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- Measuring and Enhancing Client Satisfaction -

Lawyers are often told that the best opportunity for business development is right under their noses – with their existing clients. If this is true, then there is nothing more important in law firm marketing than gauging the level of satisfaction and identifying opportunities for strategic expansion from the firm’s existing clients.

Coburn Consulting client feedback programs exist for exactly this reason. We have been conducting client surveys for over twenty years. A client survey is a simple, quick, and cost-effective way to quantify the level of satisfaction and detect opportunities for relationship enhancement among a firm’s most important clients. In many cases, the cost of the survey has been recouped many times over from the additional revenue derived from rescued and/or stronger client relationships.

What You Learn From Client Surveys

Client surveys provide the firm with valuable information in four areas:

Satisfaction information: How satisfied are clients with your firm, its attorneys, its capabilities, and its services?

Competitive information: Who else do clients use for certain legal or industry specialties - and why?

Marketing information:  What other services do clients need that we could offer?

Strategic information: What opportunities exist for expending or strengthening the firm’s competitive position in the client’s business or industry? How would clients suggest we go about pursuing them?

Rewards of Increased Client Satisfaction

A recent INC Magazine poll found that 81% of U.S. corporate executives cited customer satisfaction as their single biggest competitive advantage. In another study – this one of several hundred U.S. corporations and conducted by the American Society for Quality and the University of Michigan – it was found that a 3% increase in customer satisfaction resulted in a22% increase in overall company profitability.

Over the past decade, law firms across the country have becoming increasingly aware of the relationship between client satisfaction and profitability.

High rates of client satisfaction lead to greater "wallet share" - the percentage of a client’s outside legal business that a firm handles.

Highly satisfied clients are more loyal, remaining longer as clients. Because it is many times more expensive to generate a new client than retain an existing one, a 10% increase in client retention can lower per-attorney marketing costs by 20% to 40%, and can raise profitability by as much as 25%.

Through word-of-mouth referrals, satisfied clients tell an average of 5-7 other people about their positive experience – by far the most powerful and least expensive form of marketing. Firms with high rates of client satisfaction are able to spend less than half as much in per-attorney advertising and promotion.

Highly satisfied clients are twice as likely to pay their bills on time - and to pay the full value of the bill - contributing to increased cash flow, less need for borrowing, and fewer discounts and write-offs. This leads to increased revenue-per-lawyer – the single largest driver of law firm profitability.

Satisfied clients are less expensive to service because of fewer complaints, reduced re-work, and less unbillable time spent on problem resolution.

Firms with high rates of client satisfaction can charge 10 to 15% more for their services than firms with less satisfied clients – another important factor in the revenue-per-lawyer equation.

Highly satisfied clients are more likely to give a firm more of their business and to refer the firm to others – thus providing the firm with what is, in effect, free marketing. The following data provide dramatic evidence of the benefits of high satisfaction levels:

Satisfaction Rating
Re-purchase Rates
Referral Rates

The importance of client satisfaction is nothing new. What is new are (i) the new tools that have been developed for more precisely and more accurately measuring client satisfaction; and (ii) the new methodologies that have been perfected for ensuring that clients provide ample and honest feedback. Since 1985 Coburn Consulting has been a pioneer within the U.S. legal community in both innovations.

Measure HOW Satisfied Clients Are
If a law firm were to ask its 100 top clients whether they are satisfied, almost all of them would respond “Yes, I’m satisfied”. Well, of course they are – they’re your clients! This is why this kind of black-and-white “satisfied” vs. “dissatisfied” approach is the wrong way to look at the satisfaction issue.

Over the past decade, a number if customer satisfaction and behavior studies* provide evidence that many clients who say they are “satisfied” are actually not - or at least not satisfied enough. Many clients who say they are “satisfied” have areas of dissatisfaction. Other “satisfied” clients, when queried, will qualify their feelings to “mostly” or “somewhat” satisfied. For this reason, the critical test in satisfaction measurement is not whether clients are satisfied – but how satisfied they are.

Coburn Consulting satisfaction assessment surveys are designed to precisely measure the different gradations or degrees of client satisfaction. This sort of scale allows clients to express a more nuanced opinion and provides them an opportunity to give you valuable insight into their expectations.

5 = Satisfied beyond expectations
4 = Completely satisfied / met all expectations
3 = Mostly satisfied / met most expectations
2 = Somewhat satisfied / met some expectations
1 = Dissatisfied / failed to meet expectations

The goal of any client satisfaction strategy is to get all clients into the top two boxes. The rates of repurchase and referral are significantly higher for those who are highly satisfied.

Overcoming Partner Objections:

Partners voice an abundance of objections as to why surveying their clients is a bad idea:

Clients will be bothered, irritated

If asked, clients will only talk about their complaints

Clients will focus only on the fees and costs

Asking clients their feedback will make us look weak, groveling, and foolish

Why should we ask our clients? We already know what our clients think

Firms that have conducted a client survey know that none of the above objections is true. In fact, many business executives go out of the way to express their appreciation for the opportunity to voice their opinions about the law firms that are so important to them and their businesses. Over the years, Coburn Consulting has devised innovative ways to overcome these partner objections, including hosting a free one-hour telephone seminar for partners entitled “Client Surveys – Myths and Realities”.

Cases in Point:

The following are selected examples of the benefits to Coburn Consulting clients from client surveys:

A national intellectual property firm that was able to rescue a multi-million dollar European client relationship based on information they learned from a client survey;

A major New York firm whose clients gave higher marks to their attorneys’ “nice manners” than to their perceived ability to handle “bet-the-company” cases;

Numerous law firms whose client surveys revealed one or more dissatisfied clients that were on the verge of moving their business;

An important litigation client in the West whose general counsel admitted in a client interview to harboring resentment years after the law firm had mishandled an arbitration case and who vowed (unbeknownst to the attorney) to never use that firm again for arbitration;

A Midwest law firm whose client survey revealed a long-standing resentment by the general counsel of one of its largest clients over the relationship partner’s lack of interest in and support for the general counsel’s civic interests and priorities;

Numerous law firms who say they were surprised to learn of their clients’ willingness to partner with them in co-authoring articles, making tandem presentations, and other joint marketing activities;

Numerous large and midsize general practice firms whose client surveys revealed that they were handling less than half of their clients’ overall outside legal work;

An important client of a Midwest law firm criticized a named partner for his poor planning and sloppy management;

Numerous cases of clients who admitted to not knowing about other services the law firm offered, and who stated that they could not recall their lead attorney ever speaking with them about the firm’s other services;

Numerous firms whose client surveys revealed that their clients felt they lacked sufficient “depth of expertise” and “bench strength”;

The number of law firm clients who rate “industry knowledge and expertise” among the top 2-3 things they look for in selecting an outside firm;

Numerous clients who offer constructive and easy-to-implement suggestions on how their law firm’s invoicing could be made more user-friendly;

A number of law firms whose client satisfaction ratings were so high that they have posted the results on their website and have cited the results in their marketing materials.

The number of cases in which a client who voiced dissatisfaction over something, when asked if they ever spoke to the law firm about it, admitted to never having done so.

One of the biggest concerns partners express about client surveys is the clients’ obsession with fees and costs. In surveys where clients have been asked to rank-order their most important factors in selecting an outside law firm, “reasonable cost and fees” often ranks only 5th or 6th.

Benefits of Coburn Consulting Client Surveys:

In addition to creating scales that identify the degrees of satisfaction, there are some other aspects of our approach that are different and, we believe, more effective::

Unlike most law firm consultants, Coburn Consulting surveys involve both mailed questionnaires and telephone interviews. Not only do we learn different things from both approaches, doing it this way is far more cost-effective than using only telephone interviews.

The sample selection focuses on the 20% of your clients that represent 80% of the value to the firm.

Because of our methodology, a large percentage of our survey respondents self-identify. This provides an opportunity for the relationship manager to have a substantive follow-up conversation with the client.

Our client surveys lead to numerous benefits, including:

Provides a ‘door opener’ for following up with an in-person meeting to discuss and enhance the overall client-firm relationship

Provides a vehicle for getting all the attorneys in the firm “on the same page” about which client satisfaction means, what factors tend to be key “satisfiers” and “dissatisfiers”, and how the firm’s attorneys can do a better job of pleasing their clients.

As part of every Client Survey engagement, we develop a Client Satisfaction Action Plan that lays out the specific changes and initiatives needed to address each issue/opportunity raised by the survey. If these plans are carried out, the “enhanced” and “rescued” revenue resulting from increased satisfaction far outweighs the cost of conducting a survey.

The Coburn Consulting Client Survey can be carried out in 90 days. Many of our clients have found that the cost is often recouped with just a few stronger client relationships. Numerous references are available from clients who have asked us to design and carry out their client surveys.

If your firm is interested in discussing the client survey, we are offering a complementary one-hour conference call session to answer your questions and provide additional information on the process and the products. If you are interested in such a session or if you would like a copy of any of the articles below, please contact us.

Related Articles
“How to Design an Effective Client Survey,” National Law Journal (October 25, 1991)

“Gaining Strategic Advantage by Listening,” ALA - Chicago Chapter Newsletter, (December 1996)

“Does Your Firm Measure Up? Creating Client Satisfaction Surveys That Make a Difference,” Legal Management (Sept.-Oct. 1998)

“Getting the Most out of Client Surveys”, with Eva Braid, Legal Management (Jan.-Feb. 1999)


* Research sources available upon request


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