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March 17, 2011

Rating Responses to Negative Ratings

When it comes to lawyer rating systems, resistance is futile. Even four years after its launch, many lawyers still refuse to claim their free profile on Avvo, a lawyer-rating site because they fear negative feedback from clients. Of course, in contrast to four years ago, Avvo isn't the only game in town for ratings; just last month, threw its hat into the lawyer rating ring. And even without lawyer-specific sites, clients still have the option of posting comments about their lawyers on general review sites like Yelp.

Given that various efforts - from boycotts to lawsuits - haven't shut down ratings sites, lawyers need to focus their efforts on how to deal with them. I've already posted about the value that positive client can add to a ratings site, and how to obtain meaningful testimonials. But what's a lawyer's recourse when he or she receives negative reviews at a client rating site? That's what I'll discuss below.

First, the chances of negative reviews are far less than you might expect, so relax. According to a 2007 survey by BazaarVoice, almost 80 percent of consumers who provide feedback at product sites leave favorable reviews. Others who comment do so with the intent of being constructive, rather than vindictive. Yelp's statistics confirm these results: only 17 percent of Yelp reviews are one or two stars. The bottom line is that lawyers don't need to fear ratings sites.

Still, there will be times when a client may post a negative review, which raises the question of how to respond - if at all. Many retailers grapple with this problem as well. Last week, a New York restaurant owner who'd received a poor review from a customer penned a post for the New York Times small business blog, puzzling over how to address his critic, who posted his complaints on several ratings sites. In response, Yelp's business manager empathized and recommended a three-pronged approach: (1) stay calm and cool off after a negative review is posted to avoid overreacting; (2) make an effort to respond privately to acknowledge the complaints and (3) respond publicly to correct any inaccuracies without being defensive.

But how do these suggestions work for lawyers? Certainly, maintaining a level head makes sense, as does a private contact if you're certain that a particular client wrote the review (e.g., he or she sends you a copy or uses his/her name)

Unfortunately for lawyers, a public response proves sticky because of confidentiality concerns. Although presumably clients will post a reviews anonymously, it's possible that they may include enough identifying information that it's impossible to respond without breaching an attorney-client privilege.Consider, for example, a client who complains that "My lawyer sold me out in a custody case. I was a perfect dad to a 7 and 9 year old and my wife dumped me for a guy in Peru. Open and shut." If you respond that you couldn't raise certain issues in the case because your client told you a few hours before trial that he'd had several affairs before his wife left, you'd be violating attorney client privilege.

As a professional, you also have to consider that the world is watching your response. If your response to a client complaint comes across as arrogant and rude, potential clients who see your response may be turned off. Thus, rather than react to defensively to an accusation that "this lawyer will run up the bill and not do any work or return phone calls," you might respond in a way that educates both the clients - and other site visitors - about your policies:
I don't know who posted this response, but I wish you had mentioned your concerns about the bill while I was handling your case. As we discussed, this type of matter can easily become costly very quickly, and if you had concerns, we could have discussed different options as I have done with several other clients, with great success in the past. In addition, it is my policy to return phone calls within 24 hours of receiving them. However, as you know, I only accept weekend calls if they are an emergency, and when I am in court, I may need 48 hours to return a call. Perhaps you called on a weekend or when I was in court. In any event, without knowing who posted this comment, I cannot provide a more thorough response.
In addition, you might try to deter a client from posting a review by proactively seeking feedback when the matter closes out. Some lawyers survey all clients about their experience. If you sense that a client was, for whatever reason, particularly dissatisfied, you could speak with them personally or discount their bill. These actions may suffice to placate clients so that they won't feel the need to spew on line.

For lawyers with common names, it is possible that a client may mistakenly leave a review for you that was intended for someone else. That is one reason why it is important to claim your site and include a photo - so that the client can properly identify you. However, if you are fairly certain that the review is erroneous - perhaps the client references a case in a New York court and you are licensed only in Connecticut - you should post a response suggesting the potential confusion, and contact the site owner to see if the comment can be removed.

Of course, all of this advice presupposes a reasonable commenter. There will always be disgruntled clients who will post over-the-top, venomous rants. Ultimately, these are best left ignored, because these types of commenters are looking to pick a fight. At the same time, prospective clients are not likely to view these screeds as having much credibility.

Ratings sites are not going away. Even if they did, clients would find a million other ways to criticize their lawyers - from DIY websites to Facebook pages or Twitter. Businesses have found ways to deal with feedback and criticism on line. Lawyers too must find their way.

March 2, 2009

Marketing Through Testimonials: Giving and Receiving

Most of us lawyers know that inside a courtroom, there's nothing quite as compelling as testimony, a personal narrative of events from witnesses with personal knowledge of the facts of the case.  So it's surprising, then, that few lawyers recognize the value of a related marketing concept -- the testimonial -- wherein a lawyer's clients or colleagues endorse or recommend a lawyer's service or qualifications based on personal impressions formed during their professional relationship.

Like testimony in court, testimonials are compelling because they're personalized.  In contrast to the cookie-cutter jargon that most lawyers include in brochures and websites about being compassionate or caring or responsive or aggressive advocates, the best testimonials convey those same concepts through examples drawn from an individual's personal experience.  In addition, testimonials frequently focus on points that matter to potential clients, but that a lawyer might not recognize as important.  For example, some testimonials I've seen compliment lawyers on their staff's friendliness -- a significant benefit for harried or stressed clients, but not necessarily a feature that most lawyers would think to highlight in their marketing materials. 

On the other hand, just like the witness whose testimony goes south in the courtroom, a poorly executed testimonial can do far more harm than good.  Testimonials from fellow lawyers that simply state "nice guy, great lawyer" aren't worth the bandwidth they require, while testimonials that are clearly reciprocal -- i.e., where one lawyer endorses a colleague and the colleague returns the favor without any useful information -- can damage a lawyer's credibility.  In addition, testimonials that aren't truthful or that violate client confidentiality rules can put lawyers in trouble with the bar.  In fact, as discussed below, lawyers should consult their respective bar rules prior to seeking testimonials from clients -- or even other lawyers -- because some bars do prohibit the practice.

Below are some how-tos for getting effective and compelling testimonials from clients and lawyers and using them in marketing materials.  But when it comes to testimonials, many lawyers find that giving is just as important as receiving -- and I'll also detail some ways to offer testimonials to colleagues and service providers to generate ancillary benefits for yourself.

A.  Getting Testimonials

1.  What Is Appropriate for a Testimonial?

Testimonials are appropriate for virtually any type of service that you provide.  If you are marketing a divorce or bankruptcy or criminal practice, then testimonials from clients on everything from their satisfaction with your work or your personality and demeanor are appropriate.  On the other hand, if you're trying to generate more referral-based work from other lawyers, then testimonials from lawyers who've worked with you and are familiar with your skills and reliability make the most sense.

But you're not limited to testimonials about your work.  If you write a great blog or produced an e-book, why not ask for endorsements from other readers?  A testimonial about your online materials can help them stand out from the avalanche of information available on the Internet.

2.  How Do I Use Testimonials?

You can incorporate testimonials into your marketing materials in a variety of ways.  For example, you can include testimonials in written brochures and at your website.  As noted, many online lawyer listing services like Avvo or LinkedIn allow users to post testimonials as well.  Finally, some lawyers choose not to publicize testimonials and make them available to prospects on request instead.

3.  Consult the Bar Rules

Before you go to the trouble of seeking testimonials, consult your respective bar's ethics rules.  The ABA maintains an online list of state bar rules on advertising, including those states that prohibit or restrict testimonials.  On the other hand, don't go overboard and assume that because restrictions apply that you can't obtain testimonials at all.  Some bars, for example, prohibit client testimonials but do not limit testimonials from colleagues and/or other lawyers.  Other bars maintain general proscriptions against testimonials that include information that cannot be verified (e.g., "Joe Jones was the best lawyer ever!").  However, this type of restriction would not prohibit testimonials with verifiable, factual information, such as, "Joe Jones timely filed all my pleadings" or "Jane Doe returned my phone calls".  And in fact, if you think about it, it's this kind of specific detail that makes testimonials far more compelling than one that consists of conclusory statements -- just as in a court room.

Bear in mind that bar rules on confidentiality may also prohibit you from disclosing the identity of clients.  Therefore, be sure to obtain appropriate authorization to use a client's name in connection with their testimonials.  Where a client declines to be identified, you may still post the testimonial but indicate that the client's name has been withheld to preserve confidentiality.  In no circumstances should you post a testimonial with a fake name -- that would undermine its credibility.   

4.  Gathering Testimonials

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