Much as it may surprise some, I read marketing guru Seth Godin’s posts every day. While it may be occasionally trivial or self-serving, Godin often provides significant insight into the meaning of service. As law is a service we provide to clients, we ought to always be concerned with how we can better perform our services. And since we, as consumers as well as lawyers, enjoy or suffer at the hands of those whose services we use, we ought to be concerned with what we are getting and why.
Godin writes a “what people really want” post, which serves as a generic counterpoint to the post about what criminal defense lawyers really do.
Most of the time, people don’t want a refund or a bonus. What they really want is for you to hear them and to do the right thing. What if every manager and every customer contact in your organization bought into that?
Of course, “do the right thing” is a vague notion. My “right” and your “right” may not be the same, and we tend to see “right” based upon our own, self-serving, point of view. After all, we understand our issues and problems far better than we understand the other guy’s. We tend to be highly sympathetic to our own needs and demands. Others? Not do much.
So Godin provides a laundry list of things that cost nothing but, he suggests, will serve to make customers/clients more satisfied when problems arise.
Treat your employees with care and respect
Be consistent in your actions
Keep your promises
Grant others their dignity
When wrong, offer a heartfelt apology
Don’t be a jerk
Take the time to actually listen to people
Volunteer to handle the issue
To some extent, this list is really just variations on a theme: give a damn. Unfortunately, it also reflects the confusion that gave us such magnificent concepts as the customer service rep on the telephone who, when told that their product just took grandma’s life, responds with “I apologize for the inconvenience.”
It’s easy, for example, to throw in the word “heartfelt,” but it’s very different to actually give a damn. The question is whether we pretend to care in order to defuse anger versus honestly caring about what we do. It’s a litmus test, for lawyers as well as everyone else who takes our money and delivers a product or service, which eventually reaches a point where we either get resolution or a tummy rub. I don’t know about you, but I’m infuriated by an insipid tummy rub, which I take as an insult to my intelligence and an affront to my expectation that if you take my money, you give me whatever it is I purchased from you.
This doesn’t mean that it always goes the way the customer/client wants it to go. When your iPhone lands in the toilet “by accident” after a rough night out, it’s not going to work anymore. No amount of complaining to some genius is going to change that. But if it didn’t end up in a toilet, there is no reason to tolerate that same genius telling you that the protective strips inside that work some of the time to let Apple know that the iPhone got wet preclude warranty repair.
Is it hard to figure out sometimes who’s right? Sure it is. It’s often a matter of acknowledging the truth, even when it’s unpleasant and doesn’t work to your advantage. There have been times when I’ve won a case when my argument was, how shall I say this kindly, “squishy.” There have been times I’ve lost when my argument was airtight and overwhelming.
It’s the nature of law, dependent on a variable that is beyond my control. When the client looks at me with those eyes of anger, dread and fear, I know exactly what it feels like to live in a Kafka novel. It’s brutal. It’s also our world, sucky as it may be.
The problem with Godin’s list is that it’s easy to tell people to mouth certain words or follow a script, but getting people to be truthful, to give a damn, is nearly impossible. People who care don’t need to be told. People who need to be told won’t care. You can’t make people give a damn.
As lawyers, we manifest our caring in two ways: our effort and our honesty. We take the time, put in the effort, to find a way to win. We think. We think long and hard, and often without compensation, because we have a need to consider every possibility that will serve our clients. We may not succeed, but we must try.
The other is to tell the client the truth, whether it’s good for them or us, or not. It may not be good marketing, as honesty isn’t always what people want to hear. People want to hear the sweet lies that make them feel better despite the looming disaster, and a lot of lawyers will vehemently disagree with my view that honesty is our duty. Why not let them be happy until the prison door slams shut?
Maybe it’s just me, but I can readily accept honest failure, legitimate problems, if someone is forthright with me. Mind you, that doesn’t mean I will forget about the duty to resolve a problem that is resolvable, even if it means, “fair enough, your product sucks, so give me a refund or replace it with one that doesn’t suck.” But at least I haven’t been treated like some flaming moron by being lied to or wuss by being told, “our policy is to suck up your money and treat you like dirt for having been stupid enough to purchase our product.”
That said, I will add one line to Godin’s list: Never tell a client, after the one word verdict comes in and the cuffs are being slapped on his wrists, that you’re “sorry for the inconvenience.” If you feel the desire to do so, you’re in the wrong profession.