results of his survey. If the first time a client feels like they are being asked about the quality of the service provided is by a satisfaction survey and they feel like they have received poor service, it is my experience that client’s will either not respond or you will receive criticism that goes beyond the constructive variety.  If the foundation of the client relationship is based upon clearly defined and agreed upon service needs and goals, and the relationship is nurtured along the way, then the client will be more likely to answer the survey and feedback should not produce unexpected results.

Tom Collins, at morepartnerincome talks about applying Six Sigma to law firm practice. He insightfully writes, "It must place the client’s wants and desires first. It
must believe to its very core that when the firm improves the success
of their customer, it improves the law firm’s success as well. It must be willing to honestly determine what its clients want and be prepared to deliver it."
Determing the client’s wants and needs should mean in conjunction with the client. Also, agree on the specifics of delivery. Then measure against specifics, not feelings.

I have one final thought about "raising the bar for performance expectations in the future"  as mentioned by Rees Morrison. Expectation is what is considered the most likely outcome. It is based upon past experience as well as what standards are articulated for the future. In many ways, achieving customer satisfaction is setting the bar too low. As providers of customer service, we should seek to exceed customer expectations. If our clients express that they would be satisfied with phone calls being returned within 24 hours, find a way to exceed the expectation and return calls within a business day even if the return call is just to set a time to discuss the issue the next day.

When we provide our clients with a list of "frequently asked questions" this is a helpful service….add a list of "frequently not asked questions" and you will be able to really differentiate your service and expertise. When someone says to me, "Is there anything you would like to ask me about this?" I am limited by my own knowledge of the situation or problem. When someone says to me, "You haven’t asked about…" and then proceeds to tell me something that exceeds my knowledge of the situation, then the value of the relationship is enhanced and my expectations are exceeded.


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