The Tenets of a Successful Key Client Program

Legal Marketing Association (LMA)
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By Christie Cáceres and Kathy Gilles

Finding ways to deepen relationships with clients is more important than ever. How you go about that in a way that is unique, relevant and impactful is the burning question.

Two ways to approach connecting with clients is through client teams and client feedback interviews. It can seem like a daunting task to implement a key client program — the umbrella under which teams and interviews often live — but the core concepts are simple: serve your client in a coordinated fashion, listen to what the client is telling you and act on what you hear.

Where do you begin? Do you start with a client feedback interview or do you start with a client team? It’s not necessarily prescriptive where you start; rather, it depends on the needs you are trying to serve.

Client Feedback Interviews

Feedback programs come in all shapes and sizes. There are a variety of ways to collect feedback such as top-to-top meetings, in-depth interviews, phone interviews and post-matter surveys.

There are management level interviews that are designed to have the chairperson of the firm meet with the lead contact at the client to show their appreciation for the relationship. While these top-to-top meetings are designed to thank the client, feedback is often shared on how the firm is doing, which can help further the relationship.

Another level of interviews can be facilitated through third parties where a neutral party interviews pre-determined contacts at the client. Those conversations can uncover:

  • The overall sense of the relationship from the client’s viewpoint
  • The type of work being handled and how satisfied the client is
  • Who the competitors are and how they stand up to your firm
  • How the firm is responding to the client’s goals, such as diversity and inclusion, sustainability and other core values

In the third-party interview process, there is often a Net Promoter Score (NPS) asked of the client, allowing them to rate how likely it is that your firm would be recommended.

Beyond in-person meetings, there are phone interviews and post-matter surveys that also capture client feedback. When designing a client feedback program, the most critical component is determining the criteria for inclusion. Once you determine the type of clients to be interviewed, you can determine all the elements of the program, including the frequency of outreach, interview template, reports and action plans, among other key components.

Selecting the Right Clients

It is an art and a science when identifying which clients to select for a key client program, whether for soliciting feedback and/or the creation of client teams. Research can help develop a short list of clients for consideration. This may include profitability, realization, leverage, industry, geography, number of matters handled and complexity therein. To ensure you don’t let the data be the only driver, make sure you also take into account the willingness of the relationship partner to engage in the process and to follow through on what is discovered during the interview process.

As marketers, we often preach to our lawyers that we do more damage than good if we do nothing with what we hear. Clients repeatedly tell us this in every article we read, every panel featuring general counsel and in all of our client feedback programs. Lawyers need “skin in the game” to make this a worthwhile effort.

Client Teams

The tried and true 80/20 rule applies to client teams, as it does in many contexts of business development. The rule is 80% of your business tends to come from 20% of your clients. Expanding existing client relationships with the 20% is more likely to have a greater impact than focusing on identifying and pursing brand new relationships.

Foundational Elements of a Client Team

The Client: Select a client where there are opportunities for your firm to do multidisciplinary work. Select team members who are enthusiastic about being part of the team, not necessarily the top producers.

The Team: Identify the lawyers who have relationships with the client, including those who may not bill time but have strong connections within the company. The core team should be a tight group who will take an active role in growing the relationship. It is okay to also have a broader team that includes those who should be aware of what is going on with the client.

Make sure the team includes colleagues from other key areas in the firm such as diversity, pricing and, of course, the business development team. Consider adding an executive sponsor who plays a leadership role within your firm’s management team. Spend time talking to each team member to learn about their relationships, the type of work they are doing, challenges and areas of opportunity.

The Plan: Develop a plan for the client team that includes measurable and achievable goals, and communicate those goals to all team members. Examples may include:

  • Increased growth in overall revenue that is sustainable year-over-year
  • Improvements in diversity among your teams doing work for the client
  • Deeper relationships with existing contacts and new relationships
  • New work in areas not previously serviced

Measuring Success

Every client team has different goals and every client feedback interview will yield different results. It’s expected that some clients will roll out of the client team program and move to maintenance mode or move out of the program altogether. New clients will be identified for the program and will come onboard.

The key to a successful program is consistency and flexibility. Take the time to build a playbook with all the templates, tools and resources you need to have the same foundation for every client team and feedback interview. Be comfortable knowing that each will flex appropriately to meet the needs of the client and your firm.

Christie Cáceres
Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP

Christie Cáceres serves as the chief business development and marketing officer at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP where she oversees the firm's key client program. The program encompasses client feedback, client teams, and key client experiences. She works closely with colleagues across the firm to look at the entire life cycle of the client relationship.

Kathy Gilles
Sidley Austin LLP

Kathy Gilles is a senior business development and marketing manager based in Sidley Austin’s Palo Alto, California, office. In addition to serving as a lead for the firm’s client team initiative, she also is the business development lead for Sidley’s technology industry group as well as the agribusiness and food industry group and the technology and IP transactions practice.

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