No one likes to pay bills. Even when the service or product we are paying for was way more valuable than the actual dollar amount on the invoice, we humans just hate to see the money out the door. And that natural resistance to doling out the bucks can often leave a lawyer looking at high accounts receivable and collections tasks galore. Yuck.
Why not implement a few changes to help your clients feel more positively disposed — dare I say enthusiastic — to pay promptly next month? These six things will help.
1. Greet them as a friend. Not only is it easier to pay someone you like, it is harder to stiff that person. Make a point of treating your clients as trusted and loyal friends. Use first names, express enthusiasm to see them, know about their business and their family, remember birthdays, understand what’s going on in their lives and refer to it, demonstrate that you are sitting on their side of the table. This will make doing business with you more pleasant (and improve your own experience of the time you spend in the office). Remember, too, that your client deals with others in your office, not just you. Model the way to make sure everyone — paralegals, secretaries, assistants, associates, partners, billing clerks — forms good relationships with all client representatives.
2. Keep them informed. You may think it is your responsibility to do the job and tell the client about it afterward. And you may be right, that is what some clients want from you. Others want to know what’s going on when it is going on. Ask how they want to be updated, and make sure you give them what they want. This also applies to how you describe the work on your bills. I guarantee no one really wants to pay for an hour of your time, but if you can describe well what you did in that hour — and couch it in terms that show the value of the activity to them — clients will know more clearly why it makes good sense to pay you for it.
3. Go the extra mile. Demonstrate that a client’s relationship with you is worth more than the legal work you perform. Make introductions to people who may be useful in their business or private life. Offer to co-write an article for publication about something significant you helped them do. Ask them to serve on a panel discussion with you to illustrate a new legal strategy. (Yes, this benefits you, too. Isn’t that nice?)
4. Please them with the work. Sure, winning the big case always pleases clients and makes them happier to pay the bill. But even when it’s not a big win, the way you handle yourself and their interests demonstrates that you are doing everything you can to help them resolve a conflict or strike an agreement. And it shouldn’t go without saying: Don’t take their emotional responses to developments lightly. Do listen well and feed back what you hear to assure them they are heard. Don’t take shortcuts. Do proofread to avoid misspellings and other errors.
5. Make the bill simple to understand. While we’re on the subject of misspelling and proofreading, please avoid legalese and financial gobbledygook in drafting your bills. Speak and write clearly. If the system you use doesn’t allow text descriptions on the actual invoice, write a cover letter or memo to clearly restate the charges and any necessary explanation.
6. Always, always say thank you. That client doesn’t have to engage you. There are a lot of lawyers out there looking for work — looking for good clients. Make sure your clients know that you are grateful for their business and pleased by their trust and loyalty. Thank them whenever you meet and whenever you write. Send a gift to honor business anniversaries or family birthdays, or just because. Make them feel important and appreciated.
It will make it so much easier for them to pay your bill.
Merrilyn Astin Tarlton is the author of the Attorney at Work book "Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over." She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. Learn more about Merrilyn here and follow her on Twitter @astintarlton.