Each year law firms large and small hold client events, and give gifts, notes, or cards that tell the people who make their business possible, “thank you.” Marketing committees, partners, and individuals rack their brains for just the best way to express gratitude for client work, and as a way to further those relationships. But what is the best way to send that message in a way that is both appropriate and timely? And why discuss this now? And, if we often recognize those relationships at the holiday season at the end of the year, when is the best time to think about this process? What better time than now, when time constraints are not upon you, and there is time to gather data that may help you make an informed choice months from now. In addition, part of what you want to think about is how a formal “thank you” and gift giving fits into your overall marketing plan. The early part of the year is a good time to think about how you want to go about fostering those client relationships for the year, including those end of the year recognitions.
Cards at Other Times
Many firms and individual lawyers send holiday cards. It’s traditional, it is recognized as a good time to acknowledge relationships, and it comes at the end of the year when we are reflecting upon our client work. That’s the upside. But if one of the purposes of sending cards is to stand out to a client and to be recognized, this is the time of year when there is the most traffic. One of the other times when it might be preferable to send a card would be for Thanksgiving, a holiday devoted to giving thanks for the good things in life, and one that is not associated with any specific religious faith. Valentine’s Day can be another time to recognize your clients and you can probably be assured that you will be the only professional service firm who will express your affection for your clients on that day. If you have a closer relationship with a client, thanking them on their birthday could also be a way of creating a more personalized response to their use of your services. Just as the holidays may not be the best time to send a card, it may also not be the best time to hold a client function. Some firms hold a Thanksgiving, or harvest oriented event to make the passage of the season into winter, and say thank you at a time of year when clients may not be as besieged by holiday activities. Events held in the summer as a picnic or at a baseball game can foster a more informal environment, and can also offer the chance to get to know clients’ families as well.
One of the other benefits of client events is the chance for clients to meet one another. Business relationships or connections can be forged in these settings between clients as well as with the hosts of the event.
Individualize Your Recognition
There is nothing wrong with recognizing all of your clients in the same way, but there can be some great advantages to trying to recognize clients as the individuals that they are. One size can fit all, but the best recognition is often that which acknowledges the uniqueness of the individual responsible for sharing business with you.
If you know that your client is a golfer, sending golf balls with your firm name, or his or her name might be an appreciated gift, but if your client doesn’t golf, this “one size fits all” response can be a clunker. The same thing goes for sending wine, food, or candy. Above all, you want to make sure that anything that you give your client as a gift is not in violation of any internal policy of their organization about receiving gifts.
One of the best ways to think strategically about gift giving is to observe your client during the year and to pay attention to the things that they talk about in your more casual conversations. Twenty years ago most attorneys were men, and most clients were men. But times have changed, and it’s important not to make assumptions about your clients and what they might be of interest to them based upon their gender.
At the same time, firms recognizing that women clients and women attorneys may have different ways of connecting than their male counterparts, are trying to engineer events and gifts that may be of greater interests to female clients. These may include events such as a female client and attorney weekends at a spa, with scheduled and unscheduled activities, or a charitable event that offers women clients and attorneys an opportunity to hold an event benefiting a charitable organization whose primary client populations are women or children.
Another aspect you might consider is how critical this client is to your business success. You may not want to give the same recognition to a client responsible for 25 percent of your business than you would to a client who has sent you two matters in a year.
A two-attorney firm I know gives their clients cookie gift boxes every year. The principal happens to be married to a caterer; and together they bake hundreds of fabulous cookies for his clients. The two attorneys then deliver the boxes of cookies themselves to the many not for profit agencies they represent. Their clients have come to look forward to this gift every year with great anticipation. And the “sweat equity” and personal approach always makes a great impression.
Remember, It’s About Them
Sometimes when law firms mix marketing with gift giving, they have a tendency to want the gift to be a reflection of their firm. Hence the coffee mug with logo, the key chain with logo, and/or the umbrella with logo. This is not the time to be self-serving. If the gift is truly about the recipient, giving brand-oriented materials may not show your true appreciation. Sometimes people give their clients gifts that include gift certificates for restaurants. Although your client may enjoy your time, it may be more of a gift to let them have a great meal with their spouse or friend without an attached business component. On the other hand, time with their attorney without an accompanying bill can be perceived as a gift. The key is to know your client and what will make them feel appreciated.
Recognizing Others through Charitable Giving
One of the best ways to make an impression on a client is to recognize a charity. This can be done in a firm wide way, or you can instead make a donation to a charity or not for profit organization most favored by your client. Does your client sit on the board of any not for profit groups? Does this business entity participate in a particular charitable giving program? If you take note of the charitable events to which your client may have invited you over the past year you may find a key to something they would appreciate receiving in terms of recognition. Some firms simply tell their clients that in lieu of individual gift giving that the firm has decided to name a specific charity as their recipient of a charitable donation for the year – or that they are donating the money they might have spent on a holiday event to a charitable organization.
Sometimes the best way to recognize the client is by acting on the moment. If you have received a particularly nice piece of business, or if you have completed a large transaction that involved a significant time commitment on the part of the client, acknowledging that commitment with a letter, or a gift at the time, once again being mindful of potential gift policies on the part of the client. A note at a time when you aren’t heavily invested in a clients’ work, thanking them for their past commitment to your firm is also welcome. Tending the relationship in times when you are not doing a significant amount of work for someone can help keep your firm front of mind, and serve as a reminder that you might be a good firm to recommend to someone else.
Of course the best way that you can show your appreciation of a client is through doing good work. And the best way to tend the relationship is through good communication. From the highest grossing partner to the front line receptionist, everyone in your organization needs to understand the importance of all of your clients. Returning phone calls, responding to e-mail, checking in, and treating all client matters with the seriousness they deserve is the best acknowledgement of all.
Wendy L. Werner is the owner and principal of Werner Associates, a legal consulting and career coaching organization. She can be reached at www.WendyWerner.com/associates.